Using Social Media to Teach Theory to Undergraduate Students

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Carole McGranahan.

“Political economy?” “Symbolic analyses?” Post-whatism?” Semester after semester, my advanced anthropology students told me they couldn’t remember the theories they had learned in their introductory anthropology course (even, they sheepishly confessed, if I had been their professor for that course). In response, I built a review of general anthropological theory into my classes and developed a theory course for junior and senior anthropology majors.

But re-teaching theory at the advanced level was not enough. I needed a better strategy for teaching theory at the very beginning level of anthropological instruction which, for me now as professor and earlier as graduate student, meant in a large lecture class of anywhere from 100 to 550 students. How could I teach theory so that introductory students could retain and use this knowledge beyond exam day? What new pedagogies would enable students to carry the theoretical messages of Levi-Strauss or Mead or Ortner with them? My strategy was to turn to social media, to teach theory by putting students in dialogue with each other: I created two new course assignments, a student-generated theory wiki and a theory blog.

Inspiration came from online discussions about pedagogy among digital humanists, from folks such as Cathy Davidson at Duke University’s HASTAC collective, Howard Rheingold’s Social Media Classroom project at Berkeley, and here at the University of Colorado, our ASSETT program‘s focus on teaching with technology. In the summer of 2010, grad student Marnie Thomson and I crafted the wiki and blog assignments as complementary and required components of the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course I taught that fall with an excellent team of graduate student teaching assistants, including Marnie as Head Teaching Assistant (TA).

We had no idea what to expect. Would the students really be able to create a theory wiki as first-year anthropology undergraduates? Would they theoretically engage each other on the theory blog in the ways we hoped for? The answers were ‘sort of’ for the wiki, and ‘yes’ for the blog, where their work went beyond even what we had imagined. Here is what we did:

Food and love. All students wrote two 500-word essays applying two different anthropological theories to a topic of their choice under the rubrics of food and love. Essay due dates were staggered over the semester, with some groups of students writing first about food, then love, or vice versa, and applying the theories they were learning at that particular moment in the course. TAs graded the essays, and selected those to put up on the blog. We posted the essays under gender-neutral pseudonyms, and students were required to submit six “substantive comments” on the blog (three on food essays, three on love essays). Their Theory Blog + Wiki Assignment explained:

What do we mean by substantive blog comments? We are looking to create a truly dialogic space for exchange about anthropology. We ask you to engage with the posted essays—for example, offer your thoughts on the author’s argument, raise questions, make connections to other course topics or cultural phenomenon, in general, participate in such a way that conversation is started, continued, or otherwise enabled.  

All comments were moderated, meaning they were not made public until a TA or myself had read them. Any student who did not want to post under their real name created a pseudonym for their comments. The essays and blog comments were 50% of their recitation grade, which made up 40% of their course grade.

Did it work? Beautifully.

Students had respectful, intellectual conversations not usually possible in a large lecture class. They read, responded to, and benefitted from each other’s writings, rather than just writing for the instructor. Collectively, the students turned the blank blog into a space of intellectual exchange and growth. The TAs and I decided not to participate in the blog but to allow it to be a student space for discussion (except for the time a middle-aged man not in the course commented on the “cougar” essay, and I as professor had to reply; a teaching moment, indeed).

We posted six “food” essays and ten “love” essays (turns out as much as we all love food, we love “love” more). In one essay, a student analyzed the US locavore movement using structural-functionalism and cultural ecology. Another wrote about “bromance” from functionalist and Boasian perspectives. A third student critiqued Facebook profiles using symbolic and feminist anthropology. Following each essay are student comments, which were extensive, thoughtful, and productive. The format was a great success in terms of getting students to think with rather than about theory. Again and again, they asked each other “what would a ______ anthropologist think about this?” and thought through the different theoretical approaches to any one topic.

While the course was in session, students gave positive feedback on the blog, and their understanding of theory was evident in the essays they wrote on their final exams as compared to prior semesters. Students from this 2010 class who have since taken more advanced courses with me are comfortable with theory, clearly retaining knowledge from the earlier class, and thus further marking the pedagogical impact of the blog.

