Friday, August 1, 2008

What being an anthropologist means to me: apparently, it means a long post

There are times when the threads of your thoughts become tangled together in the dryer of your mind, usually wrapped around an unsuspecting button or strap of an innocent piece of clothing. (How is that for a tortured metaphor?) This is one of those messy times. And every blog I read, twists those threads into a tighter tangle.

I have been working on my Distance Learning course. Mostly trying to make myself feel better about its existence. My journey down the technology inroads to achieving this goal has frustrated me no end.

I blame the Africanist in me. I first went to Tanzania in 1985 just prior to IMF restructuring. The country had pretty much ground to a halt. No petrol, no wheat flour, no electricity, uncertain water supply--this in the capital city. Life in the villages was, obviously, much more difficult. Crops couldn't get to market and life was very, very localized. (In some cases, this made things better but that is a different discussion.) I returned again in 1986-87 for my full dissertation research during a time of IMF restructuring. And then in 1994, I returned, again, this time picking up a consultancy job with USAID and the International Red Cross conducting a "rapid assessment survey" of the condition of children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS virus. It was a transformative experience as all fieldwork experience should be. Dealing with the daily poverty and the pain and guilt it induced in me was, in many respects, more than I could handle. I came to recognize that the only way I could hope to make a difference was to teach. And so I do.

And when I teach, I believe it is my responsibility to convey the reality of a world where there are other ways of thinking and other ways of doing. In an effort to achieve that goal, I will with great happiness and gusto deconstuct American popular culture with my students to try to tease out our meanings and ways of being. But in the end, I want them to move beyond our world and embrace "the other". I want them to come to terms with a global economy which impoverishes Tanzanians. I want them to understand the frustrations of the 20 million people in the Niger Delta. I want them to understand the dangers of assuming a free election will produce a "democracy" in a country that has only know the rule of a cold-war dictator.

So, as I review the great move toward technological innovation in the classroom. I find, myself recoiling in horror. I just don't get it. Michael Wesch's youtube of his oh so forlorn students who don't read and can only become excited when engaging with their own methods of discourse drove me crazy. So many problems brought up by the brief glimpses you get of his work. I get the idea that they need motivation. But what is the line between motivation and pandering?

One of Wesch's assertions is that you can learn more by "doing" than by studying/reading/attending lecture? I certainly can't agree with that. I was barely ready for participant observation after an intensive undergraduate experience and three years of graduate course work. I can't tell if these students view participant observation as just an excuse to have a good time or they actually come to understand that its ultimate purpose is analytical. You don't learn from an experiential moment, unless, you have done the ground work. Wesch, clearly, gets it when he discusses digital ethnography but then he has done his ground work, hasn't he? What, exactly, do the students learn about anthropology? (I've seen the world sim stuff--let's let that go for now. I only have so much energy for my rant. I can tackle that one later.)

Seems I might not be the only one lamenting the loss of an expectation students put in the time to read and reflect. The Atlantic Magazine this month has a summary article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, (thanks to The World's Hottest Poli Sci Prof for the shout-out on that one), which discusses the changes to our brain when we abandon "deep reading" in favor of "power browsing". Students should be encouraged to do some deep thinking and not "pancake" processing.

Do some deep reading of Gramschi and fight the hegemonization of a capitalist agenda for education. The crime here seems to be expecting any faculty member to teach a class of 200-400 with 10 undergraduate T.A.'s. We faculty, as a collective group, should not be helping any administrator or member of the public to believe that is acceptable. I teach classes of 30. My students aren't surfing the web when we are in class. Major universities can do better and should.

And then, the Africanist in me rears its ugly head again. How many Tanzanians would, quite literally, give their right arm to be in that lecture hall? Any guesses on how much of their time would be spent on Facebook and how much time spent reading? And more: when will those American students come to understand Tanzanians? You won't find most Tanzanians posting on youtube. You are only likely to find missionaries posting videos of adorable children singing praises to God. Isn't the purpose of anthropology to expose these inequalities not reinforce a world of our own making? And youtube may be a global phenomenon but only for those in a global elite. The majority of the humans who people this planet cannot afford the luxury.

And when we turn our back on our long history of engagement with those who cannot afford youtube and when we loose the desire to engage, respectfully, with the lived experiences of all of humanity, we are losing the central focus and ethics of our discipline. I have always felt anthropology was far more than a collection of methods. I can remember being told upon declaring my undergraduate major that you became an anthropologist because of the type of person you were. My last post was about Evan-Pritchard because as I struggled with these issues, I was reminded of the ways he made that real for me. Nuer Religion (which I actually did deeply read as an undergraduate) humbled me. I no longer felt I had all the answers. Maybe "the other" had some ideas, as well. This gift of an idea led me through my fieldwork and informs every moment of my teaching practice.

Savage Minds and Open Anthropology have been crackling with the scary picture of an anthropology devoid of this focus, devoid of the ethics of respect for the other. At the same time, over at Ethnography. com , we learn that according to Foreign Policy Magazine, we are the most left-leaning academic discipline. Of course, David Horowitz has been arguing that for years. Just to annoy him further, it makes you wish Chomsky was an anthropologist--not just the linguist we anthropologists must understand.

Anyway, I say, if embracing the perspective that the lived experiences of all humans have legitimacy and deserve our compassionate understanding makes me "left" and wanting my students to come away with deeper thoughts than can be contained in a 3 minute youtube snippet makes me a dinosaur. Then I am a left-leaning dinosaur.


Mike Wesch said...

You have made a fundamental misreading of my argument. I don’t argue that “doing” is *better* than reading or sitting in a lecture when it comes to learning. I’m making the simple point that students learn what they do, a philosophical insight borrowed from John Dewey. For example, when students read they are not just learning the content, they are also learning how to read in the way that they are reading. If they are reading in order to memorize a few bold words in a text, they are learning how to scan a text and memorize bold words - which is not really a very important skill. If they are quietly sitting in a lecture hall writing down just enough notes to answer questions on a multiple-choice exam, they are learning how to obey an authority telling them what they should be learning and then memorizing it. Again, not a very important skill. (These are just examples, I don’t know any professors that actually strive for this kind of teaching environment, though many do “give up” and create such an environment when dealing with huge classes.) The World Simulation is integrated into a class of reading and lecture. It brings *significance* to the readings and lectures, and students (as you have seen on Rate My Professors) *love* the readings and the lectures because they can see their significance in the real world (which the simulation helps to make clear), and they feel empowered (and responsible) to make real contributions to the class. The simulation actually frames a “research project” of sorts, based around the question, “How does the world work?” Students find their own readings to discover answers, often going above and beyond the assigned readings, a good sign that some authentic learning is occurring. The simulation itself is just 50-100 minutes of the entire semester, but it inspires a tremendous amount of intense, engaged learning through the traditional modes of reading and lecture. In short, far from opposing doing to reading/listening, I have simply created an environment for more engaged and authentic reading/listening/learning. (In teaching evaluations, students report that they read more and work much harder in this class than they do in their other classes.)

There are many ways to create a rich learning environment, of course, the simulation just being one of them. The real key, to me, is teaching in a way that illustrates in an undeniable way the significance of the learning beyond the classroom walls, and inspiring students to *do* critical, productive, and creative thinking, so that they *learn* critical, productive, and creative thinking. The tech angle comes in simply because reading and writing today goes far beyond the printed word. To be effective global citizens, students need to be literate in multiple media, and understand the ever-changing landscape of media.

Pamthropologist said...

I don't think I do misread your argument. I want my students to do deep reading and critical thinking. I think the "doing" of "googling" and "facebooking" and "surfing" or even, building wikis and adding or reconstucting content is "doing" activities which mirror the superficial skimming that students "do" on a daily basis. I think a 50-100 minute simulation of world history, also, mirrors that "skimming". I trust that your attempt to meet them on their level, spurs them to deeper engagement. But, in the end, the deeper engagement comes from thinking--not "doing".

I, also, think it is unfair to characterize lecture as an activity to take notes to answer multiple choice questions. That is a convenient straw man.

I have to share a laugh with you about the need for students to engage with multiple media. Given their self-reported activities, there should be no problem there!

Thank you for your comment. I am honored.

Mike Wesch said...

Wow. You are really intent on misreading me. I *agree* with you that deep thinking and deep reading are the key (and I already said that). I use the world simulation and all these other tools to *inspire* this deep reading and deep thinking (though I also think the ability to skim effectively is a pretty handy skill as well - as is the ability to effectively use new media to produce and collaborate ... Students are great at using new tools to entertain themselves. It's our job to teach them to use them in more productive ways). I don't pretend that the real learning takes place during the simulation. It inspires people to have more empathy for others in very profound ways (and isn't that your goal as well?) and inspires learning about the roots of inequalities around the world. Please read more about my background and my other work before posting any more of these misunderstandings. It is clear from your response that you either have not read my work or have not read it very carefully. You will find that we share a similar history and similar goals and approaches. I can look at your blog and see that you are a great teacher doing some really great things, but for some reason you assume the worst about me - assuming I hold all kinds of bizarre beliefs (like "doing" is better for learning than "thinking"). Until you start making an effort to understand (rather than belittle) we have no good place to start a "dialogue" (in reference to your post on my blog).

Pamthropologist said...

I thought I should cut and paste the comment I left at Digital Ethnography for full disclosure:


You requested dialogue and here it is:

I have been teaching anthropology for over 20 years now. I teach at a community college (if you need the pedigree, I have a Ph.D. from Northwestern and fieldwork experience in east Africa). My classes are about 30 students. I do 4 a semester. I do all kinds of interesting and innovative things with them and always have. And yet, I find, myself, having to defend my methods to my own IT people–Chris Duke, posting above being one. There is no question the technology people love you but I, as an anthropologist, have some serious issues with your message.

The simulation is cool but it is only a hook not the be all and end all of Anthropology. In fact, your own “Rate my Professors” ratings indicate that your students love your lectures best of all, despite your youtube with the sad, forlorn students who don’t like lecture. And the suggestion of “doing” without reading isn’t supportable in a true academic anthropology. I can’t imagine a development anthropology project in which someone is dropped into a country and works out the project without a lot of reading and training being in place. And I know you would agree. In fact, I believe you have at least one “rate my professor” that complains about having to read.

And, all deeply theoretical arguments aside, some of us are firmly interpretive in our anthropological approaches and simulations might imply an anthropology which seeks a more scientific approach–one not supported by all of us. But I get the whole motivation angle, I really do. I do a hunter/gatherer game with my Archaeology class, stolen from one of my former profs. Its silly and great fun and it works as a motivating factor but it is not “the” way to teach the course.

So, without taking anything away from your remarkable success, could you give those of us struggling alongside you a break. It seems some of your messages have become a bit polarizing. Lecture and reading are completely acceptable and successful pedagogical techniques–in fact, they are necessary. I feel sure you would agree that copying your simulation will not transform the student world. And, maybe, just maybe students should meet you halfway and close the computer and read a book or article every now and then.

Thanks for the opportunity to dialog.


Pamthropologist said...


Oh, I agree, absolutely, that are goals are the same. But I have looked at a lot of your work and all your videos and the blogs and the Savage Minds posts and your students blogs and your students video. Maybe the problem is that I have read Dewey and I can't say I have seen a lot to support his philosophies. But they are philosophies and not exactly verifiable, so we could just accept that we approach teaching from different angles?

I have considered deleting the material below because I think it just continues a discussion that has no resolution but, honestly, I am so tired right now I can't make a reasonable decision. I will only append that I only post to clarify and perhaps, a desire to defend myself from the accusation of not understanding.

I happen to feel that there may be alternative ways to inspire interest and involvement which do involve sitting (but never quietly in my class) and taking notes. I think the video representations (and here I refer to the full totality of your work--including some footage of you taken by students) unnecessarily attacks classroom experience. Don't get me wrong, I openly mock the lined up structured seating of the "lecture hall". I use Robbins textbook which opens with an attack on such formulations. But the solution in my mind is not to question the format of presenting lectures and expecting students to read books and articles but to question a University which puts 200-400 students in a class. The students in your short video complain that professors don't know their name. That won't change with all the technological innovation in the world in a class that large. You need smaller class sizes--which I am fairly certain Dewey would support.

Anyway my bias is: I love lecture. I loved it throughout undergraduate and graduate school. I was interested and involved because of lecture. I read because of lecture. I think it works well is small classes. I think it can work in large classes.

Dewey conceptualized and you have also embraced the vision of a distant teacher who is an authority figure and you tie that into a criticism of the lecture format. I don't care for that characterization of the lecture class. When I stand in front of a class I am not a dry, authoritarian figure and I doubt your are. But I do feel I have knowledge and perspective to offer and I do encourage that view of myself. When I do my foraging game in the archaeology class, I tell them that I am God and I am. What is more authoritarian than designing the terms and structure of the game? Simulations make the world in which students operate. That is controlling.

And the game component was very important to Dewey and that is fine for children but our students are adults (well...somewhat). I expect a different learning process from adults than children. I think expectations are the most important issue in teaching. I expect their attention, focus, thinking, and engagement. Those who want to learn and grow will and do give me those. And, sorry, but I have an 18 year old daughter, the "relevance" of their learning is something they have no way of determining. Those are emic statements. Not etic. I had many Tanzanians who spoke positively about British Colonialism. I am not going to accept that their opinion means that Colonialism was good for Tanzania. So, yeah, maybe I do know more than they do and I am prepared to shoulder that authoritative role. Abdicating that role undermines the very nature of academics. We are committed to knowledge and its cumulative growth.

I must only add that I am not entirely convinced that a simulation can build compassion. I saw and read of a lot of competitive behavior in the simulation. I have always wondered how a simulation with fully socialized-Americans might differ from one conducted by Japanese students or African students.

I am concerned about the insularity of the simulation. It is in the end, American interacting with other Americans. And a fairly homogeneous group of Americans, at that.

I hasten to add that I don't think I do any better job at instilling compassion. I don't think we will have much success with transforming college students, we can only hope to tweek them a bit. I hope that I can give them an opportunity to understand the lived experiences of other humans.

I apologize for any misrepresentations and I am sorry if you feel that I continue to misunderstand you. I have done my best.

Mike Wesch said...

I recognize that there are many reasons to be suspect of the simulation (from my own perspective as an interpretive anthropologist like you the idea gives me the creeps too). I am suspect for all the reasons you suggest and *many* more. The great thing about it is not how it works, but how it *fails* and sometimes misleads, because those failures become places to start a rich discussion. And don't characterize this as an elementary learning activity. It falls in line with a rich body of pedagogical work going on right now on "serious games" as well as ARGs. It isn't child's play. As for inspiring compassion and empathy, I personally have no doubts that I have done this with a large percentage of my students. Over 1,000 students have told me that this class has totally changed their lives (I can show you the records if you don't believe it), and many of them go on to give of themselves in whatever way they can throughout the world.

Lecturing is important and I'll try to make it more clear in future presentations. But it should be seen as a choice, not the default mode of teaching. And it needs to be done in a way that does not re-enforce the outdated assumptions about learning already inherent in the structure of most *large* classrooms (not your room of 30).

I agree that there is a place for expertise in the room for many reasons. One is to help students find relevance, as you suggest, though relevance *has* to be decided/accepted by the individual by definition.

As you know, lecturing only works if students are engaged and wanting to hear what you have to say. Empowering and listening to students has the remarkable effect of inspiring them to empower and listen to the professor. Mutual respect (which includes high expectations, as you said) is the key to a rich learning environment.

I think we agree on much of the above. My challenge is that I'm trying to create a conversational and engaging atmosphere of mutual respect in a room of 400 students. I certainly agree that class sizes of 30 would be much better, but it is simply not going to happen before this next semester begins (though we do have programs in the works here at K-State that might make it happen). Until it does, I have to do my best to bring what can be done in a class of 30 to a class of 400. The simulation just happens to work remarkably well, and yes, technology also helps when appropriately used (and as an added bonus, it also helps students see the potentials for using technology in effective ways to organize collective political action, make a statement that reaches millions, etc. - and they are NOT getting that by Facebooking in class).

So here's my view of where this has ended up:
* I have given the misleading impression that all lecturing and reading(!) is not important to learning. I'll certainly resolve to not make that impression again!
* We have very different approaches to technology. It is my goal to teach/inspire media literacy (far beyond what students do to entertain themselves). You see it as a distraction, which is fine. Students don't need to get media literacy in all of their classes.
* You have concerns about the simulation. I do too. But I think it works all the better because I have these concerns and can bring them up as points of discussion in class.

Anonymous said...

Dewey was an authoritarian whose idea of progressive educatiion was little more that a pseudo-Socratic dialog by which the student was to be brought to a predetermined right answer.

Pamthropologist said...

Well, you can take it from me, people don't like it much when you don't come to their predetermined right answer. Never mind, bottoms up. Let's all have a beer and a smile.

Maximilian C. Forte said...

I am always impressed by how Mike Wesch is able to track down even the remotest discussion about his work and jump right in to correct what he sees as misunderstandings.

Two things that strike me, beyond what has already been said:

(1) "YOU" READ RATE MY PROFESSOR??? Doesn't your university have proper student evaluations? Sorry, I was just a little shocked, knowing how completely fallible RMP is to professors posting about themselves, colleagues, or even members of the public posting about academics whose politics they do not like. Really, please avoid mentioning RMP again, Mike.

(2) I watched part of the 'world simulation' video and then had to stop when I realized I was watching kids playing a game that only remotely simulates world history. I hope that video does not mirror what was taught in class.

Lastly, students I have polled in my classes MOSTLY do NOT like having a whole bunch of multi media crap thrown at them.
Moreover, the majority confess to having very few computer skills, and some have very limited use for the Internet. They can their views about when a lecturer lacks seriousness, and they happen to think that people with a lot of buzz and bang have little substance. They might be wrong, fine, but these are the predominant views I encountered.

Maximilian C. Forte said...

apologies for the typo Pam--I meant to say that students HAVE their views, not CAN.

Pamthropologist said...

I need to clarify since this discussion has extended over several blogs and has gotten muddled. I posted a comment on Michael's site and he followed me over here. I added that posted comment for clarification about mid-way through the discussion because I didn't want people to be confused. So, make no mistake, I initiated the dialog.

Actually, I referenced Michael's "Rate my Professors" mostly because they are so complimentary of his lecture and most don't reference the World Sim, at all. And while I know first-hand how unreliable a source those are, his read as genuine and real. Most faculty would envy them. The reason I looked at them was because I was curious about a more "open forum" reaction to his methods. Any well-trained anthropologist should know that opinions in forums under his influence are "influenced" by him, good, bad or indifferent. It was curiosity that sent me there and, as I noted, it was interesting. They love his lectures.

I should, also, clarify, that in my college, we are increasingly faced with the attitude that we should be doing these things/ Wikis and World Sims both. There is great scorn heaped on my colleagues who lecture and we have a great sensitivity to the issue. Regardless, of how successful we are with our students, we are increasingly viewed as unsuccessful if we do not integrate Web 2.0 tools or interactive "collaboration" directly into our classroom environments. These are not idle discussions for us.

Hope that helps and there will be more to come. These issues are ongoing.

Pamthropologist said...

I am planning on discussing issues of "group work" soon. I am required to attend a "Discipline Enrichment" seminar on Collaborative Learning and Service Learning on Monday afternoon. I feel a rant coming on. And yes, Max, I couldn't agree more, most students hate "group work".

I have always found the trick with students is, whatever you do, it must have "meaning". But I think that is probably true for all humans in all endeavors, not just students.

I have another rant on "students" as a monolithic entity building up, as well.

AroundTreeFiddy said...

As a first year Anthropology Major at the Mount Royal College in Calgary, I found this article and the subsequent comments very interesting.
It wasn't until I was lucky enough to have a teacher who did pure lecture in an interesting enough and open manner that I fully understood the knowledge and insight that can be found within it.
I thought I was the type of student, like Professor Wesch is describing: thriving with the multiple media approach based on my interaction with media in a social aspect; some sort of hope of bridging the gap between entertainment and learning in a way.
Last semester while taking Linguistic Anthropology I was lucky enough to be in Fredrick Ulmans class, and though it was an hour of notes and pure lecture he did it in such a way that it appealed to the Anthropologist (budding) in myself. I loved to hear his stories of field work, it felt more like an interesting discussion between him and the whole class rather then a lecture but I still walked out of the class with mounds of knowledge and new ways of knowing things.
Some kids may respond well to the multiple media approach even with a healthy dose of critical thinking thrown in there but we come far from addressing the real issue.
I spent a whole year of college reteaching myself how to sit down and really read an article or reading for a class. My comprehension would dissipate after only a short time and I resorted to taking notes as I read to help keep my attentions on the task at hand. No more laptop in class for me either, as its social influence was far too much and despite my better judgment I would be surfing about on things far off of topic. Not at all conducive to an effective learning approach.
I have respect for the professor who asks for hand written papers, or forbids laptops in class. I challenged my boyfriend when he joined me at college this year to leave the laptop at home and stick to paper notes (making electronic copies at night; a great way to study) and we were the minority on campus. Between cellphones, laptops, netbooks, campus wide wifi, and twitter; it really is a wonder that teachers get much attention at all.

As a side note, I personally use RMP now to look for the teachers with comments like "so mean! wouldnt let me use my laptop in class!" or "tests are really hard! you cant miss any readings" so I can GET INTO those classes. I know its rough, but this is the way the great thinkers of the past have been unraveling the mystery of humanity much longer than Wikipedia has been around. I am more than willing to challenge myself in hopes of reaching new personal heights i couldn't hope to achieve through facebook.

Also, a program you may be interested in implimenting on your site, It does what the word verification program does that you have now but the words you verify help to decode electronically scanned books that are too old to have their text read by the Optical Character Recognition technology. This way we can help to make more texts available through electronic format.

Anyways, I have book marked this blog. It never dawned on me to look for blogs online relevant to my own academic interests and I am very glad to have randomly stumbled this the night before class starts again.

Lindsay in Calgary

Pamthropologist said...

Thank you for your thoughtful post, Lindsay. We badly need student voices in the discussion.
BTW, I, also, loved my linguistic anthropology teacher. I would, also, like to honor her by saying--thanks Marion Ross for a good class that I remember even some 30 years later (that can't be right).

Also, thanks for the link. I am off to look at it.

Please come back and have a great semester.

Kert said...

This is a very interesting article, and a very interesting thread of comments.

I am currently an Anthropology student in the Philippines. Unlike the students of Prof. Wesch, most students here do not have enough money to buy ourselves laptops, and our university cannot afford to put every spot in our campus a wi-fi hotspot. But we do engage on electronic things and use the power of internet as a supplement to our learning (but the professors ask the students whether they have access on computers and internet before engaging us on these things). Usually, our professors create a class in, and post summaries of lectures in there. I think it is helpful in a way that it helps us catch up with things we missed in the lecture ('cause hands can't write as fast as mouths speak). My problem with this is that many of us students tend to manipulate this, in the sense that many of us no longer listen to the lectures (sometimes miss the classes) because we are confident that everything is going to be posted on nicenet anyway. But then, we are left only with enumeration of concepts and brief three-sentence definitions, and I think we are missing much on the content and context of these concepts. I should admit, that I too, have done this on classes I consider boring in which I can't help myself but to think of other things. But as for stimulating professors, like Lindsay above had said, I find it fun to listen to their lectures and stories -- especially teachers who make the topics very meaningful to us. I also enjoy listening to their stories, and the problems they encounter (and how they solve them) in doing their fieldwork. Some of them tend to be hilarious (probably because these professors are innately funny), and all of them are indeed very educational.

I do see that both of them when combined (electronic-based and lecture-based)can be helpful in learning -- though lecture-based is the most practical for many of us. It just depends on the methods in using any of them.

There is one professor in my university, though, that has also adapted Prof. Wesch's idea on youtube. He made his students post videos on youtube. I asked him several times about his objectives, but he never answered me back. He also has a new way (in my view) of teaching. He has turned to facebook and comic-strip to teach his class. I am not in this class, but I am very worried about the outcome and how students would adapt and learn through this. I don't know. Here are the links:

If it is not too much for you, I hope you could tell me your opinion of this. This would be very much appreciated. If not, I understand.

Wishing you the best in life!

Kert said...

Lastly (I just remembered this before going to bed), I noticed that many of us students here usually enjoy the readings required to us in relation to how it is presented. It is not about the relevance to our daily lives all the time. For example, we can hardly associate the Kula ring in our daily lives, but it is presented to us in a way that makes it interesting, fascinating and rich with knowledge.

We can hardly learn anything from a course in which we can hardly comprehend the professor or if he/she could not reach out to us. (I also get very much annoyed with professors who aren't competent enough and are always lost on how to teach the course. It makes me sad to have them in our university.)

Of course, we can read other references about the topics. But still, even if we want to, we lack time as there are other courses to learn and think about. Also, as students, we lack the experience, expertise, the amount of readings and knowledge that the professor has already accumulated about the subject matter.

Cheers from the Philippines!

(Forgive me if I have grammatical errors on my messages. It's difficult to translate thoughts in a different language)

Pamthropologist said...

Thank you, Geek. I appreciate all your insights and contribution to the debate. I think it is important for all faculty to get this valuable feedback from our students. It is, especially, valuable when it is freely and thoughtfully given, as yours is. I am not sure I feel comfortable with commenting on your links without an understanding of the context in which they are used but I value your comments and concerns.

The best to you in life, too. And please return and contribute again.

Anonymous said...

Got a notification that there were new comments on this post and thought I'd chime in. I'm just another teaching anthropologist.

It's difficult for teachers to comment on what other teachers are doing and we would definitely need more context to really understand what the UP Virtual Ethnography class '09 is all about.
But we can share thoughts about experiences and principles.

From what you tell us, geek, the University of the Philippines sounds fairly similar to North American universities, at least in lecture courses. Granted, it's quite possible that a higher proportion of students own laptops in Manhattan (KS) than in Quezon City. But learner engagement is a tricky issue just about anywhere. Not because it's a cultural universal. Because it's a dimension of the lecture-based system of formal education, which is diffused quite widely around the World.

What you say about the relevance and significance of the material in your own life is spot-on. There is an emphasis, in English-speaking parts of North America, on making material directly relevant in students' lives. Sometimes, the notion is that it is the responsibility of the teacher to make material relevant to each individual student. But there's a lot to be said about learners making the learning process relevant for themselves, regardless of the direct relevance of some specific part of the material. In other words, we're all using learning material in our own ways, regardless of what our roles are in the class. A teacher is getting something from the material, so are other learners.

Thanks for the info about the Internet Classroom Assistant. Sounds like a convenient platform for distributing course material. There are other platforms out there which may help provide a different perspective on teaching and learning. For instance, Moodle is focused on learners and teachers collaborating in the learning process. It has some features specifically meant to enhance learning in view of an explicitly constructivist approach. But it's also interesting as a context in which to think about learning. Teachers who participate in the community are generally very enthusiastic about learning and there is a sense of collaboration, there. Hopefully, some of this can happen in formal courses, though the lecture-based system isn't that conducive to collaborative learning.

Speaking of lectures, and going back to your point about putting material online...
We're currently in a transition period, it seems. Some people say that class time should be devoted to discussion, not to lecturing. Students should be able to access the "content" before the meeting time and go to the classroom to engage with the material. As you say, because of the alleged difference in experience and expertise between teachers and other learners, it's not enough for people to do readings on their own. Learning doesn't happen merely by reading.

Speaking of experience... For the last few years, I've been recording my courses and putting them online. Chances are that, because of these recordings, some students choose not to listen when I'm lecturing. And, yes, I do lecture for some proportion of the class time. But this proportion diminishes as time goes on and we all get engaged in the material. Sure, there are students who are just there because they feel they have to. Hopefully, they'll realize that university learning is what they make it to be.

Pamthropologist said...

Thanks for the valuable contribution, Informal Ethnographer. I am not sure I understand the dichotomy between discussion and lecture. I feel that distinction is only meaningful in large classes. I have about 30 in a class and I am able to lecture, discuss, lecture, dicuss...if you will. Comes down to class size, IMHO. I think that's what students want and what is successful.

And if we are continuing with the open discussion, how is viewing a lecture ahead of time, significantly different than reading the textbook ahead of time?

Anonymous said...

Class size is an interesting thing. My classes have ranged in size from 240 to 4 students. Overall, I tend to lecture less and less as class size goes down or the semester goes on. At some points in the semester, with a large class, I usually start with a significant chunk of time devoted to "straight lecture." Even then, there are groups with which I will get a significant degree of interaction in that phase. In fact, I had more interactions with 240 students in a lecture-based course at Université de Montréal than with 30 students in a "discussion section" at Indiana University (where it felt like pulling teeth). By the end of semester, the discussion tends to be open, with a relatively high number of students participating actively. (Which seems not to be a common pattern, in some parts of the World.) With less than, say, 50 students, I tend to feel bad when I lecture. So I do little spurts of lecturing to make sure we're on the same page but I try to limit my lecturing as much as possible. What may seem counterintuitive is that I then lecture more "assertively" in that I try to get through some lecture material without too much interaction, so that we can open up as quickly as possible. If it seems not to work, I open the floor right away and let go of my lecture material.
Anyway, enough about me...

There are significant differences between reading a textbook before a course and listening to lecture material before a class meeting. One difference has to do with the nature of most textbooks: because they tend to be meant for an unspecific audience, there needs to be a way to translate that text into actual course material. Collaborative projects may eventually make this point moot, but it's one worth discussing (even without going on rants against textbooks).
A related point is that reading textbook chapters is a very specific learning strategy. Not just because it's reading (the old saw about a hierarchy of learning from reading to doing). It's also about "taking in" formal language. Even in English, it's almost like diglossia. Writing styles differ quite clearly from most registers of oral language. Students who have been exposed to very formal language from an early time (say, children of university professors) are at an advantage in such a context. Other students need to learn both the material and the code.
A third point, probably the most important: it's about time. If learners spend more time with the material outside of class than what it takes to go through a chapter, class time can be optimized. Learning doesn't tend to occur in class or, at least, not while students are listening to a lecture. But time spent listening to a lecture can be optimized if students do it on their own. Learners can adopt a wide range of strategies and prepare efficiently if there's more to a course than reading chapters and attending lectures.

Having said all this, there's a wide variety of approaches which can be used and the main problem seems to be with the relatively rigid system in which most of us work, not with the creative ideas we may have or with a lack of knowledge about how learning occurs.
In May, 1968, university students in Paris tried to change the system. What happened since then?

Pamthropologist said...

Well, I strongly disagree that students don't learn in lecture. As I posted on your site, the Obama Town Hall meetings are examples of some of the most meaningful forms of human communication. I wish I had been at one and not passively viewing them on t.v. I can rewind and rewatch but the meaning of being there as a participant, able to ask a question and feel the human energy far supercedes that benefit.

And, regardless of feelings about the quality of textbook and the type of language used, I do want my students to read and to learn to read at a college level.

And, call me cyncial but my students are unlikely to spend MORE time outside of class watching and re-watching these lectures that you find inadequate to begin with.

I have been teaching over twenty years from several hundred to under ten, I have never found the classroom and what goes on there "rigid". It is dynamic, changing, and invigorating in ways that a podcasted presentation could never be.

I am all in favor of increasing any and all forms of engagement but I remain puzzled as to why disparging the classroom remains on the agenda.

Anonymous said...

Ah-ha! Now I think I see where the misunderstanding comes from...
In my perspective, learning does happen thanks to lecturing. It just doesn't happen (solely/mostly) during the lecture session. When students listen isn't the moment when they're really doing the learning. But, of course, many of them do learn from lectures to which they have been paying attention. The point I was alluding to was merely a cognitive one. I realize my sentence was somewhat ambiguous, especially outside of context. My sincere apologies for that.
So, again, to be clear... I don't dismiss lecturing. I don't think that it's necessarily rigid and, as we've been discussing, "lecture" sessions can be very interactive and, certainly, quite engaging. I have problems with exclusive reliance on lectures, for several reasons. But, even though I've only been teaching for ten years, I noticed pretty much the same things as you did in diverse classrooms in North America and Europe.

I'm almost as surprised as you are that discussions about lectures end up being so polarized. That's mostly why I wrote that other blogpost. I personally find that lectures can be awesome, but there's a lot of discussion we could have about what lecturing implies, including in terms of the negotiation of social status.
Textbooks represent a related case. Lots of educators make broad statements against textbooks yet many of us are still using them. As I was selecting one for "adoption" for the Fall, I kept thinking about a number issues with the usual structure of textbooks. We could go into these issues but I could summarize them by saying that I prefer using primary sources. At the same time, I "reconciled" myself with some aspects of textbook-based teaching. Not only did I eventually find a textbook which specifically allows for critical thinking, but I've been thinking about new (to me) ways of integrating the textbook with my teaching.
In terms of time spent outside of class, I agree with your skepticism but I also think that an approach which privileges diverse activities at different times during the week may bear some fruits given certain student populations. Especially if class time is, indeed, devoted to a very large extent to engaging discussions.
Obviously, simply asking students to do more work isn't very likely to work as a way to get students engaged more extensively and more deeply. But I do think that there is room for experimentation in moving the more "broadcast" aspects of teaching outside of the classroom and spending as much "class time" as possible on working together on issues, with as little monologue as possible. This doesn't mean that there isn't any room for "hybrid" forms which have both lecturing and direct, realtime interactions. Bowen is, IMHO, way too radical on this point (and seems way off on several others). In fact, I've noticed that several teachers react quite negatively when they feel forced to change their teaching in a very specific way. In this sense, Bowen's strategy is likely to cause a backlash, not too dissimilar from the one against some versions of constructionism caused by the OLPC project.
One effect of experimenting with "readings and lectures outside of the classroom" is that we might, in fact, know much more precisely what differences there are between this kind of model and simply having students "do the readings" before class.

