Justin Falls
Justin Falls

Justin Falls, who graduated from Eastern New Mexico University on Dec. 15, gave a research presentation at the New Mexico Association of Museums Annual Conference in October. He discusses his conference experience and research:

justin falls giving presentation
Justin giving his presentation at the conference.

What is your major? Why did you choose that field of study?

I'm a cultural anthropology major. I've been interested in anthropology since I did a project about archaeology my junior year of high school. We went to Chaco Canyon and several other sites and museums all around New Mexico which was super exciting. The following year, I took an Intro to Anthropology course through CNM and found out that I was really passionate about cultural anthropology, the study of living people and their cultures. That's when I really set my heart on cultural anthropology as my major for college.

At its core, anthropology is the study of humans and human diversity, but it also teaches us the ways that we're similar. It exemplifies the notion that we're part of a continuing tradition of shared experiences starting in the past, continuing in the present and extending into the future. It's this interconnectedness and tradition of shared experience that really drew me to study anthropology. I've always been interested in other cultures, in religions, in mythology, in history, in art and expression and diversity. Studying anthropology lets me learn about ALL of that and more!

During my time at Eastern, I've also had the opportunity to take classes in two of the other subdisciplines of anthropology: archaeology and biological anthropology. Biological anthropology is the most interesting and I hope to be able to keep studying both cultural and biological anthropology as I continue my academic and professional career.

What was the topic of your research? How did you choose your topic?

My research project was about how learning about water conservation in schools influences people's attitudes towards water conservation throughout their lives. Basically, "does learning about water conservation in school correlate to having positive attitudes about conservation later in life?" I was also interested in what ways people practice water conservation and whether or not they learned about these strategies in school, from TV, from family or from other sources; things like taking short showers, turning off the water while brushing teeth, using gray water to water lawns and gardens, xeriscaping, etc.

This project was part of my "Ethnographic Methods" class last semester. Dr. Erik Stanley assigned "water in Eastern New Mexico" as a broad topic and students had the freedom to select any specific topic that fit within or connected to that broad theme. I knew I wanted to study attitudes about water conservation and water conservation practices so he helped me to narrow that focus just a little further to look at schools as vehicles for the creation and retention of water conservation attitudes and practices.

How did you find out about the conference? How did you prepare to present at the conference?

After putting together my research project and presenting at the Student Research and Creativity Conference, Dr. Stanley got in touch with Christine Gilbertson, a graduate student in the Anthropology Department. Christine was working on an exhibit for the Blackwater Draw Museum on campus, and since her project was also about water, she, Logan Johnson (my other classmate in Methods) and I worked on the exhibit together. It was originally her exhibit, but she invited Logan and me to include information from our projects which was absolutely fantastic.

After working on the exhibit alongside Christine and several of the staff members and employees of the Blackwater Draw Museum, Jenna Domeischel, the museum curator, asked if those of us who had been working on the exhibit would be interested in making a presentation about it at the New Mexico Association of Museums Conference in October. I gladly agreed because it sounded like a fantastic opportunity.

Preparing for my presentation was interesting. I wanted to talk about the process of taking an academic project and making it accessible to a wider audience through the museum exhibit. I had a lot of the information I needed in my final paper and my field notes, and Anthropology Department Secretary Barbara Senn had documented our progress on the museum exhibit with lots of pictures at various stages along the way. All I really needed to do was put all the information together into a PowerPoint with enough pictures and information to fill my presentation slot.

I met with Jenna before the conference, and she gave me lots of helpful pointers for how to structure my presentation, what to include, and what information was most important to focus on. Her guidance really helped me to make a solid presentation, and I felt much more confident after our meeting.

Describe your conference experience:

The conference was incredible. Jenna had told me that the New Mexico museum crowd was friendly and that was absolutely true. I talked to lots of people during the opening reception for the conference. Conversation ranged from casual to formal, and people asked me things like where I was from, what I studied and whether or not I was presenting. Everyone was extraordinarily friendly.

I got to meet museum professionals from all over the state including Las Cruces, Hobbs, Santa Fe and more places than I can count. These people were from anthropology museums, art museums, science museums and any other type of museum you could possibly think of! It was definitely a fantastic networking opportunity.

I was a little nervous to present because this was the first big academic conference I had been to outside of the ENMU SRCC, but it went really well. Our session was early in the morning, and the room filled up super fast. Jenna opened by talking about the Augmented Reality Sandbox in the Blackwater Draw Museum (which is super cool and something that I highly recommend everyone go check out). Dr. Stanley continued by talking about the water project from the professor's perspective, discussing using museum exhibits as teaching pedagogy. I concluded our session by talking about the water project from the student perspective, sharing my experiences from research and from creating the exhibit, and talking about what worked and what didn't.

