How to Teach Anthropology Without Making Your Students Dumb

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Daniel Souleles. This is the first post in a sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

Yes, this title is clickbait. Please, allow me a few paragraphs to explain.

In my graduate program, particularly in the early stages, there was a lot of anxiety, impostor syndrome, and fear. All told, fear was probably at the root of things–fear of failure, fear of being found out, and perhaps, most basically, fear of being tossed out. Over the first two years of the program we would meet at the beginning and or end of each semester with the four professors who ran the program. Masters students and other  departmental students called them “the four horseman.” And The ever-present concern in these meetings was that your number would finally be up. It helped matters not one bit that there was a healthy oral history in the department about all manner of ejection. Did you hear the one about the whole cohort that got asked to leave after summer field-work? The fields lay fallow that year, and there was but one survivor.

Suffice it to say, I felt tremendous relief when I made it through my first two
years and got the go-ahead to continue to doctoral exams. At this year-end meeting, I figured, too, this might be a good opportunity to satisfy my curiosity. I was wondering why on earth I had been admitted to the program. I hadn’t studied anthropology as an undergraduate, and had worked as a paralegal in the years prior. I had read a lot of anthropology and tried my best at writing samples and statements, but have increasingly come to the conclusion that my application was strange, and is not the stuff that good advice is made of. So, I asked one of the horsemen why they let me in. He looked puzzled, and paused, picked up my file (a real, honest-to-god manila file), leafed through, and said, “Oh, you did good on the  GRE.” So a test of algebra II, trigonometry, and analogies got me into a doctoral program in anthropology. This test, at least in some people’s eyes, made me smart. Never mind that I had not demonstrated a whit of competence in my actual, chosen, field of study. The GRE said I was good people.

This brings us back to clickbait. If a test can make you smart, it can also
make you dumb. We have lots of assessments like this in the universities at
which we work. We rank people based on GPA and give honors accordingly.
We often have classes that have one or two make-or-break assessments–a term paper or
two, or a couple of exams. In our academic hiring processes we allow for the prestige
of a particular doctoral program or a particular fellowship, or a particular
well-placed (though perhaps unread) publication to speak for someone’s worth. More
generally, this type of meritocratic sorting becomes a justification for inequality. If
academic credentials are something we can get by dint of hard-work completely
under our own control, then whatever praise or scorn that comes with that work
is justified. Karen Ho (2009) writes about the way junior investment bankers are
seen as smart and qualified based on their elite educational pedigrees,
even without having even basic financial knowledge. I found something
similar in my work on private equity investors. Others have written about how merit
and worth is constructed via academic and scholastic credentials
(Hayes 2013, Khan 2012). It’s a big topic, but for now, I’d like to contrast meritocratic
sorting in class assignments, one-offs that feed into the merit-machine, to a more
iterative goal-oriented assessment, the dissertation (please, hold your laughter).

If meritocratic assessment speaks to your intrinsic worth, apprentice-style
assessment just speaks to how well you did on a particular piece of work, in
pursuit of a goal, nothing more. A decent example of an apprentice-style
assessment is the dissertation (at least in its ideal type). Yes, I can see
the groans and hear the eye-rolls from here. Bear with me. A dissertation, first and
foremost, has an obvious goal in and of itself–an original contribution to some
discipline. Its structure, such as it is, is obvious and more or less known to all
who pursue it. Moreover, people writing dissertations often go through revision,
after revision, after revision, until they get it right. It should not
be a once and done thing. Moreover, once someone has got it right, there is a defense,
which, again, in its idealized form, is a summative conversation about the
work. The defense happens when the committee is convinced you’ve made a contribution to  scholarship, and serves to verify things. That’s it. It would be crazy to
suggest that you give it your best shot, turn something in,
sacrifice a Nuer Cow to Margaret Mead, and hope for the best. No,
of course you can’t redo the dissertation. How would we be able to tell who is
really good at anthropology?

This is the difference between meritocratic sorting and apprentice-style assessment.
Given that I have no interest in passing judgment on someone’s self-worth in the
context of a university anthropology course (that’s some hubris right there), and given
that I have no interest in sorting people into smart or dumb, I’ve made
numerous tweaks and changes to my courses over the years to bring them more in-line
with apprentice-style learning. So, like any good clickbait, this post will end in a
(short) list. Forgive me, Margaret-Mead-Cow-God. What follows are some of
the changes that are found across my syllabi.

