January 29, 2009
SUNY professor teaches a global approach
Native of northern Africa has taught anthropology linguistics at college since 1997
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Kassim Kone, associate professor of anthropology at SUNY Cortland, came to Cortland in 1997 after moving to America in 1989 from Mali in northwestern Africa.
As a seventh-grader in his native Mali, Cortland resident Kassim Kone was doing translations for American anthropology doctoral students and working as a research assistant for them.
Now, at 48, Kone is in the role of teacher, educating students about the intricacies of language as a professor of anthropology linguistics at SUNY Cortland.
Kone came to America in 1989 for the educational opportunities it could provide and has stayed at SUNY Cortland since getting a job there in 1997.
Kone has a doctoral degree and three master’s degrees, which he obtained from Indiana University and Brandeis University, respectively.
He chose Cortland because he felt at home here.
“I applied for jobs everywhere and two universities gave me a job the same week. I felt ... comfortable during my interview here. Sometimes you just feel like one academic home may be better than the other one,” Kone said.
Kone still returns to Mali each summer to visit family and do research. He has written books and a dictionary in his native language of Bamana, and feels in this way he still contributes to Mali even though he is working in America. Kone gives used computers and books to individuals and institutions in Mali at his own expense.
As Kone spans the world in his travels, he tries to get his students to do the same in their thinking.
“My objective is to teach there are plenty of other worlds out there,” Kone said recently as he sipped a latte at Blue Frog Coffeehouse. “(To teach) diversity and plurality and respect for ‘the other’ whether they be ‘other’ because of the color of their skin or their language, culture, religion or lack of religion.”
Kone found his early work doing translations in return for payment of a book a week or $2 a month, positioned him well for the teaching he now pursues.
At 14 he spoke English and French as well as his native language and found that translating the foreign students’ questions gave him a unique insight into his own culture as he considered aspects of his culture he would otherwise have taken for granted.
“When you respond to different questions you see your culture left to right, forward to backward, up and down,” Kone said. “I realized I was in a position that was unique in that I had a critical view of my own culture.”
Kone became well known among the community of scholars and now he is a professor like many of those people he once worked for as a research assistant. Those former doctoral students are now professors and academics throughout the country.
Many of them are also members of the Mande Studies Association, an organization made up of 400 members worldwide that studies the culture and history of the region in Africa where Kone is from. Kone was vice president of the association the past seven years and elected president last year. In this capacity he organizes and attends international conferences yearly.
Kone said a global view is essential to anthropology and can be uncomfortable at times.
“When you study people, you become one of them and you are not who you were when you left. Your mind is flooded with information that is coming from so many sources and it is a constant struggle to synthesize what you see.”
Kone has a saying for this.
“Once an anthropologist, you are two times or three times born. You have to be to understand what is going on and get something out of it,” Kone said.
Kone said he tries to make his students feel comfortable and encourages them to talk freely about societal perceptions, specifically when it comes to race or gender issues.
“I try to make the student ... feel at ease to ask about everything and learn from everyone,” Kone said.
Kone said that he presents every issue in a global light so students see that various subjects are not only relevant to America, but are challenges worldwide.
Kone specializes in social cultural anthropology, which studies language, social structure, religion, politics, ideology, and all other aspects of human culture.
In his Introduction to Linguistics class, students study the unconscious knowledge of a language that native speakers have, such as the sounds of words.
Kone also teaches social linguistics, which explores the historical variations of languages, which led to the formation of different accents and dialects and the social significance of different ways of speaking.
In his linguistic anthropology class, Kone teaches “how the language one speaks shapes his world view.”
Angela Wilde is a student of Kone’s who is double majoring in anthropology and international studies. Wilde is doing an independent study in linguistics. As a native of Sweden who has lived in France as well as America, she said Kone’s class has opened her eyes to new ways of viewing language.
“He’s bringing my awareness that people speak differently and what speaking differently symbolizes, we all go back and forth in different kinds of speech,” Wilde said of her most recent studies of social stratifications and language.
Wilde said Kone’s background makes him “worldly” but she said he is also down to earth.
“He encourages me to go with my instincts about things,” Wilde said of Kone’s teaching approach. Wilde meets with Kone once a week to review her notes from reading materials and tell him how what she has learned applies to her life.
“I’m learning how to look at language as an indicator of the culture that you’re in and it’s helping me a lot because a lot of the materials are based on American linguistics and how Americans speak,” Wilde said.
Although Wilde has lived in America for 20 years, she said the class is teaching her to view aspects of language she would otherwise not notice.
Kone said if his anthropology students take away just a few lessons from his class to later pass on to their children, he is happy.
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