“We find things just like this in our yard!” There was excitement, but also puzzlement in this exclamation voiced by a young girl. The local primary school children had come to visit the site during my dissertation excavations and we were showing them some of the artifacts we had uncovered – like bits of ceramics, stone flakes, and spindle whorls. Her excitement at seeing the familiar combined with her bafflement over why we were so interested in it was clearly written on her face, as well as those of her classmates. Explaining to these children what makes these items important and how their context is crucial to this interpretation, and then watching their faces alight with curiosity and understanding was more than a teaching moment, it was also a learning moment for myself. From this, I saw how the familiar can be made more complicated and nuanced and how the simple act of shifting the context of discussion can also shift awareness. It is this type of understanding I strive for in my classrooms, to take the familiar, the everyday, and highlight its complexity and its deep resonance with the past, as well as showing how the past is relevant and inextricable from the present. But more than this, I see teaching and learning as interwoven elements where both instructor and student work together to forge new understandings of things and actions that may otherwise be taken for granted.
Students bring their own interests and goals to each course. At the start of each course I survey the class members using the course website to determine their motivations and goals for taking the course and their major academic and personal interests. I draw on these interests and goals when developing activities and supplemental materials to encourage maximal participation and also to help learners draw connections between course content and other elements of their lives. For example, while teaching a general education Introduction to Anthropology course, I discovered that out of 180 students not one was an anthropology major, but approximately half of the students were in engineering fields. With this knowledge I highlighted aspects of technology in class lectures, when appropriate, and looked for campus events that bridged anthropology and the math and engineering fields to emphasize the multidisciplinarity and wide applicability of anthropology to a variety of topics. This approach is part of a larger personal philosophy of treating students as whole persons, and not just as the students of anthropology in the moment in which I encounter them. This is a perspective I derived in part from my time as an academic advisor, as I helped students not just through their anthropology courses but their college career and occasionally life challenges. I want to know each student as a whole person, whether I interact with them in a class of 10 or 180.
The relationship between classroom knowledge and practice is one that is of particular concern to me as an archaeologist. I augment my classroom discussions with hands-on activities and analysis of real or ideal archaeological data sets that provide students with an opportunity to apply the social issues and theories we have discussed to the physical manifestation of the material record. I see so often how students in my archaeology classes are able to understand broad concepts better after having had an opportunity to put a portion of the concept into practice, such as developing artifact classifications or analyzing a hypothetical cemetery and applying concepts of social hierarchy and identity, that I now do the same in my other anthropology courses. Even if it is just applying concepts from the course to analyze a popular news article, the results of increased understanding, lively class discussion, and overall improved academic performance are the same.
I facilitate a classroom in which all students view their backgrounds as relevant to the themes of the course and appreciate that a diversity of experiences can aid everyone’s understanding. I promote an open classroom that fosters student participation in discussions and encourages students to draw on examples from their own lives that are relevant to the discussion. I recognize that students come from diverse backgrounds and in our discussions I am careful not to normalize any single perspective, or to expect a single student to speak for an entire population. For example, during a class conversation about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in my Introduction to Archaeology sections, I raised the issue of representation (self-representation and the ability to represent another group) and asked who identified themselves as part of a heritage group. This encompassed Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and so forth. By approaching the representation issue as how one’s heritage is portrayed, rather than how a minority group is portrayed, students were able to express their opinions on the issue and we as a class were still able to address the underlying issues of power.
In my courses I ask students to question taken-for-granted aspects of life. My classrooms are not simply about mastery of topical materials but also about exposure to different ways of life and developing skills to understand and be sensitive to those differences. Presenting controversial topics in class, such as racism, structural sources of poverty, or gender discrimination, is done to challenge students to think about the variety of ways that these issues exist and are dealt with in different cultures, and to frame class discussions and debates in logical and respectful ways. I believe that developing these skills, both of cross-cultural awareness and also respectful debate, are essential in our ever-more interconnected world. In my Novel Archaeology course, one of the goals was to explore the ways in which narratives about the past can be used to legitimate the present. In one class discussion a student brought up depictions of violence against women in a novel set in the Paleolithic era, contrasting behavior in the past with how rare such acts are now. There was a loud outburst, mainly from women in the class, asserting that such acts are not rare. We spent a significant portion of the class discussing campus sexual assault, domestic violence, and misogyny in contemporary society. While this discussion wasn’t planned on the syllabus, I recognized its necessity in the moment, and helped the class use the past to think about the present in new ways.
Expressing my passion for anthropology as a life-long student of the discipline is one of the easiest ways to engage students in the material. Through my enthusiasm for the subject, students see that I am engaged with the material, and that there are questions that still need to be answered, encouraging them to ask those questions and look for connections themselves. I share stories from my fieldwork and my research – both those moments of frustration and of discovery – to help my students understand that, for me, anthropology is not simply a job but a field I am invested in. I know that that majority of students who are in my classes will not be anthropology majors, so I make the most of the time I have with them, to convey the passion I have for a subject and encourage a similar drive in them. I recognize the responsibility I have to colleagues who will teach my students in the future, and the debt I owe to those who have taught them previously. If I can encourage students to develop the skills and drive to be life-long learners, then I will have fulfilled that responsibility.