How to keep college archaeology classes from sucking, Part II

How can we use anthropology classes to engage, recruit and retain undergraduate students?(In case you missed it, this is the second 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 I to see where this is all coming from)

What’s the solution?

In Part I of this series, I compared and contrasted the courses I TAed last year: two sections of an introductory anthropology class and an introductory African American literature class. The anthro class was a traditional, lecture-based course whereas the African American literature course was online. Both courses also differed with regard to student performance, engagement, and grades. The anthro class was redesigned to help students attain higher scores, but the true secret to its success was how it increased student engagement by providing opportunities for students to use their technology in class.

This helped me come to the conclusion that one way we can get undergraduates interested in anthropology and archaeology is by: Making lecture-based introductory anthropology and archaeology classes more similar to the online African American literature class.

Whether or not we go fully online like the literature class, we’ve got to figure out a way for undergraduate students to absorb course material. I don’t recommend we make our classes easier, but we do need to figure out a way to connect.

Here are my suggestions:

Cultivate active-learning strategies: Most of the online activities in the literature forced students to become active participants in their own education. Assignments were structured so the student was forced to think. They had to actually do something in class and through assignments other than cram in facts and regurgitate them all over an exam. Active learning exercises can also wake up bored students who are literally falling asleep to the sound of your words.

Occasional in-class surveys conducted through a show of hands is one of the easiest ways to get students involved. You could also allow bashful students to Tweet questions and comments in-class to your smartphone and you can address them while you’re lecturing. More sophisticated techniques include a smartphone-based survey app that shows real-time class opinions on the PowerPoint while the professor lectures. Or, students can use their smartphones and other devices to look up course content. The professor simply asks all students with a device to answer a question. This actually worked well in the anthro class because it allowed students to harness their screen addiction to actually address concepts in class.

Keeping your students awake is one of the best chances you have at teaching them how anthropology contributes to our understanding of the world around us. Active-learning helps keep them awake.

Blended-learning for classes that can’t go online: Blended-learning integrates online activities with course material in order to free up more time for discussion. Studies have shown that non-traditional and minority students do better in blended classrooms and students of all sorts prefer them. The easiest way to create a blended classroom is to move part of the lecture to the internet and reduce the amount of time students spend sitting still, trying to absorb information.

For example, the anthro course could record two 20-minute videos and substitute them for one of the lectures. Or, lecture time could be reduced by 20 minutes. The videos could be posted on the online platform for the course. Then, students could come together once a week and spend a 50-minute class session talking about the topics from the two short videos and the related readings. If students don’t talk, the professor can start giving a traditional lecture or force them to use the internet to answer questions. If they respond, she/he could simply go with the flow. The 50-minute discussions could then turn into a review of course material for the tests or time to work on group projects.

All quizzes and presence/absence work could be moved to the internet. Students could also record VoiceThreads as a means of demonstrating they’ve read and absorbed course material.

Most importantly, blended learning allows you to go beyond the faculty at your given university. You can Skype or GoogleHangout with an expert at another school on the other side of the world just to talk about a given topic. I’ve Skyped into middle and high school classes in other parts of the country to give screencasts about archaeology and they’ve been very well received. The students were then quizzed on what they learned. There’s no reason why undergraduates won’t think this is interesting.

Encourage group work: Eliminate the threat of plagiarism by making all projects open book and open source. But, force students to either record their presentations or give them live in discussion group. Allow massive group projects to replace periodic tests. Make it hard for students to cheat by making them create unique presentations. Encourage them to find online resources on a given topic, summarize them, and provide a link (20–40 resources is only 5–10 websites, articles, or books for each group member). Provide an audio summary or recorded screencast of what they found and have them navigate to their favorite sites and show you around.

Use awesome presentations from previous classes available as a means of showing them what it takes to get an ‘A’. It takes a lot of work to create a quality 5–10 minute screencast. Students learn from trial and error with these new technologies that cannot be plagiarized or copied (especially if the assignment forces them to do it in real-time).

Depending on what field the students enter after graduation, these online collaborative projects prepare them for work in the real world. Personally, I prefer to do all my work in the cloud or online and hate working in the office. The growing number of office sharing companies or telecommuting jobs shows many employers are thinking the same thing. Online collaborations can seriously traverse the world. Students should get ready for this smaller world.

Know they will make mistakes…lots of them: An undergraduate in an introductory class has a lot on their minds other than evolution and hominins. Between part-time jobs, community-building exercises at their residence halls, and parties, there is a strong chance intro class students will totally blow some of their assignments. The easiest way to absorb these disasters is by having a lot of assignments or a built-in curve. It’s busywork, but over the course of a semester small quizzes and projects can help mask the 50% received on a test.

Use anthropology to improve writing and communication skills: Employees with strong written communication skills are in high demand across our country. This is largely because writing fundamentals are no longer taught in public schools. How many of you learned how to diagram sentences in middle school? Exactly.

Knowing how to properly write a work report, email, or even text message can be a game-changer in a student’s career after graduation. Quality writing is literally worth money. Students that know how to write a grant proposal, scholarship application, or resume can turn this knowledge directly into money. Learning how to write effectively requires practice, which is where anthropology classes come into play. The qualitative information in anthropology is well-suited to writing exercises. Online document submission software like Turnitin helps screen for plagiarism, so instructors can focus more on grading and teaching proper citation.

The restructured anthropology class I TAed emphasized cultivating good writing skills and I saw dramatic improvement among the students. I feel like this is something that will follow these undergraduates thorough their collegiate careers and beyond.

