I was recently reading L. Dee Fink's _Creating Significant Learning Experiences_, an excellent text on course design. In this book, he strongly recommends designing courses after first deciding what you really want the students to get out of them. I decided that some of my primary learning goals for my Intro to Cultural Anthro course would include: an awareness of the differences and similarities between cultures -- with understanding that they are not just different and weird, an increased ability to communicate with people who are different from oneself, and perhaps a bit of experience with some anthropological method. Then, I began to consider how the students could DO these goals, and I came up with the following idea.
The college where I teach is blessed with about 15% international students. I have talked to a lot of them, and their main complaint is that the American students never ask them anything about their home countries or cultures -- they just don't seem to care. So, my idea is to get students talking. I use one of the standard textbooks for this course, that each week or chapter introduces the students to another institution or aspect of life. My idea is to pair up each of my students with an international student (the international students office is eager to do this). Then, throughout the semester, as we cover different aspects of culture, the student in the class would have discussions (interviews) with their partners about that aspect of their culture. Thus they would discuss marriage, religion, and so forth during the semester. They would be assigned to create an ongoing blog about their experiences and understandings, and the international student would be invited to comment or even co-create. The blog would be a significant portion of the student's overall grade for the course. The blogs would be linked through our course management software, and I think I would also require the students to comment on some of their fellows blogs (perhaps assigned ones).
Obviously there are problems that need to be sorted out. I will need to somehow communicate with the students that this is a case study -- that they are only interviewing one person (and probably a fairly elite one) from that culture. Would the international students be allowed to interview American students, or even American students from the class (I tend to think "no")? What would be done when students complain that their partners are not available or willing? Is there a way that I can reward the international students for their participation? How can I assure ethical responsibility in my students as they post what their partners have told them? How can I assure that the conversations are actually taking place? Should the students be required to do any additional research, beyond these conversations, on the culture they are investigating? How will I deal with "technical" excuses? How do you grade something like this?
I would love to hear your comments on this project. Please let me know what you think of the general idea, comment on the problems I have identified, make your own suggestions, or raise additional issues. Please tell me about your experience if you have tried anything like this. Thanks

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Thanks, Frank for the very interesting comments. A few words about the particular project (though your comments actually raise larger issues). First, I am the senior member and the only anthropologist in a two person department of sociology and anthropology at a very small liberal arts college. The school generally supports innovation in teaching and I have a great deal of freedom in what I do. This, of course, is mitigated by the recognition that I am the only anthropologist that many of these undergraduates will ever see.

I don't intend to have the students simply discuss "culture" in any broad sense. Sometimes one of the international students volunteers that the things that the students have read about or heard about in lecture are real for him -- the way we do it back home. This has an incredible effect on the class. Suddenly this is not just stuff in a textbook, it is real.

So, instead of asking about culture, I intend to generate some starter questions for each section of the course. My students could ask their partners about marriage in their culture during that section of the course, for example. The goal, would be for them not only to find something different, but to try to understand it as well.

The ethics issue that I am most concerned about comes from the possible task of creating a blog. I am somewhat worried that students may post things about their partners, which they do not wish to be made public.

The issue that you raise about turning the student's partners into the experiment is particularly significant. I believe, based on the reports of the staff that deal with the international students most closely, and based on my own discussions with them, that many of the international students would enjoy this exercise and would willingly volunteer. Nonetheless, I am not convinced, yet, that this project is really fair to them, and I would love to discover a way to reward them. I cant think of a way to award them course credit for being interviewed, but I would like to do something.

Thanks again for your comments and suggestions
Frank Broszeit said:
Doing something is better than just reading something - here comes the BUT...

- how relevant is "culture" for the participants? e.g. i'm a german in austria and i've been in different settings since i migrated. In some of these settings I would have been glad about being equal. So be aware about questions of Identity and the teaching of "culture". To use the model of Milton Bennett: if ppl cant or dont want to reflect (their) culture, its useless to work with them like that. So you might start with basic communication and awareness training before getting to more detailed facts. Talking about own experiences is always good but this doesnt mean I have to be the exercise or I want to feel like one.

- For me it sounds more like training sessions - awareness training. Quite good start or like one of my teachers always says: lecturing a book was a good idea in times when we just had one book ;-) So the main goal is to teach what is not in a book or better: to teach things a book cant answer. It helps a lot when ppl stop to believe in textbooks as a holy grail. Own experience + theory as comparision of what just happened is a must - i think. In a course of urban anthr. our class didnt start with textbooks. We went out and tested about a dozen escalators to get a feeling about different speed, images, feelings about time, etc. after that we read some papers and started to compare/evaluate our experiences with those theories.

- I dont know classes in the US but you might have a look about group interests. find the right ppl who e.g. have the time, interests, etc. to work together. without a relationship its always hard especially when you have different styles of communication, etc. Putting nightshift and dayshift working students in a course would be problematic too...

