Dr. Misty Weitzel and Jerielle Cartales teach forensic anthropology here at WOU who have started a podcast together titled Cabin Femur: Forensic Anthropology in the Age of Quarantine. The following is a curated version of my interview with them about the podcast and forensic anthropology in general.
Jasper: Okay, why don’t we just hit the ground running? What is it that both you do here at WOU, and for how long?
Jerielle: I am currently teaching a 207 First Year Seminar class on bias. And we look at a lot of forensic examples, but also it’s just about bias in general. I also teach the Introduction to Forensic Anthropology class. I’ve been here since…2019? Misty, when did I get back?
Misty: I think before that, even.
Jerielle: No, no, because I graduated from my master’s in ‘18. I started in ‘19.
Misty: Oh, it feels like you’ve been here a lot longer.
Jerielle: Yeah, that’s true. Not as long as you, though. How long have you been here, Misty?
Misty: A long time. I’ve been here in one way or another since probably about 2006, but since 2012 as full time. I administer our Forensic Anthropology minor and more recently, we have a concentration in that as well in Criminal Justice. I’m also our graduate program coordinator for Criminal Justice as well.
Jasper: What do you both like most about teaching at WOU?
Jerielle: I get to play with my bone lab. I went to Western as a student. I had my undergraduate forensic anthropology classes with Misty, so you know that it’s a good program when I came back and decided to teach for the same program and the same professor. So, I like that it’s like a community… and also there’s no escape. Please help me.
Misty: [laughter] You can never leave home.
Jerielle: Misty won’t let me go! No, I like working with Misty, specifically. I feel like we get along great, and I’m allowed to give her a hard time without it being weird. That was the way it was all the way.
Misty: I like working here because there’s just so much freedom in what you can do. There’s just so much opportunity. I think part of this is working in our Criminal Justice Sciences Division. We have a great leader, and that allows us to explore the niches that we want to and doesn’t assign us to certain things. I think that, if there’s something you’re interested in pursuing, you can do it. We can create really interesting opportunities for students because we get that kind of creative opportunity overall. That’s what I really appreciate about being at Western.
Jasper: Cool. So, forensic anthropology; that seems like a very interesting blend of disciplines. How would you define it, as far as how those two things interact?
Misty: It’s really a perfect match. Most forensic anthropology programs are embedded in anthropology because forensic anthropology is the investigation of human remains from a crime scene, or a mass disaster or something like that. So the skills come from anthropology: understanding, when you look at a skeleton, what else you can find out about that skeleton, what is the sex of that skeleton (although these days that is changing more into a question of gender) And to the extent that we can get at gender from the skeleton, the biological affinity of the skeleton, the living height of the individual…all of these things are things that you’re trained in bio anthropology, but the applications of those things are in criminal justice. Figuring out who the decedent is (the victim) is an application in criminal justice. That’s where the two different disciplines are married.
Jerielle: Yeah, we take biological or physical anthropology methods and apply them to more recent remains, rather than archaeological.
Jasper: I see. That sounds absolutely fascinating. Fascinating enough for a podcast! What’s the story about how that idea came to be?
Jerielle: It was because of COVID. We were all in lockdown, and we were worried about our incoming students not having any access to their professors or experience with the campus and what we offer. So we were trying to get our information out there. The first two episodes that we have out are geared specifically towards people wanting to know more about our program at Western. What’s the difference between a minor in forensic anthropology and a concentration in forensic anthropology? Why should you take forensic anthropology at Western rather than anywhere else? That was just an attempt to communicate with students when otherwise we might not have our faces or voices out there at all.
Misty: During the year, we’re involved in giving lab tours and orientations. So there are lots of opportunities, under normal circumstances, to let students know what forensic anthropology is all about. During COVID, we didn’t really have those opportunities. We’ve done the intro class online, but what are some other ways that we can engage students beyond that? We thought the podcast could be another way just to do something interesting for students in forensic anthropology.
Jerielle: There’s a lot to talk about in forensic anthropology in general. I am very easy to distract with tangents, which my students take advantage of on occasion. So we talk a lot about a lot of weird things. I love getting those really weird questions. I had a student ask me once if getting hit with a cannon ball would count as blunt force trauma or projectile trauma because it is moving through the air as a projectile, and we just spun off of that. It was great. There’s just not enough time in a semester to really talk about the cool, fun, random bits of forensic anthropology and so I’m hoping that we can spend more time talking about the weird bits like that in our podcasts. None of this is the “important core stuff to know” but if you’re actually interested in forensic anthropology, you can listen to forensic anthropologists geek out about it for a while.
Jasper: There’s a lot of media already out there (podcasts, TV shows, etc.) that involves forensics of some kind. What do you think about the general portrayal of your field in the media?
Jerielle: Hey Misty, do you want to tell him about the show Bones? Tell him how much you love Bones!
Misty: Yeah, so that’s my favorite show. [laughter] No, that’s a lot of our students’ favorite show. Jerielle loves it, and this is a point of disagreement for us.
Jerielle: Don’t put words in my mouth! [laughter]
Misty: You love it! You have every episode memorized.
Jerielle: Oh, no. She’s full of lies.
Misty: The one thing about a lot of the popular media that’s out there right now is it definitely is forensics, and it definitely falls under true crime, but there isn’t a whole lot dealing with forensic anthropology. Bones is kind of the main example, but there hasn’t been a whole lot besides that. I know of no other forensic anthropology podcasts, but I haven’t searched.
