This is the first in a multi-part blog series in which Katherine Cook shares her experiences integrating digital anthropology into her teaching. From social media and blogging, to writing code and designing apps, Cook explores both the potential and challenges of exploring the intersection of digital technology and learning in the undergraduate anthropology classroom.
Five years ago, I made a personal vow to never use Twitter in the classroom. Feeling social media was categorically a “social thing” with no place in the professional anthropological sphere, the burgeoning academic in me (#OriginalSeriousAcademic) rejected case studies that engaged students in Twitter micro essays and networking.
Fast forward to the present, my students tweet. They blog, they code. They create websites, games, and apps.
I underwent my own personal digital revolution two years ago. As a recent doctoral graduate, I quickly ran into my own limitations as a researcher to share and archive my thesis data, let alone find employment or continue research, without advanced computer applications. In the midst of cursing aptly named computer languages like Python, I found myself wishing I had started this massively steep learning curve sooner. I also wondered why my education already seemed so out of date.
This perspective is paralleled by the advice of colleagues who work for NGOs, museums and heritage sites, and the government; they call for anthropology students to learn business skills, marketing, social media, and other digital communications. When hiring, they often struggle to find applicants with advanced digital skill-sets alongside anthropological training to help take their organizations forward.
So in recent experiences teaching in Ontario and British Columbia, I have increasingly included digital literacies as learning outcomes for courses ranging from introduction to archaeology to research/field methods to advanced theory.
It hasn’t always been easy; the relevance of digitally-based assignments is frequently questioned in academia. I have also, at times, regretted the headaches involved in teaching code when I could just have students use streamlined, institutionally-created online environments. I have even had the gut-wrenching moments of rejection where students express, in no uncertain terms, that they did not “go into anthropology to learn HTML.” But I also expected these struggles.
The surprising part of teaching digital anthropology is the slew of added benefits when students learn to code, to design, and to build digital things.
If you own any piece of technology, you have most likely experienced the all too regular moments of despair, of rage, of resisting the urge to throw said technology out the window or take a very large sledgehammer to it.
Learning to code is no different.
Things break. Things break for seemingly no reason. Finding solutions takes focused research, creative thinking, and confidence.
Learning to resolve issues in code teaches independent problem solving like no other assignment I have ever given. At first it may be chaotic—there will be a sea of hands up and demands for help. By the end of the semester, you’ll barely be asked a single question. Not even about information that is in the syllabus!
Innovation and Continuing Education
The rapid pace of technological evolution is staggering. There is no way to teach all of the applications and methods that students may need in the future. However, learning to learn will serve students forever.
If they can conquer the skills involved in learning HTML and CSS, they can learn other computer programming languages. They can learn how to create apps. They can learn how to create things on applications or devices that don’t even exist yet. And they will have the confidence to know they can—even when things break for seemingly no reason.
Learning to learn is infinitely useful, and unbelievably powerful.
Digital Public Anthropology
It is no longer enough to be good researchers. Public outreach and engagement are at the core of ethical and responsible practice. However, despite decades of concerted efforts to demolish the ivory tower, many assignments seem unchanged.
Students write midterms, reviews, proposals, annotated bibliographies, essays, exams… the list goes on and on of insular assignments that neither extend beyond the classroom nor recognize the complexities of public engagement.
The web is inherently public. It has messages about the permanent nature of sharing digital information, privacy, and control, but also about the sweeping transience of content created in fast-paced, expanding web-based environments. There is accountability and integrity, and lessons in how to make one’s voice heard.
Digital, Global Citizens
Public digital anthropology is excellent training for global citizenships. There have been overwhelming calls this year for more anthropology as a route to inclusivity, reflexivity, and relativism to fight rampant discrimination and increasing hate crimes.
Students in digital classrooms are not exposed to the one voice of the instructor. They ask anthropologists, politicians, and activists around the world about their work. They see events as and how they unfold, and they witness the reactions.
We are seeing every day that the “revolution” will be tweeted, blogged, and coded. Computers are portals through which we can all become activists and advocates. By integrating classrooms and students into this global network, and providing the skills to work independently and ethically in these digital spaces, anthropology can contribute to change.
Social media platforms may come and go, but the ability to program, to problem solve, to create, secure, and archive one’s own data, and to contribute to positive change are skills and values that will always be relevant to anthropology.
Anthropological education needs to actively and thoughtfully incorporate digital applications. Although it may seem daunting at first, the benefits both within and beyond the classroom are invaluable.
In the coming weeks, this series will provide sketches of what digital anthropological education can look like, exploring some of the challenges, but also the victories. In the next post, I will provide Four Hacks to Digitize Your Anthropology Classroom.
Katherine Cook is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria, Canada. As an archaeologist and historian, her research records cemeteries in the British Atlantic to examine the construction of family, race, and religion. Follow @KatherineRCook on Twitter for more adventures in teaching and doing digital anthropology.