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Classroom Observations - Student Questions

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  • tadmci
    In the spirit of the discussion about mentoring that is currently playing out on the list serv, I offer these observations/questions. As an anthropology
    Message 1 of 3 , Feb 25, 2009
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      In the spirit of the discussion about mentoring that is currently
      playing out on the list serv, I offer these observations/questions.
      As an anthropology instructor 'finding my way', your observations
      would be welcome and appreciated.

      (I also posted these questions and comments on my blog at
      www.anthroblog.tadmcilwraith.com)

      Tad McIlwraith
      Douglas College
      New Westminster, BC



      Observations from the Podium: Classroom Notes Winter 2009

      This semester, my students in introductory cultural anthropology and
      the anthropology of religion are provoking me to think hard with
      probing questions. My students are also making interesting
      observations after my presentations of my fieldwork experiences. I'm
      sure my answers and responses to them are less-than-satisfying in
      their eyes.

      Here are a few observations from the front of my classroom:

      1) More than usual, some of my students are interested in grand
      theories that explain everything (most things?). Evolution (ie
      adaptation to specific environments) is popular as an explanation for
      cultural difference. In this context, cultural diversity is simply a
      veneer over common structures like religion or economics. We really
      are the same everywhere despite the cultural anthropologist's
      assertions that `local' difference is worthy of study. (Emic/etic
      distinctions are in play. Indeed the value of cultural anthropology is
      questioned.) Is this the `Jared Diamond Effect' where people gravitate
      to seemingly tidy explanations that cover every possibility? Why are
      big explanations more appealing than presentations of local nuance?

      2) I find it increasingly difficult to convey the challenges of doing
      participant-observation fieldwork. After describing an observation I
      made during fieldwork, and then hedging about how to explain it, I was
      asked why I simply didn't ask a follow-up question of my informant.
      After hesitating, I rambled, giving a range of reasons:

      i) I didn't know at the time a follow-up question was necessary;
      ii) I was uncomfortable probing further because the observation
      related to something that was very personal to my informant;
      iii) I was used my informants answering `I don't know' or `we've
      always done it that way';
      iv) the point came up in the context of a conversation, not an
      interview, and follow-up wasn't possible.

      I see that the students are making me their informant. Am I doing what
      my informants do when they say `I don't know'?

      3) Students struggle with the possibility of multicultural people (or
      simply bicultural people). Isn't it possible to be Christian AND
      `traditionally spiritual'? Can't you live syncretically? Can't you
      practice more than one religion serially and be faithful to each one?
      I wonder if the difficulty in conceiving of these possibilities is the
      result of media coverage of religious extremism or fundamentalism
      which says something like `You are a Christian and THEY are not'. In
      essence, the questions suggest, being Christian (or whatever) is only
      possible in the absence of other beliefs. (Group boundary maintenance
      and definitions of insiders and outsiders are certainly in play.)

      Are these age-old challenges for anthropology instructors? Any reactions?
    • Lloyd Miller
      Tad, I really enjoyed reading your notes. When I began teaching in the late 60s, I observed similar things among my students, studied them and reflected on
      Message 2 of 3 , Feb 25, 2009
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        Tad,

        I really enjoyed reading your notes. When I began teaching in the
        late 60s, I observed similar things among my students, studied them
        and reflected on them studying me. Your questions and mine (as well
        as our students' questions) are strikingly alike, though I wrote mine
        on lined pads and the backs of envelopes.

        You might enjoy replicating an exercise I used to do. At the
        beginnings of semesters, I would ask students to write down on paper
        to hand in questions they have/have always had/would like answers to/
        that bother/excite/amuse them, etc. I said that they should be
        questions that THEY had, not that they thought I wanted to hear or
        that ought to be asked in an anthropology class. I typed and handed
        them back the following class period. The total of 3 or 4 class
        sections filled maybe 3-6 pages, and I included all of them.

        Most were wonderful questions and spanned a wide range of topics: Why
        are people mean to each other? Why don't they get along? Why do I
        feel uncomfortable whenever I'm around people speaking other
        languages? Why is there such controversy over evolution? Or, why
        don't religious people believe in evolution? (I wish I could remember
        more.)

        I told students to keep the questions handy and we would revisit them
        as the course subject matter addressed them. Students liked the
        exercise and generally were surprised at how many of their questions
        anthropology addressed (so was I the first time I did this). The
        exercise did at least two things, I think. It made them feel more a
        part of the course, i.e., they had a hand in influencing it, and it
        showed them how relevant anthropology was to many important aspects of
        their lives.