Despite our session running over a little bit, everyone in the room stuck around through my entire presentation, and a decent number of people asked me questions before leaving. Several others also caught me after the session and asked what my plans for graduate school were and if I'd be interested in going to their museums to talk about water at some point.

I spent the remainder of the conference exploring Taos and attending other sessions. One session was about presenting tough or controversial topics in museums and how to navigate those difficult waters. Another was about an interactive art festival in Taos called the Paseo Project. This one was particularly interesting because it was all about getting the community involved in projects which is part of what I wanted to accomplish with my water project! I learned a lot about ways to get people involved and got some inspiration for things we could add to our own museum exhibit back in Portales.

What was your favorite part of the conference? What did you learn from the conference?

I think my favorite part of the conference was the chance to mingle with museum professionals from all over the state. As an anthropology major, working in a museum has always been a very likely career path and attending this conference helped me to realize that that's something I wouldn't mind spending my career doing. The opportunity for networking was probably the best part of the conference.

Dr. Kathy Durand, one of the professors in the Anthropology Department and my advisor for several semesters, has always suggested NMSU as the next step in my academic career because of their excellent cultural anthropology program, plus they offer a certificate in museum studies which is something I'd definitely like to pursue. I met two people from a museum in Las Cruces at the conference who did their master's degrees at NMSU who said they'd gladly get in touch with me were I to end up down there. It was amazing to make some valuable connections like that right off the bat.

Besides the networking, it was just an incredible experience and honor to represent the Blackwater Draw Museum, the Anthropology Department and ENMU, and it's something I'll never forget.

justin falls presentation board
A board featuring information about Justin’s research.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in your field of study? Any advice about research and presentations?

The biggest advice I can give about being an anthropology major is to DO. YOUR. READINGS. Fieldwork and methods classes are all incredibly fun and valuable, but you can't do any of that properly without having a strong knowledge base about theory and the correct way to implement those methods.

Keeping up to date on what's going on in the field is also incredibly important to any academic discipline but especially so in anthropology. Eventually, reading scientific articles becomes less of a boring task and more of an exciting experience because you get to see all of the cool things that have been done and are being done in the field (or maybe that's just me being a massive nerd, but I digress).

As for research and presentations, find something you're passionate about. There's nothing more painful than doing a project and presentation on something you aren't interested in so try to pick a topic you enjoy. If the topic is assigned, look for some part of that topic that you think you might like and start from that angle. When it comes to making the presentation, remember that everyone who is coming to your talk at a conference actually wants to be there and is interested in hearing what you have to say so take advantage of that! It makes the whole situation much less stressful.

Don't spend too much time talking about background, focus on the things you did and what you learned and make sure that passion you have for your project is apparent in your presentation. Be prepared to answer questions about what you did or how you plan on continuing the project too. Also, keep in mind that PowerPoints are visual aids to your presentation so don't fill your slides with text. Keep it to a few lines maximum and make sure to have lots of pictures or figures.

Besides that, just enjoy yourself and try not to stress! I know talking in front of people can be daunting but always remember that you are the one in that room who knows the most about your project. You spent all that time and effort doing the research and putting it together into a presentation so be confident when you present!

What are your career plans? How does this conference tie into your career plans?

I'm going to take the spring semester off and then I plan to start graduate school in the fall. Right now, I'm planning on attending either UNM or NMSU. I'll still be pursuing anthropology and would also like to focus on museum studies. After getting my master's degree, I'd like to work in the field for a year or two, preferably in the museum industry. After that, I plan to apply into a Ph.D. program at either UT Austin or Notre Dame.

My biggest dream right now would be to work in the Smithsonian as a repatriation specialist, but I also wouldn't mind continuing to do exhibit work. Teaching at the university level someday would be a neat experience, too. As I said before, museum work has always been a very likely career path for me as an anthropology major. Having the chance to volunteer in the Blackwater Draw Museum and going to this conference have shown me that that's something I'd really like to do.

Are you involved in any organizations at ENMU?

I'm a founding member and am currently the vice president of the ENMU Japanese Animation Research Club or JARC for short. The club is all about exploring Japanese history and culture through various activities. It's also just a cool and laidback space for people to hang out and get to know others with similar interests. We watch and discuss anime, have monthly movie nights and do all sorts of other fun events like costume workshops (an event that I run as a cosplay hobbyist), origami workshops and ramen nights. We even organized a trip up to Albuquerque so our members could attend Con-Jikan, a local anime convention in mid-November.