Jerielle: There’s a forensic anthropologist who does a very regular blog. The show Bones was based off of a book series written by a forensic anthropologist. There’s a lot of books that Kathy Reichs has written. But in terms of TV shows, I think it’s just the one show. Misty, I need to set the record straight: I don’t love Bones. I like the idea behind it. Bones is actually the show that opened my eyes to forensic anthropology. I didn’t realize it was a field until that show came out. That’s also how a lot of our students coming in know about forensic anthropology. In the last week of class, we watch an episode of Bones and we point out all of the things that they did really well, and then all of the things that they got blatantly wrong. I have a lot of fun with that one.
Misty: All the popular media that has to do with forensics are really great teaching tools. Some things are obviously so exaggerated and ridiculous. Students at the end of the term know what gets really exaggerated and what doesn’t, or how they should have gone about it differently. For that purpose, I think they’re fantastic.
Jasper: Right, they can always be a good bad example. So, the subtitle of the podcast is Forensic Anthropology in the Age of Quarantine.
Jerielle: Did you like our bone pun?
Jasper: Yes, “Cabin Femur” is quite nice. There’s so many bone names, there are many other possible puns.
Jerielle: Well, the big one that we usually get is somebody sends us a picture of, like, somebody holding a cat with a humerus bone. Like, “I found this humorous”. Every semester we get somebody sending us that meme. But yeah, forensic anthropology in the age of quarantine.
Jasper: Could you elaborate on that? How does quarantine affect the field?
Misty: Well, actually, we have a topic of a new podcast that’s coming, where we’re going to talk about COVID at some point. We’re on that right now, talking about, can a forensic anthropologist get COVID from the decedent?
Jerielle: At the very beginning of 2020, there was an article released that did not say that a person got COVID from a dead body, but it was taken that way.
Misty: So we’re addressing that part of how COVID might be affecting the field, or not affecting it. But people die of other causes, regardless of COVID. And so all kinds of people working in those agencies still have to do their jobs. So it affects forensic anthropologists, just like it affects law enforcement and medical examiners. They still have a job to do. Actually, I worked last summer in the Oregon wildfires at the mobile morgue. We were all masked working in the mobile morgue together during COVID. Work life goes on.
Jasper: I personally have entertained the thought of starting a podcast myself. What is the process like? Is this a WOU-sponsored thing, or is this completely on your own time?
Misty: Go ahead, Jerielle, you want to say it’s a slow process. And that’s on me! [laughter]
Jerielle: No, the way that we have the division of labor, Misty is the one that usually draws up our script, or our general topic and does the research behind everything. We know that at a future point, one of our topics is going to be on Black Wall Street and the mass graves that they have located there. There’s a forensic anthropologist excavating that. We want to talk about the indigenous mass graves up in Canada that have been in the news at the beginning of the year. We have a list of topics that we want to cover, it’s finding time to flesh those out [that takes time]. Then once we actually sit down and record it—I don’t know how everybody else does a podcast—but we are making things up as we go. We just have a Zoom call, and each of us records our own audio. Misty sends me her file, and I edit it together in a free video editor. It’s as low-budget as you can possibly get.
Jasper: What are some of the coolest things you’re going to talk about on future episodes of the podcast?
Misty: Another topic that I think will be really interesting, Jerielle sent me an email a while back that had a link to a TikTok video that also has a website of this character that is selling human bones, and just the ethics concerned with that, because it’s something anybody could run across and be like “Oh, I’d like to buy this finger bone”.
Jerielle: The website looks like it’s passing it off as medical specimens or medical donations, but the person running it is like 25, and their forensic anthropologist on staff has a bachelor’s degree, so it’s like, “How reliable is it?”
Jasper: Like, where are you getting those bodies?
Misty: Exactly. Where are you acquiring these? What is the ethical concern there?
Jerielle: Yeah, in Oregon, you can’t sell human remains on eBay. So ethical handling of remains, I’m excited for that one. I really want to talk about juvenile remains, because I love juvenile archaeology in general. I think the way that baby bones develop is wild. I think we should do a bit on juvenile osteology.
Misty: Two areas that we need to talk about too are areas that are changing rapidly in the field. Previously, when we look at a skeleton, we sex it as a male or female. But with current contemporary discussions on gender, we’re starting to flesh that out a little bit better scientifically to suggest that maybe there are more categories, even within skeletal remains, and how do we go about characterizing that, especially when the goal is to inform law enforcement. You need to make it expedient. The same is true for so-called race, or what we in forensics now refer to as biological affinity. That’s changed tremendously since the time that I’ve been teaching and since the time Jerielle’s been teaching.
Jerielle: Yeah, it’s changed a lot in the last like three years. It’s interesting how, for a very slow-moving field, we change very quickly sometimes.
Misty: We did it wrong for decades. Nobody said a word for decades. Now all of a sudden, everybody’s been changing within the last few years.
Jasper: How would one get involved in forensic anthropology here at WOU?
Misty: Podcast number two will tell you this! But also any student could email Jerielle or myself and we would provide further information and set up a meeting with you. Any major could minor in Forensic Anthropology. If you’re a Criminal Justice major, you can get a concentration. That just means that all of your elective credits for your Criminal Justice major can be geared towards Forensic Anthropology, so you can essentially double dip
Jasper: Ok, I think that’s all I need! Thank you!
Jerielle: Thanks. Nice to meet you, Jasper. I hope to see you in one of our classes.
Jasper: Maybe…Language Arts Education with a minor in Forensic Anthropology…
Misty: We’ll find a fit. We’ll find out where those two cross over.
Jasper: Students love it when they walk into the classroom and they see their English teacher with a human skeleton laying on the desk.
Jerielle: I mean, I’d be way more interested in language arts that way.
Misty: Language, Shakespeare, holding skulls… [laughter]
You can listen to Cabin Femur: Forensic Anthropology in the Age of Quarantine on Jerielle’s YouTube channel!
Episode 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klZmZs0F74o
Episode 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CQInzmWHU0