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.

Beer(less) Pong Study Session: Rules and Guidelines

November 25th, 2014

I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of the pedagogy of college teaching recently. I started by digging out my copy of Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), combined with a lot of web reading centered around the Chronicle of Higher Education. In particular, I have been reading a lot of James Lang’s columns on engaging students. He cites games such as “binge-drinking games” (2014, para. 10) as a natural display of college student engagement. Relatedly, in the blurb for Mark C. Carne’s book Minds On Fire (2014), which is next on my reading list, beer pong is mentioned by name as a game that incites the passion of college students. My gears got turning: why can’t we play beer pong in the classroom?

Well, because alcohol is involved. But, what if instead of beer, each cup had a quiz question?

To back up a bit, I will describe beer pong for those who never had the pleasure. Cups of beer are arranged in a triangle, not unlike pins on a bowling alley, on two ends of a long table. There are two teams. They take turns tossing a ping pong ball towards the cups on the end of the table. If they score a hit in a cup, the other team has to remove that cup and drink that beer. This continues until one team has no cups left on their end, making them the losing team. There are additional rules and variations, but these are the general ones needed for a game.

Ok, what if instead of beer, each cup had a quiz question? Then, when the throwing team sinks a ball into the cup team’s cup, the cup team reads the question in that cup to the throwing team. If the throwing team gets it right, then they get a point. Play continues until one team is out of cups, or class time runs out. Here are officially-written rules for this game:



Beer(less) Pong Study Session


  • 20 Solo-brand red cups (for authenticity)
  • Several ping pong balls
  • A long table
  • 20 quiz questions, written on strips of paper



  1. Arrange Solo-brand red cups in two triangles of ten cups on both ends of a long table. The triangles are arranged like arrows pointing towards each other (medially).
  2. Add cheap, weighty objects to each cup to give them weight. Beans have been used with success. Maybe candy?
  3. Place a quiz question in each cup.
  4. Divide the class into two teams. Each time assembles at one end of the table.


Game Rules

  1. Decide which team throws first. This could be done with a coin toss, rock-paper-scissors, or a warmup question.
  2. The tossing team tosses 1 ping pong ball towards the other end of the table with the goal of landing it inside a cup. If the ball misses, the turn goes to the other team.
  3. If the ball hits, the cup team reads the question inside the hit cup to the tossing team. If the tossing team cannot answer, or answers incorrectly, the turn goes to the other team.
  4. If the tossing team answers the question correctly, they score a point. The turn goes to the other team (to discourage shutouts).
  5. Students within each team take turns tossing the ball.
  6. The winning team is the one with the most points when time is up or when one team is out of cups.



  • Each cup can have more than one question, each worth a point.
  • The tossing team can toss more than one ball per turn.
  • When one team is out of cups, that team could attempt to win by having one last attempt at scoring with the winning team’s cups.



A few thoughts and ideas:

This game works best for teams of fifteen students or fewer, so a class of 30 maximum. A typical lab section is around this size, so it could be a good pre-exam activity. For larger classes, having this activity in lieu of a usual bonus study session would also be a way to whittle the number of participants down. Imagine coming to a study session on one’s own time and seeing a beer pong setup in front of the classroom!

For extra immersion and ownership of the learning process, the two teams can also be the writers of the questions! This will take an amount of time that maybe better spent actually playing the game, but I think this additional activity of each time devising the questions that the other team will have to answer would be a valuable learning experience as well. In order to produce fair questions about the material, the students could be given the instruction to make the questions reflect what they consider the most important information and not the tiniest minutiae they can conjure.

For even more immersion and ownership of the learning process, the instructor can use these questions as the actual exam questions! This will give students an active role in what is traditionally the least interactive part of the course. As teaching assistants and instructors know, having to design a test is an education in its own right. This also has the benefits of saving the instructor some time in exam-writing and also preventing the sharing of test answers across semesters. Of course, the instructor would probably need to edit the questions and add his or her own into the mix, but giving the students some role in exam-writing is more education than no role at all.

I hope people try out this activity and report back on the results! I have a few other ideas… I never wrote about the “Beat the T.A.” game that I tweeted a few months back.

Update: Kristina Killgrove turned the game from an idea to an action for her osteology class! You an read her account, with good tips and impressions here. I have added one important missed step above: to weigh the cups with something to keep them from moving around.



Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Carnes, M.C. (2014). Minds on fire: How role-immersion games transform college. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lang, J.M. (2014, September 29). Stop blaming students for your listless classroom. Retrieved from

Keeley: Comic Hero Extraordinaire, Issue 5, Part One!

November 13th, 2014

Remember that time I had a superhero comic hero comic? It’s taken a while, but at last I can show off the first six pages of issue 5! I took so long that a much better comic in the same vein is now out, the new Batgirl run by Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr, starting with issue #35 and #36 just came out yesterday. I recommend checking those out. And check this out, too, by clicking below!

If you want to see previous issues, click me!

Why We Teach About Race in Anthropology

November 7th, 2014

One of my most important activities as an online instructor is to communicate with my students via the discussion forum. Each week there are two topics that the students have to write a thoughtful post to address. One of the second week’s topics is about race in our culture. As I scanned the posts the students had written to find good ones to respond to, a very lengthy answer caught my eye. The student wrote a very personal essay about how she was affected by the week’s material. As a member of a minority, she was harshly reminded of the marginalization she constantly experiences in her own life. Why must inequality, and her own status, be brought up in school as well?

This is my slightly edited answer:

You bring up a lot of good points and questions about the experience of race, especially in our own culture. This topic hits us very close to home, so I understand why you feel frustrated when you encounter it again in this course. I think it is an important topic for us to explore, especially in a cultural anthropology course. Here are my top reasons for thinking so:

  • Race is important to discuss because it is so relevant to our own lives. One of the goals of this course is to teach you information and critical thinking skills that will help your professional and personal lives. As a result, the course material sometimes focuses on ourselves, as well as the distant cultures. For example, this week discusses race, of course. Next week we talk about gender, another important category in our culture. The anthropology class of twenty years ago was all about the Bono and other people far from ourselves, but it turns into trivia if it does not connect to our own lives.
  • Combined with how relevant race is to our culture, there are also rampant misconceptions about race in the general public. Many people believe that race determines intelligence, which it certainly does not. Also, since people associate certain socioeconomic groups with certain races, they assume that there is a biological reason, which is also not true. A recent book that made it to the New York Times bestseller list is making these false claims, but the misinformation is getting spread. In fact, people are paying to be misinformed. We teach what the actual science tells us about race, basically because the fact-based information is just not getting out there, and it is hurting our culture.
  • One of the barriers keeping racialist thinking from going away is that we do live different racial experiences, but we rarely get to see it from each other’s shoes. While the material in this course and your previous one may be harsh reminders, they may give your classmates a new perspective that they never had before. While some of your classmates may never truly live the experience of racial prejudice, by learning about it, they can sympathize and reinforce what we are learning about the problems of racial categories and the inequality that it causes. The point of teaching about race is not to reinforce how unequal we all are, or to justify or support inequality. If people are leaving this week’s material believing that people of certain groups should be as oppressed as they are,  I have failed my students.

I hope I have explained what we teach race in this class. I think that if we are to address inequality in our culture, we have to spread the information we have instead of avoiding the topic. While getting the same lesson, especially a distasteful one, is tiresome, the repetition shows how important we think this information is. Let me know what you think, especially if you have suggestions of how we can teach this information in a better manner. Just out of curiousity, what was your other course that dealt with race?

Anthropomotron 2.1 is Out!

October 20th, 2014

I had a little break between online classes so I went to work on updating Anthropomotron. It’s been a whole 11 months since I last looked at all of the code! I fixed some bugs, updated the inside platforms to the latest versions, and added a few more sets of formulae to the stature section. I got a little more comfortable with Javascript, embracing variables more, and the code actually shrank since the last version. Not too shabby for two weeks.

Anthropomotron is still on the web, as well as iPhone and iPad, and Android. Here is a good place to get started if you’re new. Enjoy! I look forward to comments and suggestions for future versions.


A Poster Child for Academic Posters

October 3rd, 2014

Alison Atkin, graduate student of archaeology at the University of Sheffield, made a brilliant poster on the modeling of plagued versus non-plagued cemetery collections. The poster debuted at the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) conference, where it won the Bill White prize (Atkin, 2014)! It will also be at the Day of the Dead conference at Queen’s University. More importantly, it is viewable online. See it at its online home here, then come back for my comments.

