Statement of Teaching Philosophy
After taking my first few anthropology courses as an undergraduate, I was soon captivated by how mundane subjects, ranging from clothing choice to everyday language, can communicate such detailed information about how a society conceives of ethnicity, sexuality, and racial identity (to name just a few). This power of the social sciences to reframe perspectives on human behavior, particularly with respect to ethnic and racial ideologies, is what continues to draw me to teaching. The prospect of opening students’ eyes and witnessing a transformation in their (and often my) analytical approach to topics they had never considered as potential subjects of study is the most rewarding part of stepping in front of a classroom.
The first step in this transformational process is to ensure that students understand the significance of cultural relativism or the sociological imagination as a way of reconsidering assumptions about sociocultural differences. To ensure this foundational understanding, I prefer to moderate my time spent lecturing on disciplinary terminology. Involving students in direct applications of core anthropology concepts to familiar examples forces them to call upon and reexamine their lived, cultural knowledge. During a majority of the class sessions in the 300-level courses that I teach on race and ethnicity, I devote some time to explaining new terms through concrete examples, such as digital images, videos, or diagrams. Afterwards, I ask them to evaluate the ideas in full class and small group discussion questions, where they critically reflect on both the arguments proposed in the readings and how the examples support or problematize these stances. Scholarship on constructivism, or the usefulness of building new concepts on prior student knowledge (Bybee 2002), can speak to the potent role of familiar popular culture examples as agents for promoting student interest in and the accessibility of abstract concepts and theories. I have drawn upon a variety of thematically relevant stand-up comedy videos and audio toward this end. The diversity of humor media provides a less confrontational entry point into dealing with often emotionally-charged discussions on race. Given many students’ reticence to speak their thoughts aloud on the subject, even when it is placed within the context of humor, I plan to continue considering how my research on the performance techniques employed by comedians to connect with and relax an audience may be instructive for encouraging students in the classroom to feel more comfortable with candidly discussing these issues.
The projects and papers I assign students to complete outside of the classroom deepen the extent to which a course can become a transformative endeavor for both the students and myself (as I will discuss a little later). The assignment type that bears the most fruit in this respect, either for a topics or an introductory anthropology course, is the ethnographic project that involves participant-observation and/or interviewing. For the final paper in Racial and Ethnic Humor in the U.S., I ask them to become participant-observers in a comedy club audience and frame their analyses of performance interactions in terms of the contextual data they gather and any relevant ideas from the course readings and lectures. While I frequently highlight in class the significance of context and identity in interpreting a situation, this two-part exercise of fieldwork and written analysis provides students with an experientially grounded application of these core concepts of method and reflexivity. A workshop on teaching introductory anthropology, co-chaired by Dr. Bill Guinee, offered a creative, technology-enhanced approach to ethnography that I may adapt in future introductory courses to sociology, anthropology, and ethnic studies. His project entails each student connecting with an international student on campus and blogging about their weekly interactions across the semester. These semi-structured interviews focus on the course topic assigned for that week, from kinship to religion, and are shared during class discussions.
When I began to teach Racial and Ethnic Identities, a course which addresses historic and current social, economic, and political contexts in the formation of ethnic groups, my most exciting in-class teaching moments would come when students found a reading or video clip that resonated with their experience or provoked more engaged, thoughtful discussion. During six student-led presentations and discussions of readings, which typically included additional media to prompt applied analyses, I stepped back and acted only as an occasional facilitator of significant discussion points. My students became more comfortable delving into their understandings of and at times direct experiences with each topic in support of their classmates who were leading that discussion. They appeared energized by their ability to relate the ideas we defined in class both to their lives and to the media their peers or I shared, which encouraged me to think that they were connecting with and analyzing concepts. I have realized, though, that this forms only one half of the experience-oriented teaching and learning process.
As Dr. Anya Peterson Royce explains in a 1999 FACET Keynote Address, one of the most difficult aspects of teaching is the willingness to be vulnerable and transformed, letting go of some of the control and power that insulates and protects you, and allowing yourself to be changed by the classroom interaction. She offers this insightful teaching perspective: “When students (and we all hopefully can call ourselves that!) feel that what they bring to the conversation is part of the learning process, they are more willing to invest themselves in both the community of learners and the subject matter.” I encounter reminders of the value of this perspective, when I pose open-ended questions to a classroom of students, or allow them periodically to take the lead in teaching and discussing course-related ideas. I continue to find that the most exhilarating and productive moments in my teaching are those in which students make unexpected connections between our discussion of a reading or viewing to topics in other disciplines or to current news stories. These unplanned tangents remind me to incorporate flexibility into my structuring of class time in order to allow students to take more active roles in directing their learning. They frame these often complex ideas within personally relevant, familiar cultural contexts not already incorporated into the lecture, discussion, and exercises designed for that class period. As I pursue my interest in developing teaching strategies and projects that promote student transformation through experiential learning, I endeavor to keep myself equally sensitive and open to the transformative potential of the classroom.
Bybee, Roger W., ed. 2002. Learning science and the science of learning. Arlington Virginia: National Science Teachers Association.
Guinee, Bill. 2010. “A Fieldwork and Blogging Assignment for the Introductory Anthropology Course.” Workshop/Session: Innovations in Teaching Techniques for Introductory Anthropology Classes at the 87th Annual Meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society, (April), University of Wisconsin.
Royce, Anya P. 1999. “To Be Transformed: Reflections on Learning, Community, and BeingPresent.” Keynote, FACET, (May).