Tag Archives: teaching

Can There Be a Cheat-Proof Exam?

Cheating is not fun for anyone, except perhaps for the student who does not get caught. At my university I have only one class I teach for non-majors, that is students from around campus who are not majoring in anthropology. It is a class in the anthropology of Tibet, and is a large, lecture class consisting of 150-250 students in any given semester. Each week I lecture twice for fifty minutes, and the students have weekly “recitation” sessions of roughly twenty-five students each where they collectively discuss that week’s readings and lectures with a graduate student Teaching Assistant (TA). This is a classic course model for a large, public university in the USA. It is a course I resisted teaching for years—so many students, I thought. How could I ever teach about Tibet to such a huge audience?—but one I have now taught five times since 2008, and that I have come to love. There is a thrilling combination of reaching an audience for whom this is likely to be the first and only class in anthropology or about Tibet for the great majority of the students. I like to think of the students taking lessons from anthropology back with them to their home majors, whether it is biology or business or neuroscience or journalism. I [optimistically] like to think of them rethinking aspects of their studies, or the world around them, with the introduction to anthropology via Tibet they have received. Of the many things I like about the course, there is one thing I do not: it is the only course in which I catch students cheating.

My initial explanation for this was due to the fact that the course was mostly non-majors. Anthropology students were more committed, less likely to cheat, I thought. Non-majors took the course as a novelty, it seemed, thinking it would be interesting but easy. Some were not amused when they found out it was not easy but actually required attending lecture and recitation, and reading, and thinking. Other students loved the class, and over the years, a number have changed their majors to anthropology after taking this class (and other ones my colleagues teach similar to this—“gateway” classes, we sometimes call them). These students, and the overwhelming majority of the students did not cheat, but instead enjoyed a semester devoted to a topic often radically different than that what they usually studied. For some students it was the only time they had written papers in their college career. Others had no idea how to study for the exam. “Its all stories,” they would say. “And do we need to know the theories?” Exactly, and yes. Welcome to anthropology. Continue reading

Anthropology is an empty pint carton, and our existential projects are the ice cream

Because I regularly teach the history of anthropology, I have thought a lot about classical texts and the shape of our discipline. I also recently had a chance to sit in on a roundtable on Decolonizing Anthropology at #AES2017. Sitting in that panel reminded me of something that Max Weber said. I first encountered Weber’s thoughts on value ideals and concept formation in the 1990s. That was back in the day when Weber used to come over to my apartment and we would smoke out and watch anime. The time I’m thinking of, he got the munchies really bad and ate a pint of Ben & Jerry’s — a pint — before we even got to the first commercial break of the Cowboy Bebop episode we were watching. I was all like: “Freckles” — back then everyone called him Freckles — “Freckles, you just ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in, like, two minutes” and Weber just looked at me and said:

“Reality is ordered according to categories that are subjective, in that they are based on the presupposition of the value of the truth that knowledge is able to give to us. We have nothing to offer a person to whom this truth is of no value. We all harbour some belief in the validity of those fundamental and sublime value ideas in which we anchor the meaning of our existence, but the concrete configuration of these values remains subject to change far into the dim future of human culture. Everyone who works in the cultural sciences will regard his work as an end in itself. But, at some point, the colouring changes: the significance of those points of view grows uncertain, the way forward fades away in the twilight. The light shed by the great cultural problems has moved in. Then science, too, prepares to find a new standpoint and a new conceptual apparatus. It follows those stars that alone can give meaning and direction to its work.”

At the time, those words had a profound effect on me, despite the fact that as he spoke them Weber had Cherry Garcia dripping down his beard. They made me realize that anthropology is merely an empty pint carton, and our existential projects — the things we care about — are the ice cream that fills it up. Continue reading

Faculty work, librarian work, and life balance

Tis the season. As my professor friends hustle to write final exams and grade them, only to press through to letter grade submission and finally revel in winter break I am reflecting on my absence from teaching. Now three semesters out of the classroom (I cashed my last paycheck as an adjunct in May 2015) I feel more certain than ever that I made the right career choice moving into museums and libraries. In this post I would like to share some observations, incomplete as they are, on my professional life outside the academy.