- Institutional setting: Is your approach new? Are your colleagues interested in this kind of teaching too? Well, unbelievably but in germany/austria you can nearly act as a god in university but instead of doing a change, one is always looking what colleagues are doing. People are really afraid to do something new. So how is the structural/institutional support?

- Learning style? Ever reflected your teaching style? - If you want your students just to experience the chapters in the textbook it's something different than e.g. self directed learning where the students have to find the topics by their own. You might have different students, some need more direction and some less. So you might use peer education or working groups for different experienced students.

- ethics, etc.: thers no problems with ethics, its a problem how science describes it and wants us to teach/learn it. I've been in a multicultural classroom project where we tried to teach the pupils some basic social science stuff. At first, there've been a lot of rejection to our ivory tower explanations but then someone started with Hannah Montana and even the boys understood that its ok to accept that some girls like her even when the boys hate her. From now on it was very easy to talk about representation, questioning, interviewing, etc. They also discussed situations where a lie is good etc. Pupils are experienced in all kinds of ethics and norms you just have to bring it together with our scientific vocabulary + to bring in some new aspects in doing things in a special way.

Well, just some shots out of the hip to keep the discussion running.
This is a long post, but there is a point to it – somewhere near the bottom, I think.

Although I’m still a doctoral candidate, I’ve been teaching an ANT100 in a community college for about 2 years now and have had some great experiences. I actually do something similar, although since I live in NYC (read very diverse) I’ve never had to coordinate any efforts with International students. The class benefits tremendously from that diversity; I’ve had a student from Japan talk about Bakumin, another from Brazil talk about variations on race as ideology, Chinese students talk about ideographic writing, or a student from West Africa described polygyny as being more related to kinship than sex (someone in his family had married his brother’s widow in order to afford legal and economic protection for that part of the family – but the idea of consummating that marriage sexually was un-thought of). These sorts of experiences are regularly brought up in any introductory anthro textbook, but when students can actually talk to others who have experienced it, it brings it to life in new ways.

Stacie’s thoughts about the invisibility of white culture are absolutely critical; however, from my experiences, I’ve often found that it is related to not only “white” students but “American born” students. Because of the diversity of my classes I just have students partner up in the class to interview each other. I usually ask students to examine how a daily activity reflects (or rejects) their informant’s culture. For those students who are teamed up with foreign-born students, the assignment is often easy, interesting and fruitful. For those students in which both partners are American-born, the assignment can be challenging and confusing.

I’ve come to think that this is related to the popular success of psychology as a discipline and the neo-liberal, meritocratic ideologies that are drummed into Americans from a very early age. (Of course, this is just some anecdotal reflection and not the result of any systematic research). Such students are often unable to see not only “white culture” but anything social or cultural at all: they see only the individual. Many students end up writing a paper that sounds very psychological: “Bob” buys new sneakers once a month because it gives him self-esteem, “Mary” goes to the gym because she knows it is important to be healthy, “Joe” likes basketball because he just likes it – it is unrelated to his culture in any way. Students are intensely familiar with the language of pop-psychology: Oprah, Dr. Phil, Dr. Spock and so on, but have a very difficult time recognizing the “social” or “cultural.” I’ve found this to be equally true among both American-born white students and students of color. Such students might recognize culture in those foreign-born students, but sometimes that culture becomes a code word for psychological “dysfunction.” As time has passed, leading up to the assignment, I’ve found myself needing to demonstrate more clearly the ways that society and culture exist everywhere, which leads to an interesting contradiction.

Within the literature, of course, “culture” has become deeply criticized as a paradigm for understanding human experience. It has been reified, ignores agency, is reductionistic, does not reflect new post-modern, borderless landscapes, etc. etc. etc. And yet, I find that I first have to construct culture before it can be deconstructed. Now, as an adjunct, I’ve not had the chance to teach more advanced courses, so I spend much of time on the construction part and don’t do as much deconstruction as I’d like. I think it would be confusing to do both in one semester. So here are a few questions for discussion/reflection: (1) I was wondering if any others have encountered such contradictions in their teaching and how they negotiate it? (2) I was wondering if anyone teaching outside of America has encountered the same sort of challenge in the invisibility of the social? (3) I was wondering (like Stacie, I think) if there was some way for Bill’s class exercise to demonstrate not only the International students’ culture, but also the Americans’? Although the assignment I give to my class is more challenging when both partners are American, I’ve begun to find that it can be just as rewarding (although I have had to adjust my teaching to make sure that students are more sensitive to those things before getting to it).

Regarding the Blog question, perhaps a wiki would be a better medium for public sharing of the data (along with anonymity of informants, which should ethically be standard with any such exercise anyway). With a wiki you (or others) would better be able to manage inappropriate or downright racist content.



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