        After you do this a number of times you may find that some of the
        questions are repeated and patterns emerge. Also, some of them might
        change with trends or fashions. In any case, the exercise gives you a
        window into student culture that itself might be a useful teaching tool.

        Anyway, good to hear from you.

        Lloyd



        On Feb 25, 2009, at 11:55 AM, tadmci wrote:

        > In the spirit of the discussion about mentoring that is currently
        > playing out on the list serv, I offer these observations/questions.
        > As an anthropology instructor 'finding my way', your observations
        > would be welcome and appreciated.
        >
        > (I also posted these questions and comments on my blog at
        > www.anthroblog.tadmcilwraith.com)
        >
        > Tad McIlwraith
        > Douglas College
        > New Westminster, BC
        >
        > Observations from the Podium: Classroom Notes Winter 2009
        >
        > This semester, my students in introductory cultural anthropology and
        > the anthropology of religion are provoking me to think hard with
        > probing questions. My students are also making interesting
        > observations after my presentations of my fieldwork experiences. I'm
        > sure my answers and responses to them are less-than-satisfying in
        > their eyes.
        >
        > Here are a few observations from the front of my classroom:
        >
        > 1) More than usual, some of my students are interested in grand
        > theories that explain everything (most things?). Evolution (ie
        > adaptation to specific environments) is popular as an explanation for
        > cultural difference. In this context, cultural diversity is simply a
        > veneer over common structures like religion or economics. We really
        > are the same everywhere despite the cultural anthropologist's
        > assertions that `local' difference is worthy of study. (Emic/etic
        > distinctions are in play. Indeed the value of cultural anthropology is
        > questioned.) Is this the `Jared Diamond Effect' where people gravitate
        > to seemingly tidy explanations that cover every possibility? Why are
        > big explanations more appealing than presentations of local nuance?
        >
        > 2) I find it increasingly difficult to convey the challenges of doing
        > participant-observation fieldwork. After describing an observation I
        > made during fieldwork, and then hedging about how to explain it, I was
        > asked why I simply didn't ask a follow-up question of my informant.
        > After hesitating, I rambled, giving a range of reasons:
        >
        > i) I didn't know at the time a follow-up question was necessary;
        > ii) I was uncomfortable probing further because the observation
        > related to something that was very personal to my informant;
        > iii) I was used my informants answering `I don't know' or `we've
        > always done it that way';
        > iv) the point came up in the context of a conversation, not an
        > interview, and follow-up wasn't possible.
        >
        > I see that the students are making me their informant. Am I doing what
        > my informants do when they say `I don't know'?
        >
        > 3) Students struggle with the possibility of multicultural people (or
        > simply bicultural people). Isn't it possible to be Christian AND
        > `traditionally spiritual'? Can't you live syncretically? Can't you
        > practice more than one religion serially and be faithful to each one?
        > I wonder if the difficulty in conceiving of these possibilities is the
        > result of media coverage of religious extremism or fundamentalism
        > which says something like `You are a Christian and THEY are not'. In
        > essence, the questions suggest, being Christian (or whatever) is only
        > possible in the absence of other beliefs. (Group boundary maintenance
        > and definitions of insiders and outsiders are certainly in play.)
        >
        > Are these age-old challenges for anthropology instructors? Any
        > reactions?
        >
        >
        >



        [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
      • tadmci
        Lloyd, What a wonderful suggestion. I love the notion that such an activity both provides an instructional direction for the class AND empowers students who
        Message 3 of 3 , Feb 25, 2009
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          Lloyd,

          What a wonderful suggestion. I love the notion that such an activity
          both provides an instructional direction for the class AND empowers
          students who see that they have questions worthy of consideration and
          indeed have some input in the direction of the course. I really do
          try to respond to the issues and questions that come up but your
          technique has the added bonus of giving me an early gauge of the
          opinions and backgrounds of the students. Thank you very much for
          sharing and I will try this as soon as I can.

