Cultural Anthropology Week 7: Halfway There

March 27th, 2015

This week brought by first attempt at having a discussion on some scientific articles. I think it was a rewarding activity, but definitely one in which I need more experience. Thinking back to my student days, I was the person who had little to say in class discussions. In fact, I was actively trying to blend in to my surroundings and/or drawing in my notes at a furious pace. Fast forward a bunch of years and here I am leading a discussion of articles that I chose. Cue this picture:


Since the discussion was originally planned for the prior class (did I subconsciously let it get delayed?), I decided to do it at the beginning of this class session. I originally wanted to do the “think-pair-share” type of escalating discussion, but with such a small class, I just had everyone form a circle with their wheelie desks. Did I mention that the student desks have wheels and cupholders?


The articles I had chosen for us to read and discuss were “Alternative kinship, marriage, and reproduction” (Levine, 2008) and “Troubling kinship: Sacred marriage and gender configuration in South India” (Ramberg, 2013). They relate to the previous lectures on kinship and gender, and have a lot of connections between them as well. The Levine article is a review, so there is a good recap of how anthropologists study kinship and how it has changed with different shifts in focus and methodology. Ramberg’s article is based on her own ethnography of a practice in which a child is dedicated to a goddess called Yellamma. The dedicated person, a devadasi, has a new gender role that is both male and female depending on the context. Ramberg brings this information back to how anthropology is conducted to point out how the traditional kinship diagram (with the triangles and circles) has the flawed assumption that gender is fixed when determining kinship. Together, these articles have a lot of different subtopics to discuss.

The actual discussion of these articles went pretty well. I can’t really say that we fully discussed the articles, but we did spend an hour and a half (!) talking about all things religion and gender. Most students had something to say at some point, and there was a lot of good back-and-forth among them. I definitely need to be in view of the clock next time since we went a half hour over the duration that I had planned. As a result, the lecture was cut short: the first time that has happened!

The lecture topic was religion, which as expected garnered a lot of discussion as I went through my slides. I managed to fit culture-bound syndromes in the lecture on the fly. I wanted to put it in some lecture but I had not found a place to place it. The slide on beliefs turned out to be a good place. The students were very interested in how what we call mental illness is expressed and treated in other cultures. I am debating whether to have an extra credit assignment based around an article on koro, or genital retraction syndrome (Mattelaer & Jilek, 2007). Is that weird? But it’s a topic that really got the attention so I want to roll with it.

As time ran out, I quickly wrapped up the slide on polytheism and let the students go. I kept telling the students that the next lecture is on race, but looking at the syllabus, it is on colonialism, which is what bridges religion and race in my roadmap through anthropology. The last part of the religion lecture is on the spread of Christianity anyway, so it all works together.

Spring break is this week, so we will not meet again for another week. The break signals the halfway mark in the course! The second week has a change of pace as each team gets to work on a poster presentation. During the break I drafted the assignment instructions, including coming up with a list of cultures to choose from and a way to split the poster into different roles for each team member. Some roles will be researching a part of the culture while other roles involve designing and printing the text. I hope the different types of roles allow the students to do what they want in this project.

Levine NE. 2008. Alternative Kinship, Marriage, and Reproduction. Annu. Rev. Anthropol.. 37:375-389.

Mattelaer JJ, Jilek W. 2007. Koro–the psychological disappearance of the penis. J Sex Med. 4:1509-15.

Ramberg L. 2013. Troubling kinship: Sacred marriage and gender configuration in South India. American Ethnologist. 40:661-675.

Cultural Anthropology Week 6: Post-Game

March 19th, 2015

So how did the test go? After grading the tests, I looked for patterns in the results. Everyone got the first question (“What is anthropology?”) correct, so that was good. Beyond that, results varied. My last two multiple choice questions were missed by a majority of the students. I knew the last one was meant to be beyond what I was expecting, but the question before was trickier than I had thought. Showing the test to some friends, I realized that the question was too ambiguous. My solution was to give the points back for those two questions for every student. Those who got it right would then have received an extra bonus for their work.

I handed the tests back in class and had a little discussion about how it did or did not meet their expectations. One comment that made a lot of sense to me was that I should provide a study guide so the class has a better idea of what I’m expecting. My test review exercise asked the students what they thought was important, but I actually never heard their responses in the process. For the next exam, I may do a review of the study guide and some polling about confusing concepts that I could explain further. While I had it in my head that there was just the one midterm and the final, there is actually another exam in April. I can see how test review version 2 works out then.

