How to keep college archaeology classes from sucking, Part I 2

Can we use anthropology courses to engage students(This is the first in a two-part series on how we can use anthropology courses to engage undergraduate students and further the cause of historic preservation. Read Part II to see my suggestion for creating engaging anthro classes.)

How many times have you had a completely engaging conversation about archaeology with one of your peers or co-workers? A conversation that really made you think.

How many of these same engrossing archaeology conversations have you had with a professor or adviser?

Think hard. How many times have these conversations taken place in a classroom? Have you ever seen this happen in an undergraduate lecture hall?

I don’t know you all but I’d wager that nearly every awesome discussion about archaeology you’ve ever had was not instigated by a class lecture. It sometimes happens but college lectures are not designed to create stimulating, in-depth dialogue. Of course, the best professors TRY to initiate discussion in lecture; however, the entire structure of class lectures (the room, the format, the method of delivery, ect.) pretty much discourages dialogue. Massive, auditorium-style anthropology classes make it even more difficult for professors and students to interact.

This is a major problem for introductory level anthropology and archaeology students and professors because it keeps our field disconnected from the rest of society, especially those we would like to become advocates of historic preservation and cultural resource management.

Why anthropology classes matter for American society

Introductory anthropology classes are big sellers on university campuses across the country for a number of reasons. They have mass appeal, are relevant to nearly every college major, and are offered far and wide. In the university’s course catalog, intro anthro classes always sound interesting: Introduction to Archaeology, Introduction to Human Diversity, Peoples of the World… Learning about strange, non-Western cultures. Giggling about sexual behaviors among primates. Seeing rad artifacts from amazing archaeological sites. What’s not to like?

Think about the incoming undergraduate. Most of them are doing their best to stay interested in a degree major that their parents will approve of (you know, something like business, medicine, engineering or law—the degrees that have earning potential according to some CNN business article). To these students, college is an investment—a way to increase their earning power. Doesn’t matter if they expand their intellect or even enjoy what they’re studying. They went to school so they could work in management someday (preferably the day after graduation).

Anthropologist don’t make boatloads of money so undergrads don’t give a sh*t about what we do and what we study. At least, not initially. They just want a grade that will boost their GPA and credits they can apply to their degree requirements.

Universities want the biggest bang for their buck. A couple hundred ANTH 100 students taught by one instructor with or without a cadre of TAs gives them exactly that—low overhead with huge return on investment (ROI). Universities also want to create addicts. They need each student to get an ‘A’ or ‘B’ (at least a ‘C’) so they’ll be willing to drop more coin on tuition, books, and residence next year. Students that flunk out of college are no use to a university because they don’t want “one-and-done” customers. They want repeat customers that keep coming back for at least 4 years (graduate school is even better). ANTH 100 classes have to be hard enough to be considered college-level but not so hard that incoming freshmen don’t come back for another hit off the pipe (For an expose on this practice, read the article “Confessions of a Grade-Inflating Professor”).

(Appealing course content + books and materials) massive class sizes – minimal instructors’ salary = The Perfect College Course. That’s what introductory anthro classes are.

Unfortunately, this recipe does not help students engage with course content in a meaningful way. Since archaeology and anthropology depends on a citizenry that is familiar enough with what we do to help support our work, we need every ANTH 100 student to leave the classroom with a solid understanding of how anthropology works. That’s no small feat for professors teaching massive lecture hall-style courses. A small minority of students are able to thrive in lecture-based courses. I am one of them, but I know a lot of students that do not.

Research paraphrased in a New York Times article from September, 2015 explained that middle to upper-class white males, for example, are most confident in large lectures. They are among the few students motivated and curious enough to ask questions in large lectures. Based on my experience, this is not always true but it does address an alarming prevalence for this demographic to speak up and, therefore, be seen as students that care about their education. Participation in class greatly benefits individual students’ grades and helps them make sense of course material, but women and minority students are less likely to ask questions in class which effects their perceived participation by the professor. This is especially significant in fields that are trying to increase diversity like anthropology because we cannot increase diversity if we can’t pique the interest of intro level students.

Then there’s the fact that lectures are boring….very, very boring. Most students are not paying attention after the first 15 minutes. This can be remedied through course structure. Studies suggest injecting classes with active-learning techniques breaks the boredom of the traditional lecture and helps all students learn and retain course content.

Dr. James Eison is a professor of higher learning education at Cornell University and has created an excellent website outlining active-learning research and techniques. The goal of active learning is to get students to think about, discuss, and process things taught in the class, which is characteristic of all the most transformative conversations about archaeology that I’ve ever had. As a result, a higher number of students are able to participate and are empowered to take ownership of their own education.

