Capturing the Attention of Students from Day 1

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  • posted byThomas McIlwraith
  • dateAugust 27, 2013
  • comments4
Lecture Hall

I have spent a lot of my teaching career speaking to and with first-time anthropology students. I take it as part of my responsibility to excite these students about anthropology as a discipline and, for me, this is as important as providing information and helping with writing, reading, and thinking skills. I want students to come away from my classes with an understanding of anthropology’s perspective on issues and problems in their worlds—and in the worlds of other people today. I want them to see an anthropology degree as the foundation for a great job. And, I want them to be able to explain the value of anthropology to others, including Ohio University economist Richard Vedder. Vedder was quoted recently in the Wall Street Journal stating that governments that help students discharge their school debts encourage them to take programs with limited job opportunities—like sociology and anthropology. This “moral hazard” leads anthropology graduates into low-paying jobs (WSJ, August 23, 2013). (Readers may also remember the uproar caused by Florida governor Rick Scott who, in 2011, described an anthropology degree as one without job prospects.)

When I teach Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, I try to make the relevance of anthropology clear in every class. This starts on Day 1, just after I’ve stated my name and welcomed students to the class. With those rituals out of the way, I begin the first class with a pictures-only presentation titled “What I Did Last Summer.” My research is with Indigenous peoples in British Columbia, particularly in the context of resource development. In my presentation, I share pictures of that work and the places it occurs. And, I tell stories about the fun and challenges of anthropology’s methods and my efforts to answer research questions. Students usually get most interested when I introduce the conflicts that exist between communities and resource developers. It is here, I’ve found, that students become aware of the relevance of anthropology. Students have heard reference to stories like these in the news. They frequently have opinions on development—and are willing to share them.

I have found there are lots of good reasons to talk about myself and my work first thing on Day 1.  These reasons include:

  • Capturing attention more quickly than a run-down of the syllabus.
  • Giving students who have never taken an anthropology course an immediate sense of what anthropology is. I dispel rumours and misunderstandings with these slides. No dinosaurs, for example. Students who are truly disinterested can find another course to take.
  • Giving students a sense of what kind of anthropological work I do. This, in turn, allows them to decide if the choices I make for course content are of interest to them. Again, if they find they don’t like my style or background, they can find another section or another course.
  • Explaining what anthropology is and how it is done using specific examples. With this presentation finished, the class and I have examples to discuss before anyone has read the textbook. I often return to these examples during the semester.
  • Helping me relax, because my experiences are easy for me to talk about.

My introductory courses in anthropology are, by necessity and design, very personal. I suspect yours are too. What strategies do you use on Day 1 to draw students in and to alleviate anxiety?

I teach anthropology at the University of Guelph. I am the author of We Are Still Didene: Stories of Hunting and History from Northern British Columbia (UTP, 2012). And, I am active on Twitter and tweet @tadmcilwraith.


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  1. John Barker says:

    Many thanks, Tad, from excellent suggestions and for starting this conversation. One of the things that drew me and I expect many others into anthropology in the first place was hearing the personal stories of my instructors and saying to myself, ‘I’d like to do that!’. Most students in my experience appreciate the personal touch. It’s a delicate balance, though, and there are certainly instructors who take it too far and make classes mainly about ‘their people’ (and thus themselves), although I think this is pretty rare. A somewhat dicier prospect is teaching your own book. Again, most of my students appreciate the opportunity for a more intensive understanding of the route from research to publication, but there are others who find that being evaluated in part on the instructor’s book is intimidating and others who feel its a conflict of interest given the massive (?!) royalties we receive. I work to calm the fears and suspicions (for one, all the profits from my book go towards education in Maisin communities), but they’re real and part of the great balancing act entailed by bringing the personal into our teaching.

    • Tad McIlwraith says:

      Hi John … I feel as you do. Done properly, and in appropriate amounts, I am best able to convey my enthusiasm for anthropology with personal accounts. I haven’t yet faced the prospect of considering my own book for a class reading list, but I can appreciate the factors that must be weighed. I like the idea of bringing those factors into the classroom discussion – and the question of royalties should certain be part of that. -Tad

  2. Laura Gonzalez says:


    I appreciate your piece because I’m always conflicted about spending too much time talking about my own research on the first day. I feel self-indulgent, as if I’m tooting my own horn. But as I was reading your post, I thought about the students’ faces as they listen to my field stories, and it’s clear that they are interested. I’m going to rethink my strategy on this, thank you.

    About alleviating anxiety on the first day, I’ll add that in my physical anthropology class, I make an effort to reach out to students who may be conflicted about a course on evolution. Some students are fearful that I’ll ask them to abandon their faith and worship at the Darwinian altar. We talk about the fact that science and religion are different realms of life that do not have to conflict (no matter what the popular media says). We discuss how science gives us facts, but our values system allows us to decide how to evaluate and use those facts. We also talk about how science is testable, and how that will be the focus of the course: that which is testable.

    Since I’ve been addressing this on day one, I’ve felt a collective sigh of relief from students, and I don’t have to bring it up again.

    • Tad McIlwraith says:

      Hi Laura … yeah, self-indulgent. I’m aware of that possibility. You’ve got my rationale, but I’d add that I try not to overdo it. A couple of stories and a few pictures. I’ve had enough students tell me that my personal asides are what they like that I have grown more comfortable doing it. And, when I’m done I usually quip something like “well, enough about me.” In your case, your stories about India would be an amazing way to set up a class.

      The talk you have with your phys-anth students seems to me like one of those first day stories. You see it as an ice-breaker, it sets up all sorts of future discussions, it’s probably straight-forward for you to talk about, adds to your credibility, gives students a sense of your style and your care with the material and with them. Sounds like it is based on classroom experience too. Bet it works well. Thanks for sharing that idea. -Tad

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