You’ve Only Got One Shot: Teaching Introductory Anthropology

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  • posted bySarah Mahler
  • dateFebruary 24, 2014
  • commentsComments Off on You’ve Only Got One Shot: Teaching Introductory Anthropology
Teacher in Front of Class

“You’ve only got one shot” is what I continuously say to myself when planning for, and teaching, Introduction to Anthropology. If you pardon the military metaphor, you’ll find that there are truly solid and compelling reasons to treat Intro with missionary zeal.

So what is your mission? I would recommend that you not seek any converts to anthropological careers, academic or otherwise. If it happens, then all the better, but let’s face it: most students do not enrol in Intro to Anthropology because they want to be there, or because they desire to become anthropologists—even if they are Indiana Jones or Bones enthusiasts. Realistically, how could they possibly dream of such a strange career? Most students entering college have never—let me repeat, never—taken even one social science course in their entire K-12 lives. There are exceptions to every rule, but the curriculum specialists for many generations from state to state, and country to country, have long ignored social science. Science—yes, and lots of it. Social science? What do you recall from your K-12 education and that of any children you know: years of social studies (a.k.a history) and perhaps an elective in high school psychology. Translation? “You’ve only got one shot” to convince students who happen to come into your classroom that social science has something meaningful to offer them. Make it meaningful, then, because what could possibly be more meaningful than to understand the human social condition? Whose career will not involve working with a diverse array of people? How can we solve problems, human or inhuman, if we cannot communicate across cultural lines effectively? Addressing these questions is at the heart of the way I design my course.

In this three-part blog series I am excited to share my philosophy and practices and to promote further dialogue. This first entry is all about doing what we anthropologists do well—transporting ourselves out of our cultural comfort zones and into a new cultural context. This time the cultural context is that occupied by our Intro students. What backgrounds, orientations, and interests do they have? When we write books we are schooled to write them knowing our audience. No less should be our orientation toward planning for our courses. The next time you start a course, especially an Intro course (though  it could be  any course), I first recommend taking a straw poll about what paths led students to your door and whether they  have been exposed to social science before. I have my students fill out anonymous slips of paper which ask them why they chose this course. If this is the first time you are teaching the course, you can ask a colleague the semester before to conduct this poll and use its results in your planning. This kind of data provides an important baseline for planning your course from the cultural lenses of our students.

When I do this exercise with my audience it has yielded a pretty predictable, albeit somewhat dreary, demography. With few exceptions, my Intro students are not in my class owing to enthusiasm for the subject, nor for me. I teach in a very large (over 50K) urban, public institution in Miami, and we have very high percentages of students who are foreign-born, first generation to college, use English as a second language, and come from families accustomed to university educations in which you have no curriculum choices at all. You just select a career (law, education, medicine) and your entire curriculum is determined from day one. So my students come because they have to take a course in the social sciences to meet their distribution requirements and my class meets their schedule or, more likely, it is the only class that is not yet full when they are allowed to register. The overwhelming majority arrive at my doorstep expecting to just get my course over with—one more requirement behind them—and, hopefully, to get a good grade without putting in much effort. At best, they arrive thinking that I’ll be showing them archaeological digs with cool bones and artifacts. This is my audience. Is it yours, too? If so, then I hope you understand how I find a great deal of personal and professional satisfaction by making my one shot hit its mark. If it’s not your audience, then I still hope that my experiences and insights are valuable.

Stay tuned for my next post, in which I’ll write about planning the course to ensure that one shot hits the mark…

Sarah J. Mahler is an Associate Professor in the Global and Sociocultural Studies Program at Florida International University. She is author of the book Culture as Comfort.

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