Blended learning strategies are another way we can break the monotony of the traditional lecture. In blended learning, portions of the lecture are uploaded to the internet where students can listen to what the professor has to say on a given topic. In-class time focuses on a back-and-forth discussion of course content. This forces students to come to class prepared so they can participate in the discussion. Unfortunately, it is difficult to execute this strategy in massive classes because of the sheer number of students.

Big-money anthro courses are our best chance of reaching the constituencies we’re going to need to work with if we want to further historic preservation or heritage conservation. It behooves us to treat the non-anthro major undergraduates like fodder because, for better or worse, they’re going to be the tax paying adults that fund cultural resource management in the future.

It is paramount that we use the time we’re given to impress upon these folks that:

  • Everything is situational and seen through the eyes of culture
  • Human beings and monkeys are different species and that humans did not come from monkeys (we shared a common ancestor but are on different branches of the evolutionary tree). Creationism isn’t even a theory. It’s just a guess with no proof.
  • Archaeology is not like Indiana Jones, but it could be a lot like Fred Ross’ work.
  • The only reason why we know about human origins and evolution is through anthropological archaeology.
  • The only way we know about human beings and human cultures is because of the scientists that do their best to objectively study them.
  • Preserving places that tell us who we are matters because, without them, we lose our cultural compass and the ability to learn more about where we came from.
  • The places that count are different for the numerous groups within our society but they all are important for the survival of every culture.
  • Human beings have a built-in altruistic reciprocity motive that could be harnessed to save the future of humanity and our environment. Learning about ourselves can form a basis for progressive action for positive change.

Basically, anthro classes provide an opportunity to change society by teaching students the realities of being a human being, how we came to be the way we are, and how our special attributes can change the world for the better. The question is: How do we teach this in 72 hours of class time?

How can we better teach undergraduates anthropology and archaeology?

Over the last couple semesters I helped teach two different undergraduate classes—a traditional lecture-based anthropology class and an online course in African American literature. Combined, both courses reached nearly 700 students (around 400 for both semesters of the anthro course and about 270 for the literature class!) While the literature course is built around online activities and platforms, the anthro course includes two 50-minute lectures and a 50-minute discussion session each week.

After grading papers and teaching students for these classes, I can see some huge differences between both courses with regard to class participation and comprehension of course material. I believe these differences are derived from the way students engage with the material and how it is delivered. The anthro class was restructured in order to help students succeed because, as it was first taught, the students found it too difficult. The failure rate was high and few students grasped the course concepts. The restructured course had a much higher level of engagement, fewer “F’s”, and was more enjoyable for the students as well as the instructors.

(NOTE: Both of these classes are taught by experienced professors who are truly invested in their students. The lengths they will go in order to answer student questions and provide assistance is commendable. They are doing their job excellently. The classes differ primarily because the way each class is structured causes different results among undergraduate students. The students’ results are not a direct reflection of the professors’ capabilities.)

The students taking these classes are from similar cohorts. Both classes:

  • Have large class sizes
  • Are composed of a diverse mix of ethnicities and races
  • Have nearly equal proportions of males to females
  • Include students from all socioeconomic classes
  • Are nearly entirely young undergraduates (I doubt there are more than a dozen students who are over 30-years-old in either of the classes)
  • Use a web-based system for submitting work and recording grades, and
  • Are primarily taken by students who are not majoring in anthropology or literature.

Here are some of the differences in the mechanics of each class:

Online vs. In-person: The AfAm literature class is entirely online so there is no in-class face time. However, the professor usually gives two 30—45-minute discussions via GoogleHangouts that the students can attend. Attending these discussions is optional, but students can earn 1 point extra credit for each one they attend (about 40% of the class attends the live broadcast each week). Students are encouraged to attend the AfAs class through the extra credit points, which are recorded automatically whenever you follow the link to the GoogleHangout. Even if you simply click the link to get the credit and leave it on mute till the discussion is over, students still have the option to watch the recorded session.

Conversely, there is little incentive to attend the anthro class because most of the test questions come from the course textbook, videos, and lab exercises (which are basically zooarchaeology/bioarchaeology activities). There is a lot of incentive, however, to attend the weekly anthro discussion sessions because that’s where the quizzes are administered. Attendance for weekly discussion is generally high. Basically, students come most of the time but still miss quizzes from time to time. Even after it was restructured, the anthro class had poor lecture attendance.

I’ve noticed there is a huge amount of participation in the literature class via the GoogleHangouts discussion box, which is also recorded. The other TAs and I are responsible for answering questions posted during the discussion but the professor spends much of the discussion addressing questions as well. The result is a back-and-forth between the students, professor, and grad student TAs that helps clarify assignments and enriches the discussion format. It’s different than in-class dialogue but the anonymity of the internet provides space for a greater number of students to ask questions and participate in the class.

