A Khan Academy for Anthropology?

So I was down South where I met up with DJ Hatfield over breakfast and we got to talking… I’ve long been thinking about how the plethora of open academic courses and lectures online is making it so that teachers can act more like coaches—assisting students in self-paced exploration rather than acting as a funnel for all the information consumed in the classroom. DJ, in turn, has been thinking about how to break up his own lectures into smaller pre-recorded chunks so that he can act more like a discussion leader—interrogating his own lectures alongside students rather than simply regurgitating content down their beaks. Together we combined these ideas into a proposal for an online database of byte-sized anthropology lectures on various topics in anthropology—a Khan Academy for anthropology if you will.

Let’s say I’m going to give a lecture on the anthropology of money. I do this every year and I think I do a decent job of it, but I’d be a fool not to think that David Graeber, Richard Wilk, or Keith Hart couldn’t do it better. The problem is, even if I could find entire lectures by them online, I probably wouldn’t do so. I’ve never liked using class-length lectures by other scholars in my own classes, even something like Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey which I think is great. Class-length lectures from someone else’s syllabus don’t easily fit into my own syllabus unless I work the whole syllabus around those lectures. Nor do I think any of us are comfortable giving our entire class over to pre-recorded lectures. Not only is it boring for students to watch, it just feels lazy.

But imagine that Graeber recorded a five minute lecture on the economic myth of the origins of money, and Richard Wilk recorded a five minute lecture on Polanyi, and Keith Hart gave a five minute lecture on money in West Africa, etc. Each lecture could be used by teachers as the focus of class discussion, or the basis for a collaborative interrogation of those ideas. They could also be used entirely on their own for self-study by students. In any case, they would be a valuable resource for students and teachers alike.

So here’s my suggestion: someone (OAC?, HAU?, Living Anthropologically?) creates a site which allows people to post topics they’d like to see covered, has a searchable index and perhaps some kind of a rating system as well. The lectures themselves could be hosted on Archive.org under a CC license, so people could edit and remix the lectures as they see fit. All that shouldn’t be too hard – it’s just a database. The biggest problem would be getting anthropologists to actually make and submit content. Still, it might be fun to try if someone has the energy to do so. Maybe someone could even set up a room at the AAA to help record scholars who would like to participate but aren’t comfortable around a video camera… I’m just throwing this out there, I don’t have the time to follow through, but if anyone would like to get the ball rolling, feel free to use the comment thread to discuss how such a plan might actually work.

31 thoughts on “A Khan Academy for Anthropology?

  1. This is an excellent idea, and I have wondered why we haven’t done it yet! I don’t have the tech savvy do help that way, but I’m in if someone decides to do this.

  2. Kerim, this is a great idea. Getting more 5-minute video or podcasts out there seems a crucial way forward for anthropology online. It’s been on my to-do list for about six months… I know Daniel Lende is interested in promoting more multimedia approaches, and John Hawks has been moving some lecture segments online.

    My feeling is YouTube is the best place for these, but perhaps Archive.org is a more appropriate home.

    Thanks for the ball rolling, and looking forward to more comments.

  3. I think this is the logical outcome of the discussion y’all had here some months back about anthropologists needing to figure out how to manipulate the soundbyte. Sounds like a great idea. I’ve always found that condensing a subject into a small time-frame like 50 minutes or even 30 seconds forces you to really get at the core of whats at stake, and that it something that all scholars should probably get better at. This could help in a big way if it catches on.

  4. We could think about this at HAU. It could be thought as multimedia support to our Masterclass OA book series. What you are proposing seems indeed a Masterclass video project. We’ll need help though, we don’t have human resources to cover this at the moment.

  5. I think it would be good at least at first to do a v.1 separate from something like Khan Academy. But if we are going to organize this, we should say that Khan Academy needs introductory Anthro lessons as well. More people from outside the discipline are attracted to that website and could therefore be introduced to the discipline.

    The real success in the endeavor would be to view the project, at least at first, not as an academic anthropologist might, but rather as a science popularizer. If anthropology is really so relevant to many of the issues we face today, then we should also say that it is only as relevant to the degree that it is accessible to the general public to find its way into common knowledge, something we struggle with.

