Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Teaching Tips for Newbies: The Heckler

I had a lovely email from one of you out there.  Its that time of year again...here they come...the student hordes.  And for some of you out there, its time to start teaching them.  So I was asked for advice in teaching the Cultural class, especially in the conservative areas of the big old U.S. of A.  Deep in the heart of Texas, home of Govenor anti-evolution, anti-science, dumber-than-a-box-of-Good-Hair, there is no shortage of teaching trauma.

So, I will tap into my pompous know-it-all streak and attempt to give a series of posts where I pretend I have some answers.  Be nice when you correct me, though.  No one likes there soft, wibbly bits exposed for public ridicule.  And feel free to join in with your tips, show us your wibbly bits.

We will start with general classroom management:  worst case scenario.   The one difficult student who seems to hate you.  (Truthfully for me, its probably a slightly older white guy who arrives suspicious of our entire discipline and with a penchant for listening to Rush is Reich)  Do not fight with that one difficult student.  You will lose.  You are never going to win with the close-minded.  Ever.  Don't try.  Here is why: many of those students sitting in that class are on your side but they aren't going to say anything.  They are the "Richard Nixon silent majority".  They want to learn.  Yes, they do.  They don't want to witness a fight.  It  makes everyone uncomfortable.  Heck, it makes you uncomfortable.  Try to remember:  that one difficult student is just one difficult student.  Teach the crowd.  Develop a repetoire of useful phrases even if they are dorky (freely admit that they are dorky).  Say "we are putting on our anthropology hats when we walk in the door.  You don't have to agree but you do have to learn to think like an anthropologist".  Then repeat that simple mantra in various forms throughout the semester.  "Well, anthropologists say...."  Well,  that isn't really acceptable in the discipline...."  "That interpretation doesn't work for anthropologists...."  Use these phrases with that one difficult student rather than allow them to pick a fight about an issue you have not chosen to discuss.  Don't be weak.  Learn to redirect, instead.

Say for example, that you are discussing languages and the heckler loudly proclaims that it is just fine if all the languages of the world become extinct and we all speak English.  Respond with, "well, you do realize that that would be a problem for anthropologists don't you?  After all, we study people, and culture, and languages, and we kind of like them, you know."  Now, I know you want to intellectually (and maybe literally) rip the heckler's arms off and beat him/her to death with the bloody nubs but really the class doesn't want to witness that.  (Despite their alarming propensity to know far more about those Grand Theft Auto games than is healthy for them.)

Keep the class on your side and the heckler will flounder against the rocks of universal disapproval.  Pretend that you are Sandra Bullock and take the high road.  Pretty soon your ex and his tattooed girlfriend will have their T.V. show cancelled but you will always be rich and beautiful and beloved.....Its a fantasy people, work with me here.

Truth be told, you will probably have many happy classes without ever having to deal with the heckler but you need to be ready, just in case.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Has anyone seen my retirement?

A couple of quarters, 4 pennies and a linty sourball in a small beaded change purse.  Anyone?  Anyone?

OMG, its so hot...

We all died and went to hell, didn't we?  Not Dante's hell but the other metaphorical understanding of it.  Isn't someone supposed to tell us that we have arrived?

I know I should write something deep and meaningful but I think my brain has exceeded the recommended  level on the Scoville Scale.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Advice for Newbies (and some oldies): things not to do in archaeology class

In the middle of an Archaeology lecture (pardon me, I mean *broadcast*) on seriation, when you are seeking a relevant example in an attempt to be appealing, do not look around the room and seize on what seems to be an obvious example:

(*ssh* tattoos)

Those members of the current generation who have committed to the process and attach great meaning to it do not want to hear that someday they may be on the dying end of a battleship curve.  This....does....not...go...over....well.  At all.

They will no longer find the work of Deetz and Dethlefsen charming.  And you might have, actually, had a chance with that but...nope.  Not now.  Battleship sunk.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pedagogy Rant: Part 2

So, here is part 2 of the rant that I owe you.  Its a simple bit:  we as academics ought to know better than to create these ridiculous straw men based on some kind of perceived bipolarity.  Providing information in lecture/discussion format works very, very well for some subject matters.  Group assignments work very, very well for some subject matters.  Stop presenting pedagogy as if it is a magic pill in a one size fits all world.  Sticking all of us teaching professionals in a metaphorical snuggie (following the one size fits all thought process here?) is not the way to go.

