At this year’s meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver, Colorado, November 18-22, we will launch our first ever four-field anthropology textbook. In the process of producing Through the Lens of Anthropology: An Introduction to Human Evolution and Culture by Robert J. Muckle and Laura Tubelle de González, we have had many interesting conversations with instructors across North America about how they approach their four-field courses. Not surprisingly, their approaches vary, as do the particular challenges they face in their courses. To keep this discussion going, we offer a few short Q&As with instructors from different subfields of anthropology. Last week, we posted a Q&A with biological anthropologist Kristina Killgrove. This week, we posed the same questions to two graduate students at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Nikky Greer and A. Rey Villanueva, who have a wealth of experience teaching four-field anthropology as TAs and now as instructors.
Q: How long have you been teaching an introductory general anthropology course? Is the course team-taught at your institution? Do you have a few large classes or many small sections of the class offered by many different instructors?
NIKKY: I teach two introductory anthropology courses—one general anthropology, the other cultural anthropology. This is my first Intro to Anthropology as Instructor of Record, but I have taught most of the material for about five semesters as a TA (I had an awesome mentor who focused on giving us teaching experience rather than treating us as slave-graders). So I guess this is my first or sixth, depending on how you tally. It is not team-taught at UTSA. That said, several other adjuncts and faculty have given me guidance and we have bounced ideas off each other and shared resources throughout the semester. I have amended or tweaked my class several times as a result of those collaborations. I believe Intro to Anthropology is usually 40-60 students at UTSA, and is taught by many different instructors each semester. There are guidelines for these classes as core curricula also.
REY: Like Nikky, this is my first semester teaching Intro to Anthropology as Instructor of Record, but I do have previous experience TAing it over two semesters with two different instructors (and a third semester as a Supplemental Instruction leader). As previously noted, this course only has one primary instructor with a medium number of students (40-60) in each section. That being said, I have arranged to have a guest speaker for each of the sub disciplines to give other graduate students more experience speaking as well as giving the students an example of someone actually using what’s being taught.
Q: What is your goal for the course? That is, do you have a particular vision of anthropology that you want to pass on to students or are you content to introduce some of the more interesting elements of the discipline with the hope that you can recruit more students to take more anthropology courses?
NIKKY: My primary teaching goal is always to expand students’ critical thinking and analytical skills. Whatever their major or life-course, these are underutilized and important life skills. After that, I aim to impart the orientation of anthropology as a discipline, in all its diversity. I try to give equal weight to each of the subfields—I teach four fields and show how each can have an applied approach. One of the ways I do this is by trying to balance challenging material with engaging material. I avoid the most sensational stuff, but do use some classic articles that tend toward exoticism, in order to engage students. I wouldn’t say I’m out to recruit students to anthropology as a major. More accurately, I’m hoping they take anthropology with them into their chosen fields. But in the general anthropology introductory course, I do want roughly equal exposure to each subfield so any potential majors get a sense of what each is about.
REY: I describe my goals as an instructor, and especially as an instructor for Introduction to Anthropology, as attempting to encourage critical listening and critical engagement. The former is a pedagogical tool I’ve taken to heart from Deb Moon Wagner’s own teaching, and that I have seen not only be an incredibly effective teaching tool, but a form of citizenship that I think will be hugely useful in their lives. The latter has emerged from slightly political reasoning—“critical thinking” has become cliché and lost its meaning, but critical engagement—the idea that students will tear apart any reading or topic discussion to find its weak points, including where the author doesn’t “say enough” on something, fails to mention something, etc., has been something I’ve been honing as a strategy for several years. As far as course design of Introduction to Anthropology, my goal is to identify the “fundamentals” of each of the sub disciplines, followed by a survey-style focus on the “fun” or more “interesting” topics discussed or examined within that part of anthropology. I attempt to devote at least one class to the theoretical building blocks of any given sub discipline, then fill the rest of the section with a logical strand of topics that build upon each other. Hopefully, students will have a solid basis to work from if they choose to continue down that path, as well as enough exposure to the various strands of interest in anthropology to possibly envision a future in the major.