After the test business, it was time for the video that I wanted to show. It is a half hour on kinship and descent from an old anthropology documentary series. It is very old fashioned and very low fidelity, but it mentions a lot of concepts that I talked about in class. The video was a good buffer between the test and the lecture as well (Abrams, 1994).

As with the last lecture on marriage, the lecture on gender was a big hit with the class. We spent almost ten minutes on just the title slide, of a female Kurdish peshmerga soldier on the frontline fighting ISIS. The first half of the lecture, on gender roles and stratification, drew a lot of personal observations. The second half, on supernumerary genders, was also engaging. There was so much discussion that I ran out of time for the activity that I had planned: the article discussion/lesson on article reading. I told them that we would do that first thing next class. Due to a misunderstanding with the campus print shop, I had enough paper copies for everyone (I had ordered just 1 copy for myself). Since the discussion activity was being delayed already, I decided to convey my article reading technique via a written essay. I quickly typed it up in the two days after class and emailed it to my students. I will polish it a little further and put it on my blog, like I did with the paper writing tips.

The streak of engaging topics continues next week with religion. (It’s not hard since anthropology is holistic, but the paper discussion is a great tie between gender and religion). I have a lot of slides, which needed a lot of pictures, but I hope to get through them all after a half hour or so of discussion.

The week after next is spring break, so there is no class on campus. I will be working two online classes during this time, though. After spring break ends, another online class will start, so I will be doing four classes simultaneously! (If you’re keeping score, there is this classroom cultural anthropology class, the final grading week of an online class, the second week of another online class, and the start of a new online physical anthropology class of my own design).



Abrams, I.R. [Producer]. (1994). Kinship and descent part 1 [Film]. Faces of Culture. Fountain Valley, CA: Coast Telecourses.

Cultural Anthropology Week 5: Test Crafting

March 12th, 2015

This class, the fifth, started with the sole midterm exam. It is also the first graded thing of this semester. It was also the first test I ever made, which I found kind of exciting.

There were more variables for me to consider in designing a test than I had realized. I settled on giving the students a hour to do fifteen multiple choice questions and three short answer questions. This setup fit the number of points I assigned the exam when I was making the syllabus. The other option would’ve been around twenty-five questions, which I thought were too many.

The questions were roughly ordered from easiest to hardest. The first question was “What is anthropology” and the last multiple choice question was a linguistic anthropology sentence diagramming question. To make the progressive difficulty, I thought about the number of mental leaps that one had to make to figure out the right answer from the question and the number of plausible answers. For an example of the former, the easier questions would define the term in the question to apply towards finding the right answer while harder question would require a leap to come up the definition on one’s own. As for the number of plausible answers, early on only two of the four answers are related to the question. A question about subsistence strategy would have the possible answers foraging and agriculture, but then archaeology and linguistics as well. For the harder questions, all four of the broad types of subsistence are in the answer pool.

When I picked up the printed exams, they were all official looking with a pink cover sheet covered in watermarks of the word “exam.” In class, I handed them out to the students, then I gave it to myself so I can take my own test and make the answer key. To my surprise, one of the students turned in the test before I was done! Seeing students take an exam from the perspective of the teacher’s desk showed me things that I had not considered before. A few students turned in the test fairly early on with some frustration in there faces, even after I gently nudged them to keep working at it. Everyone was done with around ten minutes to go. Instead of rounding up the students then, I let them have the whole duration as a break. It was a nice sunny day so most elected to chat outside.

Talking with the class about their impression of the exam, the consensus was that it was straightforward and fair. Good! With that out of the way, I started with the lecture on marriage and kinship practices.

As with the topic in the previous session, the students were very into learning about polygyny and polyandry. They worked really hard to understand how these marriages worked in the context of maintaining social ties and controlling one’s family’s resources. Just considering that marriages can be used as a tool instead of just for love was a lot to think about. Knowing that the students were interested in this topic, I brought a video clip of each of these types of plural marriage as well. Discussions during and after these clips were lively!

