Introducing Course Themes through Experiential Learning: A First-Section Activity

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Naomi Leite, Anthropology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008

Anthropology 3AC, Intro to Cultural Anthropology, fulfills campus breadth requirements, the American Cultures requirement, and lower-division prerequisites for several majors. As a result, the typical student is a freshman who enrolls in the course to fulfill a requirement, not one who has chosen it because s/he has a specific interest in the subject matter. On the contrary, many students admit that they have only a vague idea of what the course will cover. Since few encounter anthropology in high school, what little expectations they have are shaped by pop culture imagery associating it with pith helmets, Indiana Jones-style archaeology, and exotic tribes. In fact, cultural anthropology examines the full breadth of human experience, collective and individual, as it is shaped by culture. Its methods offer students a set of tools for reflecting critically on their own culture-bound assumptions and taking a more empathetic stance toward people different from themselves. But these abstract benefits are difficult to convey effectively on a course syllabus. Thus the first section presents a double challenge: (1) giving students a clear sense of what this unfamiliar discipline will offer them; and (2) creating an effective learning environment in which students from an enormous range of majors can connect with the course material and find common ground for discussion. Simply put, how can a GSI use the first section to engage a disparate group of students who are not necessarily enthusiastic about their enrollment in a course whose topic they don’t yet understand?

To address this problem, I developed a three-part exercise that utilizes experiential learning to encourage students’ active participation from the outset, engage multiple learning styles, and reveal some basic principles of cultural anthropology. Each part contains a built-in assessment component, via students’ oral and written feedback. The first part, implemented immediately after reviewing the section syllabus together, takes the familiar form of an ice breaker. I have the students stand and give them five minutes to accomplish the following: Imagine that there is a globe at the center of the room. Choosing any ancestor born outside California, collaborate with your classmates to organize yourselves geographically around the globe, positioning yourself at your chosen ancestor’s birthplace. Once the human globe is complete, we each introduce ourselves, our ancestor, and his/her birthplace to the class. I then ask students to volunteer what they found interesting or surprising in the exercise. Students typically comment on the great geographical diversity represented in the class, as well as the fact that some students’ geographical positions are surprising based on their physical appearance. Having assessed their initial perceptions from these responses, I build on their comments by emphasizing that Berkeley is an ideal place to study cultural anthropology: with such a diverse student body, we can learn from each other about many different cultural experiences. Accordingly, I tell them, their own lives, analyzed in light of the readings and lectures, will be an important component of our discussions. In addition, the surprises they found in this exercise reveal a fundamental anthropological principle: to understand other people’s experience, we must not only observe but also interact, listening to what people have to say from their own point of view. Paying attention to how others see things can help us recognize our own ingrained ways of thinking, for example how we apply categories like race, ethnicity, and nationality.

In the next part of the exercise, students write a description of the activity they have just done, from their point of view as a participant, in such a way that someone who was not in the room could imagine what it was like. I then have two volunteers read theirs aloud. As a class, we analyze the differences between them and discuss how two participants can experience the same activity in different ways, as well as draw different conclusions. This activity is intended to reinforce the lessons of the previous activity, as well as to give a first taste of anthropological descriptive writing.

The third and final part asks students to reflect critically on the first two parts of the exercise. They do this by writing a brief assessment, telling me what they learned, how it affected their perception of anthropology, and what they hope to get out of the course overall. I have found this written feedback to be unusually thoughtful for a first section meeting, suggesting that the exercise achieves the dual objective of engaging students from the outset, regardless of their major, and helping them grasp central themes of the course they are about to begin.