This page contains three sections comprised of my reflections on and examples of efforts I have made to improve my teaching effectiveness. The first section focuses on curricular revisions, new course assignments, and strategies I have employed to address student suggestions and my own observations about areas of my teaching that could be improved. For the second section, I have included several examples of in-class activities that I have either adapted or created along with my reflections on their respective successes in conveying key course ideas. The third and final section addresses my integration of non-traditional materials into my teaching. While the definition of “non-traditional” is obviously ever-changing with respect to which pedagogical practices and tools become normative, I submit that the materials I discuss below are less frequently employed than the classic tools of Power Point, videos, article/book readings, and transparencies.
I. Curricular Revisions and New Teaching Tools:
First Day Activities:
Adaptation of Grace Keyes’s In-class Ethnographic Research Exercise:
Original Text: Keyes_Doing Ethnographic Research in the Classroom
Notes: I added this activity to my ANTH 1200 course in Summer 2014 and ANTH 2400 the following semester. As suggested by Keyes, I typically use this activity early in the class – in fact, usually on the first day in my hybrid ANTH 1200 class where we meet only six times. Students seem to relax and enjoy the activity – laughing at the seeming absurdity of the third question: Have you every eaten hot dogs for breakfast? [I adjusted this from the question “Do you eat hot dogs for breakfast” as I get more interesting variability by extending the parameters of the action. Beyond this utility as an ice breaker and a signal to students of their active role in the course, it also provokes great discussion about cultural norms, definitions (how definitions of timing and substance of breakfast vary), and the value of questioning both the familiar and unfamiliar throughout the ethnographic process.
The “Who am I” Exercise – adapted from Hazel Rose Markus’s chapter of the same name in the edited volume, Doing Race (2010):
Notes: I incorporated this exercise as a first day in-class activity in Spring 2016 to get my ANTH 3470 (Ethnicity and Multiculturalism) and ANTH 2400 students to begin thinking about how experience shapes the ways in which we see and define ourselves. Students are prompted to take one minute to write down as many words as they can think of to answer the question, “Who am I?” At the end of this brief time period, I begin to solicit responses from the class, which I begin to write on the board. As the board fills, I stop to ask them what “types” of information they tend to see and what this suggests about their cultural experiences. While I expected to see more non-white students mention race and ethnicity as a more formative aspect of their identity in a society that only rarely reflects their experiences, most shy away from sharing this in class, which may have something to do with my identity as a white instructor in a class of predominantly white students. I am still contemplating how best to sensitively address this without making students uncomfortable. I have noticed, however, that personality-inflected descriptors are quite common, which I get students to connect to the American value for uniqueness and individuality over familial and communal identity.
Revision of “Mini-Ethnography” to an “Observation Assignment:”
Mini-Ethnography Instructions: E105 Mini Ethnography Handout
Observation Assignment Instructions: Observation Assignment Handout
Notes: The mini-ethnography assignment initially came as a minimal adaptation of a group project assigned by Daniel Suslak in a course I served as an Associate Instructor for during graduate school at Indiana University. While it seemed to work fairly well, when I incorporated it as an individual project into my E105 syllabus at Indiana University South Bend (during my 2012-2013 teaching fellowship), it overwhelmed the students with respect to the amount of fieldwork expected. When I was granted the opportunity to teach an introductory cultural anthropology course at Western Michigan University in Fall 2014, I found that substituting an observation assignment satisfied student requests for a more manageable workload, while retaining the value of engaging students in active understanding of the challenges of fieldwork and the influence cultural familiarity and perspective has on what they notice or where they focus their attention in their field notes.
Revising the Research Paper Timeline, Handouts, and Feedback for ANTH 3470:
Notes: Initially, for the research paper assignment from my A385 course at IUSB (Spring 2013), I only required students to send a brief proposal describing the research question (and hypothesis) they wished to pursue approximately 5 weeks prior to the paper due date (finals week). I would make notes on these often 3-5 sentence papers that included some possible course sources/bibliographies they might find useful in finding additional sources along with general comments on the specificity/vagueness of their question and tentative thesis. I noticed that this left many students still confused about how to write a research paper and concerned about how much of their grade it comprised (30%). This led me to make some changes for my Spring 2015 offering of the course (as ANTH 3470) at WMU. I created and discussed a handout on potential research topics about two weeks prior to the proposal due date. I also carved out some class time to go over an example research paper that I considered well argued and structured. Finally, I requested students provide more detail on possible sources they wish to include and questions they have about how to refine their research topic. I then stapled my equally more complete, detailed feedback to their proposals. Below can be found the new handout as well as a few examples of feedback I provided.