There is very little participation in the anthro class unless it was prompted by the professor. The second time the class was taught, there was more interaction because the professor forced the students to use their phones/tablets/laptops to look up archaeological sites or hominins and tell the class what they’d learned. This exercise was replicated in discussion. We did our best to incorporate their “technology” into lecture and discussion because the students were pretty much obsessed with it. Many of them could not stop using their phones in class so we used the devices as a means of calling them out and prompting them to engage in their own learning.

Class work: Assignments in both classes are designed to document how well students have absorbed course material, but, in general, students in the literature class could not bs their way through the work. Of course, the quizzes are taken online so there is no way to prevent them from working together or using course materials to answer the questions. But the VoiceThreads, which are like recorded online journal entries, cannot be scammed. Either you read the stuff or you didn’t. We can hear if you read it when you record your VoiceThread.

The other major assignments in the AfAs course— the mid-term VoiceThread, online projects, and author discussions—were designed to allow collaboration while also doing original work. There was no need to discuss plagiarism because these assignments had to be created uniquely and if that process took a whole village, the students just tell us who helped them finish the work. Essentially, most of this was an audio diary entry, group project, or online activity. There was only one written paper, so the specter of plagiarism was minimal.

Finally, coursework could be finished any time before the due date. After midnight on the due date, the work was simply not accepted by the computer. Either you got your stuff done or you didn’t. There were so many assignments that, after the due date, students had to do a lot of begging to get their assignment accepted. Fortunately, there were a lot of assignments. Except for the major projects, it was easier to absorb a zero because of the large number of overall assignments.

The anthro class was initially structured differently, which is why it needed a complete overhaul. The original course structure made it easy to screw your grade. There were several huge assignments and not enough small ones to overpower an ‘F’ on a test. Also, the essays provide opportunities for plagiarism and there was little incentive to do group work. Students were basically on their own. If they fell off a bridge, there was little to cushion their fall.

In order to remedy this problem, the course was reformatted for the next semester. There were a greater number of smaller to mid-sized assignments. Weekly quizzes were moved online and the weekly discussion sections typically included a group activity based on that week’s content. The most significant change was a 125-point curve was built into the grading system. Students were graded on an 825-point scale, but there were a total of 950-points possible. This concept was hard for students to grasp but the end result was less begging from students, higher overall grades, and the course became almost as flexible as an online course. Students could choose which assignments they could skip depending on how busy they were in their other classes. Also, a disastrous grade on an essay or exam wasn’t the end of the world. Students could get solid “F’s” on their tests and still make up for it with all the other group activities, essays, and quizzes.

Student Performance: Surprisingly, students in the online literature class easily outperformed those in the traditional lecture-based anthro class. This includes not only their grades but also how well they demonstrated comprehension and absorption of ideas. However, the anthro students did as well as the AfAs ones after the class was redesigned.

The literature students consistently complete course assignments and, in general, did well. There were few F’s. The VoiceThreads provided a chance for students to demonstrate that they comprehend and have thought about the complex topics in the course readings, which focused on slavery and African American identity—topics few non-black Americans think about.

I was very impressed with the author discussions, which were conducted by small groups of 2 to 4 students. There were hiccups, but the students embraced the online screencast presentation format to give surprisingly insightful 30-minute talks on the work of Sojourner Truth, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Charles Chestnutt. They integrated a range of YouTube videos, Prezis, and archival audio recordings to bring their presentations to life. This was all conducted by students with no prior experience with GoogleHangouts or any of the other online platforms.

I was most impressed with the final group projects in the AfAs class. They were substantial endeavors undertaken by small groups that gave me a lot of ideas about what could be done with archaeology outreach and public archaeology. Each of these projects was supposed to be a completely digital activity along the lines of an augmented reality application, podcast, digital video, or comprehensive website. It was clear that most groups had invested a lot of work in their final project and created something that they should be proud of.

On the other hand, many grades in the first semester of the anthro class ended up in the toilet. Students are missed a lot of the quizzes and lab projects. They struggled mightily with the exams and writing assignments. Some of them will have to re-take the class again. The instructor was forced to give extra credit and curve tests because the students performed so poorly. It was clear that the way the course was designed made it difficult for the class to absorb concepts.

Worst of all, a disturbingly large number of anthro students did not demonstrate an understanding of any of the course concepts. There were dozens of students who finished the class believing humans evolved directly from monkeys. Many are had troubles grasping the idea that evolution doesn’t have an end stage or that archaeologists don’t study dinosaurs. It’s pretty sad given all the work we’ve put into teaching and evaluating this class.