1 The Ideas

Every syllabus is an argument. Often it illustrates the thesis or learning
objectives of the course. Sometimes a course plan just argues for the florid paragraph or two we write at the top of a syllabus. When I teach intro to cultural anthropology I want
students to understand basic ideas in anthropology (society, culture, etc.),
be able to read actual ethnographies, then based on those two things do
simple research projects. This type of schematic organization allows me to break the
course into thirds, and spend a month or so focusing on each area. Each subsequent
part of the course reinforces and uses what came before. This mode
of idea-sorting also gets away from the listicle style course. It’s
easy to make, say, an intro course that has a week or two on culture,
society, relativism, exchange, sex, gender, kinship, violence, economics, religion, and
so on. The course in this form becomes a kind of obnoxious cocktail party–lots of
zippy one-liners followed by a hangover in which you realize you don’t remember much
of what happened. Toss in some high-stakes exams and all bets are off.
Sometimes, though, lists are important or at least unavoidable. When I
teach kinship, it’s hard to avoid six or seven different theoretical approaches.
Still, even in that case, I subsume kinship theories to a third of the
course focused on basic ideas, then a third of the course on application
in ethnography (reading cases), and a third of the course seeing
how kinship knowledge from anthropology is used in cross-disciplinary spats
as well as contesting larger societal common knowledge.

The leitmotif with all this idea-talk is having a few expansive sections,
that match up with clear theses or goals, in which students have time to
play with and get to know ideas. Also if you teach any good ethnographies,
there is no need to fear missing something. They tend to bring in just
about everything the discipline does. Seriously. Just try to list all the
anthropological topics mentioned in Righteous Dopefiend.  Death to the survey-course.

2 The Assignments

Assignments are the part of the course where students get to try out ideas that
they’ve never thought before. My courses tend to have five assignments–the first is a
daily reading response (250 words) and or periodic seminar management which is simply graded  pass-fail (4/5 of responses or a good lively conversation usually passes). The last
assignment is a research-proposal or a paper (anywhere from 1500 to 3000 words).
The majority of the grade, 60 percent or so, comes from applied field-research assignments–interviews, observations, fiddling with social psych inventories, and so on.
Students gather their own data and compare what they’ve learned to course readings and
discussions. To take one small example, in a class on Business, Society, and Culture
(or, Who Gets Rich and Why) we spend a lot of time talking about theories of
alienation and the condition of wage labor. So, students do an exploratory
interview with someone about their job. They take notes, record, and ultimately write
a paper (around 1000 words) interpreting what they learned researching as it compares
to course material. The assignments reinforce course content. The finals doubly so, particularly if people elect to do a research proposal, and push their curiosity beyond the course’s syllabus.

3 The Grading

All the above is for naught if, like I and my colleagues before them, your students
carry “the fear” into your class. If they’re so afraid of screwing up that they won’t
take intellectual risks, then they will simply repeat what you say and what they
think you want to hear. So in addition to laying out a clear, detailed rubric by
which I will grade each assignment, and supplying thorough, explicit feedback
with each grade, I allow students to rewrite as many times as they would like.
I also let people rewrite a final in the following semester. I’ve even set up
a protocol with a cover sheet and an office hour meeting. This does two things–
it allows me to be completely honest with grading without fearing I’m ruining
someone’s life (remember this is not a judgment of who you are, just how
you did on an assignment), and it allows the students who want to experiment
and learn and stick with it space to do so. There is an ancillary benefit too,
some people get things right away, others take a lot of time to mull things over.
There’s space for both in this type of class.

A further note–I do not require participation in class; and I have no attendance
or late policy. Part of this is temperamental–I have no desire to be a disciplinarian,
or compel someone to do something they don’t want to do. I assume if a
student is not in class they have a good reason. I count not wanting to
be there as a good reason. And as to participation, some people are anxious
speaking in front of others, and don’t learn well under that sort of pressure.
I trust students to make that assessment on their own. And, perhaps
against considerable odds, I’ve never had much trouble getting discussion
going in class, and people generally seem comfortable working with me.

My classes change from semester to semester. Midway through my classes I give
an informal, anonymous, evaluation of the course to that point. I take time to debrief
with the class and see what is or isn’t working and what they would change.
This is how I came around to not offering exams and not cold calling. It turns out
I could teach just fine without those artifices, mostly as I realized I didn’t
want to perpetuate a system of winners and losers via my college classes.