Broad Curricular Revision of E105 for ANTH 2400:
Full-length class activities and videos – When I first began to teach E105, I had never taught a lecture-based course before, so my lecturing skills were undeveloped. I leaned heavily upon McGraw Hill Power Points offered as a companion to the brief textbook I selected for the class. As I tended to speed through a laundry list of content, I was left with a second class (75 minutes) each week to fill with relevant material. I turned to incorporating activities and videos suggested by colleagues at IU South Bend as well as exercises found in Patricia Rice’s edited collection of anthropology activities. While many of these materials served as interesting supplements to my still weaker lecturing skills, students found it difficult to use these materials as helpful study aids when preparing for exams, particularly the multiple choice sections that were more vocabulary-focused.
When I began to offer ANTH 2400, I found ways (adapting the lectures and ideas developed while teaching SOC 2000 the previous year at WMU) to reduce the length and number of activities from E105, while still shifting the pacing of class in such a way as to maintain student engagement. This also permitted students to make more direct connections between lecture concepts and the supplemental videos, readings, pictures, board brainstorming exercises, and group activities I added to illustrate them. I still find students occasionally commenting that more activities would be welcome, so I am working on incorporating a couple of short exercises that appropriately complement the content being covered in their respective weeks.
II. Self-evaluation of Classroom Activities:
Development Project Case Studies:
This activity is assigned to complement the week of material devoted to applied anthropology, particularly anthropologists’ involvement with development projects around the globe. It is one of the few activities I designed based on a combination of textbook content and an outside resource. Prior to this, I had met with only relative success with the strategy of picking several case studies each semester for 6-7 groups to review as examples of how anthropology may be applied. The exercise felt too disjointed, which made it more difficult to tie into a unified theme and streamlined learning objective.
Brief note on typical results included: Development Project Activity Instructions
Further notes: I have found this a difficult activity to keep a large class focused and working on, due to the general class assumption (I suspect) that most of them will not have to report on what they found. To make it more successful, a brief report could be required from every group/pair to count as their participation points for the day.
Language and Status Activity:
This activity is one that can be completed in approximately 20-30 minutes, depending upon the amount of time devoted to the closing discussion of the findings and responses from student pairs. I have found that it works fairly well in small to moderately-sized courses (maximum of 50 students). While the activity is somewhat limited in its utility for demonstrating cross-cultural variation in situational uses of language, it does offer the students an excellent illustration of the core course concept of how context shapes relationships, attitudes, and behaviors. The examples listed at the top of the page can easily be adapted to the individual instructor. This is a worthwhile detail to attend to given the increased ability one gains of connecting with students through light humor.
I would venture to presume that a majority of anthropology and sociology instructors have encountered this now decades old activity. Horace Miner’s short observation article of the “Nacirema,” (“American” spelled backwards) plays on the classic assumption of American society that it lacks the ritualistic, tradition-oriented, and magical thought processes that characterize a society historically viewed as worthy of ethnographic study. For the updated version of this exercise (below) that I follow pretty closely, the article (below) I sought online as a companion to it is revised to make it more current as well as harder for students to guess. After reading through the activity and article below, see my reflections on its effectiveness as a tool in my courses.
Notes: This exercise works pretty well as a first or second week activity that serves as a prelude to engaging more in-depth with the topics of culture and ethnocentrism in cultural anthropology. I have also used it in my introductory sociology course in a similar vein. What I particularly enjoy with this activity is the diversity of elements and learning styles it utilizes. The first portion is reading the ethnographic excerpt aloud (with dramatic emphasis if possible) and seeing how long it takes students to figure it out. While typically half the class can identify who the article is referencing by the conclusion, they remain bewildered by the usage of such terms for these quotidian daily activities. The second stage enables the students to reflect on their surprise and consider why familiar objects and activities were referred to with terminology that references magic or ritual. I typically solicit from them, and then write on the board a list of the terms that struck them as “made-up” words from the article (as they followed along with their printed copies), which we then define as a class. A third stage engages in reflective full class discussion about why these terms were chosen, what they may reveal about American culture that Americans typically do not notice, and close with how this activity reveals the value of an outsider/etic perspective in identifying taken-for-granted cultural norms. In the fourth stage of the activity – the part that students really seem to have more fun with – I ask them to write their own Nacirema-style paragraph about a common activity in American society, while adopting the perspective of an outsider who knows nothing of the society and its internal logic. For the icing on the cake, I ask them to see if they can describe the activity in such a way as to reveal an insight about American culture that an insider observing the same event would have missed. Depending on how much time is available, I will solicit anywhere from 4-8 paragraphs to be read aloud, asking the full class after each reading to guess the activity being depicted (which they are often better at than I am!). I close with asking them to again consider what this outsider’s perspective can reveal as well what clarifying information an insider’s knowledge could provide. I have used this activity since 2012, tweaking it from time-to-time, and still find it a great form of active learning that sets the tone of student participation and engagement for the rest of the semester.