This poster got my attention because it is presented in the form of a charming comic. It is also an excellent example of the academic poster format in general. I will elaborate on these qualities presently:

The Poster as a Comic

  • The black humor is perfect for the topic of the Black Death. From the dead rat in the first row:third panel, to the person finding their missing eye in the chart’s legend in the third row:second panel, there are many amusing asides that keep the tone consistently lighthearted while discussing this dreary historical event.
  • There is a personal narrative that flows through the poster, mirroring the flow of the scientific method in academic posters. In the first row:third panel, Atkin appears as a blue-clad avatar. This unique character reappears more and more often as the poster continues, punctuating the main points of this project and offering personal impressions. The presence of the avatar makes the poster more like an oral presentation, with the text given a distinct voice (this will be mentioned again when discussing the poster as a poster).
  • Atkin sticks to the format throughout the entire poster. While the graphs in this cemetery modeling exercise undoubtedly exist in a digital format, they are hand-drawn for this poster. The alternative would be to paste printouts of the graphs onto the panels, which would be the sensible thing to do for an academic poster. As a depiction of data, graphs are expected to be computer-precise. Using hand-drawn versions daringly goes against this undisputed convention to go all-in with the comic format instead of having a conspicuous toe in the poster format.
  • The panel density fluctuates through the poster, keeping the reader interested. The big points get their own sparse panel (such as the second row:first panel, feature the avatar delivering the important ‘so what’ statement). Other panels are chock full of important information relating to the project, along with small illustrations to add another layer of variety.
  • A few panels are interactive! Just this addition breaks the mold of the typical academic poster. The liftable flaps beg for reader participation. Notice also that the panels are used consistently to represent the lifting of something: either dirt off of a grave, or the flesh off of a skeleton. By strictly delineating what the flaps represent, they are not overused in this poster.

The Poster as a Poster

  • You may have noticed that the poster glosses over a lot of the detail in the models. This. Is. Good! Often, an academic poster is so loaded with text, tables, and graphs that they are a chore to read. At a poster session, the reader has dozens of posters to see in a limited timeframe, so brevity is crucial in getting the important information across before the reader crab-walks to the next poster. If you suppose that a reader gives more-or-less equal time to each poster barring confounding factors, then the briefer the poster, the better. A briefer poster means leaving out some detail. This is fine, even desired, if you think of other types of posters. How does a movie poster work? Do they mention every plot point in a movie? No. They give some information and, if you are interested, you seek the full work. Ah, but the academic poster is supposed to stand alone, you say. No! The academic poster is also an advertisement for something else. What the poster hawks can vary: a forthcoming paper, a thesis, a field school, or simply the existence of the data. In Atkin’s poster, you can see the contact information highlighted in mid-poster. She has the raw data, and computer modeling scripts that a potential collaborator would find useful: there is no need to have those on the poster.
  • Beyond the density, the text of this poster is also very casual, bolstered by the comic format and the handwritten lettering. Many posters are very dry, possibly the result of an attempt at brevity by leaving out textual embellishments. While I approve of leaving out extraneous material, the result of writing dryly is that the text is a pain to read. Dryness can be addressed in the other conference mainstay: the oral presentation. The skilled speaker can make a talk lively with humor or a practiced flow. (There are also people. who. just. read. from. the. page. but. that. is. another. blog. post.). Poster text is a harder format to liven up. Atkin accomplishes this with the personality-filled text and the comic format, as mentioned previously.
  • This academic poster has transcended the usual temporal-spatial constraints of the typical poster. In fact, I posit that this poster is already the most viewed academic poster of all time due to its unique format and excellent presentation. Most of these views have been online. By getting noticed on Atkin’s blog, Twitter, and Reddit, this poster is gaining a lifespan far beyond what is typical. Posters get very little attention for all of the work that was put into it: a few hours at a poster session and maybe a stint in some department hallway. The Internet potentially extends the audience of the poster, but there is little reason to view them online. People view comics online, though! By making a comic-poster, Atkin has made something that thrives online, where the potential audience is huge. More exposure means greater dissemination of the information, and more publicity for her future work.

I still cannot get over how amazing this poster is. If you couldn’t tell from this post, I don’t like posters in general due to the limitations I have mentioned. This poster smartly addresses the problems of the poster format while still doing its job. Is this the beginning of a new age of comic-posters that change forever how academics present their research? Probably not: conservatism reigns in academia. But Alison Atkin’s poster shows what a researcher can do if you think outside the textbox and create something groundbreaking.