First, a little professional biography. Prior to moving out of teaching I racked up a lot of hours in the classroom — in addition to being instructor of record at my alma mater I’ve been behind the lectern at a community college, small liberal arts college, and large urban university. I’ve tutored, taught high school, and led service learning. But to be honest my list of courses taught is pretty basic: gen anth, cultural, evolution, food, and gender studies. I never had much of a say in which classes I would teach, such is the lot of a hired gun.

There’s a lot to love about teaching and those thrills, I miss them. I love teaching as performance, standing up in front of a crowd and telling stories, leading discussions. You know, doing my thing. But most of all is the experience of playing a part, however large or small, in opening up a young person’s mind to exciting new ways of seeing the world. Anthropology has a lot to offer! And to be there when a talented student makes that discovery, that’s really special. I even have a small handful of former students I count as true friends.

Obviously there’s a lot I don’t miss about teaching too. Our pet peeves are almost universal, are they not? Grading mountains of papers. Looming deadlines. Answering clueless emails. The dreadful sense that you’re supposed to be doing something productive right this instance. “My printer ran out of ink” and other lame excuses. Of course we teachers can commiserate over all of that together and there’s a certain solidarity that comes with the shared burden. Its always a hoot to pop the cork on a bottle of wine or toss back a couple of beers at the pub and swap horror stories. (My personal best-worst excuse: “I can’t tell you why I missed class because my sorority has sworn me to secrecy.”) In addition to all the intellectual labor there is a huge toll of emotional labor and to me that was the worst part of the job.

Museum and library work offers an interesting foil to academics.
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Anthropologies #21: Why do we need to teach climate change in anthropology?

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

Our next installment in the climate change series comes from Katherine J. Johnson, who is currently a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of Maryland. –R.A.

College students have acquired a lot of useful information, but a limited ability to utilize that knowledge–and sometimes a surprising lack of perspective on real world problems. Many of the students I have taught in Anthropology and Climate Change courses seem to have little factual and context-specific understanding of climate change, despite growing up in an era of public contestation around this issue. Anthropology has a lot of strengths stemming from core theoretical tenants such as holism, reflexivity, and concern for marginalized populations. We can easily leverage these strengths to aid students in better understanding of climate change issues within relevant contexts, and to build on their weak knowledge of accepted science.

Lisa Bennett makes several important points in her Grist article: “10 things you want to know about human nature if you’re fighting climate change.” A key point (and I think all of them are relevant) is #2: “We can be blasé about the most important issues in the world because the global perspective is way beyond ordinary human scale”. She argues that we need “human-sized” stories to teach lessons around climate change. This is something at which anthropologists excel. Many ostensibly well-educated students have no sense of the scope of human history on Earth, our interrelationship with our environment through time, and the dramatic effect we have had on our planet. There are a lot of ways that climate change intersects with real life and our understanding of our human past and present. Making sure that we are developing these lessons into cogent and easily understandable stories (ahem, case studies) will provide students with information they can latch onto and remember. Continue reading

Visual Turn II: Teaching to Take Stock

Encounters with art and design by an anthropologist and curious non-expert in visual culture.

Earlier this year I was reading the Internet and came across Duke University Press’ list of “Best books of 2014”. Scrolling through, I was held by the title Syllabus: Notes from An Accidental Professor. Cartoonist and author Lynda Barry’s work Syllabus is not easy to pigeonhole into a genre. It is one part how-to manual, two parts graphic novel and a dash of memoir. Its form mimics the inexpensive composition books she asks her students to work in for the semester. Drawn in by her use of images (pardon the pun) I ordered a copy. Continue reading

What We’re Teaching This Semester: Ethnographic Theory

What courses do professors teach and why? Who determines what students need to know? In my department we teach a combination of required courses and elective courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level. At the graduate level, I regularly teach a semester of our year-long introductory theory course, and other times I teach seminars focused on more narrow topics either in one of my specialties or an exploratory course. This semester I am teaching the latter: a new graduate seminar in ethnographic theory. In the spirit of our not-quite-official Savage Minds series on teaching, I offer some thoughts here on why and how I am teaching ethnographic theory this semester.

