Elizabeth R. Landau ’06
Staff Writer, CNN.com
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked, “Why did you major in anthropology if you knew you wanted to be a journalist?” But to me, it made perfect sense.
Anthropology involves observing and interacting with people in their natural environments. It aims to find new connections between elements of everyday life in order to explain why a particular society or culture functions the way it does. These observational, interpersonal, and interpretive skills are what I learned at Princeton, and they have become invaluable to me in my career as a health and science reporter.
Concentrating in English would have been the obvious choice, but Professor João Biehl’s “Medical Anthropology” course convinced me that I needed to go down a different path. This class opened my eyes to the wide variety of beliefs about the human body and the practice of medicine that can be found in different parts of the world. I had never before been exposed to the concept of an “illness narrative,” which is a patient’s account of being sick within the context of his or her life story. “Medical Anthropology” helped me see that too many doctors’ visits are quick and impersonal, with the goal of efficiency rather than an understanding of the whole person. And in some cases, people’s beliefs can be just as powerful as drugs, which is a further reason to take the time to get to know a patient well. I also took an upper-level seminar from Professor Biehl based on the idea that the way we view health and our bodies depends on the traditions, social norms, and value systems in place around us. These perspectives are invaluable to me today, as my job involves writing about diseases, treatments, mental illnesses, and psychological quirks on a daily basis.
Understanding beautiful complexity
I had other fabulous classes as well, but my senior projects stand out as amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences for my development as a writer and a thinker. In the summer between my junior and senior years, I went to Spain to participate in a language program and also spend about six weeks interviewing Spanish people who are “reclaiming” their Judaism after many centuries. They believe that their ancestors practiced the religion in secret during the Inquisition, maintaining subtle traditions such as covering mirrors after the death of a loved one. I got to travel all over Spain collecting these stories and drawing connections between different people’s experiences. For my certificate in creative writing, I wrote a novel incorporating some of these themes of identity and history, with Joyce Carol Oates as my adviser.
All of that interviewing and writing certainly prepared me well for my master of arts program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, which gave me further grounding in reporting on politics and economics. In talking to my peers who had done undergraduate programs in journalism, I deeply appreciated that my major at Princeton had not involved the mechanics of reporting and editing, and had not tried to simulate a “newsroom” environment (that’s what the University Press Club did for me). Rather, my major focused more on a broad range of ways of understanding the world in all its beautiful complexity. I realized I would never again have so much concentrated time focused on that endeavor, and I feel so fortunate that I got to have four years to think about such questions at Princeton.
I have been a staff writer for CNN.com since 2008, and I mainly cover health and science topics. Besides the connections to medical anthropology that I mentioned, there have been occasions where my degree has come in handy more directly. When renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss died, I wrote about it, and actually referred to my notes from “History of Anthropological Theory” at Princeton in order to get his ideas straight. I have also written about the discoveries of tools of ancient humans, and what the Neanderthals’ culture might have looked like. I love coming back to the anthropology department at Reunions to tell my professors about these moments and ask what they’re teaching now.
So yes, I’m a journalist without a degree in English, but I do have a degree in anthropology, and I feel so lucky because of it. When I was a sophomore I corresponded with accomplished alumni who are now journalists, asking if anthropology would hurt my career. They had all majored in English, but they said it probably wouldn’t, and that I should just follow my passions in choosing a major, since basically any concentration at Princeton is good preparation for something like journalism. I’d pass on that advice now to the current students.