Thursday, January 31, 2013

IS the purpose of Anthropology to make the world safe for difference?

I recently attended a workshop on Internationalizing Teaching and Learning (and came away with a great deal to think about - more posts later). 

During the workshop, we talked about leading students toward a more multicultural worldview. One of the participants asked me if it would be acceptable for that to be the whole purpose of an introductory anthropology class. I'll admit, the question took me aback, because it never occurred to me that there could be any doubt the answer is "yes!" After all, Ruth Benedict famously said that "the purpose of Anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference." (That's even our discipline motto, here at UMM.) 

Turns out, our discipline's a little odd that way.

Many disciplines (and even some anthropologists) worry that advocacy of diversity and social justice will taint them. Given the political climate of the last two decades, I understand the fear. I avoid overt commentary on current political questions in classes, because I don't want to be accused of trying to "indoctrinate" my students.

But it's not indoctrination to teach that the world is full of people who have different assumptions about, gender, race, religion, the family, etc. It's not indoctrination to mention that diversity is a fact of life, and a wonderful part of the human experience. And, believe it or not, it's not indoctrination to point out that our own assumptions about the world say a lot about our bests interests as a culture, and aren't necessarily in the best interests of other people.

The more I thought about the question, the more I realized that issues of multiculturalism and social justice are at the heart of teaching in anthropology. And you know what, they're at the heart of our country, too. Need proof? Read some of the angst-ridden articles about demographic trends written by Republican party operatives.

So embrace it, fellow anthropologists! Our business is creating paladins for diversity. Let's teach our students to go out and make that multicultural world safe for human difference!

OK, technically, paladins must have a lawful good orientation, and I consider anthropology to be a force for chaotic good, or, at most, neutral good, but you get my point. (Have I geeked you out yet?)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Teaching Literature Research Methods in Archaeology

My upper-division classes include lit-reviews. The first time I taught, I just gave students the research assignment and let them go. It was a complete disaster. In hindsight, it should have been obvious that if I wanted students to do research with primary sources, I had to teach them how to do it first!

I've tried different ways of teaching research methods, but this semester I finally found a series of steps that seems to be working (so far - I'll update more as the semester proceeds!)

The class is Latin American Archaeology. Each student is investigating an archaeological site in Latin America. (More about how the class is structured here.) 

Here's how I'm teaching research methods:

Students pick their sites very early. In the past, I've asked for a preliminary bibliography, but most students couldn't do this assignment well enough to really learn from it. So this time, I broke the preliminary bibliography into smaller chunks, and I'm giving the students more feedback in between. 

First, I took students to the computer lab and had them all search for their site name in AnthropologyPlus and WorldCat. I showed them how to build outward, by looking in the bibliographies of other resources, and searching for the names of the excavators. During class, the students created a preliminary list of all the site references they could find. They just copied them straight out of the databases, put them in a Word document, alphabetized by author, and sent them to me.

The next step: I give them comments on their bibliographies, including recommendations for which references would be most useful to them. If there weren't enough sources, I recommend they choose another site. If they missed critical resources, I showed them how to use the databases again. 

After getting my feedback, the students interlibrary loaned all the materials they needed. (We have a very small library, with little in the way of archaeological primary literature.) I gave the students feedback on what sources they should ILL, too. When I read through the reference lists, I see an obvious difference between an excavation report and a technical discussion of the chemistry composition of plaster. The students don't necessarily recognize the differences. (I've gotten a number of discussions of general site chronology that cite the paper on plaster.) The students were required to give me proof of ILL.

Finally, the students created their preliminary bibliographies for their sites. They put the references in the correct style, and dropped those references that were unlikely to be useful for their research.

In the future, I think I will add another step (or multiple steps), so the students revise their bibliographies as they continue with their research. I'm happy with the new system, though. The students have already created the best bibliographies (overall) of any class I've taught.