Q: How do you structure your course to realize that goal?
NIKKY: I start with an introduction to cross-subfield concepts and ethics, then I teach archaeology, linguistic, cultural, and end on physical (particularly saving human evolution for last so I have the whole semester to build rapport). Also, this approach takes some of the linearity out of beginning-with-physical-and-ending-with-cultural approach. I don’t want to mimic an inevitable biological model (that almost feels deterministic to me). As far as pedagogy goes, I begin with definitions and concepts for each class and build toward discussions and participatory teaching as much as possible. I think it is critical to keep costs down for students, so I do not give assignments that create additional cost burdens. I experimented with a traditional intro textbook this semester (rather than assigning peer-review articles), and am displeased with the outcome. Instead of filling out their understanding, the textbook basically mimicked what I said. In the future, I will either use a reader, a number of less expensive ethnographies or books, or articles from the AAA or library databases. It isn’t that the textbook was bad, it was just redundant, and boring for students. They either aren’t using the textbook, or don’t know how to use it as a tool. I feel like I wasted their money on it as a result.
REY: My course is at its core designed to be discussion based. So many young students have not worked on critical listening as part of their pedagogical toolbox, so I create a space where learning from each other is just as important as learning from the instructor at the front of the classroom. For example, each day in class I begin with a music video related to the content to encourage the Mozart effect (a form of arousing enjoyment that stimulates the brain), I write out daily objectives to act as guide posts for the day as well as a study guide for the semester, I then lecture for about 20 minutes, incorporating as much discussion as possible to engage personal and previous understandings of the content, and usually follow that with a group exercise that allows students to apply the day’s concepts in a less abstract manner. For my reading selections, I choose a handful of popular-press articles for the applied anthropology section (three weeks), while I primarily assign four books that each cover biological, archaeological, linguistic, and cultural anthropology (the latter two being ethnographies). They’re specifically chosen to extend ideas we’re discussing in class, but they don’t necessarily match up with the topics in class on a one-to-one basis. For example, our linguistics unit may cover theory, phonetics, gendered language, etc., that are only small parts of the book being read, but give much further insight into what’s written.
Q: What do your students usually find the most interesting part of the course?
NIKKY: They tend to be most engaged with the material that they can relate or compare to their own lives. They like talking about race (cultural and physical anthro), class (linguistic and cultural), sex and gender (physical and cultural), marriage types and differences (cultural), and social inequalities (archaeology, cultural, and linguistic), and primates are always a hit (they’re too cute!). They like pop culture examples they can relate to: Chin’s discussion of toys, Condry’s ethnography of hip-hop in Japan, examples from current social media and so on.
REY: I've found that once a very open and supportive classroom culture is created and enforced, the students particularly love problematizing (read: debating) topics that they can play devil’s advocate with in a provocative manner. This creates a healthy dialogue, forcing other students to take and defend the more anthropological approach. For example, during our discussion on evolution and religion, several of my students carefully challenged the idea that God could not be part of a scientific theory, forcing some of the quieter students to defend the thesis and creating a brilliant discussion on the matter that left the class with a general consensus. However, my archaeological anthropology unit is undoubtedly my quietest, and slowest, unit in the course as there’s so little for an intro-level class to debate; do we try to prove stratigraphy wrong?
Q: What do you see as the greatest challenge in teaching a four-field introductory anthropology course?
