In my courses, I use an array of approaches to teaching designed enrich the classroom learning experience beyond the bare essentials. These are some of the practical approaches I take:
Students practice applying anthropological techniques to events they observe in their daily lives. Assignments involve reporting and analyzing the rich textures of cultural phenomenon in everyday life. These hands-on exercises give the students practice at being ethnographers and doing fieldwork themselves, transforming an otherwise passive learning experience into an active one. In the process of completing the assignments, students learn the relevance of anthropological perspectives to their own lives. While courses with a “methods” orientation will require students to engage in fieldwork to a much greater degree, all of my classes involve a practical application of knowledge.
Careful Paper or Project Planning and Writing
As established scholars in our fields, academics know the unique power of writing to pull together and make sense of ideas with which we may be wrestling. Term papers can have this power for students. All too often, however, these end up being the product of last minute, end-of-term pushes to produce something meeting the page requirement. That is unfortunate. Thankfully, it is generally avoidable through more careful planning on both the part of the instructor and the student. Students must master the ability to write clearly and concisely while developing a coherent and intellectually compelling argument. Certainly academic work demands it, but the ability is an asset much more widely across a range of professions.
Major writing assignments in the form of term papers in my classes are truly term papers in that students are encouraged to begin planning their paper very early in the term. Students are asked to write “position” papers on reading assignments/topics that they feel strongly about over the course of the term. For many students early position papers will become the kernel for further exploration and elaboration leading to the developed argument of a full term paper. Within the first half of the term, students submit a paper “proposal.” The proposal allows students to bring their ideas to me early on. They begin outlining their position and considering strategies for the full paper. Feedback from me as well as classmates helps shape the early process. I allow for presentations of “working papers” for just this purpose. We learn from each other. After further reading, discussion, and consideration, students then prepare a more elaborate “prospectus.” The prospectus is more detailed than the proposal, providing a clearer picture of what the essay is shaping up to be. By this point students present an idea of: (1) the scope of the paper; and (2) library or other research the topic might require. The prospectus describes: (1) potential problems and pitfalls; and (2) the limits of what they plan to do.
Finally, it includes a tentative outline of the essay. By writing them, students get an idea of what they want to say and what they know and don’t know. They should guide students toward the resources they need and suggest where they might need help early on, when they most need it. Rather than the end of term, “throw-away” paper, students learn the value of careful planning and ongoing feedback during which time they become increasingly invested in the topic they have chosen. Writing well requires a constant process of critiquing, revising, and improving one’s work. Through engaging students in this lengthier process, I encourage them to find the power in writing and learn the skills necessary for future academic and professional work.
This approach to writing the term paper develops important skills not only in writing but also in project development. Students learn to develop long-term projects by starting with small scale papers such as the term paper. For students taking a more applied approach by incorporating ethnography, they learn to recruit and coordinate subjects. For all students, they learn to design a project and to maintain records as they conduct research, gathering and organizing data, whether in the field or in the library.
Through preparing and delivering short presentations in class, students learn to apply the course material in innovative ways. They also learn the value of learning from others and collaboration. While seminar courses consist primarily of classroom discussion, all of my courses involve students actively working with ideas through sharing their positions on the material at hand. Presentations allow students to give careful consideration to topics of interest and importance to them. Students more likely to hold back in discussions now have the opportunity to share their prepared ideas and get constructive feedback as they engage in discussion with their peers. Students draw connections between the classroom and the “real world” setting. They also have the opportunity to practice speaking in public and to polish their rhetorical skills. Students are encouraged to include an audiovisual component in more show-and-tell style presentations, thereby challenging them to think multi-dimensionally about the subject. For some students, this modality may be far more helpful to them in learning the material. There are many ways to approach the material and we value the unique contributions of all students.
Small Group Discussions
Students are sometimes overwhelmed by their college classes, particularly as freshman. Even in the more intimate settings possible in smaller colleges where the size of the class may not be so daunting, the ideas can seem to swallow them up. In order to provide all students with a forum in which to discuss class material, I schedule regular small group discussions consisting of as few as three to four students per group. Each group chooses a secretary who records the group’s discussion findings. The discussion results are counted as a part of the students’ attendance and participation grade. Students who put obvious effort into the discussion and produce exceptionally insightful comments can receive extra credit. This format is especially useful for compensating for the situation of only a few students consistently contributing to class discussion.
Short Reaction Papers
I include this format as a way to get students to summarize what they have learned during a class discussion/lecture. I might use it during the last few minutes of class to check for comprehension and to assess which areas I need to clarify. Students might also be asked to summarize the results of a small (or large) discussion group and react to them thereby learning to synthesize and accurately represent diverse viewpoints while also taking a stand on the primary issue or topic at hand. The spontaneous nature of these reaction pieces also frees many students to explore ideas without inhibitions. These are not graded but may become the basis for lively classroom discussion.