Atkin, A. (2014). The Attritional Mortality Myth. Poster session presented at the 16th Annual Conference of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, Durham City, United Kingdom. Retrieved online from:

How to Write a Student Research Paper, Part 2: The World’s Wildest Introductions and Conclusions

July 16th, 2014

In the previous part of this two-part series, I went over the basics of introduction and conclusion writing for research papers. In this part I will use an unusual example of this structure in the wild: The World’s Wildest Police Videos.

Hosted by John Bunnell from 1998 to 2012, the TV series aired on Fox and Spike TV and is still commonly shown in reruns. It is practically background noise when I visit my parents. There are also many full episodes on the official site and on Youtube. I will use one episode chosen pseudo-randomly (Stojanovich, 2012) to discuss here as an example of the research paper format. Follow along by playing this video (Police and Predator Channel, 2014) and continuing on reading:

Bunnell’s commentary at the start of the episode grabs the viewer’s attention with the general topic of this show: “There is a reason it’s called ‘the war on crime.'” The next line gives a preview of the episode: “For the next 60 minutes, we’ll put you on the frontlines. You’ll see the scariest pursuits, wildest shootouts, and most outrageous outlaws from around the world.” For each of the three bullet points, an appropriate clip plays, though it could have been more effective if they were actual clips from the episode. The three subjects that Bunnell mentions: pursuits, shootouts, and outlaws, are analogous to the main points of a research paper.

After some more narration on where these clips come from, there is the episode’s thesis statement, or what it trying to prove with the three subjects: “We’ve gathered these videos… to show you the stark reality that criminals have declared you the enemy, and knowing the opponent is the only way that this war will be won.” At this point the introduction is over and the title music plays to mark the end of the introduction (research papers unfortunately have no title music).

When the music stops at 1:15 in the video, Bunnell is back to introduce the first subject: pursuits. Notice that in this episode, the order of the subjects is not strictly adhered to. After the first pursuit, the clips get disorganized with a scene of a man threatening suicide. In a research paper, the order of topics should be followed throughout the paper. For example, if the topics are mentioned in the order of A, B, and C in the introduction, the body paragraphs should also start with the paragraph on A, followed by B and C. Tangents should be avoided as well. Consistency among the sections of the paper adds polish, pulls in the reader (who may also the grader!), and elevates the writing from just being functional to being a craft.

You can watch the whole episode or skip to the beginning of the conclusion at 40:07. I’ll wait!

After the last clip, of the police stopping a stolen school bus, Bunnell launches into the conclusion. As in the introduction, abbreviated clips from the episode are shown to remind the viewer what they had just seen. The narration provides a concluding thought that ties the videos into a single theme: “In police work, there is one thing you can always count on with law breakers. From China, to Pelican Bay. From Istanbul to the nearest intersection. Whether it’s mind-altering mischief or mind-bending stupidity, criminals are their own worst enemy.” Bunnell’s conclusion gets extra points for directly relating to the clips that he just showed as well. Also, the summary eases the viewer out of the show instead of ending abruptly on the image of a school bus getting knocked into the highway median by a police car.

To summarize, adding structure to the introduction and conclusion of a research paper will raise its readability, allowing the message to get across. The experience of entering and exiting a hot tub approximates what the paper should do for its reader in the beginning and ending. A good way to structure the introduction is to move from the general topic to the specific points to be discussed. Likewise, the conclusion can state the main points, followed by the greater overall message. While examples of good research paper introductions and conclusions are rare outside of academia, the television show World’s Wildest Police Videos has a similar structure that can be used as a model. I hope that sharing my advice will help students struggling with the research paper format to turn in A-level work.



Police and Predator Channel. (2014, February 5). World’s Wildest Police Videos – (New Episode #11 – 2012) [Video file]. Retrieved from:

Stojanovich, P., Piligian C., Bunnell, J., Ballantyne, R., and Popjes, S. (Executive Producers) (2012, July 16). Soft Targets, Hard Lessons [Television series episode]. In C. Stojanovich (Executive Producer), World’s Wildest Police Videos. Pursuit Productions. Retrieved from:

How to Begin and End a Student Research Paper, Part 1

July 7th, 2014

Since I have been teaching cultural anthropology online, I have graded a lot of papers at all levels of quality. For papers that land in the B to C area, I have noticed some common pitfalls that can be fixed if the student knew more about the research paper format. Two of the sticking points for the student new to research paper writing are the introduction and conclusion. In this post, I will go over the mistakes that students make in these sections, explain their purposes, and in the next post, give a non-academic model of how a writer can introduce and conclude a paper.

