Professor opens window to Islamic culture for Mids

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March 31, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

Like many professors, Clementine Fujimura likes to tell stories.

She likes to talk about her time abroad in the former Soviet Union, the "Russian soul" and how to use anthropology to understand foreign cultures and peoples.

For more than a decade, these stories were confined to her Russian and German language classes because the Naval Academy didn't have a single anthropology course. Lately, however, a growing emphasis on culture and language at the academy has allowed her to finally get her wish.

The academy's inaugural class, Cultural Anthropology for Military Application, began this semester, and Fujimura's cadre of midshipmen - including two recently selected Rhodes scholars - has begun to delve into ideas on culture and, for a final project, write ethnographies about academy subcultures they are unfamiliar with. One midshipman has ventured into Hispanic enclaves in Annapolis to write about predominantly Salvadoran and Mexican immigrants.

Fujimura's teaching efforts, this year and in the past, recently brought her the Class of 1951 Civilian Faculty Teaching Excellence Award, given annually to a faculty member who "has exhibited continued excellence in teaching and sustained contributions to the intellectual development of midshipmen."

Fujimura, 41, came to the academy in 1993 after earning her doctorate from the University of Chicago. She lived in Russia during various stages of her career, beginning in 1989, and recently published Russia's Abandoned Children: An Intimate Understanding, which focuses on the plight of orphans in the country. An Annapolis resident and mother of two boys, she said in a recent interview that she was flattered by the award, but even more grateful that she can finally teach anthropology at the academy.

"I always felt anthropology was so important and could either help the military or be a real impediment," she said. "When our midshipmen go overseas, they need to know how to take these cultural belief systems and traditions and use that knowledge to enhance communities and understanding."

William Miller, the academy's academic dean and provost, said in a written statement that Fujimura has "proved herself to be a tremendous asset to the Naval Academy and its foreign language instruction program.

"Her dedication to midshipmen learning about the history and culture of the Russian people, in addition to their language, is widely appreciated because today cultural awareness has become as important as language fluency in communicating with people abroad."

At a recent Friday class just before the academy's spring break, Fujimura reviewed the perspectives of previous guest speakers and what they had said about Islamic culture. One speaker had said aspects of the culture should not be respected, while another urged students to respect the status quo. Fujimura wondered if these opinions could be based on the speakers' individual experiences. One had lived at length in Afghanistan and witnessed a totalitarian regime and government collapse, and another had lived in Cairo, a much more modern society, she said.

She then discussed nations in the former Soviet Union, introducing the topic with a story about gender roles in many of the countries. In 1991, when she was in Uzbekistan with a Russian group on a tour, she and a friend decided to stray from the group to "meet the people." Within a short time, she said, she had a trail of men following her. About 88 percent of Uzbeks are Sunni Muslims who would be unaccustomed to seeing women like Fujimura - who is fair-skinned and has long, blond hair - walking alone in the streets.

"It was scary, it was for real," she told her students. "We ran back to the tour group quickly."

Fujimura also talked about ethnocentrism, or perceived cultural superiority, among Russians and the nationalistic idea of the "Russian soul" that alienated people in countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. That led to discussions of the "blat" system of bribing to get along in Russia; the Russian "mafia" and its control of small businesses and commerce; and how often Russian police stopped her Japanese-American husband on the metro to ask for his identification.

Her students praised her class and her teaching.

"A lot of what she's teaching gives you the skill sets you need to be attentive to culture," said Matt Lampert, a senior from Big Sky, Mont., who will enter the Marine Corps when he graduates in May. "It's a great class."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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