I also had one half hour video to show about marriage and kinship practices. Watching it on Youtube, I had the sneaking suspicion that I have seen it before. Perhaps when I was an undergraduate student in my first anthropology class?! I ran out of time during class, though. After the exam, I had just enough room for the lecture and the end-of-class question. I plan on showing the video next session as a bridge between the last session and the next, which os on gender. I will also return exams, of course. I also assigned two article to discuss, which I will play by ear. We’ll see if it works or not. If I’m feeling like the activity is not working, I plan to turn it into a lesson/demonstration of how to read journal articles using the macro projector. Always have a plan B!

Addendum: Between the last class session and now, I had a little adventure to get the exam graded. I’ve never used a Scantron machine (before), and I actually did not know what one looked like. I could not find any description of its location in the college website, so I figured that I would ask a peer when I popped in the adjunct offices for my office hours. Upon walking in the building, I saw a machine next to the communal printer that I had never noticed before. Taking off the dust cover, it turned out to be a DataLink 1200 test scanner! I guess it has been there the whole time. I googled the manual on my phone and I was off and running. It was neat to feed the exams through the thing and have it graded instantaneously. The scanner had a small screen showing some statistics on how people did on each question. I wish there was a way to have a copy of that information, but I didn’t see one with what I had on hand. In any case, I had the multiple choice graded in no time. The short answer took a little longer, which I did during my office hours. I followed the advice of reading all of the responses before deciding how to grade each one.

Addendum 2: It occurred to me that the college’s online descriptions of various office buildings mentioned them being “DataLink enabled.” I guess the information was there all along, but I did not know that was what the test grader was called!

Cultural Anthropology Week 4: Pre-Game

March 3rd, 2015

Week 4 of the class was about social organization, and oh –review for the exam that is next week. I split the class into halves, with the exam review in the latter part.

Breaking news happened before the lecture started, though. The country, and possibly the world, was gripped by white & gold dress versus blue & black dress fever! Since the topic was on my mind (having spent around an hour the night before trying to convince myself that the dress was really blue and black), I showed the photo of the dress on the projector screen and had a little discussion. While not an example of linguistic relativity per se (though Business Insider put up a story about the cultural interpretation of what we call the color blue), the photo of the dressed showed how subjective colors can be once filtered through our brains and then through our own lexicons. Also, “father of American anthropology” Franz Boas’s original work in physics that set him on the path to anthropology was based on the subjectivity of color, so it was a nice tie-in.

Talking about the dress took around ten minutes, so I went ahead with the planned material. I mentioned the past extra credit assignments and confirmed that no one in fact attended the Pow Wow or Chinese New Year events. I told them that I had undervalued the assignments and got some confirming nods to that observation. Each one was worth under two test questions! Woops. I vowed that future opportunities would be worth more, and that the maximum extra credit possible will also be higher. I let slip that I have an extra credit assignment planned in May for students to see the traveling Race: Are We So Different? exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man (“our very own anthropology museum!”). One student commented that we should go as a field trip. I was hesitant because it’s my first class and I want to keep it simple, but as I think about it, the better the idea sounds. The day when poster presentations are due would be a good day since we can do presentations from 9 to 10 and go to the Museum when it opens as a reward for a job well done. I will talk about it with the class further next session.

The material on subsistence social organization went normally. As the error I kept in the last sentence shows, I still mix up that lecture and the previous one in my head. The students got into my mini-break discussion question about why forceful leadership does not work in bands or tribes. What really got their attention was when I launched into a little bit about how widely accepted polygyny is cross-culturally off of a student’s question about wife-stealing. The next lecture is all about marriage practices and kinship, so I think they will have a good time with that. After they take the exam, of course.

My streak of well-timed classes continued! After the lecture material plus a ten minute break, we had one hour to go: perfect for the exam review.

For the review, I had a multi-stage activity. The first part had the students work solo to consider the main take-home messages of the class so far. After ten minutes of that, I had them form their teams for the next part: come up with twelve questions on the material (twelve cards per team was how many notecards I happened to have). After fifteen minutes of that, it was time for the game to begin! I had the teams for a big circle of desks with the other teams, with each team inhabiting a quadrant. Starting with one team, I had them ask one of their questions to the other three teams. The first person to raise their hand and answer correctly scored a point for their team. If no team got it right, and the question was fair, the asking team got the point. This went around in a circle until I called time.