          Tad




          --- In SACC-L@yahoogroups.com, Lloyd Miller <lloyd.miller@...> wrote:
          >
          > Tad,
          >
          > I really enjoyed reading your notes. When I began teaching in the
          > late 60s, I observed similar things among my students, studied them
          > and reflected on them studying me. Your questions and mine (as well
          > as our students' questions) are strikingly alike, though I wrote
          mine
          > on lined pads and the backs of envelopes.
          >
          > You might enjoy replicating an exercise I used to do. At the
          > beginnings of semesters, I would ask students to write down on paper
          > to hand in questions they have/have always had/would like answers
          to/
          > that bother/excite/amuse them, etc. I said that they should be
          > questions that THEY had, not that they thought I wanted to hear or
          > that ought to be asked in an anthropology class. I typed and handed
          > them back the following class period. The total of 3 or 4 class
          > sections filled maybe 3-6 pages, and I included all of them.
          >
          > Most were wonderful questions and spanned a wide range of topics:
          Why
          > are people mean to each other? Why don't they get along? Why do I
          > feel uncomfortable whenever I'm around people speaking other
          > languages? Why is there such controversy over evolution? Or, why
          > don't religious people believe in evolution? (I wish I could
          remember
          > more.)
          >
          > I told students to keep the questions handy and we would revisit
          them
          > as the course subject matter addressed them. Students liked the
          > exercise and generally were surprised at how many of their questions
          > anthropology addressed (so was I the first time I did this). The
          > exercise did at least two things, I think. It made them feel more a
          > part of the course, i.e., they had a hand in influencing it, and it
          > showed them how relevant anthropology was to many important aspects
          of
          > their lives.
          >
          > After you do this a number of times you may find that some of the
          > questions are repeated and patterns emerge. Also, some of them
          might
          > change with trends or fashions. In any case, the exercise gives you
          a
          > window into student culture that itself might be a useful teaching
          tool.
          >
          > Anyway, good to hear from you.
          >
          > Lloyd
          >
          >
          >
          > On Feb 25, 2009, at 11:55 AM, tadmci wrote:
          >
          > > In the spirit of the discussion about mentoring that is currently
          > > playing out on the list serv, I offer these
          observations/questions.
          > > As an anthropology instructor 'finding my way', your observations
          > > would be welcome and appreciated.
          > >
          > > (I also posted these questions and comments on my blog at
          > > www.anthroblog.tadmcilwraith.com)
          > >
          > > Tad McIlwraith
          > > Douglas College
          > > New Westminster, BC
          > >
          > > Observations from the Podium: Classroom Notes Winter 2009
          > >
          > > This semester, my students in introductory cultural anthropology
          and
          > > the anthropology of religion are provoking me to think hard with
          > > probing questions. My students are also making interesting
          > > observations after my presentations of my fieldwork experiences.
          I'm
          > > sure my answers and responses to them are less-than-satisfying in
          > > their eyes.
          > >
          > > Here are a few observations from the front of my classroom:
          > >
          > > 1) More than usual, some of my students are interested in grand
          > > theories that explain everything (most things?). Evolution (ie
          > > adaptation to specific environments) is popular as an explanation
          for
          > > cultural difference. In this context, cultural diversity is simply
          a
          > > veneer over common structures like religion or economics. We
          really
          > > are the same everywhere despite the cultural anthropologist's
          > > assertions that `local' difference is worthy of study. (Emic/etic
          > > distinctions are in play. Indeed the value of cultural
          anthropology is
          > > questioned.) Is this the `Jared Diamond Effect' where people
          gravitate
          > > to seemingly tidy explanations that cover every possibility? Why
          are
          > > big explanations more appealing than presentations of local
          nuance?
          > >
          > > 2) I find it increasingly difficult to convey the challenges of
          doing
          > > participant-observation fieldwork. After describing an observation
          I
          > > made during fieldwork, and then hedging about how to explain it, I
          was
          > > asked why I simply didn't ask a follow-up question of my
          informant.
          > > After hesitating, I rambled, giving a range of reasons:
          > >
          > > i) I didn't know at the time a follow-up question was necessary;
          > > ii) I was uncomfortable probing further because the observation
          > > related to something that was very personal to my informant;
          > > iii) I was used my informants answering `I don't know' or `we've
          > > always done it that way';
          > > iv) the point came up in the context of a conversation, not an
          > > interview, and follow-up wasn't possible.
          > >
          > > I see that the students are making me their informant. Am I doing
          what
          > > my informants do when they say `I don't know'?
          > >
          > > 3) Students struggle with the possibility of multicultural people
          (or
          > > simply bicultural people). Isn't it possible to be Christian AND
          > > `traditionally spiritual'? Can't you live syncretically? Can't you
          > > practice more than one religion serially and be faithful to each
          one?
          > > I wonder if the difficulty in conceiving of these possibilities is
          the
          > > result of media coverage of religious extremism or fundamentalism
          > > which says something like `You are a Christian and THEY are not'.
          In
          > > essence, the questions suggest, being Christian (or whatever) is
          only
          > > possible in the absence of other beliefs. (Group boundary
          maintenance
          > > and definitions of insiders and outsiders are certainly in play.)
          > >
          > > Are these age-old challenges for anthropology instructors? Any
          > > reactions?
          > >
          > >
          > >
          >
          >
          >
          > [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
          >
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