Or thanks to commenter, Tony (of Ethnography.com--I can never tell if I should put that stuff.  Yell at me if I shouldn't), we have this one:
 "You are not a sage on the stage, but a guide by the side!"
Thanks, Tony.  I, totally, snorted.

I will leave you with this thought.  A dear friend and colleague of twenty years stopped by to chat.  He has embraced the non-"broadcasting" model.  I asked:  "what, exactly, do you do now?"  "Oh, I give them crossword puzzles."  "Crossword puzzles?"  "Sure, I divide them in groups and they fill them out together to learn the terms.  Then I go over them the last ten minutes of class.  It is, actually, much easier for me...and, you know, I just don't care anymore."

For every bad "broadcast" experience of 400 distracted students passively allowing words to wash over their rapidly-texting minds; I can find you a class of 30 students, pushed together in groups, rapidly-texting while one of their kind is forced to fill out a crossword puzzle.

Can we please have a more intelligent discussion than this mess.

I am looking at you Mr. NPR guest, Don Tapscott. (Read the comments.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Lecture is not "Broadcasting": A rant in two parts

Monday, Monday.....

I just spent 3 hours responding to Discussion Board posts on my Distance Learning course.  I have two 5 week courses running for our Summer II term.  One Cultural Anth and one Archy class.  I have many lessons fresh in my mind.  Yes, they, always, teach me something these classes and students of mine.

At my institution we are being required to undergo 5 separate trainings in a two year window.  Somehow, we faculty have become a "problem".  That degree-thing that we have?  That makes us content-masters and we shouldn't be that.  We are to be facilitators.  I feel a bit like the intelligentsia under Pol Pot being sent off to the agricultural collectives.  That is, of course, a horrendous metaphor but the package of behaviors driving these trainings are remarkably similar and that is worth noting.

This is my understanding of the content of these mandatory trainings.  The methods of teaching a standard lecture class have been labeled "broadcasting".  Someone, somewhere (I do know who but I choose not to invoke names) has decided that I stand in front of groups of students and deliver information as if "broadcasting" to the multitudes.  This is a "bad thing" because it does not engage students nor make them part of their own learning process.

It is a ridiculous and inaccurate straw man.  I am not teaching classes of 400.  I have a cap of 36 and given that it is a community college, my attendance is likely to be in the twenties at most.  I don't stand there droning on, I interact with my students in an educational discussion.  However, this is deemed "not good".  I am to let them learn themselves through group activities.  I don't, necessarily, have a problem with groups activities.  In fact, I did a lot of them many years ago when I was at University.  This, of course, doesn't fit in with the straw man of the educational consultants and experts of today and, thus, the re-training that I require.  They argue that I teach through lecture because that was the method I learned by.  I wonder if these folks, in fact went to a University.  We learned a lot of different ways.  In many science classes we had labs, in my Archaeology classes we did lots and lots of group projects.  Steve Plog made me work in a group counting the trees on campus (survey strategy exercise)--thanks for that, Steve.  Shocking to think that my professors dovetailed their teaching to the skill/knowledge needing to be learned!  Shocking to think that one size fits all wasn't and isn't part of the educational process anywhere that I know--that is, outside of Distance Learning classes.  OH, SNAP!

When Groups Go Bad:  how about we talk about what groups can't do that an expert can?

Back to my Distantly Learning class.  (I did bring that up for a reason, you know.) I have a series of Discussion Boards in which my students discuss important issues in Cultural Anthropology.  One of the Boards is on anthropological ethics.  I give them a case from the AAA website and ask them to discuss what they might do.  (I know this isn't really doing ethnography but I am opposed to allowing survey course level students to conduct any fieldwork for fear of the potential damage they could do to a community.  We can debate that at another time.)  At the moment, the case I have posted is Case 16:  What's in that Bottle, What's in that Pipe.  Here.  I like it because Vine Deloria has a comment up which, completely and quite beautifully, turns the whole issue on its ear (and makes me chuckle with evil glee.)  I ask them to refer to our ethics code in their answer.