The game proceeded smoothly with only a few issues that came up. The set-up – brainstorming alone then writing questions as a team – was a bit confusing. I really should come up with a way to present directions in a way that is quickly understood. Once everyone was on the same page, we did hit a peak where everyone was engaged and having fun.

The underlying purpose of this review activity was to have the students reflect on the material and have some ownership of the review and test, so it seems less like I’m just forcing them to do things (a tie-in with band and tribe style leadership!). While at first, I was the judge of the quality of the answers, I transitioned to asking the creator of the question whether the given answer was acceptable. I did realize that the asking team had motivation to reject answers, since they would get the point themselves, but the teams played nicely.

When the game ended, one team that was just a duo was the winner. I asked for some applause for the winning team and got a tepid response, which made me laugh. By this point, a few students also caught wise to the endgame, that the questions they wrote will appear on the exam. I collected the notecards, explained my reason for having this activity instead of a lecture-type review, and went ahead with the end-of-class question.

Overall, this session went very smoothly. There are still things I want to adjust, such as shortening how much I continuously lecture and conveying activity instructions clearly. For the first issue, I may have more quick questions and more video clips. The last clip I showed was two weeks ago! At around the fifteen to twenty minute mark, I feel myself fading and that has to stop. As for the instructions, I may start with the big picture first and then walk through the activity step-by-step. So far, all of the instructions have been presented all at once on a slide.

Next week: an exam and polygamy!

Cultural Anthropology Week 3: Always Have a Plan B

February 25th, 2015

Welcome back to my weekly recap of my cultural anthropology class! Last Friday, after a week off, came out with mixed results. There were two sources of issues that I had: how the break threw my preparation out of sync with the class sessions, and the implementation of the activity I came up with did not go as planned.

While the class skipped a session, I kept the same preparation schedule. By the time the break was over, I had the next lecture ready, and the one after that as well. While I thought it would be helpful to be so far ahead, as I got ready for the class, I was confused about what I would be presenting. The two lectures got jumbled up in my head! It didn’t help that the topics, subsistence and social organization, were very similar.

Leading up to the class, I designed an activity that aimed to show the students how different subsistence strategies worked. For different items of subsistence, I thought frilly toothpicks would be a cheap but effective item.


Red toothpicks represented animal resources, green ones were plants, and blue came into play with some strategies as animal feed. Since there were four broad types of subsistence (foraging, horticulture, pastoralism, and agriculture), I had each of the four teams volunteer perform each one. For each strategy, I had a three-act scenario in which the team had to survive to the next act by finding ways to come up with enough toothpick resources. For example, the foraging team just had to go around and find the necessary number of toothpicks, moving around the classroom as nearby toothpicks became scarce. Horticulturalist and pastoralist teams had control of one type of toothpick, but had to move to find the other types. Agriculturalists could control all types of toothpicks, and they did not have to/could not move, but they had to perform physical labor to maintain their lifestyle. I was excited about seeing this activity play out, but I ran into issues actually making it happen.

I arrived at the campus early Friday morning to get set up. The classroom opens up into a nice quad area with some hilly lawn. When I started planting frilly toothpicks there, I came to a frightening realization: the toothpicks are nearly invisible in the grass! While having the resources be hard to find to a degree would be fine, but complete camoflage would have made the activity too time-consuming. Also, they could be a hazard for anyone with thin footwear. With fifteen minutes before class started, I needed a new plan, fast.

I ended up moving the activity inside the classroom, leaving frilly toothpicks on certain desks. To be honest, it looked messy and haphazardly done, which it was, but any other new plan would’ve taken too much time to prepare. With the game area moved indoors to a more confined area, I also adjusted how many toothpicks are needed each round for the team to survive: I cut the numbers by half.

The activity was going to be in the second half of the session, though, so after the preparation, I started with the lecture. With two lectures in my head, and the one I’m presenting on the backburner, I felt that I could’ve done a better job. I also caught myself bringing up information that was in the next lecture. Still, I think everyone was suitably interested in learning how people from different cultures made a living. Reflecting on the week 2 lecture, I added a break earlier in this lecture: after talking about two of the four subsistence strategies, which came out to be at the half-hour mark or so. The earlier break took the students by surprise, as I saw in a few physical reactions (a little jerk-back of the head in shock). Just calling a break with a slide that just says “break” may be too sudden. In my next lecture I will have a little question to discuss in lieu of a full break. This will put a stop to my lecturing so that students would be less likely to get hypnotized, but it won’t put all learning on hold so soon.