This poor performance is what made the professor redesign the class into something more engaging. He made more use of online resources and technology as a means of engaging students. Incorporating flexibility in the scoring system reduced the need for extra credit and curved grades. The redesigned course emphasized using anthropology concepts as a platform for teaching students how to critically read and write at the collegiate level. The new class had a greater number of small writing assignments that forced students to practice writing. We spent a significant amount of time teaching students how to write at the college level. We also incorporated Darwinian evolutionary concepts into all aspects of the class so, if they learned anything at all, students came away with a decent understanding of how natural selection works. Finally, students learned that archaeology and anthropology is always advancing. We are constantly learning more about the past, which is why archaeologists never have definitive answers. Students learned how anthropological data is collected, assessed, and disseminated to the public. It was clear that most of these concepts were absorbed because we could see that they understood based on their writing assignments.

Creating engaging anthropology classes

With regard to their mission to teach students, most university anthropology departments around the nation are concerned about two major things: student retention and student recruitment. Introductory anthro classes are the bread and butter of anthropology departments because the huge numbers of students enrolled in these courses are used as proof to university administrators that the department is earning its keep. Universities are basically corporations that use student enrollments as one gauge of a department’s worth. No students = worthless department. This is why it is important for many anthropology departments to maintain high enrollment in their introductory level courses.

Students do not want to take classes that are difficult (i.e. they don’t want to get a bad grade, so classes where students get a lot of bad grades are considered difficult classes). Before you judge this as an entitled, unreasonable way of going through college, you should think about how the undergraduate curriculum gets them to take intro-level anthropology classes. They just need a class to fill their core class. Most of the students in an intro-level class are not anthropology majors. Nor do they care about anthropology or have a desire to do this as a profession. Out of those 700 students I taught last year, only one was an anthro major. Why take a difficult class in something you don’t even care about anyway?

It’s hard to transform undergraduates into anthropology majors if their first interaction with the field is so painful. Recruiting anthro majors is a serious concern because, along with getting undergrads to take your intro-level classes, university departments are measured on how many undergraduates declare anthropology as their major. With so much bad press spouted about career opportunities in anthropology, the field doesn’t need to compete with the fact that so many undergraduates struggle in these classes as their traditionally taught. Today’s students learn differently than they used to in the past. Anthropology majors are no different. We cannot expect to recruit new anthro majors if our teaching methods remain the way they have for the past 100 years.

It is also important to think about undergraduate course loads and how they relate to classroom performance. This basic anthro course was just one of five or six classes each of these students was taking each semester. They might have thought the class content was interesting, but its importance was ranked somewhere among those other classes including the ones that actually apply to their major.

Finally, all college classes are a type of business negotiation for today’s college student who believes higher education is a means to an end. In a world where college degrees are commodities, the degree is simply a requirement for getting a job. Even the manager of McDonalds has a college degree, so it is in the students’ best interest to enroll, grab a marketable degree, and get out as soon as possible. Time-intensive anthropology classes where you read a bunch of stuff that you don’t understand and sitting in boring lectures hinders this process.

The way anthropology has been taught for the last two generations—read article/book, sit in lecture, regurgitate a paper three times a semester, spaz out a written exam twice a semester, rinse-and-repeat—is not suitable for today’s student. These are products of the “No Child Left Behind” program, so they lack the analytical skills required in college. They were never given the chance to think or evaluate information. Every one of their classes had exams with clear, definitive, multiple-choice answers— the kind that are basically non-existent in anthropology or African American literature. These students were taught to learn just what is necessary to pass a Scantron test. They struggle with writing, communication, and analytical thinking.

This is why it is important for current introductory classes to act as the bridge between No Child Left Behind to real learning in college. These courses have to build on undergraduates’ strengths: fearlessness of new technology, empathy and creativity that allows them to work in groups, and a no-nonsense, “cut-to-the-chase” attitude that gets directly to the point. “Technology” in the form of phones, internet applications, and digital media can be used to break up monotonous lectures while also forcing students to engage course content. This stuff can also be harnessed to help students create impressive projects and share them beyond the classroom.

While there is no easy fix for the way anthropology has been traditionally taught, I do have a suggestion for how we can remodel the college anthro classroom to help retain and recruit students. Stay tuned for Part II in this series.

Do you think we need to change the way we teach anthropology? Why or why not? Write a comment below or send me an email.


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2 thoughts on “How to keep college archaeology classes from sucking, Part I

  • Smiti Nathan

    Thanks for this detailed post. While I haven’t taught a course in awhile, my colleagues and I frequently discuss the challenges of teaching anthropology and archaeology courses. I really enjoyed the case studies you provided on the two courses you helped to teach, especially the part on how the professor of the introductory anthropology course, ultimately, changed the course structure for the better. That was fascinating! I’m looking forward to Part II!

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for reading. We are truly living in a transitional period where everything is in flux. Teaching archaeology has to change along with everything else not only because we have more/different means at our disposal but because our students and the college context has changed. Anthropology needs to stay relevant because anthro departments are fighting to justify their existence. Keeping students engaged is key.

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