The Research Portfolio Project

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  • posted byJohn Barker
  • dateNovember 11, 2013
  • comments1
Research Portfolio

Teaching introductory cultural anthropology involves a balance between delivering information—after all, you are the expert!—and providing students with opportunities to apply what they learn to understanding the world. Typically, an instructor attempts to accomplish the latter through library and/or field research assignments. I’ve found that the assignments that work best in terms of student learning are those with uncertain outcomes, where students cannot write with the aim of pleasing the instructor or, worse, plagiarizing from Wikipedia—in short, projects that replicate the process of ethnographic research, discovery, and reporting.

This is a challenge in any class, but particularly for large introductory courses (at UBC, our courses range from 80 to 350 students). The more personal a project, the more counselling individual students require. Using teaching assistants and meeting the requirements of research ethics review add additional levels of complexity.

I’ve experimented with several types of assignments over the years. The one I keep coming back to is the “research portfolio.” The governing idea is that research is an open-ended process. Anthropologists enter into ongoing conversations and debates; typically, their contributions do not resolve them but deepen understandings, leading to enriched conversations and new directions of understanding. The research portfolio requires students to begin amassing information on an ethnographic subject that interests them while reflecting on the way they learn. There is no final term paper. The idea is that the project doesn’t end with the class but continues indefinitely into the future.

Students begin by choosing a cultural group within an ethnographic region. For this initial stage, I introduce them to the online version of the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) to give them a sense of the range of cultures studied by anthropologists and quick access to a database of key publications. The assignment includes four cumulative components:

  1. A research abstract which includes a general description of the culture in question and a research question the student wishes to pursue.
  2. A review of a peer-reviewed article or book, preferably by an anthropologist, relevant to the research subject.
  3. A summary statement when the final assignment is handed in detailing how the student chose, pursued, and developed his or her topic, and possible future lines of research.
  4. The portfolio itself, which includes all of the previous assignments, plus notes and other records written or collected during the research process.

I find that the assignment works best when the requirements of each component are clearly spelled out. This not only helps students but, just as importantly, the teaching assistants who do the bulk of the advising and grading, by setting standard expectations and enforcing strict page limits. I’ve created templates for each of the three written assignments (see the sample at the end of this piece) that students access online. In addition, I provide my TAs with detailed instructions on evaluating each assignment. They receive these at the start of the term so that they are in the best position to advise their students.

While the core assignments require students to make use of scholarly publications, I encourage them to also explore the broader context of their subjects by watching films, going to local ethnic festivals and restaurants, visiting museums, and so forth. A minority of students do the minimum, but it’s always gratifying to see how many students really get into their projects, developing fascinating, reflective portfolios. They range in size from folders to small boxes. Students hand them in on the final day of class. We return them as they exit the auditorium where they write the final exam—which gives the otherwise institutional end of the course a nice personal touch.

Another nice thing about the research portfolio is its flexibility. It works quite well in large classes with tutorial sections. We’ve encouraged each tutorial group to choose either a general theme (like gender, race, or art) or an ethnographic region to encourage collaboration between the students, for instance. I can easily see, in smaller classes, building in a fieldwork component, along with other modifications.

Students come up with fantastic projects, sometimes connected to their own backgrounds, but very often opening themselves up to entirely new worlds. A few of the hundreds of subjects covered in the decade since I started working with research portfolios include the role of food in the formation of Maori cultural identity; Maasai responses to territorial losses in Tanzania; First Nations spiritual healing in Canadian prisons; shifts in gender notions in Japanese anime; the revitalization of Hmong culture in North American immigrant communities; traditional healing in South Africa; the creation of ethnic minority tourism in China; and the representation of Maya in popular films. The possibilities are truly endless.

I’m happy to share my teaching materials with anyone interested in experimenting with the research portfolio. If you decide to try it out, please let me know how things work out and any suggestions you have to improve it.

Here is the template for the article/book review component:

Article/Book Assignment

[Note: Guidelines between brackets should be deleted prior to submitting this assignment.]

[Choose an article or book from your research project for this review. The publication should be written by an anthropologist and appear either in an academic journal (like American Anthropologist), an edited book, or as a publication in its own right. It should relate to your project either in terms of the culture you are studying or the research problem under investigation. You should aim for a review running a page and a half double-spaced. The maximum length is two pages.]

[Use the class style guidelines on page 11 of the course outline for proper citation and reference format. Please answer the following:]

Provide a bibliographic reference for the publication using standard format.

State (in a single sentence) the subject of your research portfolio.

What is the general subject of the publication?

What are the main aims of the authors? What are they trying to demonstrate or argue?

What kinds of information do they present in support of their main argument or thesis?

How has this publication contributed to your own research project?

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  1. Tad McIlwraith says:

    John … thank you very much for sharing these ideas and resources with us. I love the idea of cumulative projects, ones with several components that build on previous work. As a model, this makes a great deal of sense to me, regardless of the level. -Tad

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