The lecture concluded well, if not a bit underwhelmingly. I was impressed with the students who asked questions or threw in observations as the lecture progressed. Things they said sparked some deep corners of my own anthropological knowledge. For example, until the lecture, I had forgotten that I had read about an Andean ritual when herders got their llamas and alpacas drunk on maize beer and decorated the animals with ribbons. After class, I did some online searching and found the practice described in the classic ethnography The Hold Life Has (Allen, 2002). I also found a video of the decorating part of the festivities (nomdecrayon, 2010):

After the second break, after the lecture portion was done, I had the students form their teams for the activity. Problem: one team only had one student in class that day. Two students from another team offered to join the solo team, which was a good solution, but caused some confusion with the other students in the other team. When the activity got started, it went pretty well. I read from a sheet of instructions I had typed before that told the brief story of how the team got to the region and what subsistence strategy they used. I gave them their subsistence goal (e.g., five green toothpicks and five red toothpicks) and watched them figure it out based on how their subsistence strategy worked. The foragers duly went around nearby desks finding toothpicks for one act, and moved their home to a part of the room with more toothpicks in the next acts. The horticulturalists ‘planted’ their green toothpicks on a desk, but had to move to a new desk for each new act in the story. Pastoralists had to take their home and red toothpicks to where blue (animal feed) toothpicks were located. I gave some gentle nudging for the horticulturalists and pastoralist teams to trade goods to make up for the type they do not control (as they do in the Andes and other regions), but they wouldn’t have it, citing irreconcilable cultural differences. That’s a perfectly realistic outcome in the real world too!

By the time we got to the agriculturalists, interest in the activity was waning as the teams who already played their roles were sitting in their make-believe settlements around the classroom. The agriculturalists’ task was attention-getting, though, so that helped bring the students back in. Above, I mentioned that the agriculturalists had to perform physical labor to produce their toothpicks, but how could I express that in this game? I settled on exercise: each toothpick would need some form of exercise to ‘produce.’ When the activity was supposed to be outside, I thought pushups against nearby benches would work. Inside, I could open up the possibilities to accommodate what the students were comfortable with doing: pushups, sit-ups, crunches, squats, and jumping jacks, for example. In an example of how authority works in social groups, the students had no problem meeting my unusual demand. The team did crunches, squats, and pushups for frilly toothpicks! By act two, the team was tired but they had to do more exercises. Unprompted, the team did what I hoped would happen: the most athletic student offered to do all of the exercises, instead of having each person do a few. Specialization! The student even purposely worked for a surplus of toothpicks. Food storage! I happily explained the anthropological analogues of what the agriculture team was doing.

The activity completed, we had around twenty more minutes. I showed the end-of-class question, which was a team question about the the sociopolitical implications of each subsistence strategy. I was going to leave the question officially unanswered, but with a few more minutes left on the clock, I went ahead and had a little discussion before letting them out.

Overall, the class was a mixed success. I will go back to the preparation schedule of making the lecture in the week before I have to give it, so everything is fresh in my mind. I would like to do the activity again in future classes, but the frilly toothpicks have to go. Easter eggs may be a good choice. Other people may pick them up, but the setup should be mostly intact. If I plant to have the activity indoors from the start, a student had the great idea of using Jolly Ranchers.

Next week is the sibling lecture to subsistence strategies: social organization. The second half of the session will be review for the exam, which is the session after next. While I don’t have a T.A. for students to beat, I get to test out student ownership of their exam.



Allen, C. J. (2002). The hold life has: Coca and cultural identity in an andean community. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

nomdecrayon [Username]. (2010). Herranza in/en Viñac, Yauyos, Perú [Video]. Retrieved from

Cultural Anthropology: Intermission

February 18th, 2015

No class this week, but the blog posts continue! This week I want to mention two especially helpful sources of information that I have found.

Rebecca was a field school student of mine back in 2007. She got into adjuncting years ago, so now she has become the master! She has her own blog australopithechic, where she describes her professional adventures. This recent post in particular (Van Sessen, 2015), partially inspired by my own entry into this profession, has a lot of great tips. There are so many pieces of advice to digest that I am stlll on tip 8!

