Taking Risks in Teaching Anthropology, Part I

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  • posted bySuzanne Z. Gottschang
  • dateFebruary 3, 2016
  • commentsComments Off on Taking Risks in Teaching Anthropology, Part I
CategoryMain Story

This is the first of a two-part blog post in which Suzanne Z. Gottschang from Smith College outlines the benefits of integrating a real-world assignment into her introductory cultural anthropology course.

Last fall, I led students in my introductory cultural anthropology course through a fieldwork project of observations and interviews to better understand why students choose to study in different campus spaces. This was not a project I had planned for when I handed out the syllabus and introduced the course to a group of first- and second-year students in early September.

Smith College LibrarySmith is redesigning its library—a massive undertaking involving architect Maya Lin, and other experts, to help shape the library of the future. In our first faculty meeting of the semester it was announced that an anthropology design firm would be on campus to gather data about how students, faculty, and staff use the libraries to ensure that the redesign reflected the needs and desires of the campus constituencies.

I thought about the observation exercise in my introductory class where students develop a brief research proposal, conduct observations of an activity of their choosing, and write a five- to seven-page ethnography that draws on theories and approaches we have studied in the course. Designed as a final project, I spend the first half of the course preparing students for this assignment. As I left the faculty meeting I wondered about my class working on the library project. In the following days, after presenting the opportunity to my students and confirming their enthusiasm for the idea, I found myself collaborating with the anthropology firm to collect qualitative data for use in planning the library redesign.

The complexity of the project might be measured in the five times I revised the course syllabus to accommodate the research process and deadlines of the anthropology research firm and other committees on campus. My goal was not only to have the students conduct fieldwork but to scale up their research lens to examine the methods and assumptions used by the anthropology design firm, and to analyze the structure and process used by the College to envision a new library. I must admit, I was curious about what an anthropology design firm actually did.

I wanted my students to participate in as much of the planning, design, and analysis of the research as possible—at least in our class. I attended an initial meeting with the anthropology design firm and learned that they were not anthropologists but a consulting firm that helps develop strategies to improve or redesign spaces and services for educational institutions and other organizations. The firm has worked on a number of library projects at universities around the world. They welcomed the opportunity to include student researchers in the process—a first for their organization.

In our meeting, the consultants outlined their research plan: a campus-wide survey, observations, brief interviews of students as they studied in different locations, and in-depth interviews with a sample of faculty, staff, and students. As I was imagining the possibility of my students sitting in on in-depth interviews and learning from these experts, I asked the consultants how many interviews they planned to conduct. “Five,” they said. I hope I hid my astonishment. Their plans for conducting observations? A few days on campus with a few researchers. When I reported to the class about the meeting and the parameters of the project, students immediately began to ask how this group of strangers could learn enough about Smith and its culture to meaningfully capture what mattered in designing a new library. How could these consultants tap into the needs and interests of a campus community of more than 3,000 faculty, students, and staff with five interviews and a few days of observations? As a teacher, I was gratified to see that our early sessions on the hallmark methodologies of anthropology—long-term participant observation and in-depth interviewing—yielded such questions from the students. They also saw an opportunity. With twenty-two students conducting at least two observations and two brief interviews, the class realized they could contribute significant data to the findings of the consulting firm.

The class went to work. We brainstormed together to determine what locations the observations should cover. From the art library to the campus center, the group developed a comprehensive list of locations to observe. Before they started their observations and “spot” interviews with students (brief interviews about study preferences), everyone conducted practice observations of a study space. This lead to some anxiety among the students. I did not provide a lot of direction but asked them to reflect on the experience and what they might have done differently. I wanted them to discover what the process was like and what they could (or could not) learn from their observations. After these practice sessions, I was struck by the way everyone grasped the importance of choice in conducting research. Should we observe people who are not studying? How do we define studying? Should we move around in larger spaces to better document behaviors? With some answers to these questions, students set off to conduct observations and spot interviews. They worked in teams and were responsible for observations and interviews at different times of the day and the night. All field notes were posted on the course website to be shared amongst the class.

With data in hand, students transferred the information to a template used by the design consultants for distilling their observations and interview data—a single PowerPoint slide for each observation session. Once the consultants reviewed all the data, they attended our class where they checked in about conclusions drawn from the data. After this discussion the students wanted to debrief. They were a bit disappointed that a higher level discussion about what the findings might mean did not occur. I was not disappointed. My students had, in a very brief time, defined a research question, conducted systematic qualitative research, and begun to analyze and interpret their findings. And they were beginning to think about the larger politics and processes in which a college library is reimagined. It was only late October.

Suzanne Z. Gottschang is a medical anthropologist with research interests in women, health technology, and policy in the US and China. She is an Associate Professor at Smith College in Anthropology and East Asian Studies. In addition to her work on motherhood, infant feeding, and health policy in China, she is currently researching the commodification of breastmilk, e-medicine and mobile medicine, and traditional Chinese veterinary medicine in the US and China.

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