I was greeted with a pile of new posts over the weekend which, first of all, excerpted pieces of the ethics code which were completely misunderstood.  I have noticed that in recent years that many students feel that just any old quote will do and it really doesn't matter if the quote supports the argument or not.   Further than that, however, was the disconcerting trend for the students to engage in their own group think.  Each successive post tended more and more to an agreement that it was the job of the anthropologist to inform these "Native Americans" about the dangers of alcohol abuse.  Whatever we all think about "students today", I think most of us in the trenches would happily support the notion that they are not reading with any care nor are they very good at critical thinking.  And they want to "save" everyone.  Who in the group is capable of revealing their own cultural biases?  I assure you that it is rare for them to do it for themselves.  Who is going to use the very skill set that we anthropologists are taught?  Who is going to ask these questions:

 1.  My brother is a welder.  At the end of a hard week of manual labor, he has been known to pick up a six pack of beer and throw some hamburgers on the grill for his family.  Do you assume that my brother has an alcohol problem?  Why would you assume that a person of Native American descent abuses alcohol because they want to purchase some form of alcohol?

1.  If you were writing an article on British music and had the opportunity to interview (the regretfully late) Amy Winehouse on her musical influences, would you take that opportunity to lecture her on the dangers of drug abuse?  Would that be individually respectful, as required by the AAA Code?  Would it, in fact, "work"?

2.  If you were an anthropologist in Peru studying the thought process behind the "guinea pig healing" that you saw, would you communicate to the people you were interviewing all the things that were "wrong" with what they are doing?  If you objected to the killing of the guinea pig, do you have the right, as an anthropologist, to share those objections or demand that they stop this practice?  Should you tell them they need to go to a "real" doctor?

Who can continue to frame the issues in the terms they need.  And, let's be honest, I can't always do that easily.  But I know how to try to do it.  I know how to push them and push back against them.

While all those people making money and prestige are busy injuring our educational system and forcing me to waste hours in training in an attempt to stop my evil "broadcasting", the reality of my life is that I miss my lecture because I could redirect students when they first go astray rather than waste time forming and reinforcing opinions that aren't very helpful.  Because talking is always faster than writing.  Three hours later.

106 degrees in Houston.  Hang in there air conditioner.  You can do it.  I know you can.  Please.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

60% of Texas Students Have Issues: How Big Are They?

 I don't often read the local news.  After all, our only remaining hometown newspaper is kinda pathetic.  But, anyway, I was checking the weather cause we had rain--yes, I walked/danced through it with great joy--and I was checking the temperature and noticed this article which claims that 60 % of Texas students have been either expelled or suspended from school during their middle and high school years with some 15 % of them having been expelled or suspended over 11 times.  And 97 % of those punishments were for violations of student conduct codes put in place by local school systems not for violating more serious state standards.  Translation: kids are being kicked out of class for violating things like tardiness, dress codes, etc.


Wow wow.

I noticed a few years ago that students will jump in and all start talking at once if you ask them about the rules they had to follow in High School.  There are just tons and tons of rules about their dress.  Shirts tucked in.  Belts required, etc. etc.  Colors forbidden.  Type of t-shirt dictated.  I know that many of my students don't have much money and have difficult times with getting basics.  Some of my students don't even sleep in the same place every night.  I am not making excuses for them.  I think that is often a mistake but I do feel that many times they experience quite a bit of frustration with rules that are all about superficiality and control and not much about essentials.

No wonder they all seem so oppositionally defiant.

I think of texting that way.  All through High School, their cell phones were forbidden to them (if they are caught with them they may have to pay to get them back, may lose them for the whole semester, etc.).  When they show up in my class it may be some of the first months they have been allowed open access to them and you can tell some of them are just going hogwild with the hedonistic pleasure of unfettered access.

I learned from trial and error not to draw lines in the sand with them or it just becomes too knock-this-battery-off-my-shoulder in its epic stupidity.  I try hard to redirect them with humor and quicker, more gentle reminders.  Most of the time it has worked.  I see why now.   They are nanoseconds away from a "not this, again" *eye roll*.

This issue must, also, explain why a couple of years ago the student I saw in the hall with the t-shirt emblazoned with
"I have a Ph.D.*"
*Pretty Hugh Dick

(and I was thinking..hey, I do too...um wait.  Maybe not)
Who would wear that except someone with a bad case of the rebellions?  LMAO.

I see that on the various sites posting the story that posters are having a fun time attacking the kids for not behaving and not being "raised properly", and, of course, there are race and gender issues at play which Joe Public is having fun skewering.  There are close to 2,000 posts are Yahoo now on their posting of the article.  I won't comment on those posts but I will say, all things considered, I don't have that many discipline issues and at least some of these disciplined kids are ending up in my class.  Anyway, something ain't working.  For sure.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Haply I think on anthropology...