The wiki was not as successful and remains unfinished. Each theory (and a handful of topics) were given a page with four sections: main points, key figures, key texts, and critiques. Some sections are competent, while others are incomplete or even convoluted in places. Designed to accompany the course blog as an introductory theory resource, the wiki covered contemporary and classic theory (rather than just classic theory as some sites do). Course students wrote all entries, and frankly, one semester was not enough time to get to a baseline of content for further refining, editing, and developing. Anyone interested in helping out with it—as part of a course, or on their own—is welcome.

Not all of my Digital Anthropology experiments have been a success (cough, cough, Twitter course feed), but the theory blog was successful beyond my expectations. There is no anthropology without theory, and so teaching it well to our newest students is important, giving them a base on which to build as they go forward. I offer our model and experience in the spirit of sharing and would love to hear what has worked for others, as both instructor and student.


Carole McGranahan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She regularly teaches theory classes to undergraduate and graduate students, and just debuted a new course this semester on “Reading Ethnography.”

Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

13 thoughts on “Using Social Media to Teach Theory to Undergraduate Students

  1. Cheers for this. I’m looking for a way to deal with a lot of theory in a compressed time course. The description of the blog is quite helpful.

  2. Great ideas, Carol, and it sounds like it worked out wonderfully! I’ve thought that I would do something similar if (when?) I get to teach my own course.

    I was just wondering if you could explain why and how the TAs selected the essays for the blog – why not post every essay? Also why use pseudonyms? Is this an academic confidentiality issue or were the students concerned about having their names posted online, or some combination? Finally, could you explain about the grading? I assume the essays were graded, but did students receive credit for commenting or did you let that emerge organically?

    Sorry for the third degree, I’m not trying to criticize, I’m just curious about the mechanics so I can maybe implement something similar in the (hopefully, not too distant) future. Thanks!

  3. These are really great ideas, Carole. I’ll be using the blog, especially, for my grad level Intro to Social Theory course next fall!

  4. These are great! I used blogs and wikis in many of my anthro classes, with varying degrees of success. When I taught theory, I used a wiki for the class, which students helped populate, but I also used concept mapping to help them make connections between the theory schools. At times it seemed to be a bit much, but I thought it was important that they understand that theories don’t exist in isolation, but rather as critiques, expansions, repudiations, elaborations, and amalgamations of theories that have preceded them.

  5. Funnily enough, today in office hours three students from this very class (1.5 years ago) dropped by to say hi, so I got the chance to show them the post and see what they recalled. One shared that she most appreciated the simultaneous freedom on what to write and comment, and the focus of using theory. Another said that his professors are “blog happy” these days, but that not all course blogs were worth it. I agreed as once I tried a blog in a different course with a different pedagogical goal and it almost entirely bombed. Not a lot of fun, but that’s another post.

    Jeremy, the essays that the TAs selected to go up on the blog were a combination of the best quality and/or topics they thought would be compelling for the students, i.e., would generate discussion. We couldn’t put up essays by everyone as there were 150 students in the class! We put up 16 essays total, and probably could’ve gone with about 20 and been ok. Too many would’ve diluted the assignment.

    We used pseudonyms so that no one knew who the author of each essay was so as not to generate hierarchy among the students. We wanted the conversation to be among equals, rather than create an elite group composed of those students whose essays had been chosen.

    As for grading the essays and blog, I’m trying to recall (and might need to ask the TAs for help on this!). I recall that the blog comments were awarded points from 0-2: zero for no comment, one for a weak, taking-up-space comment, and two points for a substantive comment. They had to do six comments total, for a possible score of 12, but how this all was tallied with the grade they had received on their original essays, I am not sure and can’t find it in my files.

    Getting this blog and wiki up and running took a good deal of work and coordination by the TAs. I had a small grant from ASSETT to implement these new pedagogies and used the money to compensate the TAs with additional funding beyond their regular stipends rather than with just my sincere gratitude. Given the size of the class, this absolutely had to be a team effort.

  6. Wonderful ideas. I’ve taught both online courses and used the online software as supports for face-to-face classes that use discussion lists, wikis, and links to TED etc. The NEH has given grants since the 1990s to use media (The New Media Classroom) in the regular classroom.