Problems with the introduction and conclusion can be categorized as being either too short or too long. In the former case, it seems the student just does not know what to put there. Maybe the research is not done yet so the student does not have a point in mind. Sometimes, a student will write  just the thesis statement in the introduction before moving on to the body paragraphs. Having run out of things to say by the conclusion, the student leaves a vague sentence about the topic. Maybe the student leaves the conclusion out entirely. In the case of too much text, a student might cram everything he or she has found into the introduction, leaving the body paragraphs empty.  The conclusion sometimes will be a philosophical tangent that springboards off of the body paragraphs to parts unknown. (The introduction could also be where random musings take place, but there tends to be more focus there).

The right way to craft an introduction is actually easy to do once one knows what the purpose of these paragraphs. The introduction gently eases the reader into the argument. It is like the steps of a hot tub that let the bather get used to the temperature a foot at a time. The first thing the student should do is to make sure the hot tub is already there for the reader! This bad metaphor means that the student knows what his or her main point is going to be before starting the paper. With a goal in mind, a common way to do this via writing is to move from the general to the specific, ending with the thesis statement that declares what this paper will tell the reader. For a paper about rites of passage in the Balinese and Maori cultures, for example, the introduction could start with a few lines on what rites of passage are and why they are important to study. The next step is to mention the Balinese and Maori cultures as the subjects of this particular look at rites of passage. The last part of the introduction is the thesis that states the purpose of the paper and the point it will show: “This paper will examine rites of passage in the Balinese and Maori cultures and show that…” Of course, seasoned writers will use their cleverness to give their paper more style, but at the basic level, this is what an introduction needs.

Similar steps can be used to write a good conclusion. In a way the introduction and conclusion are similar, but they are also mirror images. The conclusion eases the reader out of the paper-slash-hot tub and back into the real world. The first sentence states the main point: “In conclusion, the Balinese and Maori rites of passage….” From there, the main supporting evidence is given again. The last line is the most general, briefly bringing the discussion back to rites of passage as a whole. The conclusion’s conclusion mirrors the introduction’s introduction. Here is an outline of the basic parts of a research paper:

  • Introduction
  1. General Topic
  2. Preview of Subjects
  3. Thesis Statement


  • Body paragraphs which may be the topic of another post.


  • Conclusion
  1. Thesis Statement
  2. Review of Subjects
  3. Concluding Point


There are two main reasons why I think students do not follow this plan in their paper, even when they know it. One is that it feels awkward to keep belaboring the same points repeatedly. In a three page rough draft, it seems wrong to say the same points in the first paragraph, again on the next page, and one more time on the third page. The second reason is that there are no good models of this format outside of academic journal articles. I ask students to model their paper’s organization on the academic sources that they find, but frankly, professional papers can be a pain to read. I searched my brain extensively for something non-academic that I can use to show students how a research paper is structured, and I found one:

The World’s Wildest Police Videos series

Yes! Join me next time for an analysis of one of the episodes to see how it follows the research paper format.

Online Videos of Anthropomotron!

June 11th, 2014

Believe it or not, I had not thought of googling my app to see what the word on the street is until very recently. To my surprise, Anthropomotron has a few mentions out on the Internet that I had not known about. There are various sites that catalog apps on the App Store, which actually have some more easily accessible information than the actual App Store (like a handy release date timeline). To my super-surprise, there are also several videos that other people have made about Anthropomotron!

This one is from the North Carolina Virtual Public School. It gives a quick demo of the iPad version.

This is a review by students in the forensics class at the American School in Japan.

I saw a few similarities between the videos. Both are very clear and well done, and I have to note that they are both very favorable to my app (to be honest, I get the shivers when I hear feedback on my work so I tensed up through both of these videos for this blog post). The videos both cater to education as well. This makes me happy because I want Anthropomotron to be both a practical and educational tool. Lastly, both narrators missed the intended pronunciation of ‘Anthropomotron.’ This is not their fault, as I have not heard anyone say it correctly unaided. This is definitely a brand faux pas. To fix this, here is the official pronunciation in International Phonetic Alphabet form:


So easy!