Compartmentalization:  I have trying not to click on stories about the east African drought.  Last week, I saw The Guardian had a photo slideshow up with pictures from Save the Children.  I made it about half way through before the pain felt more than I could take.   Better to focus on watering my flower bed in my own pathetic drought-y existence and be thankful that my brain is capable of walling off those feelings for a brief period of time.  And be reminded of the reasons I teach.

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee...

Funny that my "thee" should be teaching.  Well, maybe not so funny... the package that is "Africa" is always entwined with teaching for me.

The World's Most Beautiful Sociology Professor and I, recently, went to an all day workshop on social movements.  In the days that followed, I found myself wondering why the system of education in our country was never part of the discussion.  Anthropology as a social movement.  It works for me.  And yet some one half of our students in America our in Community Colleges where the discipline of Anthropology barely registers.

Today, I am eternally grateful for that "haply"--whatever it is that gives us humans hope.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Grading, Grading, Grading *whip crack* (to the tune of Rawhide)

Gradin', gradin', gradin'
Gradin', gradin', gradin'
Gradin', gradin', gradin'
Gradin', gradin', gradin'

Keep gradin', gradin', gradin'
Though the posts are pervadin',
Keep 'em from invadin', rawhide.
Through laziness and cheating,
Some deserve a beating
Wishin' they would have some pride.
All the things they're missin',
And really shouldn't be dissin',
Are causing my feelings to subside.

Post 'em up, grade 'em down
Grade 'em up, move 'em on.
Post 'em up,  grade 'em down:
Build 'em up grade 'em down,
Grade 'em up, push 'em on,
Build 'em up, grade 'em down,

Loved that show. 

Summer I:  almost down.  Next up:  Summer II

Friday, July 1, 2011

Throwing Yogurt: what if the only ammo was Greek?

Here in Texas we are facing yet another severe drought.  We went months without a significant rainfall and I have both the crispy, crackly grass and the water bill to prove it.  But we are going to be having that most hallowed of American traditions this coming weekend, anyway.  Gunpowder explosions will be lighting the skies of Houston this coming Monday, regardless of the very real possibility of fire.  I am, seriously, considering manning my garden hose for the night.  I think the pressure is sufficient to reach my roof.

I don't know what I am going to do next academic year if the Texas legislature has its way.  Because a good chunk of my students are going to be armed.  Leave it to the great state of Texas to respond to the shootings in Tucson (and a scare at UT early last year) not by limiting guns on campus but by passing legislation which guarantees the student's rights to carry.  I understand we are not even permitted an opt out clause.  We have to let them bring it on.  For a good number of years, I have been listening to my students go on and on about everyone they would shoot.  I think I have mentioned that when I show the First Contact movie in class, very few students feel that Nick was not fully justified for the shootings at Tari.  (Even when I bring up the "castle" defense; that Texas tradition of being justified in shooting someone who threatens your domain/castle.)  Most, happily, assert their right to shoot someone in the parking lot for attempting to steal their pick-up truck.  I've probably mentioned that before because it always amazes me.  Anyway, I am a bit concerned about grading people whose solution to life's difficulties is gunpowder--possibly aimed at me.  A bullet-proof vest is definitely going to mess up my outfit.  And what does one do about one's head.  After all, isn't that the bit that Mick blew into tiny pieces?  *gulp*

Why couldn't we just throw yogurt?  In the anthropology of possibilities, wouldn't we all be better off to emulate the Greeks at their protests earlier this month?  I mean we are more than happy to reinvent the gifts of the Greeks in every "Western Civ" class that I have ever encountered.  And we loved the hell out of them in "My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding".  Plus, I understand that Greek yogurt sales are way up in America over the past two years.  The package pictured above was purchased at our new Whole Foods with a dollar off coupon....see, we can get it on sale and it might even be cheaper than that other kind of ammo.  And...it washes out.

What would it take us to "go Greek"?

(This one's for you, Tina.)

Edited to add:  for a more serious look at the consequences of the invention and use of gunpowder rather than "cultured" milk products, check out the latest blog post at Savage Minds on the real costs:  Costs of War:  Doing the Numbers.