Right now, where is intellectual energy in cultural anthropology? This seminar is designed to ask and answer this question through looking at scholarship from the last several years organized around the concept of ethnographic theory. Our overall prompt is dual, both the call for a ‘return’ to ethnographic theory in the now four-year old journal HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory and recent reflections in Cultural Anthropology on the current anthropological moment twenty-five years after Writing Culture. On the syllabus, I wrote the following introduction to the course which is officially titled “Ethnographic Theory: On Philosophy, Method, and Writing:”

What is the ethnographic? How do we practice and write ethnography? In this seminar, we will look beyond ethnography as method to consider the ethnographic as theory. Ethnographic knowledge is both epistemology and ontology, a way of knowing and a way of being. It is experiential, embodied, and empathetic, and is the foundation of field efforts to arrive at—as Clifford Geertz so famously stated in 1974—how people collectively explain themselves…to themselves. It is through ethnography that we can get to “where true life and real lives meet.” Ethnography is excessive and it is messy, but so is life. Our goal in ethnographic research is to get to this excess and messiness, to the lived expectations, complexities, contradictions, and possibilities of any given cultural group. In this seminar, we will explore ethnographic theory through reading in three areas: political subjectivity, ethnographies of the suffering subject, and the ontological turn Continue reading

A day for adjuncts

In case you didn’t know, today is National Adjunct Walkout Day.  If you need to catch up, here’s a good piece from Democracy Now.  For some more background, check out this recent piece from Inside Higher Ed.  It’s a good day to think about all those adjuncts, lecturers, part-timers and other contingent workers in academia–and what the university is, perhaps, versus what it should be.

Most importantly, I think, it’s time for those who are doing relatively well, and in relatively stable positions, to think about the current labor situation in academia, and how that is affecting the system as a whole.  As Sarah Kendzior argues, this is everyone’s problem, not just those who are working those low-paying, contingent academic jobs.  If we’re going to do something about this issue, it’s going to require attention–and solidarity–across the academic ranks.  The tenured, the retired, comfortable, and the secure need to pay attention and speak up…right alongside these adjuncts and others who are putting themselves out there to raise awareness.  Now, onto some links and excerpts (from me and others).  Please feel free to share your links, comments, and thoughts below. Continue reading

What we’re teaching this semester: Political Anthropology

Almost all academics, and a lot of semi- or non-academics, end up teaching in the course of their careers, but we rarely spend much time talking with others about how we think about course design and broader issues about how courses fit into our lives and the lives of our students. With the semester beginning for several Minds, we thought it would be interesting to talk about the courses we teach and the thought that goes into teaching them. Continue reading

The Trouble with Teaching (and a call for help)

This week, I embark on my 12th year as an adjunct at the College of Southern Nevada (formerly the Community College of Southern Nevada, which I much prefer — they changed the name in a bid to sound classier). For the last 11 years, I’ve taught intro-level anthropology, even as my career shifted from academia into the museum world.

Teaching is a choice for me. I have a full-time job, a MORE than full-time job, running the Burlesque Hall of Fame, and much of what little spare time I have left is spent as a caretaker for my father (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) and maintaining some kind of social life, but when I can pick up a class, I do. I enjoy the classroom experience, and if you’ve ever worked at a community college, you know how rewarding it can be.

My classes are typically full of very bright, hopeful young people (along with a scattering of returning students and retirees) who have been terribly served by the educational system. Many of them are minorities and/or from poor families, which means not only has their K-12 education been abysmally bad (on purpose, I’d argue), but so has the rest of their lives during their developmental years. Continue reading

Books for (re)starting school I: Your recommendations?

It may feel like summer to academics in the northern hemisphere, but the start of the school year is right around the corner. For some people, this will mean the beginning of an exciting new career in college or graduate school — for a lucky few it will mean the start of a career in college or graduate school as a professor. For many more, it is a time to find new ways to do familiar things better.

