I'm impressed. How 'bout you.

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 15 May 1996 09:44:00 +0900

The following message is forwarded from ASAO-NET, with permission from Mike
Leiber, who adds greetings to all his old friends here.


Subject: Courses, reading, and the over-emphasized "writing problems"
To: Multiple recipients of list ASAONET <ASAONET@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU>

>From Don Gardner's description of his situation, I'd say that mine at the
University of Illinois at Chicago is not all that different (except for our
student population being a bit more ethnically diverse). I have to disagree
with Lin that the "writing across the curriculum" materials are all that
helpful, particularly at the lower division undergrad level. I'll take a
radical step and say that, on the basis of my experience teaching at Oregon,
Nevada (Reno), Seattle, Chicago, College of Micronesia, and Bryn Mawr,
writing problems are not only overrated, but for the most part they are
non-existant. Except for a very few learning impaired people, writing problems
are nothing more than symptoms of underlying problems of reading comprehension
and disciplined thinking procedures. When a student knows what it is that
he/she wants to say, the writing problems suddenly disappear. The essays are
not always elegant, but they are clear and grammatically correct. Suffice it
say that since I began structuring my undergraduate courses as courses in
reading comprehension and logical skills, I haven't seen any writing problems.

The most important component of the course, therefore, is the reading list.
The next most important consideration is what you want them to do with those
readings. The third priority is your strategy for getting them do do what
you want them to do with the reading. Here is where your situation differs
somewhat from ours in Chicago, and I'm not sure just what to do about it. For
undergrads, particularly in intro courses, ethnographies are the most important
assignments. No collection of articles gives you or the students sufficient
contexts for understanding what goes on in a community and why. I have tried
teaching with and without a text. If cost is a consideration, then Barrett's
little book, _Culture and Conduct_, is a good compromise.

My reading list changes a bit from one year to the next, but in a 16 week
semester, I assign 6 ethnographies and one text (Schultz and Lavenda, but I'm
trying out Martha Ward's _A World Full of Women_ this summer). If I had to
do it with 4 ethnographies, they would be--in order--Turnbull's _The Forest
People_, Chagnon's _Yanamamo_, Weiner's _The Trobrianders_, and Steven Lansing,
_Priests and Programmers_. I choose these for variety in adaptations and the
relation of adaptation to social organization. Turnbull is a nice intro to
ethnographic reading, but more importantly, it has several uses--and one of the
major points in my teaching is getting across the idea that you can use the
same book for more than one purpose. What I want them to get out of their
reading are: (1) the idea of pattern in social order and in cultural premises
(2) patterns can be compared
(3) systemic features of social orders and systemic change

The strategies I use combine the way I test them and train them to think out
the test question (by devoting each "tutorial" section to one issue that their
test essays must address and how to think about it). This means that I don't
bother with critical reading of the text. They'll get that later and in lots
of other courses. I'm concerned with training them to use their creative
capacities to recognize patterns in the data. I give them take home essays,
two questions per test, and they get the first exam questions with their
syllbus. They get their next exam the day they hand in their completed essays.
Thus, they have 3 weeks to a month to do the exam, and I have those 3 to 4
sessions to train them. I work with one TA (for 130 students) preparing what
we will do in each tutorial section--usually answering a specific question,
e.g., what do the Pygmy mean by the term "noise"? For each suggestion, I
demand that they back up their answer by citing passages from the book. This
takes patience, because you have to stand there silent as they find them. One
thing that I am very stubborn about--and they get used to it--is fuzziness.
I do not allow the terms "sort of" or "kinda" as answers to a question. I
demand that they use technical terms accurately and that their answers be
specific and clear. I will stop them, make them rephrase, reread, and whatever
THEM. It takes them a couple sessions to get used to this, but once they do,
you find that they're reading more carefully. So with the noise question,
students have to unpack the semantic referents of this word, which are several
in the text. They've gotten started on cultural analysis. I might use a
section for this if I asked a question like, What Pygmy concept contrasts with
their word for noise, and what does this contrast have to do with Pygmy social
order? Having unpacked noise, I leave them to find the contrasting term and
unpack it. I will not devote a section to song, but what I will do is reserve
the section just before the exam is due to answering any questions they have
students discuss it. I do encourage students to work together on exam
questions, but each has to write his/her own essay.

I use the first exam on the Pygmy to get across the relation between symbols
and social relationships, e.g., the song/noise contrast or comparing the
Pygmy and Bantu villagers' versions of the elima and molimo. The other
question concerns the relationship between the Molimo ritual and the
intensified productive activity that it necessitates. This question sets
them up for Lansing's book, where a temple hierarchy and ritual requirements
organize the irrigation system of an entire mountain region. When I move to
Yanamamo, I ask one question specific to the Yanamamo social organization and
one that compares Yanamamo with Pygmy, e.g., comparing sister exchange.

Each exam builds on the last exam, so the questions interlock. Each exam
includes previous ethographies in the questions. For example, in the first
edition of Yanamamo, Chagnon has a good deal to say about female infanticide.
In the recent edition, he only mentions that he will not talk about it
because he doesn't want the government to have the information--like no one
can go to the library and read his first edition. What I do is to tell the
class about female infanticde and its effect on the male-female ratio. Then
I give them the following question: What would be the results for Yanamamo
ecology, economy, and political organization of their ceasing the practice of
female infanticide. Answer this question with a flow diagram tracing the
effects in a step-by-step order with a brief essay explaining your diagram.
Assume no outside interference in this process of effects. This gives me a
chance to work with displaying how the Yanamamo social order is put together.
It also is an opportunity to force them to think in a series of if-then logical
steps. Here you have to be careful to disallow logical jumps and to get them
far enough to see that a single result of an if -then sequence may have more
than one effect, e.g., > women-> larger population..> food requirements..>
\_> more available wives..<female exchange value

Once you get them going, you find that they can complete the diagram on their
own and that their essays tend to be very concise. What you've done with this
question is to set up another question once they've read Lansing's account of
the Green Revolution disaster in Bali. Would the Green Revolution technology
have been sustainable if it had been organized by the tradition water temple sy
stem? Then follow that with--Is the hypothetical case of change in Yananamo
with ceasing female infanticide more like the hypothetical Balinese case or
the actual Balinese case?

I do this with introductory students--a mix of freshmen to seniors and
every ethnic group in Chicago. They bitch at the work, but they do just fine.
They leave the class with some reading skills and some respect for their own
intelligence--and I make sure that they understand the intellectual level at
which they have successfully operated. I know that they're not supposed to
be able to operate at that level, but I take advantage of their ignorance of
this "fact" and demand it, and they, in their ignorance, respond by operating
at that level. Most of these kids are pretty smart and adaptable, so you can
con them into learning reading and thinking skills by acting naive, like you
don't know that they're not supposed to do that and like you don't knwo that
their real problem is writing skills.

I know that the price of books is a problem. Let me make a suggestion. Rent
the books. Have the department buy them and then "sell" then to the students
with the stipulation that they can sell them back for x amount less than they
bought them for if the books are unmarked. Set the price below the retail cost
and in two years, the books have paid for themselves and you use the profits to
buy more books.


As my header indicates, I'm impressed. It would still do me good to take a
course like this. How do you feel about it?

John McCreery

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo