In an age when the demonization of immigrants, historical revisionism, and ill-informed nationalist policies target the very fabric of our communities, anthropology in all of its forms is essential to the education of a socially-literate global citizenry. My teaching philosophy rests upon the belief that, as liberal arts educators, we are uniquely positioned to mold our students into conscientious and knowledgeable lawyers, doctors, engineers, and anthropologists. I conceive of the classroom as a laboratory in which I experiment with different pedagogical tools to actualize this philosophy. My course design process focuses on three inter-linked goals: 1) it targets student comprehension of the subject and the methods and theories that are used to create anthropological and archaeological knowledge; 2) it cultivates student reflection on the broader implications of that knowledge; and 3) it facilitates creative application of that knowledge beyond the classroom.
To facilitate comprehension, one of my key strategies is to incorporate different types of activities and instructional media into my lesson plans. These include presentations, individual and group activities, in-class and outside assignments, seminar-style discussions, and exposure to various documentaries, scholarly texts, and works of popular culture. In my Old World Prehistory class, for example, the lectures will be complemented with “Anthropology in the News” presentations in which students will place the subject matter in the context of recent hominid and fossil discoveries or analyze current events, such as the global refugee crisis and climate change, in the context of archaeological knowledge. The Old World Prehistory curriculum includes weekly in-class group exercises and several individual outside Mini Projects that build upon and emphasize the central learning objectives of various lectures and reading assignments. In Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, a lecture on gender stereotypes and representation in America is complemented with a screening of Killing Us Softly 4 (2010)—a documentary that takes a critical look at gender stereotypes in advertising—with discussions of scholarly works on toxic masculinity, and an in-class group activity that explores gender stereotypes in such popular TV shows as Friendsand The Big Bang Theory. These course curricula are also designed to disrupt archaeological and anthropological canon by incorporating the works and voices of African, Arab, Iranian, Turkish, and indigenous scholars. Normalizing the contribution of those whose voices remain sidelined in academia will encourage students to reflect upon the “standard” or dominant sources of knowledge and their roles in shaping our entrenched prejudices about “other” people.
Weekly activities and discussions also encourage students to reflect upon the broader implications of anthropological and archaeological knowledge and to deconstruct those aspects of human behavior and physiology that we take for granted. In the Archaeology of Ancient Near East, we use weekly discussions that built upon the lectures to explore such topics as the Mediterranean Late Bronze Age collapse in terms of its consequences for the reorganization of Iron Age societies and in the context of ongoing debates about the societal repercussions of climate change. Another example is “Becoming Bipedal,” one of the weekly activities in Old World Prehistory, which asks groups of students to take several minutes to write a 10-step instructional manual for bipedal locomotion. Then, with the help of student volunteers and as a class, we put these instructions to test. I used a similar activity in an Introduction to Biological Anthropology class at Southern Connecticut State University. Students find this activity thrilling, because it makes them think about something as seemingly pedestrian as bipedalism in terms of its possible physiological implications (e.g. evolution of larger brains) and social and cultural ramifications (e.g. tool making and artistic expression). In Introduction to Zooarchaeology, reflection takes on a non-traditional, hands-on form, as students are tasked to study and analyze real but non-archaeological faunal collections and write a report about the anthropological implications of their zooarchaeological observations. Cultivation of student reflections must be accompanied by a learning process that targets students’ self-expression skills. In the Archaeology of Ancient Near East, for example, students will work on a 15–20-page research paper throughout the semester. I will use intermittent writing workshops, mandatory one-on-one conferences during office hours, and a multi-stage revision and peer-review process to provide students with substantive feedback and to assist them through every step of the writing and research process. Writing workshops will focus on the development of well-reasoned arguments and clear and logical articulation of ideas. Topics include research strategies, recognition and correction of logical fallacies, argument structure, outlining, and sentence structure.
Finally, it is my goal that students should take anthropological knowledge into their own communities or professions of interest. In Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, I assign an essay entitled “Anthropology at Work,” in which students must demonstrate how they can apply their knowledge of anthropology and cultural diversity to their future vocational and educational goals; be it engineering, business, marketing, medicine, or graduate and law school. I will also introduce interested students to available lab and field opportunities, the chance to design tailored Independent Studies, and to engage with my ongoing research projects in the Middle East.
Student performance will be gauged using various forms of assessment, including essays and research papers, short in-class writing prompts, group presentations, exams, and quizzes. This diversity will help monitor student learning, while taking into account their different learning styles and abilities. But it is also of utmost importance to acknowledge that student needs can be different from semester to semester, and I must adjust my curricula and strategies accordingly to ensure engagement. I use student evaluations at the end of Week 3 to ask for feedback, which allows me to tailor the discussions, the readings, and topics early in the semester. I will also use feedback from the end-of-the-semester evaluations to improve course designs and develop best practices for the future.
My teaching strategy has been recognized in a letter of commendation by the Office of the Provost at the University of Connecticut. I have also received excellent reviews from my students throughout the years, scoring higher than the median score at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut. I draw energy from these recognitions. But none is perhaps more fulfilling than an email I received from a former student on September 29, 2017 who, having moved on to the next stage of his career in law school, wished to communicate the foundational role that the anthropology class had played in his success.