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Is there an anthropological canon? Evidence from theory anthologies

Is there a canon of anthropological theory? Do we have a ‘disciplinary history’ of where we have been and where we are going? Sure, there are many grand narratives we tell of our discipline, but these stores tend to be tendentious and based on anecdotal. Can we find a more empirical, disinterested way to look for order in anthropology’s past?

In this post I examine anthologies of anthropological theory in order to see to what extent anthropology has a coherent, institutionalized canon. Is there a strong degree of agreement between these books? Do they tell the same stories? Do they include the same authors and readings? To answer this question, I asked our intrepid intern Angela to track down the contents of every edition of the main anthropological theory readers in North America.

What did I find? The short answer is that these anthologies strongly agree on this history of anthropology between the years 1850-1950. Agreement rapidly decreases after — wait for it — 1974. Why and how? Are these anthologies accurate indicators of the anthropological zeitgeist? Who gets included and who doesn’t? For answers to these questions, read on….

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Writing Archaeology

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest blogger Zoë Crossland as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Zoë is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. She works in highland Madagascar and writes on semiotics, and archaeologies of death and the body. Her most recent publication is Ancestral Encounters in Highland Madagascar: Material Signs and Traces of the Dead ( Cambridge University Press, 2014).)

Like fiction, archaeology allows us to visit other worlds and to come back home again. So, it can be a useful exercise to juxtapose archaeological texts with historical novels, poems and other forms of writing. Just as a novelist does, a writer of archaeology has to attend carefully to the conventions that shape the stories we tell. The written past demands some kind of narrative coherence, a consistency in our compositional form, and in the internal logic of the world we bring into being. Like poets, we have to choose our words carefully. In this comparison we can identify the shared techniques used to evoke other worlds and to draw in the reader. We can also consider the narrative possibilities that are excluded from our archaeological writing, and ask what opportunities might be opened up by allowing different forms of voice and language. Continue reading

Undergraduate Ethnographers Infiltrate the AAA: Part 1

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger, JANE EVA BAXTER]

November’s AAA meetings are a distant memory after a season of holidays, finals, grading, and course preparation for round two of the academic year. Before they slip away completely, I wanted to share some thoughts about assigning 30 anthropology seniors the task of writing a brief ethnography based on time spent at the AAA annual meetings. That’s right- a small contingent of undergraduate ethnographers was among you. They may have handed you your conference program at registration, sat next to you in a session, or been at the next table at Kitty O’Shea’s or Starbucks. So think back, while you were busy conferencing you were being observed, perhaps were engaged in casual conversation, and certainly were studied thoughtfully by students in a senior capstone seminar trying to learn what it really means to be an anthropologist in 2013.

Teaching “The Anthropological Life” Using the AAA Meetings

The anthropology senior seminar at DePaul is titled, “The Anthropological Life” and is a course designed to help students simultaneously reflect on four years of education, and contemplate the transition from life in school to life without school. Each faculty member who teaches the course takes a different approach, but I’ve always embraced the seminar as an opportunity for students to connect with anthropologists working in a variety of vocational capacities. Usually, this means in a ten week quarter I invite four guest anthropologists from outside academe to come to campus, give a public lecture, have dinner with our seniors, and then have the seniors interview them for about 90 minutes where they can talk about their “anthropological life.”

My two main goals for the course are really quite simple. First, I want students to recognize that anthropology is not a particular vocation, but rather a way of engaging the world. I ask them: How do people with anthropological training see the world differently from those without such training? What are the core values of the discipline and how do those values become actualized in the daily practice of lived lives? Second, I want students to reflect actively on their own “anthropological lives” and consider how anthropology will shape their future regardless of their career or life path. In many forms we engage question such as: What does anthropology mean in the context of your life? How has anthropology shaped who you are as a person and how do you see anthropology shaping your future?

The AAA coming to town was a pretty remarkable opportunity in the context of this course. Where else could students gain so much exposure to contemporary anthropology so efficiently? And so, for the 2013 permutation of the course, it was decided to substitute a guest speaker with a somewhat structured encounter with the AAA meeting that would result in a very brief piece of ethnographic writing.

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