In the following three selected viewing guides (I have written and adapted several more) that I have drafted to keep students engaged in the in-class viewings, I made an effort to write questions that built on their own experiences and knowledge, while connecting the video segments to the relevant course concept(s) the video directly (or indirectly) reflects upon. The Chimamanda Adichie TED Talk viewing worksheet accomplishes this particularly well with respect to the concept of ethnocentrism and has always elicited the most eager voluntary responses during full class post-viewing discussion. The Shaman’s Apprentice worksheet works best at getting students to question their assumptions about how problematic the term “primitive” really is and what can be lost with such assumptions (see example of Student Work). Finally, T-Shirt Travels complements my coverage of colonialism and inequality in modern world economic systems, through the humanizing lens of one family’s (and son’s) struggles to attain an education and provide basic necessities in the debt-encumbered nation of Zambia.
III. Integration of Non-traditional Materials:
ANTH 3470 – Ethnicity and Multiculturalism; Exercises:
U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” Lyrics & Video after “Free Derry” Documentary:
Notes: For the week that I cover ethno-religious and national identities in Europe, I lecture for about 20-25 minutes on the broad strokes of these often contending identities in the formation of nation-states before focusing on the case study of Free Derry in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s – early 1970s. I begin with the first of the two slides listed below to give some historical context to the conflict of that period, before showing the 20 minute “Free Derry” documentary (linked to on the slide). This documentary reveals the power of firsthand personal narratives as well as art in the form of murals to bear witness and potentially avert future conflicts. This theme of various methods that might help to resolve ethno-nationalist disputes runs throughout the course. I then cover the questions on the second slide relevant to these points in the form of a full class discussion. To conclude discussion of the intersection of art and politics in ethnic conflict resolution I hand out a copy of the lyrics to the Irish group U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983) and play the 3-4 minute music video, containing a re-enactment of the events of Bloody Sunday in Free Derry. After watching the somewhat intense and violent music video, I ask the class to consider the political and social objectives of this music through both its lyrical and the visual components. I provide a Wikipedia entry on the song that discusses the band members stated goals with the lyrics and close with prompting students to evaluate how successfully the lyrics and video/visuals accomplish that goal.
Michelle Elam Reading and Boondocks Comic Strip Evaluation:
Notes: For the final week in which we discuss as a class the current issues that still confront our notions of ethnicity and race, I assign Michelle Elam’s “The Ethno-Ambiguo Hostility Syndrome: Mixed Race, Identity, and Popular Culture.” This chapter (excerpted from Markus’s and Moya’s Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century) reflects on Aaron McGruder’s comic strip The Boondocks with respect to its commentary on the negotiation and rise of a “mixed race” identity along with the socio-political ramifications of its ascendance. To make the in-class discussion of the article more tangible, I bring online copies of the referenced excerpts of the comic strip with my own discussion questions added for each of the four sets of strips. I divide the class into four groups, and then assign each group the task of reading through the strips and deciding their responses to the questions. Once all groups appear to be finished with discussion, I ask each group to present their comic and the response they came up with to the questions. To avoid lack of engagement, I provide copies of all four sets of strips to each group so that they can follow along and solicit their thoughts on each group’s conclusions.
ANTH 2400 – Principles of Cultural Anthropology; Joe Sacco’s Journalistic Comic Book Depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
For my discussion of state-level political systems and the issues of social control, hegemony, and weapons of the weak (to resist), I bring in a comic journalism excerpt from Joe Sacco’s Palestine: In the Gaza Strip (1996). The comic also serves well to illustrate the value of multiple perspectives in both journalistic and ethnographic endeavors. The exercise begins with a discussion of the aforementioned concepts and the showing of the trailer for the documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Five Broken Cameras (2011). If time permits, I also show a 9 minute video produced by the Israeli collaborator on the film that depicts how Israeli high school students (who rarely hear Palestinian perspectives) react to seeing the documentary. This represents an example of a “weapon of the weak” and “resistance to hegemonic discourses” that helps prepare them for considering further instances of this in the comic book excerpt they will receive. The class is divided into groups of five (in order to have each group member take on one reading part) and are given a set of instructions (see below) to divide up the labor of reading the parts and narrations. I highlight and color code the character parts on each copy of the comic book excerpt to make this process easier for the students. Each group is encouraged to read with emphasis and emotion/drama, which some are shy about, but others enjoy. All groups discuss the same excerpt and questions for the sake of comparability and to promote more in-depth discussion across the groups when we reconvene as a class.