Looking around the Internet for links to study tips found a few good sources of information. The Society for the Teaching of Psychology (Division 2 of the American Psychological Association) has a 300 page PDF on psychology-supported teaching suggestions, called Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (Benassi, Overson & Hakala, 2014). Since it is an edited volume, there is an entry for every aspect of teaching, from slide-design (which is something I am really into), to working within the limitations of memory, to making exams a learning experience.

In two days I will take my students on a tour of subsistence strategies with a bunch of pretty slides and a weird Survivor/Double Dare type thing outside. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Benassi, V.A., Overson, C.E. & Hakala, C.M. [Editors]. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Division 2, American Psychological Association. Retrieved from

Van Sessen, R. (2015, February 2). Learning to adjuct [Weblog post]. australopithechic. Retrieved from

Cultural Anthropology Week 2: Beware of Plorbs

February 11th, 2015

A funny thing happened between weeks one and two. While I was a bit of a nervous wreck preparing for the course, as week two rolled around, I was the coolest cucumber. My talks with colleagues and friends certainly played a role in rearranging my thought processes. Also, the nervousness that came from being in a new situation was gone.

In the days before the second class, I had a few specific tasks to accomplish. The first, of course, is to prepare the lecture materials. The duo topics were the history of anthropology and then linguistic anthropology. Learning from the first class, I cut out a lot of slides that I had planned. For example, I had information on around ten major figures in anthropology, but I cut it by half. All slides on historical linguistics got dropped in favor of more sociolinguistics. I also found some video clips on Youtube (yes, like what they did on Community) and Films On Demand.

In designing the lecture, I took to heart the advice that I should present what I want to teach. The phenomenon of code-switching (Demby, 2013) is something that I found to be both fascinating and relevant so that made up a good chunk of the linguistics material.

As class started, my nervousness did go up as I only had four of fifteen students in the room. Had everyone dropped? Since my class enrollment was hovering around the minimum, people dropping would surely spell the doom of this section. I told the students who were there about the possibility of the cancelation, then went ahead with the lecture. “The show must go on!” Over the next half hour, students started trickling into the class. I really have to stop that in future classes. Since my roll taking is done at the end of class, there is nothing to stop students from coming in late. I may threaten a beginning-of-class question as well, and implement it if people are still coming in late.

Aside from the slow start, the lecture went extremely well. With a class of under fifteen students, there were a lot of good discussions on topics related to how anthropology is conducted. Someone did point out self-awaredly that three or four people did most of the talking, but that’s also a third of the class, so I’m pretty fine with that. I have a mental block against calling out the quiet students, having been one myself. The team work was my solution, but alas there was no team activity this lecture.

I lectured for an hour or so about the history of anthropology and anthropological methods, ending with video clips on Boas and Mead. I had prepared a custom clip through the Films on Demand interface, but it would not work via the class computer, so I had to do it manually. The clip ran a bit long into the Derek Freeman criticisms of Mead’s research, which I personally think are off base, so I had to refute that bit. After these clips, I gave the class a ten minute break. The day was sunny and gorgeous so the ten minutes seemed really short. Time was up, though, and I realized that I had to summon everyone back myself as no one was coming back on their own. Heading back in, one student said that we should have class outside. Gears started turning in my head…

The second half of the course, on linguistic anthropology, seemed to have worked out really well in getting the students interested. As with the first half, I lectured first and then showed a few video clips. Everyone seemed to enjoy the section on the flexibility of human language, as I told them about imaginary plorbs, or carnivorous watermelons. I have a feeling that plorbs will show up in future classes.  The last video clip was a segment on Ebonics/AAVE/BVE from the classic documentary Do You Speak American? (Cran, 2005). The clip ends with a segment on teaching Standard American English in an elementary school setting. The children were shown to be extremely excited about learning the dry subject of English grammar. I may or may not have picked that clip as a subconscious model of being excited in a classroom setting.

As the clip wrapped up and I offered some concluding remarks, I noticed that I had ten minutes left in class. Perfect! That was the ideal time to do the end-of-class question. In fact, the last student left the class at the exact time that class was scheduled to end. I couldn’t ask for a better-timed class and I’m fortunate that I have a good model of how many slides and how much material to present each day.

