Examining the human experience: anthropology professor Mike Coggeshall
Mike Coggeshall’s interest in culture is evident by the collection of artifacts displayed throughout his office. From the collection of Czech Republic beer coasters to stuffed animal chimpanzees and apes, his passion for stories and the people who tell them began with a pursuit of better understanding humanity.
“I remember debating in college on whether humans were innately good or evil and if the role of government was to liberate or restrain,” recalls Coggeshall. “But none of this matters if we don’t understand what it means to be human.”
Anthropology is the study of origins, social customs, societies and the development of humanity. This discipline often asks questions like, “How do groups of people see the world differently?”
“Since college, the different ways people see the world have always been of interest to me,” remembers Coggeshall. “I think the single driving question that led me to anthropology is ‘What does it mean to be human?’”
Coggeshall became focused on the “how” and “why” people see things differently, which resulted in his interest in cultural anthropology. These are the types of questions Coggeshall has explored in over two decades of teaching at Clemson.
Coggeshall’s thirst for answers has led him to study the culture of German-Americans in the Ozarks and to write a book on Southern culture in Upstate South Carolina, entitled “Carolina Piedmont Country.” He has also done research for the Department of National Resources regarding the Liberian community in the former Jocassee Valley.
“Many people were displaced by the flooding of Jocassee Valley, and my work examined the cultural interpretation of land from those who lived in this mountainous area,” said Coggeshall. “I looked at how and why land is important to these people and what it means to be forced to give up their land.”
A few years ago Coggeshall was driving around the former Jocassee Valley area as part of his project on mountain cultures and happened upon Soapstone Church in Liberia. After befriending Mable Owens Clarke, who is the last living descendant of the original Soapstone families, Coggeshall worked with Clark to document the history of the Soapstone Church family.
Coggeshall partnered with fellow Clemson anthropology professors, Melissa Vogel and Katherine Weisensee, to survey and map the slave cemetery at Soapstone Church in northern Pickens County, which was in disrepair after decades of neglect. Members of the student Clemson Anthropology Club joined the Clemson faculty to rake, measure, identify and map grave stones near the first black church and the first black school in Upstate South Carolina.
The Liberia cultural project at the Soapstone Church still holds great promise. Coggeshall is currently working with other Clemson faculty on developing a Creative Inquiry course that would focus on creating a documentary film on the historic Liberian church.
“The Soapstone Church documentary film project is an exciting opportunity for students to gain experience making a documentary and wrestling with the cultural challenges with regards to filmmaking,” says Coggeshall. “For example, who speaks for the people you are documenting? Is it a narrative voice or is it the people themselves that get to share their own culture?”
While continuing a long-term goal of getting the Soapstone site registered as a historic landmark, Coggeshall has also been working on a new book that examines folk life in the South and how traditional folklore and traditional regional identity influence the way that regional groups define themselves.
During Coggeshall’s 26 years at Clemson, the anthropology department has grown from one professor to six professors, and in fall 2013, the department began offering a major in anthropology.
“The major was a dream of mine when I first got here, a long-term goal,” recalls Coggeshall. “As I worked to increase anthropology’s profile on campus, I continually kept this idea in the back of my mind believing that whatever I was doing would lead to this ultimate goal.”
Awarded the Thomas Green Clemson Award in 2002 for his dedicated service and contribution to the academic life at Clemson, Coggeshall would tell you that his greatest accomplishment was the opportunity to work with so many students over the years.
“It has been very gratifying over the years to see many great students come through Clemson. I always wanted every student to have an eye-opening experience,” says Coggeshall. “If you go into the field of anthropology or whatever you do with the rest of your life, you don’t see the world the same way after having an anthropology class.”
CLEMSON UNIVERSITY OFFERS A NEW ANTHROPOLOGY DEGREE
The anthropology major is both exciting and practical with career options that range from forensic anthropologist to urban planner, from product developer to consumer affairs investigator, from museum curator to park ranger. The degree will prepare students for a professional career related to various people-oriented positions in the public and private sector. In addition, the degree provides excellent preparation for graduate training in anthropology, law, healthcare and business. Our faculty members are trained in the four subfields of anthropology: cultural, physical, archaeology and linguistics. With an anthropology degree, students will position themselves to educate and enlighten future business and policy leaders on cross-cultural and global diversity issues in sustainability, health sciences, business and technology.
For more information, visit: www.clemson.edu/majors/anthropology
Examining the Human Experience first appeared in the 2014 Winter/Spring issue of The Exchange Magazine. For more information on The Exchange, visit: http://www.clemson.edu/cbbs/exchange