NIKKY: I think most students are excited when they discover that what they believed before taking the course isn’t entirely accurate; but they don’t want to think of this as changing their minds or having been wrong, or having their beliefs challenged. This means my teaching approach needs to be respectful, as neutral as possible in its representations of human experience, and that I allow them to come to their own conclusions. If I self-present as too political, they close down. They need to know this is a dialogue and that I am open to hearing from them too. One of the ways I do this is by attending to how all ways of knowing are constructs, so no single group feels “attacked” too often. I challenge traditional approaches to science as often as I challenge religion, classism, or racism. But there are two big challenges in an intro to four-field anthropology course: making students feel safe enough to participate in class, and helping them learn how to be students (e.g. studying, exam-taking, active reading for content and analysis, and taking responsibility for their own learning).
My ideal textbook would look something like the following:
- Start with a section that guides students through how to read it (e.g. start with summaries and theses, summarize argument for each section or heading).
- Emphasize that anthropology’s quest to understand humanity happens through a variety of methods and approaches to understanding and knowing—none is superior, they just each offer different kinds of answers. All of them begin with respect for individuals and populations (within reason, of course). Then describe how each subfield does this. It is a four-field class, yet most books treat them as disconnected instead of interconnected.
- Emphasize examples of central concepts rather than saying the same things I explain in class. Instead of detailing subsistence patterns, for example, my ideal textbook would give cross-cultural examples of each (while avoiding reifying, totalizing, and essentializing). I spend most of my time explaining new concepts and have less time for the beautiful, rich examples that are the meat and potatoes of anthropology.
- Have a fabulous anthropology glossary—even concepts that might not be emphasized in the text. And similarly, a cross-reference would be an incredible bonus. For instance, if a student wanted to know more about “power” but that wasn’t an idea that would be discussed overtly, except in the political context, the cross-reference would offer similar ideas that might expand their search. Under the listing for “power” they would find “See also: race, class, hegemony, models of development” and so on.
- Overall, a textbook that is more like a workbook would be amazing. For example, it would have lines in the margins for students to write Tweet-like summaries of each subsection. It would have charts that they could fill out as assignments or study tools (of primates, for example). It would include practical assignments that instructors could amend or assign, or suggest as study tools. This way they are interacting with the text, not treating it as a separate object.
REY: While Nikky definitely lays some good points on difficulties facing four-field intro courses, I think they don’t address the bigger challenges I have. I have jokingly discussed the fact that I have and use “male privilege” in the classroom to create the kind of casual learning space I want to promote, but the fact is it’s entirely true. I do honestly believe my being a young, masculine instructor gives me a huge amount of social capital that allows me to side-step the “too liberal” accusations or “being attacked” questions simply because my authority is rarely being challenged the way that women instructors’ authority is.
That being said, I think the balancing act of what topics to include, and the amount of content to include in those topics is most difficult for me. Just today, I had a student email me (in a very polite “course feedback” manner) that they wished I provided more outside resources, such as supplementary reading and films, for students to go more in depth on the course content. While I’d absolutely love to do that, I think it would overload the majority of students who want to know “what’s on the test” and what they “need to know for the test,” which I try so much to de-emphasize in the first place. However, it’s a very specific critique about my discussion-based class: that it is difficult to capture everything that goes on in notes. It’s a point I’m going to ponder further on, but this balancing act of “enough” and “too much” is my greatest challenge.
Nikky Greer is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at Temple University. She is a lecturer at the University of Texas San at Antonio and Texas State University. She teaches introductory courses in four-field and cultural anthropology, as well as sex and gender. Her research focus is in political anthropology and kinship in and through institutions, such as the U.S. foster care system.
A. Rey Villanueva is a Doctoral Student in linguistic anthropology, and Lecturer I, at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Rey has previously taught and coordinated a variety of ESL and TESL programs at the University of Virginia, as well as participated as a Supplemental Instruction Leader and Teaching Assistant at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His research focuses on the human-environment interactions and environmental discourses surrounding the vertical production of nuclear energy, including how people perceive and react to changes to the environment, health, and policies affecting them in Argentina.
If you would like to request a copy of Through the Lens of Anthropology to consider for course use, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to include your course name, the semester in which the course is being offered, and the estimated enrollment.