Intro courses and the viability of four-fields

It’s that time of the year again and my thoughts, like those of Rex back “a few weeks ago”:/2005/08/17/the-grim-smile/, turn to pedagogical issues. One things that has been haunting me for my entire teaching career (OK, OK . . . 2 ½ years!) is the viability of a four-field intro course. Semester after semester, I try to cram in the so-called “tip of the iceberg” of anthropology into 45 hours (minus tests, pre-test reviews, post-test revisions, assignment explanations, occasional cancellations, fire drills and so forth). And semester after semester, I try to decide ahead of time where I will wind up having to cut. Because I always wind up having to cut, despite my best intentions. I could fit it all in probably if all I did was lecture but about half of my class time is spent in learning activities. So . . .

This leads me to question how useful the four-field approach is in pedagogical terms (i.e. as a teaching tool). The more topics one tries to cover in one semester, the more each topic gets watered down. So what is important to us as teachers and professors of anthropology? To cram as much info into the brains of our students as possible for later regurgitation? Or to help them learn ways of thinking and analysing that are part of the “anthropological project”?

In any case, the nature of the course has been decided for me so I have to deal . . .and figure out where I will cut (if I have to, of course, which I probably will . . . ). Keeping in mind, of course, that 99.9% of my students will not go on to take university-level anthropology courses (this is Cégep we’re talking about which is a 2-year general studies programme between high school and university – a neat little Québécois idiosyncrasy) helps me determine what is important and what isn’t.

What will help them in their future careers as teachers, plumbers, lawyers, secretaries, nurses, police officers and so forth? What will whet their appetites enough to get them to take one of our 200 or 300 level courses such as Race and Racism, Community Studies, Archaeology, Human Evolution, Culture and Sexuality, etc? What will help them in their everyday lives as residents of multicultural Canada? These are the questions I need to ask when determining what stays and what goes . . . and this is what I’ve been forgetting to ask myself in the past 2 years as a newbie teacher.

So now I’m trying something new. I’m going to start backwards. Well, not completely. But rather than start with the usual physical evolution stuff, I will start with where we are now and meander through different topics with occasional flashbacks to pre-history. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to pull off the dream-style sequences when it’s time for a flashback but . . . I’ll figure something out.

Now excuse me while I go back to mixing a soundtrack for my course . . .

2 thoughts on “Intro courses and the viability of four-fields

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  2. What? No other comment? Ah, well…
    Never taught a four-field course. Been trained initially in a four-field department and have done very little if any archeology or biological anthro since then.
    Your class must be quite hard to teach since, at this point, there’s very little to connect the four fields in terms of approach or ideas.
    IMHO, the neatest way to define anthropology as a whole (after Kottak) is as the study of human diversity. Cultural diversity, biological diversity, linguistic diversity, and historical diversity. It’s something of a leaky model but it’s nonetheless rather neat. Quite useful as a teaching tool. Once students click on the concept of diversity, much of what we teach them is rather easy to understand. It doesn’t mean that it represent anything about the discipline, but it can be useful.
    There’s a number of connections between the fields. To use overly simplified examples: issues of language origins and history connect linguistic anthropology with both archeology and biological anthropology. Issues of ethnicity and race may connect cultural and biological approaches. Human paleontology connects archeology with biological anthropology. Oral literature links linguistic to cultural anthropology. And long-term migrations interest both archeologists and cultural anthropologists.
    Then, what to make of “applied anthropology?” Some textbooks put it as a fifth subfield. Others (or newer editions of the same) put it as an axis for the discipline as a whole. Of course, applied work easily connects fields together.
    We use different ways to classify fields. Some think in terms of two axes: culture/nature, time/space. Others may think of ethnographic vs. experimental methods. Yet others concentrate on one field and forget the others.

    As for what to give students, it will always be about helping them finding their own way through anthropology. We can’t be exhaustive but we can help them click on the main issues we might discuss as anthropologists.

    Do your students have specific problems with the four-field approach?

    This idea of going “backwards” is quite tempting. R. Murray-Schafer apparently does something similar in his music history classes. Report back once you’ve done it!

  3. Thanks Alexandre;

    In terms of an overall theme that connects the four fields, I tend to focus on adaptation: it tends to lead to a materialist interpretation of the whole thing, and I’m not completely comfortable with that but for this level, I think it’s fine. The important thing for me is that they leave my course understanding that there are reasons for which people do the things that they do. However I slice it, they will have an incomplete picture and at least this one makes sense to 17 year olds in general. The tiny tiny percentage of them that will go on to study anthro will learn more when they go to uni and the others will at least have learned to be a bit more relative and reflexive.

    The students don’t have a problem with the four-field approach: they don’t really know any other approach. After 2 1/2 years of teaching the course, I’ve managed to make it flow pretty well so that the ‘transitions” aren’t so painful. I feel sorry for my first 2 batches of student though; man, that must have been weird.

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