Re: how applicable/beneficial is anthropology ??

mike shupp (ms44278@HUEY.CSUN.EDU)
Mon, 1 Jul 1996 20:40:08 -0700

First I wrote:

> >> Thanks for your vote, and I hope we can get a bit more discussion
> >> on this topic-- particularly on the introductory curriculum. I've
> >> heard the argument that courses for beginners ought to be easy,
> >> because they're a recruiting vehicle; I understand it, but what it
> >> suggests, IMHO, is simply that anthropology professors have
> >> inferiority complexes.

Then, Mon, 1 Jul 1996, John H. Relethford wrote:

> Sorry to have been so brief the first time around.
> I have no problem with introductory courses being simpler than advanced
> courses (but not necessarily easy), and agree that more scientific rigor
> needs to be commonplace in such classes (as well as the entire
> discipline). We need to see more quantification where possible (and
> detailed discussions of problems in operationalizing many of our
> variables). There need not be a lot of formal mathematics at the
> introductory level, but there needs to be discussion of the relationship
> between correlation and causation, the precise definition of a mean and
> what can be inferred about individuals, the partitioning of within-group
> and among-group variation, and random processes. Most of the time all of
> these are dealt with in physical anthropology, and it is high time they
> get introduced in other introductory courses. If you are going to talk
> about human diversity (cultural or biological) the statistical way of
> thinking is critical.
> The other thing that needs to be emphasized in introductory courses (in
> all science and "social science" discipllines, not just anthropology) is
> the nature of the scientific method and hypothesis testing. Instead of
> making blanket statements that reflect our own personal ideologies (e.g.,
> raising taxes is good, or raising taxes is bad), let's get students
> involved in trying to figure out how to test various propositions. In many
> cases we can't, but a discussion of the reasons why not could be very
> valuable.

Rather than respond point by point, I'd like to mention how the
introductory students in another discipline (electrical engineering)
got their initial course training in another age (30 years ago, or
thereabouts) at MIT.

To begin with, MIT students of that day didn't take engineering
courses as freshmen. They took 2 semesters of calculus, two semesters
of chemistry, two semesters of introductor physics, and two semesters
of humanities (typically, "The Greek Tradition" and "The Bible as
Literature.") Most took an additional course or two in introductory
computer programing or laboratory physics, or language.

The 250-300 sophomores (about 1/3 of the class) who sat down in the
largest lecture hall on campus the day after fall registration each
year to begin taking 6.01, the introductory course in circuit theory
and linear differential equations, had certainly heard of electrical
engineering, but that was about it. Many were just curious. And
by yet mid year, 200-250 of those 250-300 students would decide each
year that they had to become electrical engineers, and most of them
made it. Probably more than half went on to advanced degrees.

It was a well taught course. In fact, it was probably the best taught
course at MIT, by a wide margin, and the EE department worked very
hard to make sure of that. Typically the man in charge of the course
was young but tenured; this one course was his only teaching assignment
(and he had probably spent a year preparing himself for the ordeal).
In a way, it was a plum assignment-- whether by curse or praise, at
the end of the year, the man in charge of 6.01 would be the one
EE professor whose name was known by every other professor and every
student and every janitor and cook's assistant on campus. It
probably bred ulcers; not many 6.01 profs repeated the experience.

In terms of classes, 6.01 had 3 components: a lecture lasting one hour,
typically on Tuesday and Thursday, for the whole enrollment; a
recitation section for each 12-15 students, generally taught by a
2nd or 3rd year grad student, meeting once a week, and a tutorial
meeting for an hour or more each week with another grad student.
Generally the recitation sections recapped the lectures, often with
alternate approaches to understanding the hard stuff. Tutorials were
for shepherding students through their homework assignments.
The 50 or so teaching assistants met with the lecturer each Friday
afternoon for 2 to 3 hours.

There was a very good textbook, the contents of which are not germane
here. It was written for the course by a former lecturer and went
through innumerable mimeographed versions before a final draft went
to a publishing house. It did not read like a novel, but it was
clear enough-- not a few sophomores sailed through differential
equations by ignoring the (truly awful) math text and relying on
what they had learned in 6.01.

The meat of the course, however, was homework. A typical weekly
assignment consisted of 20 pages, with 5 or 6 major problems,
usually subdivided into half a dozen segments each, which led
the student by the hand through the reasoning. Often this involved
giving a third explanation of black box equivalent circuits and
other basic points. The typical student probably worked from 6pm
to 1 am two nights a week to complete his homework; almost always
this was an individual effort. Problem sets were due at the start
of the Tuesday lecture; they never failed to be graded and returned
by the end of Thursday.

There were also 2 hour long exams and a three hour final.

Please react.

I don't propose this a model for teaching anthropology. I
describe it as an alternative to the one-teacher-and-thirty-
students-in-a-box method that seems to be the standard, and
to the notion that courses are made more attractive by
making them simple and easy.
Mike Shupp
California State University, Northridge