A Tribute to Michael G. Davis, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology

By Tim Sandfort (’00)

The late Michael G. Davis

The late Michael G. Davis

It was with great sadness that I learned of Dr. Davis’ passing. Although I was not often in contact with him in recent years, I will miss him greatly. He played a pivotal role in my academic direction and current career.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Davis introduced me—and thousands of other students—to an amazing discipline called anthropology. Anthropology is a holistic study of human culture subdivided into the fields of sociocultural, linguistic, archaeological and biological (or physical) anthropology. In practice, it distinguishes between ethnography (participant observation) and ethnology (cultural comparison). Students in the classroom and practitioners in the field are frequently challenged to observe, record and understand other cultures without looking through the lens of their own. This is much more difficult than it sounds, especially when studying a culture with far different communication, religious, sexual or warfare practices. Anthropologists are asked to record and interpret, not evaluate.

Introduction to Anthropology (SOAN 191) was the very first class I attended at Truman in August 1995. The course was randomly assigned to fulfill a social science elective credit toward my then-undeclared degree. In my first semester with him, Dr. Davis became one of my favorite professors, and I think I eventually took every course he instructed. His understated, easygoing personality was contrasted by brilliant, free-ranging subject mastery and complemented with dry wit to educate students with storytelling, films and applied learning alongside textbook theory. One of his best fieldwork anecdotes included building rapport with Native American tribesmen by joining them for high-speed rides around their reservation in the back of a pickup truck. Dr. Davis encouraged critical thinking and confrontation of unconscious biases (“Did you ever stop to think about which thumb goes on top when you fold your hands or which foot you lead with when you climb the stairs? More importantly, did you ever ask why?”). He opened my mind to the subjective context in which culture immerses each of us; he helped me see that A and B are rarely connected by straight lines and revealed that even when answers seem right, sometimes questions are wrong.

Together, with Dr. Laura Zimmer-Tamakoshi, Dr. Davis challenged, inspired and elevated my learning—to the point that my randomly selected social science elective became a minor, then a major, and then a double major in anthropology. He suggested I investigate “corporate anthropology” as a rewarding real-world career alternative to master’s study and fieldwork. Fifteen years later, I am writing from the offices of Bazaarvoice, a high-tech company in Austin, Texas, that powers social ratings and reviews systems for more than 30 percent of the IR 500 (Internet Retailers). And my story is only one.

I was not a model student, and I will remember Dr. Davis for the many second chances he gave me—for the papers and courses he allowed me to finish after the official close of the semester. I will remember him for greeting me by name when I stopped by his office several years after I graduated. And I will remember him for the many times during lecture when he would lean back against the window, prop one leg underneath him and cross his arms. After a few minutes speaking like this, he would often pause for a good 15 seconds, look at his feet and then at the class, smile, and say, “That’s it, folks. All I have for today.”

The Truman community has lost a great instructor, an inspiring teacher and mentor and an irreplaceable friend.

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