TL;DR: Listen to your students; don’t coerce them; assess the assignment not
the person; and give people space to screw up and learn.

(NB: I’ve developed my classes through time at private and public, big and
small universities, all with different student bodies. Also,
I understand that many, perhaps the majority of my colleagues
labor under conditions not of their choosing in which this type
of experimentation with courses is impossible because they aren’t
paid enough and have no institutional support or time to devote to
their intellectual craft. Simply put, this is crap.)

Hayes, Christopher. 2013. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. New York: Broadway Books.

Ho, Karen. 2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham: Duke University Press.

Khan, Shamus Rahman. 2012. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at the St Paul’s School. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


5 thoughts on “How to Teach Anthropology Without Making Your Students Dumb

  1. Hi Daniel!

    Thanks for this wonderful post! I could relate to it on so many levels – being a student at present, as well as from my brief experiences as a teaching assistant evaluating undergrad essays in my former university. I think the brilliance of this post is that it made me question some of my own assumptions. Mainly, that not everyone in an anthropology class is there necessarily to “become an anthropologist.”

    How does one juggle instilling a sense of critical thinking, the ability to contextualize, develop argumentative reasoning, and so on, without imposing strict academic conventions or stifling creativity on them? How do we, in the words of a professor, encourage students to “go wild” with their academic projects?

    As several posts here on Savage Minds have illustrated, anthropology has quite a presence outside the academy – albeit marked by precarity – and it’s something we need to bring into the classrooms; to show students how different worlds are possible not only in the realm of ethnographic investigations, but also in our personal and professional trajectories.

    When I shared this post on my Facebook timeline, a friend of mine spoke about her own experience, and said the following, both eloquently and with brutal honesty,

    “Grades therefore are power. They paralyse and divide, but most of all they mask so many inequalities…”

    Reflecting more on it, I realize how sometimes my grades are more a result of playing the system (sentence constructions, academic conventions, etc.) than of brining something new to the table – and that sometimes I am skeptical of making an intervention I want to make because it fails to fit within these conventions. (At the same time, I am also skeptical of being “experimental” or of fetishizing it for the sake of it).

    Pedagogy remains important – indeed, it’s the first and foremost public engagement for those of us in academia. I think post makes us (re)think this importance. Thanks for writing it!

  2. Hi Proshant,

    Thanks so much for the kind note. I’m glad the post resonated in so many ways. Your reflection that not everyone becomes an anthropologist, at least in the disciplinary sense, is such a valuable one. And, oddly enough, I’ve found students have the most space to “go wild” with their assignments, when I’m the most clear on what exactly I expect, how I will evaluate them, how the assignment fits with course ideas, and, most importantly, if students have the space to get things wrong.

    You’re right too that experimenting for the sake of it, or fetishizing a disruptive process in and of itself, isn’t the most stable way to teach. Though, for me at least, iterative experimenting or changing of a course has worked pretty well, given that I have a clear idea of what the course is supposed to teach.

    Here’s hoping you’ll get to a place where your grades do less costume work for inequalities! Not a bad goal, that.

  3. And, oddly enough, I’ve found students have the most space to “go wild” with their assignments, when I’m the most clear on what exactly I expect.

    Not,perhaps, odd at all. Working in advertising and studying the creativity/innovation literature, I have frequently stumbled across a similar observation. Framing a problem clearly unleashes creativity. In contrast a weak, ambiguous brief wastes huge amounts of time on thrashing around as people try to figure out what the goal is.

    A similar idea underlies what may still be called management by objectives, in which subordinates are given a goal and left to figure out how to achieve it, which, if you believe John Q. Wilson, originated with the German blitzkrieg.

    P.S. Good to run into you here, too, Dan.

  4. Hi John,

    Good to run into you here as well! Thanks for the note. I think part of what you are identifying is getting students to a place where they feel confident in what they are supposed to do and are spared guessing at the intentions of their instructor. As to the pedigree of this sort of pedagogy, for now at least, I’ll choose not to believe John Q. Wilson.

  5. Daniel,
    You had me at “Meritocracy”!
    Wonderful to see your self-awareness. I know exactly where it comes from.
    Congrats both on this post and on your recent big day.

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