Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Past Speaks to the Present

I was the grateful recipient of this year's University of Minnesota Morris Alumni Association Teaching Award, our main campus teaching award. Traditionally, the recipient serves as mace-bearer during commencement (I briefly set my robe on fire when the mace's glass head was hit by direct sunlight), and gives the (blissfully short) main speech at the Honors and Awards Ceremony the night before. The speech was well received, and I did not spontaneously combust even once. Win!

I took the opportunity to say a little about what lessons the deep past may have for students about to embark on the next stage of their lives. I've reproduced my remarks below, but cut off the introduction so the beginning sounds more awkward that it did during the actual event.

I’m an anthropologist, and my specialty is archaeology. I study and teach about the deep past. Like many topics that are part of the Liberal Arts, some may wonder what is the point of studying the deep past? What importance does it have to the present?

Our bodies – yours and mine -- are shaped by the past, through the DNA passed down from the parents here with us tonight, and the countless generations before them. Our communities are shaped by the past, through the history of our families, whether immigrant, indigenous, or carried here against their will. Our nation is shaped by the past, forged through the coming together of people whose struggles, for and against each other, created the institutions we rely upon today. The past, in other words, made us.

As Shakespeare once wrote: “What’s past is prologue.”

We read the prologue to a play to better understand, to better contextualize, the first act. Your first act. I teach about the past because I care about the future, and the future is sitting before me today, and you are about to embark on the great story of your lives. I could not be prouder or more confident of your ability to create a truly epic narrative.

So with that in mind, I want to bring to your attention two important lessons that the deep past can give to you (other than the obvious, like “never poke a sleeping mammoth”, or “a cave painting is worth a thousand words”)

First, the uniqueness of humanity is our ability to cooperate and create community. (No matter what your social media feed might look like). Like humans, gorillas will fight over territory, but even the most cranky preschooler could teach them a thing or two about sharing. Chimpanzees have been documented to commit murder, but never to work together in raising a child. Human cooperation – far more importantly than our technology – cultivated the landscape, raised the pyramids, and took us to the moon. All of human history is the history of community and cooperation, and sometimes, unfortunately, its dissolution. So I ask you to find your community; nurture, organize, and embrace it. United, you will do great things.

Second, we have always been more alike than we are different. Communities around the world have been connected since long before “globalization” became a modern buzz-word. Medieval kings in Zimbabwe traded with China; Arabic inscriptions have been found in Viking sites in Sweden; Midwestern farmers in the 3rd century AD traded for materials from the Rocky Mountains. We have always been interconnected.

Our modern barriers of race, class, nationalism, and religion – even warfare itself – are quite recent in human history, from the perspective of an archaeologist (which, granted, means anytime in the last 10,000 years). When the first cities rose in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago, Europeans still had dark skin like their cousins in Africa. Two thousand years ago, Rome created a vast empire where people of many ethnicities and religions lived in reasonable peace side by side. The same could be said of ancient empires in India, China, Chile, and Mexico. When Mohammed first preached tolerance for his spiritual cousins, the Jews and the Christians, he laid the foundation for thirteen-hundred years of coexistence in Islamic kingdoms.

So, don’t let anyone convince you that hostility towards those who are different from you is inevitable. Instead, create communities that cross national, class, racial, gendered, and religious boundaries. Make the world safe for human differences by focusing on our commonalities. In doing so, you are calling on the deep history of human connectedness.

I leave you with this final, and most important message about the past: Don’t forget from whence you came. Your family and community shaped you. We count on you to return the favor.

Congratulations, honored students. I can’t wait to see what your first act looks like. I know it will do us proud.

Thank you.

Obviously, I'm focusing on the positive, but it's a graduation speech; it's probably not the best time to dwell on conquest and colonialism. And, yes, one can quibble about details, -- I had five minutes, I didn't have time to give the whole song and dance about alloparenting in chimpanzees! -- but I stand by the general message. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Writing Plausible but Incorrect Multiple Choice Answers

It's time to write final exams and many of us are wracking our brains to come up with 3-4 incorrect answers for each multiple choice question. I actually enjoy writing exams, but I've talked to enough faculty who struggle to write plausible incorrect answers that I put together the tips below.

