Saturday, August 16, 2008

Teaching Students Today: Reading is FUNdamental

Some of you may have been following the various discussions on this blog and those spilling over into/onto others: From my perspective, the discussion started in the comments section of my post below,
What Being an Anthropologist Means to Me (you will find the initial discussion there was with Michael Wesch, he was responding to my post on his website. I have included that post in the comment section, as well), and the discussion continued on another anthro blog and, a related and useful posting at Socect's Blog. I hope I got all the relevant stuff. Let me know if I left anything out.

Those discussions have touched on a number of issues most centered around the question of engaging students. I am not sure we will reach much consensus on that issue. In the end, our students are individuals in an individualistic culture and, I doubt, we will find one "magic" way to engage them. I strongly favor any sharing of ideas about what works but I, also, believe we need to be very careful about analyzing goals, messages, costs, and benefits of different approaches.

So under the Topic of Professorial Processes, I will be contributing my thoughts and links to the thoughts of others about these issues as life goes on...

Today's contribution. Reading is FUNdamental:

System-wide my College serves 30,000 students. We are going through our accreditation process. The site visits have begun and the data is being exchanged. In preparation for all that, about two years ago, faculty were asked to provide input on the single-most important issue we see as needing to be addressed in the classroom. The issue consistently and overwhelmingly reported as an issue by faculty was reading

Reading. They don't do it. And they clearly haven't done it.

I think we can all contribute multiple rants about the message in America that an education is necessary to get a job but that few students can clearly see the value of the process while they are "in it". etc, etc. Unfortunately for all of us, there is little we can do to count-act the lack of preparation they arrive with and the general anti-intellectual bias of our culture. The end result is that many students have not engaged with knowledge in a positive fashion. Many have probably not seen their own parents read, believe in the validity and equality of all opinions(the charming quote that comes to mind "opinions are like assholes, we all have one"), and many believe that if you pay for a class you should be given the credit. At least, these have been my observations of their expectations--with particular reference to those expectations that are problematic.

My response has been to add a couple of discussions to my lecture. Both are aimed at having them engage with our discipline in a way that counters those preconceived notions listed above. Discussion number one is usually done the second week of class--after the intro and settling in process is done. Basically, I have lengthened the discussion of female genital cutting from a simple example of cultural relativism to a full-fledged example of critical thinking about "opinion" and "knowledge"

I start by asking students what they know about the issue and allow the ones that know to unleash their judgments of the practice and then, I settle in to be devils advocate. I, recently, have learned to add the phrase "it is my job to be devils' advocate, after all" which saves me from too much hostility at challenging their assumptions. (I get a personal chuckle at how referencing the issue of "job" is the easily accepted metaphor for what I am doing). I allow them to drive the discussion as much as possible but, of course, its an illusion. I have very much in my mind the things I want them to engage with

In response to their comments, I unfold the process of acquiring knowledge for them. While citing all my references, I give all the detailed medical explanations of what is involved bringing in the recent controversies within our own discpline. I bring in a discussion of male circumcision and the British perspective on it--much of it summed up in a book by Robert Darby A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain. (do not read that one at the dentist's office, you get strange looks. Do read it in front of your sexist pig of an Academic Dean, it makes him nervous, which is a good thing.). And I bring in a discussion of breast implants (no, there are no power point slides). Then after they elicit all the information that they need, I tell them they are entitled to make a judgment. That is the procedure we will follow for the rest of the semester and that all I require of them is that their judgments be culturally universal (applied equally across the world) and that their judgments be based, as much as possible, on an understanding of empirical realities.

I hope by having this discussion early in the semester that I set the tone for the value of knowledge and the place of opinion and the relevancy of learning. I, honestly, don't know if it argues for the value of reading. I suppose I hope they realize it was reading that got me the knowledge to field their questions. I make available to them all the sources I can find but the gift they get from me is the synthesis of the reading that I give them. As a lecturer, I am a facilitator and an expert. I hope I lead by example, that I model the process of learning for them.

The second example of understanding the learning process we engage in (this one arises on a need to know basis) is the evolution discussion. I won't detail that one but it continually shocks me how much they don't know about that one. Perhaps that is a later post.

Anyway, I guess you can see my approach is fairly content-driven. I like to think about what I am doing. Not flashy but, I hope, solid. (Have you noticed that blogging is rampantly narcissistic. Next thing you know I will be running for public office and attempting to hide my illicit affairs.)


Socect said...

Enjoy reading your thoughts. I just started my Anthropology and the Human Condition class two days ago (first lecture)... As per my blog post, "there are no required readings"... but NOT to be confused with "no reading is required"... lots of reading is required. But the students (with some guideance - from me, the TA's and each other) have to figure out WHAT is most crucial to read! Will see how it goes...

Pamthropologist said...

I am really interested in how it goes. I think I am about one or two years behind you in your teaching methods. My Distance Learning courses have Discussion Boards and all students have to post and I grade the posts. But they all end up saying the same thing so I am thinking a wiki might be a more fruitful format and you have made me more optimistic about being able to grade the process, which was a real concern of mine.

I understood about the readings. I saw the list of assigned ethnographies down at the beginning of your blog. And I figured out what you meant the minute you posted. Its the semantics of trying to make them responsible for their own learning process because, in the end, they are.

We have a whole faculty committee working on trying to figure out the reading issue. I suspect they won't find much of a solution. You can lead a horse to know.

Safaa said...

It is a very nice post. I enjoyed reading it. I just assume by asking students to search for one article about a single related to a certian topic and just give a few minutes to sum it up for the class may work. I think by letting them search for an intersting article may Stimulate their thinking about its content, its title, who wrote it, when it was written,when it was written, what did each find important or interesting. This may create debates in the class around the topic. Also, I think by linking their name with the articles they found make them feel good... for instance, John's article which he found etc... It is a great post :)