Pamthropologist said...

I can see that we are going to have to take this discussion off the comments sections of our blogs and put them somewhere else. I shall try.

Kert said...

Hi! I'm sorry, but I would like to hop in the discussion once again. It is getting very interesting for me, and I am very much happy to find teachers who are very passionate about their teaching and care very much for the learning of the students. I almost lost hope in the academe and the university, and you've given me that hope once again.
Thank you very much.

Also, I would like to apologize for asking you to comment on one of our professors' teaching strategy. I realize now that it was wrong for me to ask you and I really didn't think twice in asking that question.

I think each of us students have different preferences on our professors' teaching strategies. But I would just like to share some observations (within the context of my university, of course) that might be relevant to this topic. In my more than 3 years in college, I've attended varied classes in which professors have undertaken a spectrum of teaching strategies. And my observations are the following:

1. In mostly discussions type of classes, students get excited since they could contribute their experiences in class. However, in these classes, we are washed with isolated contexts, ideas and thoughts, and have minimal understanding of concepts. It is very hard to shed the onion of examples, and getting to the core of concepts when the whole class is mostly about each of our isolated experiences, real-time examples of the concepts or exchange of thoughts.

2. In mostly lectures kind of classes where we are poured with illustrations, concepts, theories and definitions, we usually have a hard time making meanings out of them. Even though a professor could give a very good illustration, there is still a bit of an abstraction to the concepts.

3. In classes where the students report the class topics or we are left to read about the topics: Though we are forced to read the entire article/topic, at the end of the day we'd still lack understanding of the subject matter. Well, mainly because, as students, we are still at the starting point of learning (or just a few steps after starting), we still have trouble recognizing the important and meaningful concepts, and what to make of them -- since the readings can be sometimes very technical and filled with jargons, and meaningful things should still be pointed out to us.

So, I guess, a combination of these things (reading, discussions, interactions, lectures and even "doing" just to have a first-hand experience) is good (I wouldn't say better, since it is just my opinion).

And @informalethnographer: The reason that there's a similarity between University of the Philippines and North American universities is that UP is modeled after a university in New York (I can't remember which). It is established by the Americans, a little after the colonization and many of the first professors in UP were Americans. In fact, the "big boss" that pioneered for Anthropology here in the country (also the 1st guy to teach the field and established the 1st Anthropology Department here in UP and the Philippines) was an American, H. Otley Beyer.

I would like to ask permission to put a link of this entry on my blog, and maybe some quotes if it's ok.

I'm sorry if I was rambling. I hope I was making some sense here. Thank you very much for the space.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope @pamthropologist doesn't mind us posting so many comments on her blog. But I can say that this is useful, to me, as I prepare for the semester. Not only did you get me to think hard about some teaching issues but you may have provided me with a new approach to teaching.
What I plan to do, this semester, is the following:
During the first class meeting, after having introduced the course as a whole (course outline, requirements, teaching philosophy...), I'll go on lecture mode to prepare students for the first set of readings, emphasizing what I think is important to keep in mind with those readings. At the beginning of the second class meeting, I'll work with students on those first texts, trying to go from those texts to everyone's questions and experiences. When examples will be given, I'll try to bring them back to the course material in general. Then, I'll go on lecture mode to prepare students for the second set of readings. I plan to adopt the same structure every week with a gradual shift to more interaction and less lecturing.
Because there'll be 105 students in the course and because it's an introductory course, it might be a challenge. But, from some previous intro courses I've taught, I get the impression that it should work.
We'll see how it goes.

As for talking about colleagues' teaching strategies... I don't think you made a faux-pas but it's useful to keep in mind that collegiality is important. We all have different strategies and we may not fully understand what our colleagues are doing because we don't have the full context.

Thanks a lot for the insight on UP and connections with US academia. Guess I didn't realize the extent to which the colonial experience remained impactful, in the Philippines. I had assumed that the university system had developed independently. But, then again, universities in former French colonies still tend to be directly tied with France, so it shouldn't surprise me. But it did. ;-)

Thanks again!