    Incidently, I just launched a new facebook community page called Culture Bomb, where I display little mini blog entries to entice people to gain interest in the flora and fauna of the global socio-cultural ecosystem. I just started, so I could use a bump from those of you running more established sites. Additionally, if you like my format and want to contribute, send me an email using the message function on the Culture Bomb’s page and we’ll talk. I could use several more administrators.

    Culture Bomb mission statement: The most obvious meaning we want to portray is a play on the Glitter Bomb – a harmless prank which garners attention to the bombers cause. In this case, Culture Bomb’s mission is to assault you with a mix of science and the humanities addressing the complex array of answers to the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

    But there is also a darker side to the name. Most of us are unaware of how culture can be used as a weapon. If not used with care, the destruction wrought can be devastating, not only to the ‘other’ but also to the ‘self’ by virtue of homogenization. The real human experience can only be gleaned from truly understanding and appreciating the vast and intricate mesh of perspectives we have always adapted across a diverse landscape of not only spatial, but socio-cultural fields and environments.
    –end shameless self promotion– 🙂

  6. I have been putting lectures online and have 3000+ visits for many of them. There is a real market for this. I’m not satisfied with the lecture format, which is more classroom-oriented and not very viewable at home. This summer will be putting together both 20-minute film segments and 3-minute segments for many of the topics I cover.

  7. Hi Kerim,

    An interesting idea. I’ve started integrating similar kinds of multimedia materials into my own lectures. For example, during my Medical Anthropology course this quarter, I’ve used excerpts from interviews with anthropologists and STS scholars from the excellent CBC Radio series “How to Think About Science.” I can imagine using clips of Alan MacFarlane’s interviews as well. This is mainly material that I intersperse into my own lectures — in part to break things up a bit and in part because I obviously can’t, for example, explain Margaret Lock’s research as well as Margaret Lock can. In other cases, I have assigned students to watch online lectures alongside readings, but I like the idea of being able to shift some additional time to discussion by using these tools.

  8. I wonder if five or 10-minute debates might be a better format that lectures. One reason the Khan Academy is so popular is, I speculate, that the material covered, at least in the mathematics sections, is noncontroversial as well as nicely presented. Ditto for Scott Paige’s online course on Models out of U of Michigan. How much of anthropology fits this model? Wouldn’t it be more honest, as well as more interesting, to have people on opposite sides of questions debate their differences?

  9. Thanks everyone for the comments.

    @John Hawks: That’s awesome, but I don’t see any easy link to this material on your blog. Am I missing something?

    Some more general remarks:

    1. I think, for the reasons I outline in my post, that it is important to keep these short. I’d rather see people post several short lectures rather than one long one. More and more anthropology lectures are available online, but I think the length is holding them back from being useful in the classroom.

    2. The Kahn Academy now has a lot of non-math related content, but from what I’ve seen it isn’t anything that anyone would want to use in a college-level social science classroom. Not only are they targeted at high school and below, but they are seem to be fairly standard textbook lectures. I’m talking about getting experts in the field to provide their own unique take which could then be the basis of an interesting discussion or debate within the classroom. Having a debate in the video could be interesting, but I like the idea of letting the teacher frame the nature of the debate. I think any good video debate would be too long (see #1).

  10. WW Norton has a series of videos to accompany their sociology textbook series, where they talk with leaders in the field for 4-6 minutes. They’re very interesting clips, and they’re good at generating discussion. I use them in anthro courses. Here’s Alondra Nelson talking about race and genetics, for example. And here’s the whole sociology video channel on YouTube.

    I think moving this kind of thing outside the purview of a textbook publisher is a good idea, though. And attempting to organize the lecture clips (which WW Norton doesn’t do well) by theme would be very useful.

  11. @John Hawks: That’s awesome, but I don’t see any easy link to this material on your blog. Am I missing something?

    For the first series of lectures, I have them archived under my course (http://johnhawks.net/courses/principles ). I’m frankly amazed that as many people watched them, I find it painful to sit through a classroom lecture online. I completely agree that short is much more useful and that’s where I’m directing my efforts now.

  12. These lectures by Stephen Hugh-Jones (filmed by Macfalarne) are a great introduction to social anthropology.


    “Lectures on Religion and Ritual (‘Symbolic and Real’)

    Eight lectures in the field of religion, ritual, symbolism, ideology given by Dr. Hugh-Jones to first year students in Archaeology and Anthropology and Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University.”

