Kansas State University anthropology professor’s passion lies in understanding people

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Michael Wesch is more than what an online search offers. He is a husband and father and has a passion for people and the world around him.

Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology, said he is interested in the human experience and how it varies across cultures. Cultural anthropology is the study of humans at all times in all places.

“My passion is for understanding people with very different backgrounds and seeing the world through their eyes and ultimately writing about that, making a video about that or presenting that in some way to the world,” Wesch said. “I want to get a different vision from people and then share that with others.”

Wesch’s research with digital technology and how it is changing human relationships put him on the map. His videos on YouTube have been viewed by two million people around the world. He won a Wired Magazine Rave Award for a video in 2007 and was the 2010 K-State Proud Honorary Co-Chair. He is one of three people to be a Fellow of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. 

Where it all began

Wesch’s life headed in this direction when he enrolled in cultural anthropology as a K-State student.

“I thought I wanted to be a seventh-grade science teacher, so I had to take an international overlay class and cultural anthropology fit,” Wesch said. “I fell in love with the class.”

The teacher for the class, he said, was a suave guy who walked around so calmly and as he did so, filled Wesch’s mind with information he had never known before.

In the class, the students read a book about people in Papua New Guinea and Wesch, of Fairbury, Neb., said he began wanting to go there.

“It seemed more different than anything else, so if I wanted to experience the full range of human experience, I felt I would have to go there,” he said.

His first trip to Papua New Guinea was in 1999, which was followed by several more trips.    While there, he studied the people, learned the languages, brought back artifacts and completed his research.

Once home, he moved back to Manhattan.

“In 2004, I came back to teach at K-State because my whole family is within 90 miles from Manhattan, and knowing I wanted to start a family, it seemed like a good fit,” Wesch said. “I also know the area and campus well, and it is a great place.”

Family man

All the men in Wesch’s family attended K-State, except his grandfather. Wesch said it was hard to think of a close relative that did not attend this university.

“We are big time K-Staters,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid, like 1985 to ‘87, and my family would come and pay like $5 at the door and get into football games. No one would be there because we had not won a game in 13 years, but we would be there and I would get these autographs from Willie the Wildcat.”

Wesch’s children are growing up Wildcat fans too. He has a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old. He said he hopes eventually they can also travel to Papua New Guinea with him.

“People don’t realize there is all this I do, but half the time I am at home changing diapers and playing with my kids,” he said. “I drop the 3-year-old off at preschool around 9 a.m. and then come to work.”

Affecting students, faculty

Danielle Baughn, spring 2010 graduate in anthropology, said Wesch is one of those professors who appears to truly care for his students and subject matter. Baughn had Wesch as her professor, adviser and employer.

“You learn how to love other people and care about people while he is lecturing,” she said. “He honestly believes in what he states.”

Baughn said she thinks there are few professors who take time out of their lives to help students with things, not just school work, and said she would go to him for anything, whether it was related to anthropology or not.

Bill Genereux, associate professor of engineering technology at K-State Salina, said Wesch really cares and has students’ best interests in mind.

Genereux said he earned another degree and Wesch’s class, digital ethnography, fit his credit requirements.

“I was excited to watch Wesch teach because he was the award-winning professor,” he said. “He is the first professor I have seen engaging his students in work before the semester even started by planning and working on projects through e-mail. Wesch is more than just a teacher, he is someone who talks about it but has also done it.”

The future

At K-State Wesch had a new classroom built, paid for by National Geographic, which recognized him as a young person doing exciting things. Wesch helped the National Geographic transition from paper to online.

“Wesch involves his students in his research, which is the goal of President Schulz,” Genereux said. “The digital ethnography research, the Internet and what people do online is very current right now.”

Wesch said everyone has seen their lives change in the last decade because of digital technology, including the way people talk to each other and how they connect — something that intrigues people.

 

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