Of course, I am deviating from this formula immediately. There is no class this Friday to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, so I have a lot of leeway in designing the classes coming up. Since the weather is so good, the campus is so quiet on Fridays, and the next class is on subsistence strategies, I want to do an outside activity with the teams I had set up (there was no team activity in this second lecture). I’m still working out the plan, but it looks like we will be doing a combination of LARPing (Live Action Role-Play) and a play. I have a bunch of cocktail toothpicks that can serve as resources to acquire. I can plant those around the quad and then have the students act out foraging, pastoralism, and so on in a variety of situations. It should be fun and educational!



Cran, W. [Director]. (2005). Do you speak American? [Documentary]. United States: Thirteen/WNET.

Demby, G. (2013, April 8). How code-switching explains the world. NPR. Retrieved from

Cultural Anthropology Week 1: Rite of Passage

February 4th, 2015

Welcome to my weekly reflection of my cultural anthropology class! Going in to my first class, with over a month of build-up, I was pretty nervous. Spoiler alert: the class went fine and I was filled with joy doing it. There are things I would change for next time, though.

My class is on Fridays from 9 to around noon. I had assumed that this was three classes worth of time since I have only had experience with Monday-Wednesday-Friday class schedules. I found out a little too late that this is intended to be just two classes in length. With the false assumption in mind, I had three classes worth of material planned: one hour of introductions, another of general anthropology, and a third of a course preview.

I had read James Lang’s On Course (2008), which had the very helpful advice of meeting students at the door on the first day to meet everyone on an individual basis. With this advice in mind, my personality overruled it and I opted to stare at my slides in the dark while students came in. I definitely have to work on that for next time!

For the first hour I had a lot going on. I went over the syllabus and then split the students into teams of three or four. The purpose is to form subcategories of students so I would remember each person more easily, and make instant class partners who can help each other with notes, etcetera. I also plan to have a team poster project in the second half of the course. While students are sure to add and drop in the first weeks, I thought that it was important to form the teams early and deal with the changes as they happen. Also, secretly, I figure that putting them in a team would make the students less likely to drop. As an instructor who was hired soon before the semester started, my class was not listed in the paper/PDF course schedule. Students had to find my class through online searching or via their counselor’s suggestion. As I predicted, my class population is borderline at the cancel/don’t cancel line, so every body counts.

While the students were in teams, I handed out two sheets to every student: a team charter and a course survey. The charter has blanks for each student’s name and email, a spot for a team name, and, a last minute addition, a place for a team logo. Might as well go all the way for the team concept! I plan to do something with the logos later on. Maybe stickers? I also had the students fill out an extra team charter for my own records. The course survey had a few questions about one’s reasons for taking this class and goals in general. The last question is meant to shock and entertain: “Would you like to enter a random drawing to have coffee with the instructor?” I got this idea from U.C. Berkeley anatomy professor Marian Diamond’s iTunes U class. She had a random drawing every class for lunch with her. Since I don’t have Marian Diamond money, I made it coffee instead. This idea really stuck in my mind for a few reasons: being new to this college, I knew nothing about what students do or how the school works on their level. Talking to a sample of students would really help me understand their perspective. I can also talk to them about how the class is going. Having it done as a coffee chat instead of a mandatory office hour meeting also acts as an incentive for students to participate. With a lower class size, the ‘sample’ may turn out to be everyone who opted in!

Forming teams, filling out a team charter, and also doing the course survey was too much to do at once. I was also going from group to group, talking to each student. Next time, I will space out these activities instead of doing it all at once. As students got to know each other, some neglected the paperwork and I had to remind them. Getting the course surveys back, some end mid-sentence, lost in the flurry of activity.

The first hour took an hour and fifteen minutes. I gave everyone a five minute break before getting to the actual course material. The first lecture, on what anthropology entails, was probably too detailed. Each subfield had at least two slides with a few of the key terms. Next time, I may just give a one line description of each subfield. The key terms for cultural anthropology (e.g., fieldwork, participant observation) can wait for the next class session instead of explaining it now. I also had a video about the four fields to show, but I talked so much that I ran out of time.

After a ‘mini-break’ that also ended up being five minutes, I launched into the last third of the class, giving a quick overview of the rest of the class sessions. The goal was to be a trailer of sorts of the things that we will examine, such as subsistence, organization, gender, race, and religion. I had a lot of questions on each topic, even though it was meant to just pose questions with no answers yet. I may have to curtail questions in future sessions. Also, looking at the clock, I only had a half hour for this third of the class! By the end, I had to skip the class activity, video, and end-of-class question that I had planned.