  13. Barba, thanks so much for the link to Stephen Hugh-Jones’ lectures. I just watched the first one. Enjoyed it very much but was reminded once again of how much anthropological theory is hamstrung by starting with typologies and arguing endlessly about why they don’t fit actual cases. I wonder when, as a field, we will discover variables.

  14. What about a model similar to http://www.sixtysymbols.com? I have wanted to do a project similar to sixty symbols or the periodic table of videos for a long time, but since I am just starting my MA I don’t have enough connections in my dept or the field to get it off the ground.

  15. Hugh-Jones is a legendary lecturer. Do watch his lectures on religion and ritual (geared for first year undergraduates though)

  16. The lectures are very good, indeed. My remark was directed at the framework with which they begin. If we begin with categories that are only typological constructs, the discovery that a messy, constantly changing world doesn’t fit into the boxes we use is, in itself, not all that remarkable. “How do you define that?” can sometimes be a useful question. Formulating answers in terms of constants or, at best, two-valued logics is not a useful response. The resulting confusion may seem like a positive step for those who believe that “problematizing” is an end in itself. The history of successful science suggests that we need to get beyond that, to formulating answers in terms of variables, their distributions, and their interactions.

    Have you ever noticed a funny thing about formulas in physics, say f-ma (force equals mass times acceleration)? With a few exceptions like Planck’s constant, the terms are all variables. It is measurable change, not constant attributes, that demonstrate their validity.

  17. Great idea and I think this is something for national associations/enterprising departments to spearhead. As suggested shorter clips would be great as teasers and easy entrees into anthropology. A key themes series of 10-15 minute pieces by experts on the key theme they work on, e.g. anthropology of value OR the state OR being OR plant-animal relations…whatever. The key is to make it approachable and fun to present an argument and some fieldwork stories. This also ties in with ‘popularising anthropology’ beyond the academy and the RAI in the UK have done a fair bit of that…any takers?

  18. There’s another side to this.

    I invite you to read the three-part article Mark Taylor just wrote for Bloomberg. In it, he recommends the creation of large databases of 5 minute lectures by college consoritiums, and the elimination or downsizing of departments at most of the members of those consortiums. The remaining professors (and why would they even need to be PhDs at this point?) could then travel from college to college being, almost just as you said, facilitators or coaches for the students.


    I’m a little surprised that everyone here is excited about this without seeing the peril it could potentially represent for the guild and the profession. Not that, probably some kind of move to digital content can be resisted, but as a profession we will have to find a way to deal with it.

  19. Thanks for that Adam. It seems to me that the problem here is a neoliberal winner-takes-all educational model. I’m not sure that providing or not providing better tools for teachers and students will do much either way to affect the implementation of such models. I’m not saying that the technology is entirely “neutral” but that your comment speaks to the need to combine the fight for more open content with the fight against neoliberalism in education. Neither will succeed without the other.

  20. @Kerim

    With all due respect, the problem is not neoliberalism in education. The problem is a neoliberal economy of which education is only one component. Note what’s happened to the music, print journalism and tech support industries, for example. All sorts of white collar workers who imagined themselves professionals insulated from what was happening to the blue collar workforce are now discovering themselves in the same position as the skilled craftsmen who formed the craft unions that made up the AFL, in what has proved to be an ultimately futile effort to protect guild monopolies. Industrial reorganization led to mass deskilling and the formation of industrywide CIO unions; but even those have largely fallen on hard times.

    John B. Judis and Rudy Teixeira (2002) The Emerging Democratic Majority, from which I borrow this analysis, offer a relatively optimistic take on these trends. It assumes, however, that people focused on protecting their own guild privileges are able to recognize the predicament they share with others and form a united front.

  21. Maybe this is a way around non-OA journals? Oh yeah, but 5-minute lectures will be monetized too.

    I have to ask whether it’s the case that anthropology students are now incapable of reading a 5-10 page article? When I incautiously went back to school to begin a PhD in anthropology (93-94) I noticed then that my professors were struggling with the fact that the other members of my incoming cohort (most in their 20s) were not reading as closely and critically as were the professors (and me, since I was the professors’ age–granted, my fellow students were more visually literate than I).