I served as the club's secretary for our first year (2017-2018) and ended up running for vice president this year because I fell in love with the organization and wanted to be even more involved. It's crazy to see everything we've accomplished as an organization just this past semester! I'm grateful for our dedicated members and especially grateful to my other officers: Nickkole Williams (the president), Vicky Palas (the treasurer) and Valerie Lomax (the current secretary). They've been the absolute Dream Team and working with them to grow the organization this past semester has been an incredible experience.

Which professors have helped you the most during your time at ENMU?

Oh my gosh, where do I even begin with this question? I think the best place to start is with the Anthropology Department. The spot for #1 inspiration is a tie between Dr. Durand and Dr. Keriann Marden. Dr. Durand was the Chair of Anthropology the whole time I've been at Eastern. She retired last semester but is still teaching classes this semester and next. I had my first class with her in spring 2016. That class was "Introduction to Biological Anthropology," which helped me to realize my passion for biological anthropology as well as cultural. She became my advisor after Dr. Stephanie Borios, my first advisor, moved.

Dr. Durand is an incredible professor and an even more incredible anthropologist. Having the chance to study under her has been an amazing experience. Her classes are always informative and exciting and I know I've grown exponentially as a student and as an anthropologist from taking those classes. Dr. Durand's guidance as professor and advisor has been invaluable in my time at Eastern, and she has always inspired me to do my best and more. 

My other biggest inspiration in the anthropology department is Dr. Marden. She taught forensic anthropology but isn't at Eastern anymore. I had countless classes with her, and I always learned a lot and really excelled under her guidance. She let me take "Human Osteology," an upper-division class, despite my not having enough credits to take 400/500 level classes yet and I'm incredibly grateful for that opportunity. Her office door was always open, and I could always talk to her about class, anthropology or life in general. I had something of a crisis about whether or not I wanted to stick with anthropology last semester and she helped me through my doubts with the utmost tact and inspired me to stick with it. I hope I can do her proud someday.

Other professors in the Anthropology Department that have helped me during my time at Eastern are Dr. Borios, Dr. Kathryn Putsavage, Dr. Heather Smith, Dr. Stanley, and Jenna Domeishel.

Dr. Borios was the cultural anthropologist here at Eastern when I started, and I had all of my intro classes with her. She ended up moving at the end of my sophomore year. She was also my advisor for my first two years. She set the foundation that the rest of my anthropological journey here at Eastern has been built on, and I'm incredibly thankful for that.

I only had one class with Dr. Putsavage, but it was also foundational to my journey in this department. She's also not here anymore, but the information and skills I learned in "Origins of Human Diversity" are things I apply in all of my courses and much of day to day life.

Dr. Smith joined the Anthropology Department my sophomore year, and I've had several classes with her. She's helped me a lot with professional development, looking over my CV and teaching me how to apply for graduate school.

Dr. Stanley is the new cultural anthropologist; he joined the department in fall 2017 and has been a wonderful addition. He's also helped me a lot with professional development AND he taught "Ethnographic Methods" last semester offload with only two students (I was actually the only student the first week of class). I'm incredibly thankful he took it upon himself to do that. I wouldn't be able to graduate otherwise.

Jenna is the curator of the Blackwater Draw Museum and the main reason I got to go to this conference. She gave me the opportunity to help out with this museum exhibit which was an incredible experience. I don't think I would have realized my passion for museum work without her.

I've had a ton of amazing professors outside the Anthropology Department too whose help and guidance have really shaped my undergrad experience. For the sake of brevity, I'm only going to list a few: Dr. Jennifer Laubenthal from the Music Department and Bryan Hahn from the Art Department.

Dr. Laubenthal was my freshman seminar professor and we've stayed in touch since. The skills I learned in her class and her support that very first semester is what I credit a lot of my success here at Eastern to. Dr. Laubenthal also encouraged (and required) the class to go out and do all sorts of things on campus like attending Fine Arts events, ASAB events, sporting events and guest lectures and to write about those experiences. Getting to explore all the things campus has to offer really helped me get to know people from different departments and allowed me to experience a lot of things I may not have been able to experience otherwise.

Bryan Hahn is the department secretary for the Department of Art, manager of the Runnels Gallery, AND instructor of art, theater, filmmaking and dance. I had "Introduction to Dance" with him in the spring of 2016 and also got to be a part of his and Shelly Short's dance and film show, "Identity." Bryan has been a constant source of support and inspiration. Being part of "Identity" really got me out of my shell, introduced me to lots of new people and inspired me to pursue creativity in everything I do.

justin falls at eastern