Teaching undergraduates

Michael C. Stone (mcs@MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU)
Wed, 14 Dec 1994 12:17:36 -0600

This comes in very belated response to Mike Lieber's post to ANTHRO-L last
May regarding teaching introductory anthropology. I revive the issue in
hopes of generating some discussion on the vagaries of teaching
undergraduates, a perennial hair-pulling topic for many here. Passages from
Lieber's post suggest a remarkably sensibile pedagogical approach to
involving students with the material, and giving them some responsibility
and personal control over what they learn and how they go about learning
more generally. Lieber wrote:

>I use take home exams to test them on the readings (and to direct their
>reading) -- they get the exam questions a month before the due date, and
>I use section meetings to work on the exam questions. I encourage
>students to work on the exam questions in groups, and plagiarism
>consists only of copying someone else's paper.

>...I use my Intro course as a reading comprehension course--that's made
>very plain in the syllabus, along with an outline of how I intend to use
>ethnographies to build up their reading skills.

>...I don't worry about critical reading--they get plenty of that in other
>courses. I focus on creative uses of ethnographic description to solve
>problems, to compare contexts (patterns... I try to get them to build
>whole system descriptions themselves

I like this approach in that it subverts the mystification of subject
material that seems to occur perhaps especially in anthropology, where many
students find that their memorization and cramming orientation fails them
miserably. "Will that be on the exam, Dr. X?" You tell me!

I'm playing with the idea of staging a research writing assignment in
smaller and more manageable increments to encourage early and sustained
involvement, and to sabotage the tendency to procrastination that often
prevails in writing projects:

1) statement of the research problem, together with an annotated
bibliography of at least five scholarly sources they will use for a research
paper (due four weeks into a semester course, with prior office
consultations strongly encouraged).

2) first draft (due 7-8 weeks into the class, with staggered turn-in dates
so I can rationalize the work load; earlier turn-ins possibly encouraged by
a small evaluation incentive)

3) final paper (due during the last two weeks of the semester, as in item
two, above)

4) an oral presentation of the work-in-progress either as a mid-term
assignment, or during the last two weeks of class -- for bigger classes,
this might have to be optional, or could take place in discussion sections
in front of a smaller group of their student colleagues.

5) Each stage of the overall writing assignment would be evaluated
independently for effort, content, and timely submission; the final paper
also would be evaluated for adequacy of response to prior comments and

6) In smaller, upper-division classes with what Texas calls "a strong
writing component," I'm considering encouraging team research on more
specialized topics (these are smaller classes, typically under 25 students).
Any thoughts or experience with such an approach?

7) A query: any experience out there with having students turn in their work
via an e-mail "drop" or via diskette? (For IBM-Windows users, there is a
shareware program that converts MAC files from MAC diskettes inserted into
your IBM drive -- the program is called MACette, and can be downloaded via
FTP, Telnet, Gopher or WWW. Call your local campus computer consultants --
just be sure to check for viruses first!). This has the virtue of providing
a ready reference to and record of the student's prior effort, and cuts down
on paper waste. It's also possible to bracket comments right into the
student text, then e-mail it back to them directly. They get responses in
real time as quickly as the instructor finishes them. This, of course, only
scratches the surface of electronic pedagogical possibilities...

8) As for encouraging students to actually *read* assigned ethnographies
(the original subject of Lieber's post), in the past I have asked for (what
I call) an "ethnographic reader's report," written with the
anthropologically informed potential reader in mind, less a "book report"
than an evaluation of the work's efficacy as an ethnography. These are 500
words maximum, enough to prime students to consider both the nature of
ethnography and the essence of the work in question. This prepares them for
a subsequent take-home essay question reflecting upon the work in broader
anthropological-philosophical terms.

That said, Human Organization 53(4) just arrived today with Michael Dean
Murphy's timely "Episodes of Accountability in the Teaching of
Anthropology." Any early responses to Murphy's (for me, at least)
thoughtful and instructive reflection upon the teaching mission?

Michael Stone
Department of Anthropology
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712