  22. If and when you get your anthropology videos produced, please consider hosting them at Backpack TV as we would love to add another subject to our education video library.

  23. What are the economics of this? Certainly students are hungry for anything to reduce their costs, but does this also reduce the dollars to support academics? The value of the university is the research, and teaching takes some time from that, but can research continue without the subsidy from teaching? I can certainly see how this would make great teaching more available, but a collapsing university will do neither teach nor research, so it is worth considering.

  24. Don brings up a good point: it’s quite likely that good online content will be used to squeeze out some face-to-face teaching. I think it’s probably inevitable, although some institutions will certainly not go this way. I suspect we’re actually a bit resistant by the very nature of anthropology to the kind of all on-line approach that the Khan Academy represents (which I like a LOT, as I’ve written on Neuroanthropology).

    There may be reasons to be skeptical, but the fact is that this is already happening. Videos on various topics will continue to go up, the question is will this be a concerted, collaborative model that produces something that we might actually find interesting, or will it simply be random and too easy to miss (like John Hawks’ lectures, which I knew about, but obviously many people did not). A central place to find them would be great, as we could also build on each other’s talks: a piece on debt by David Graeber could be linked to pieces on money by Keith Hart or on ‘virtualism’ by Carrier or Miller, etc.

    In addition, working on a site together could also mean learning from each other. I’ve been doing some recorded lectures with animated slideshows and Prezi using Camtasia, and the effect is pretty good. Not just a talking head, but something a bit more engaging. If we had a curated site, some place where we could, as Kerim suggests, put up a shared ‘wish list’ as well as submit links to our own work, we could generate a really interesting group of resources. I’m trying to get up bits that I like from my course, Wealth, Poverty and Consumption, and experimenting with some short neuroanthropology clips.

    Obviously, a video can’t replace an article for depth, and I don’t think anybody would suggest this. But more and more media consumption is happening online; we probably need to be there if we want to be visible.

    Maybe this is something we need to discuss at the AAAs…

  25. Khan’s math work is original because it started as a way of teaching high school (and AP/College level) math to his nephews…. because there was literally no math tutoring information out there…

    Are you aiming at amateurs, like I am, or to other anthropologists? Either way, encourage your talks to be podcast, and provide links to other blogs that talk about it.

    That way we amateurs can google advanced questions and find a talk or discussion.

    actually, there are quite a few lectures about anthropology on line: University lectures, BBC documentaries, talks given to universities, museums, or local libraries that discuss anthropological subjects. (e.g. in book reviews).

    Someone who knows how to google needs to make a page with lots of links as a start.

  26. This is something that IS sorely needed. I would be willing to help on the technical end of things should it ever get off the ground logistically.

    I also don’t think just a link-dump to already-existing stuff is going to cut it. There needs to be a curated, searchable, relationally organized database of this stuff.

  27. Also, regarding Khan Academy and digital media threatening traditional education:

    The narrative so far has been that KA is revolutionary, Bill Gates even said so! It must be true right!? The problem is, it it is neither transformative, nor revolutionary as a concept. Videos. Online. that’s pretty much it, and it’s no substitution for “face-time”.

    KA exists within a larger context of the idea of the “flipped” classroom, where students get the didactic stuff at home on their own time (which in KA’s case basically means watching and re-watching videos) and the class time is spent with the teacher discussing and digesting that content.

    So, even taking this example of KA, which is the tech darling of the movement complete with TED Talks, the warm-body instructor is still relevant and necessary. Only the privateers and “reformers” who largely sit on the sidelines of ed reform see KA and online ed as a complete replacement for person-to-person education.

  28. “Face-time” is useful for smaller classes. Getting 50+ students in the same room for weekly lectures is archaic.

    Nothing new here, but at my faculty some teachers started filming their lectures (or sometimes just recording the voice with the blackboard à la Khan Academy) and posting it online (and at least one of them open to public). If you are highly interested or need to ask questions you can show up at class, else you follow online at your leisure.

    Basically the idea is that you shouldn’t have to go to class if you don’t get any added value from being there.

    In this day and age you don’t need to go to a any institution if you merely want information.

    Now of course to have your knowledge recognized you still need a diploma, and *cough* serious *cough* universities aren’t quite ready to give them over the internet yet.

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