One unrelated suggestion for making multiple choice exams that better reflect your students' learning: if you give an exam on Moodle or some other teaching platforms, you can create multiple choice questions with more than one correct answer. Incorrect answers will lower the point total (otherwise students would just fill in every bubble), but unless students mark all the correct answers they won't get full credit. This gives them less than a 25% shot at guessing the right answer.

Onward to tips for writing plausible but incorrect multiple choice answers:

1) This is obvious, but the first step is to include any common misconceptions. For example, if students frequently confuse evolution in general with the process of natural selection in particular, then include a popular definition of natural selection as one of the options. (If you don't know and are curious, "a" is the correct answer in all of the examples below.)
Which of these is the definition of evolution?
                  a. change through time in allele frequencies in a population
                  b. survival of the fittest 
If there are multiple common misconceptions, include them all:
Which of these is the definition of evolution?
                  a. change through time in allele frequencies in a population
                  b. survival of the fittest 
                  c. progress toward better species
                  d. the improvement of the gene pool

2) Once I've added common misconceptions as answers (or if there aren't any for a particular question), I riff off of the main phrases in the question for plausible-sounding answers that are actually unrelated to the concepts being tested. For example:
What is the Complete Replacement theory of modern human origins?
                  a. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then out-competed all other Middle Pleistocene hominins
                  b. Modern humans originated from the complete (or nearly complete) replacement of chimpanzee genes with new human genes
                  c. Modern humans originated when they exchanged (replaced) a reliance on instincts with learned, cultural behaviors
These answers combine common misconceptions about human evolution (that we have no instincts, that we're 100% different from apes) with plausible meanings of the phrase "complete replacement". Note that the weasel-wording in choice b is what really makes that work. The whole "complete (or nearly complete)" just sounds so plausibly academic.

3) The alternative to #2 (or an addition, I suppose) is to make the wrong answers descriptions of the alternative theories taught. As so:
What is the Complete Replacement theory of modern human origins?
                  a. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then out-competed all other Middle Pleistocene hominins 
                  b. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens evolved locally throughout the Old World, sharing traits between regions through extensive gene flow 
                  c. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then reproduced with other Middle Pleistocene hominins in the Old World

4) Finally, if all else fails, I include one or more "big word". If a student doesn't really know the material, they may be tempted by an answer that sounds "fancy" or "scienc-y", even if it doesn't make sense. It's best if this is a vocabulary word they're supposed to know (two birds with one stone!) Similarly, a name they don't know (of a person or place) may seem plausible if they're uncertain. Some examples:

Which of these traits was found in Australopithecines compared to modern humans?
                  a. long arms relative to body size
                  b. encephalization 
                  c. holocene adaptations
                  d. reduced prognathism
                  e. glaciation cycles

Denisovans were:
                  a. fossils from the genus Homo found in Denisova, Siberia, whose DNA is found in some  modern humans
                  b. the discoveries of Piotr Denisov, whose research on pre-modern human skulls led to the discovery of Broca's area 
                  c. fossil Homo erectus specimens found at the site of St. Denis in southern France
                  d. a species related to Australopithecus afarensis named for their discoverer, Denis Ovans. 

What tricks do you use? Leave your tips in the comments, please!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Immigration Teach-In

UMM's Students for a Democratic Society held a Day of Action on immigration this week. One event was a faculty teach-in which brought together a diverse group of disciplines to (briefly!) give their perspective on the issue. Faculty from world languages, history, anthropology, psychology, education, and political science spoke. It was one of the more effective examples of the power of the liberal arts that I've had the privilege of witnessing.