Cultivating good writing skills is a relatively untapped strength in anthropology that goes all the way up to the graduate level. You have to practice in order to learn how to write well. Two essays each semester is not enough practice even if it is 20-pages long. Writing is a trial-and-error exercise. We learn by submitting things and having them torn apart by better writers. This is the only way we ever learn how to write properly. Sub-par writing is frequently allowed to pass in grad school where the goal should be to write a peer-reviewed journal quality final project for every class. That might also explain why a lot of academic journal articles are so poorly written.

Why should we change the way we’re teaching anthropology?

For well over 100 years, American universities have been teaching anthro classes in lecture format. Before the G.I. Bill and government-backed student loans, only the wealthy, lucky, or very intelligent attended college. Kroeber, Steward, Boas, Mead—the founding minds of anthropology—were all upper middle-class folks who attended private or boarding schools at a young age. They were all excellent students who were well-adjusted to performing in a lecture-style classroom. When they were coming up, most of the other college students were just like them—well-heeled young academicians from families that could afford the best educations.

Fast forward a few decades to the 2010s. Well-heeled, upper crusties still do well in college but they are surrounded by legions of lower middle class and working-class peers who are literally betting the farm on the belief that a college degree will improve their socioeconomic standing. For the most part, they are right. A college degree is one of the surest vehicles into prosperity; a means of securing a middle class lifestyle.

University graduates don’t benefit financially because college teaches you to be smart or expands your intellect. A degree helps your future economics because it’s a symbol employers can use to determine that you have more than a basic high school education and have the capacity to learn. High school used to teach you the way the world works, but college is the new high school. Employers know the average American high school graduate can’t synthesize complex information, cannot write, and doesn’t know basic history, biology, chemistry, and physics. High schoolers in many communities are taught creationism is an equal alternative to Darwinian evolution and do not learn where babies come from. This type of citizen education is useless to service-economy businesses.

Employers are depending upon universities to teach young people the basic skills necessary to survive in the modern economy. A high school diploma is worthless unless you use it to get into college where you can get a “real” diploma.

We have to change the way we’re teaching introductory anthropology and archaeology in college because the basics of our craft is being taught to incoming freshmen who are unprepared and not very scholarly. These are not the students lecture halls were originally designed to serve. There is a huge difference between the type of student that populated A.L. Kroeber’s Berkeley classroom in 1932 and the ones walking through Kroeber Hall today. Universities, employers, and the entirety of our society is depending on those introductory, 100-level classes to bring students up to the collegiate level.

This is a very high expectation from the professors tasked with teaching these intro classes. You’re given students that have poor study skills and low academic capacity, but you’ve got to prepare them for the rigors of the upper division courses. And, you only have their attention for less than three hours each week. Needless to say, it would be nearly impossible to teach every single student how to process complex thoughts and demonstrate you’ve done so through class assignments. The best way to do this is in small group discussions, which isn’t an option in a lecture hall filled with 200+ students.

As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, students today are completely addicted to their smartphones, laptops, and other web-based devices that atomize their attention. Students are not paying attention in class but few professors are harnessing this attention deficit by redirecting it back to course content. I still see a lot of professors trying to fight for the attention of their students by banning laptops and phones in the classroom. I understand it is rude to see students phubbing you for their Facebook page, but I think there is no reason why you can’t turn this addiction into a learning tool.

Active-learning strategies that use smartphones is an easy way to turn a distraction into a tool. Let’s face it, an anthropology lecture is never going to be more important than a potential novio/novia, sick child at home, or message from a spouse. The best we can do is try and turn social media and web apps into classroom tools through blended and active-learning.

MOST IMPORTANTLY…Anthropology needs to connect to the modern world

None of this matters if anthropologists don’t find a way to connect every classroom lecture to the world we are currently living in. This is critical to helping create a populace that sees the importance of knowing about culture in the past and present because an educated society makes it easier for us to promote the cause of historic preservation and cultural resource management.

  • How is evolution still happening? Where’s the evidence?
  • Why does culture matter for human beings?
  • How do archaeologists and anthropologists know about the past?
  • How are the families featured in “Ongka’s Big Moka” similar to and different from the one portrayed in the “Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia”? What do these movies say about these two cultures?
  • If environmental change affected hominins in the past, how is it effecting us today?
  • How are the Trobriand Islanders of the 1940s different than they are today? How does this change compare to what has happened in American society during the same time period?

In short, how does understanding anthropology and archaeology help us understand our current world?

These are important questions modern human beings should know how to answer. Modern people should also know there is no definitive answer, but they should also know how anthropologists are trying to answer them.

Introductory anthropology and archaeology classes are foundational to universities across the country because they are, oftentimes, the first experience undergraduates have with a college classroom. ANTH 100 classes are also a chance to introduce young Americans to the amazingly complex and fascinating biology, culture, and heritage we all share. Using blended and active learning strategies like the ones employed in the African American literature class I TAed, anthropology professors can capture attention and use assignments that force students to think critically about course content.

Understanding the basics of anthropology is increasingly important in the hyperconnected world in which we live today because the youth of today are tasked with solving some very big problems: global warming, race-based discrimination, sexism, ageism, wars for profit, a government that is for sale to the highest bidder, and non-nuclear families with two mommies. Our culture is changing along with the times, so it doesn’t make sense for us to keep teaching anthropology like our great, great, great, grandparents learned it (Submitted in 1901, A.L. Krober’s dissertation was only 28-pages long and he landed a tenure-track position at Berkeley with it! That’s how much things have changed.)

We can use ANTH 100 classes to help students adjust to higher education AND introduce them to inquiring about the world in which they live. Today’s students are different. Our teaching methods need to change as well.

What do you think? How can we engage, retain, and recruit students through anthropology classes? Write a comment below or send me an email.


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