My first teaching experience was in Prague, Czech Republic, where I was trained to teach English as a foreign language. The experience of standing in front of a classroom of eager learners who could not understand me was a humbling and important formative start to my teaching career. It was humbling because I was unable to take anything for granted. Those students had no knowledge of English, so even the most basic instructions had to be taught. Formative, because in teaching those basic instructions I quickly learned to be patient, to build on skills and knowledge as the students learned, and to be clear in my explanations. While this last point may seem obvious, I find that keeping it in mind while I teach is helpful in facilitating understanding in students when teaching new concepts concerning theory or cultures that are foreign to them.
The techniques and methods I learned in Prague served me well when I found myself at the front of a seminar classroom a year later in Christchurch, New Zealand. I had just begun my Ph.D. research and was given an assistant position for two first-year, requisite courses. These seminar classes were designed to help the students get a clearer understanding of each week’s lecture topics. I utilized the sessions to explain the main points of the lecture and to lead discussion over pertinent topics in relation to those points. I used contemporary examples from around the world, including New Zealand, so that students could relate the topics to their own experience, while teaching me about some of the values and rules of New Zealand society. At the same time, because I was teaching students from a variety of cultures (New Zealand, South Africa, China, Japan, India, Maori, Britain, France), clarity became important as I could assume that my students had different cultural backgrounds than myself. These class sessions taught me the importance of discussion in the classroom.
Classroom discussion is an important way of giving students agency over their education. It is an opportunity for students to reflect, ask questions, direct the discussion and work their way through problems by applying the topics of the lecture to ethnographic examples in the readings or films. Discussion also allows the class to get a fuller understanding of the topic at hand by making linkages between the topic and its relevance to other subjects (e.g. How religion links to identity and how that religious identity then links to a group’s political position in society). I believe making the direct connection between what they are learning and ‘real world’ events shows students that Anthropology can give them the tools to understand those events and the conditions that create them. This kind of relevancy keeps students interested in class and in their education. Having patience in the classroom while students are building their critical thinking skills and making connections helps them to reinforce their feelings of empowerment over the knowledge they are gaining.
For example, in a recent class entitled ‘Environmental Anthropology’, the class was able to spend the semester discussing the relevancy of Environmental Anthropology and its theory and methods in contemporary life. In order to make it relevant to their lives and to ground the discussion in current events, we applied our discussions and research to indigenous environmental management techniques, how scientists can use ‘indigenous science’ to answer research questions and contemporary concerns surrounding our ideas of environment. Applying the theory and methods we learned throughout the semester, we were able to analyze various topics such as indigenous agency and rights, population, ideas of sacred ecology, conservation, development, concepts of nature, and globalization. As the semester progressed I witnessed the importance of discussion for students in understanding complex theory and how it could be applied to their own practical experience in reference to the topics at hand. This type of deeper understanding of theory and their own culture is knowledge that students will take with them through the rest of their education and into their post-university experiences. In fact, one of my students from a past section of this class has done just that. He started his Master’s at Texas A&M this semester in the Forestry department, where he will be working on a project that will study the interactions of Hispanic communities with local wildlife.
Further, I feel that Anthropology can help students to obtain a deeper understanding of the cultural diversity that exists both in the larger world and in our own society. As our culture and the world shifts to being more mobile and more diverse, this understanding of others and their behavior, values, and worldviews is becoming increasingly important. My role in the classroom is to help students move beyond their circle of familiarity in order to appreciate diversity and to be aware of the basis for it. Moreover, I feel that this point of view can be useful to any subject that the student decides to pursue.
Basically, I ask students to challenge ‘the way things are’ in order to clarify their understanding of social behaviors and practices. While this may come from a theoretical stance, how theory is applied and how data is interpreted should be creative, insightful, and make connections with other aspects of their own lives and experiences. Moreover, I think it is important to contrast their understanding with the diversity of cultural experiences that are available. This allows students to gain a perspective that leads to a deeper understanding of ‘what is happening’ rather than as a rationale of current practice (as in: ‘this is just the way it is’). That is the path toward achieving a holistic understanding of human behavior and interaction.
I have found assigning papers, presentations, and experiential projects bolsters this type of holistic understanding. In introductory classes, semi-structured projects help students to apply the new material to their own behaviors. For example, I have students track their trash for seven days and then write a report on their own behavioral patterns. This allows them to make connections between their environmental impact, consumption, spatial patterns of behavior and archaeology. This project also acts as a weeklong reflection on their lives at university. Those who are away from home for the first time, or on their own for the first time, tend to find this an eye opening assignment that allows them to challenge themselves and their newly emerging adult choices.
In upper division courses, I tend to leave paper and presentation topics open so that students can decide which aspect of the subject that they would like to engage. It also gives them the space to make connections with other material they may be researching for other courses. Further, I like to use projects that take students out of the classroom, so they can observe and analyze their surroundings and what goes on in them (e.g. doing mini-ethnographies, observations at the zoo, or service-oriented participation). I believe these types of cross connections concretize the range of possibilities for the student and his or her understanding of the applicability of theory and method. To facilitate these projects, I believe it is important to use both historical and current research examples, including my own research, to assist students in gaining a working knowledge of both anthropology and the world around them.
I believe it is important to use both historical and current research examples, including my own research, to facilitate student’s knowledge of both anthropology and the world around them. Using faculty research facilitates intellectual openness, allowing students to see their lecturers as working academics with whom they can study. Such openness creates a learning environment that supports student’s emerging ideas and helps them to foster rigorous critical thinking. This is an important skill that can be applied to other aspects of their education and non-academic lives. I also think it can be valuable to include students in research projects when it is appropriate, such as configuring data, conducting interviews, and assisting in observations. While supplying valuable data to the research, assisting in research gives a student first-hand knowledge of working fieldwork method and theory while benefiting from the supervision and experience of a professional.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I thoroughly enjoy teaching. I find that sharing the knowledge I have learned through my career and research has been fulfilling and educational. The adage that the teacher also learns from the students has been true for me, not only due to the variable personal experiences that students share in class but also from their different perspectives on the presented material. My experiences with students broaden my perspective and in doing so make me a better anthropologist. In turn, I am inspired to deepen my knowledge of anthropology even further so that I can better reach my students.