I presented on how anthropologists understand differences between people from different racial or ancestral groups. We only had five minutes to speak. As any faculty member knows, five minutes is only enough time to clear your throat and introduce yourself, so I wrote out my comments and spoke very, very fast. I'm sharing them here:

Our nation has a long history of believing that immigrants – or any people whose ancestry is different from that of the people in charge – have lower intelligence, poorer skill sets, lesser work-ethics, or lower inherent worth. The field of Biological Anthropology developed in the context of studying just this question. In the 18th and 19th century, early Anthropologists were part of society’s elite: mostly male, mostly Anglo-Saxon, mostly Protestant. They used everything from IQ tests to skull measurements to evolutionary theory to “prove” that people of different ancestries were inferior in some inherent way.
 Since then, Anthropology had learned a lot about human differences, so from that perspective I’d like to suggest two things you should keep in mind when you hear blanket pronouncements about the inherent characteristics of people based on their ancestry or nation of origin:
 One, racial categories are reflections of power, not biology. Every one of us is different, genetically and physically. But, our differences are continuous and varied; they don’t fit neatly into discrete categories, but we as a society create racial categories that are artificially discrete. Let’s consider a white woman who has two children. One child’s father is Black, the other child’s father is white. The children are siblings, so they are very close biologically, with a lot more genetic overlap than I have with any other white person in this room. But, socially, one child is Black, the other is White. Race is not a reflection of biology, but a social category.
 These social categories were created to fit social needs, not to reflect human biology. For example, Early Colonial America didn’t use racial categories the way we do. People from Africa and Europe could be free servants; people from Africa and Natives of North America could be enslaved. They weren’t “Black” or “White”. But, (to elide a lot of history) the European colonists couldn’t meet their labor demands with free labor, so they created a harsh system of slavery, different from what had been seen previously in Europe. This was slavery for life, handed down for generations. And because this system didn’t fit with moral precedents, they also created a race-based system to justify it. They invented “Black” and “White” to justify this brutal system based on claimed “inherent differences” between people.
 This isn’t the only time our culture (or others) have created racial categories to reflect or serve the power structure of society. Through history, what our nation has defined as “White” has depended on who was in power. Many European immigrant groups (Irish, Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans) were not considered White. As those immigrants were assimilated into the U.S., their racial status changed.
 The second thing you should keep in mind when you hear blanket pronouncements about the inherent characteristics of people based on their ancestry or nation of origin: everything Anthropologists have learned from the late 1800s until now suggests that environment is far more important than “inherent biological differences” in understanding differences in behavior, skills, and success between groups with different ancestral backgrounds. As I said, early Anthropologists spent a lot of time trying to measure “inferior racial characteristics” in people from different parts of the world, but we modern Anthropologists like to forget those flawed studies and instead date the founding of our field from the work of Franz Boas in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Franz Boas showed that the “racial characteristics” that his fellow anthropologists had measured in immigrant groups, such as differences in skull shape, disappeared in their American-born children. .When immigrant’s children grew up in the U.S., in the same environment as “native-born” Americans, they had the same traits and outcomes. So, the “inherent biological differences” that these scientists thought they were measuring weren’t inherent at all, they were a product of the environment
 We now have more than 100 years of data showing that when people from different ancestral backgrounds are given the same opportunities to succeed, they do. We now know that IQ, SAT-scores, and other standardized tests  -- which are very flawed measure of intelligence -- are a better reflection of socio-economic status than race, for example. We can look at twin studies of genetically identical people raised in different environments which show that environment – particularly socio-economic status – has a major impact on standardized test scores. We can look at standardized tests of Americans from different races who are raised outside the racial caste system of the U.S. and see that, when raised without constant exposure to those biases, racial differences in standardized test-scores disappear. We can look at people of color from different socioeconomic backgrounds. All of these studies show that standardized test scores reflect how many years of good-quality, well-funded schools you attended, not inherent intelligence differences between people.
 Too often, our society hasn’t given different communities the same opportunities to succeed. Our society throws up innumerable barriers in front of African-American, Latino, and Native American Indian people. Individuals in these communities face discrimination, housing segregation, school segregation and underfunding, and fewer professional opportunities and barriers to advancement. To the extent that we, as a society, put similar barriers in front of new immigrants, we can expect similar inequalities in education, wealth, or skill attainment. But, this is a social problem, not an inherent difference in ability between those who were born in this country and those who were not.
 Trust me, I’m an anthropologist. We have tried for hundreds of years to find measurable differences in the intelligence, morality, work-ethic, or inherent worth of different communities. The only differences we’ve found are the ones we’ve created ourselves.