    The research has found that those who remain silent in class (often female students) participate more fully. In fact, a historian of gender “assigned genders” for the online discussions in her class so that students could experience how their perceived genders affected how others reacted to them online.

    Lately the distance learning software is becoming so baroque that it’s an annoyance to use—so I’ve just assigned students to work in groups using whatever social media works best. Thanks for the suggestion that we no longer need distance learning software to do this sort of out-of-class enrichment. Just be careful not to extend the classroom to take over your life–it’s happened with adopting distance learning software for the regular classroom.

  7. This is great, thanks for posting it Carole!

    I also use a blog in a theory class, but I *do* manage with 100 authors. Part of their grade comes from their comments on each others’ work. This increases the feedback students are getting on their original work, and instills a discourse that makes the class seem much smaller than it is.

  8. Jeremy, I’m happy to fill in some of the details about our grading process. For the essays, you’re right, we graded them as usual but we did use a rubric. I think the rubric – which we attached to the essays with comments – helped students see exactly where their essays could improve, which is especially important at the introductory level. I think it also gave a sense of uniformity in such a large class and was even useful when our team of TAs sat down together to make sure our grading was comparable.

    As for the blog comments, we used the 0-2 scale Carole mentioned. 3 blog comments were factored into each essay grade, so the essay itself was worth 85% and the comments were each 5% of the total. This way, if they earned 2s on each of their comments, their essay grades could improve by about 2% – those on the cusp of a better grade particularly appreciated this. But if they did not submit any comments, their essay grades dropped by at least one full letter grade.

    This whole grading system was complex but once we entered the formulas into the excel gradebook, it was easy for all the TAs to use. That said, I’d love to hear other ideas as to how we might streamline the blog grading.

  9. I absolutely believe this is a brilliant way to get students involved. As a current student of sociology at the undergraduate level I find that concepts are introduced quickly and forgotten even quicker.

    I can also see a possible implementation in discussions of cross-cultural ethics, for example opening up an online discussion to the role of martyrdom in different ethical traditions.

    Either way, I can see some broad implementations for the use of social media in an academic environment.

  10. John, have you written about how you do your blog elsewhere? I’m definitely curious how you structure the assignment/blog with 100 students and would love to think through that for other large clases I teach.

    Great to hear about the NEH grants (thanks, Linda), especially as it feels like anthropologists are somewhat late to all of this compared to the Digital Humanities folks. Using social media in pedagogically successful rather than gratuitous ways requires not just content thought or disciplinary knowledge–i.e., what do I want the students to learn, and how can I best facilitate that for them–but also some technological knowledge that I often don’t have. I was only able to do the blog and wiki because of financial and technical support from my university, as well as graduate students willing to take pedagogical risks with me. Its great to have support to seek out new spaces for learning, and even greater when you stumble across one that actually works!

  11. Although it might be tough for first-year students, another option for wiki assignments is to require students to make a substantive contribution to an actual Wikipedia entry. Even if the contribution gets removed by an editor, it is a good learning experience and gives back to the community.

  12. I’ve been thinking about writing it up for Teaching Anthropology. It is a very unique system I’ve arrived at, setting up the incentives for good commenting is the important part. Also, the weekly blog assignments build into a term paper by the end, which helps satisfy our writing-intensive workshop criteria.

  13. Kerim, that’s a fantastic idea: have them contribute to Wikipedia. I think I might try that with my junior and senior anthropology majors next time around. Interesting also to think of the evolution of the place of Wikipedia in (at least certain corners of) the academy, from don’t use it! to quietly using it to contributing to it. William Cronon’s recent comments (the current president of the American Historical Association) on how historians could contribute sophisticated content to Wikipedia rather than disparaging it can probably be pretty easily applied to anthropologists as well.

    Cronon’s piece is Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World:

    John, yes, please do write up your assignment for Teaching Anthropology–that would be great. The nuts and bolts of these sorts of assignments matter so it would be good to see it laid out and explained. Also, I’m curious to learn more about the move from blog post to term paper; sounds very productive.

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