Despite being a lifelong student, I have struggled when other learners seemed to proceed with ease. When classmates and colleagues delved into questions and problems headfirst, I would puzzle over their purpose, and only upon understanding the why could I proceed to solve for how and what. As a teacher, I draw upon this need for context and meaning to provide a foundation for my students and establish a classroom that focuses on three major objectives:
1) clear communication
2) hands-on collaborative learning
3) community — in and beyond the classroom
From the first day of class my students have a clear idea of our course learning objectives, my performance expectations, and how I will assess their work. Regardless of the subject matter, they they will be learning to observe attentively, think critically, and communicate clearly. Over the years, I have found that once a student feels confident that they will be treated according to explicit and fair criteria, they open themselves to the larger work of connecting their assignments with the course’s overarching concepts. This is especially important given my student-centered approach to learning the complexity of human social behavior and the construction of cultural systems. Most importantly, as a class we constantly return to why these critical investigations are essential to their daily lives, interpersonal relationships, and professional futures.
To do this, we consistently connect these seemingly circumscribed behaviors and proficiencies to larger cultural systems uncovering their underpinning values, identities, and power relationships. I select assignments and activities that provide a scaffold, moving my students progressively toward stronger understanding and confidence in their ability to think critically. We establish community through participatory activities such as ranking taboo words, laughing about what we mean when we say “awkward,” and collectively discussing the motivations behind our often unintentional reactions to those around us. After building a measure of social trust in class we move on to more intimate assignments that require students to observe and describe the particular and personal, like a family dinner, their daily wardrobe, or media lives. Laying this groundwork, students become increasingly adept at — not to mention excited about — noticing the unspoken cultural terms of the world around them. Why might knowing the standards or Japanese greetings help in negotiating contracts? What do your parents value that would instill confidence in you studying abroad? In the age of new media, students have been more engaged with this than ever — knowing well that navigating the barrage of information is integral to success personally, professionally, and academically.
Whether teaching communications, methods, cultural anthropology, or international affairs, my assignments have several integrated components. I give regular feedback, allowing them to develop their analyses iteratively and in dialogue with our lessons. Students also have access to me through established weekly office hours, one meeting of which is usually require to help students think through their larger projects. I also take an anonymous mid-semester survey of the class working to course-correct and fill any gaps the students feel are missing.
Hands-on and Collaborative Learning
Any course has the potential for hands-on and collaborative learning, but I have worked to use my specialization in food and media to engage and motivate students at all levels and from all backgrounds in learning about the world through humanities and the social sciences. In International Studies I help my students connect the senses with the analytical through cacao/chocolate tastings that open up complex dialogues about colonialism, commodity chains, and sustainability. Later in the semester they apply this knowledge to collaboratively develop menus that explore history, health, and borders.
In Intro my Archeology of Wine, Beer and Other Fermented Beverages, New World Reds courses, and my prepared syllabuses for Food Society, and Culture, Intro to Anthropology, Methods, and Material Culture students use material culture to get hands-on experience applying anthropological methods with bottle typology and pile sorting lessons. Using their own implicit categories, students organize bottles according to different attributes, helping each other identify, describe, and interpret the objects. By applying scientific methods of classification, students get hands-on knowledge of how social scientists piece together our unwritten histories — a skill they often transmit to others through anthropology outreach during the year. Pile sorts, in which students group objects and pictures of objects (this can be fun with technologies) likewise help students contextualize relationships between individual and group norms, values, feelings and fears, and complex constructs — especially as they are compared to other cultures.
As a media scholar, teacher, and maker, I leverage my experiences working in radio, digital media, and as storyteller to seek out new ways to engage my students creatively while we explore media and culture. My classes expose me to the tools they use and the media they enjoy, and we integrate their ideas into projects. To illustrate, taking a cue from past students’ and colleagues’ desires to link work more directly with professionalization, I created an assignment that gives students the opportunity to publish work with the digital media and trips company, Atlas Obscura. Students apply their research skills and cultural knowledge to write about a socially significant food, drink, or practice, and in exchange they have the opportunity to be professionally edited and to write for a popular audience. Leaving the semester with a published piece to put on their resume not only motivates students but shows them ways to apply and be creative with the humanities beyond the academy.
Community — In and beyond the classroom
Finally, I am dedicated to being a part of providing a well-rounded liberal arts education — which, for me, is centralized around dialogue and diversity. Getting to know my students as individuals allows me to facilitate their personal journeys towards knowledge, personal growth and good citizenship, often learning important lessons from them along the way. This doesn’t necessarily require a small classroom: online tools, and weekly break-out sections allow professors to build communities in large lecture halls and across universities.
When possible, I work to integrate service learning into the classroom. At Indiana University this came in many forms: doing ethnography with underserved communities, building bee boxes while learning about sustainability in southern Indiana, working at the food pantry and in community gardens, or providing cheese tastings to locals while explaining the concept of terroir. In each of these experiences I have encouraged and watched relationships develop across unlikely frontiers — the city kid with the rural farmer, the young athlete with the older computer engineer, the conservative class politician with the radical activist. Ultimately, I feel this approach not only ensures that students are interested in the material and the course, but also that they leave the class having fostered community in and beyond the classroom. By working through and applying their social knowledge, they move forward with a skillset that serve them well into their academic, professional, and social lives.