My teaching philosophy is rooted in the same commitments that drive my engaged research in Guatemala: helping under-represented peoples in their pursuit of higher education and preparation for leadership. This commitment to epistemic parity manifests through three teaching strategies. First, I draw on interdisciplinary knowledge and innovative pedagogies to make my classes more welcoming, engaging, and meaningful for all participants. If “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences,” as Ruth Benedict claimed, then successfully promoting anthropological ways of viewing and being in the world is a worthwhile goal in itself. The secret to my strategy is hidden in the final sentence on each of my syllabi: “I reserve the right to revise this syllabus as necessary.” This inconspicuous caveat represents my willingness to modify my classes in response to the needs and interests of my students. As the semester progresses and I learn more about the backgrounds and aspirations of the students in my class, I look for ways to incorporate their interests into our approach to the course objectives.
I often adjust the examples I use to illustrate concepts, in order to enable students to share their unique knowledge and experiences. The entire class benefits from the engaging discussions that follow when a student recognizes a link between the course material and her own areas of expertise. For example, by presenting a short description of American Sign Language during a lesson on linguistics, I created an opportunity for a student to describe the role of ASL in her own family across multiple generations. This discussion introduced concrete examples of the ways that ASL, like other languages, has grammar, slang, and regional accents; it also surprised several students, challenging their assumptions about ASL. I also give assignments that are structured to teach course objectives, but flexible enough that students are often able to creatively pursue topics of their own choosing. For example, my ‘applied methods’ assignments simultaneously provide experiential training and feedback in the fundamental fieldwork methods of anthropology, while encouraging students to approach a topic they find interesting from new angles, as ethnographers.
My second strategy is to intentionally encourage the participation of quieter students, particularly those who may feel isolated by cultural, ethnic, and class differences from the student majority. As a first-generation college student from a small Southern community, I have felt out of place in academia on many occasions. I developed several simple techniques to gain the confidence to collaborate with peers from different, often more privileged backgrounds, and now I adapt them to help my students. For example, I include ice-breakers and group interactions to ensure that everyone has a few familiar faces and learns more about their classmates. I start off each class with discussions of lighter issues and news, in order to help students over the initial hurdle of speaking. I also use private online forums such as Blackboard as a space for students to discuss assignments and other topics. I find that students who are less comfortable with public speaking may adopt this online avenue for sharing their ideas, and ultimately everyone benefits as the forums become a valuable crowd-sourced archive of knowledge about the course material. I encourage students to meet with me one-on-one to discuss their plans and share ideas, and I have especially enjoyed success in helping diverse students figure out their options for summer research opportunities.
Finally, the third strategy for advancing my teaching philosophy is to invest heavily in students’ communication abilities. I consider clear writing to be the most important skill that college offers, and the ability to communicate one’s ideas and opinions is a prerequisite for successfully having an impact on the wider world. In short, it does little good to inspire my students to value human diversity and stand up for the rights of others if they lack the ability to make cogent arguments. Accordingly, I assign writing projects at regular intervals throughout the semester and I provide detailed feedback. For longer research papers, I often require multiple drafts in order to help students stay on track. I introduce techniques for organizing ideas, such as mind mapping and preparing diagrammatic outlines of their writing projects. Whenever students bring me a paper draft to read, I assign them a task to perform while I look over the document: take an index card and write their thesis argument on it. If they struggle with this task, their concern over the organization of their papers is superfluous; I help them re-think their project until a clear argument emerges. I also encourage students to master other literacy practices, including the ability to critically read and analyze images, music, and social media—and to produce such ‘texts’ of their own. In classes that usually end with a research paper, I often offer the option to submit final projects in alternative forms of media. In one instance, several students created impressive documentary films that drew from interviews, archival research, and editorial decisions about filmography and narrative structure. We convened a special meeting of our class after the semester’s end to come together and screen these films and to discuss how they reflected course topics, followed by a fruitful question-and-answer session with the filmmakers.
I have seen the effectiveness of my teaching philosophy clearly in students’ increased investment as our courses progress: they pay more attention, come to class better prepared, and look forward to discussing the assigned readings. By the end of the semester they have not only met or exceeded the objectives for the course, they have gained new enthusiasm for anthropology, and mastered new methods and theories to apply to their other studies. Students have expressed approval of my strategy in their own words, including in course evaluations that note how I “incorporate modern events into whatever concept is being discussed in class that day” and that “Discussions were intriguing and applied to all the different backgrounds that students had.” The most rewarding responses were students informing me that they had added a major in anthropology, thanks in part to my showing them how it related to their interests and career goals. Although few of my students will go on to become professional anthropologists, every student who participates in my classes will be introduced to other ways of being in the world and will, hopefully, find their way to make a positive impact.