As class wrapped up, the students seemed to have a good time. One said that this is a lot more fun than the usual lectures. I might have heard a clap or two, but I might have imagined it in my post-first-class elation.

Talking with a far more-experienced colleague later, I realized that I was putting undue pressure on myself to present as much of the textbook as possible. She encouraged me to just have fun with the class and present what I want. The next class, split into halves about the history of the field and then linguistic anthropology, will have a lot fewer slides and more activities and videos (certainly more than zero!). We’ll see how it goes from there!



Lang, J. M. (2008). On course : A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Moving On Up

January 20th, 2015

I have been away from my blog for good reason: since very late last year, I have been going through the process of getting hired to teach anthropology for a local community college! As of right now I am to teach a class on physical anthropology and another on cultural anthropology. I was surprised that they would give me two classes right off the bat. I suppose it is like finding out that someone is going to have twins: very exciting but also double the everything!

Update: Of course as soon as I publicly announce it, the situation changes. I will be teaching just cultural anthropology this semester, and possibly an online physical anthropology class later in the spring.

Since the week of Christmas, I have been busy designing two anthropology classes from scratch. The school has been great in giving me the freedom to pursue my own vision of the courses. I have so many ideas that I have had and keep having, and I want to do all of them. I am realizing that I may have to save activities and projects for next time, since I have to handle the usual logistics of organizing the class and teaching the subject matter. Sorry, probably no non-beer pong for these classes! Not that I’m going to just lecture for two and a half hours (times two) a week. On Twitter I have been posting snippets of the syllabus and first class material that I think depart from the norm, but with a purpose.

After every week, I plan on writing a post-mortem on what happened in each class and write down my ideas for next time. Post-mortem is such a dour word for this situation, though appropriate for the lecture on forensic anthropology. How about, reflection?

My classes start in ten days! I look forward to sharing my reflections.

Beat the T.A.!

December 3rd, 2014

Last time, I wrote about adapting a common college game for the purpose of education. Another type of game that I came up with as I hungrily took in ideas about teaching is something I call “Beat the T.A.!”

The purpose of “Beat the T.A.” is to have the students invest themselves in the exam beyond the norm via a friendly rivalry between themselves and a minor authority figure/role model. The teaching assistant, or one of the T.A.s in the class if there are several, takes the exam alongside the rest of the class. The students are tasked with beating the T.A.’s score on the exam. There are a few possible conditions for winning this game that an instructor can choose to use alone or in combination:

  • A curve is used so that the T.A.’s score is the new 100% score and all student scores are adjusted accordingly
  • Students who beat the T.A. get their excess points as extra credit
  • Students who beat the T.A. could get a set amount of extra credit, or some other small bonus to their grade
  • Students who beat the T.A. could get a non-grade related prize

Safeguards may need to be established so that a fluke (either random chance or a parasitic worm) does not result in a complete upset in the students’ favor if the T.A. somehow does not excel. For example, there could be a cap in place for the most that the grades could be curved, or the most extra credit that a student could win.

An issue with this plan that comes immediately to mind is that the T.A. typically already has a task during an exam, though I think the problem is minor. T.A.s are usually proctors who patrol the classroom to make sure that students are not cheating. I think that the T.A.’s time is well spent, if not better spent, as the target of Beat the T.A., though. In my experience, T.A. proctors are not effective at deterring or catching cheaters. During exams, the T.A.s wander the room being absolutely bored out of their minds for the duration of the class. Let’s remember that T.A.s are also students who can take the opportunity to work with their knowledge. This game is also a good chance for the T.A. to show his or her abilities to the professor. Also, I imagine that there is some pride for the T.A. to show off his or her higher level of experience with the material to the underlings. A T.A. who aces the exam could get his or her own reward!

“Beat the T.A.” is a low-cost activity that I think can help students get more involved with the exam portion of their class. Adding a competitive element between the students and a third party, the T.A., may ease inspire students to work harder to get a better score. The chance for a reward also gives students a little more control over their grade in exchange for their effort. There are also benefits to the T.A. as well for having the responsibility to be the the ‘mini boss’ that students are competing against.