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Redesigning Undergraduate Education as Ethnographic Project

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Redesigning Undergraduate Education as Ethnographic Project.


I taught an anthropology course on the sociocultural and linguistic grounds of learning in spring 2012 at UCLA. When I began planning this course I was recovering from my first adjunct teaching experience, a general education class in linguistic anthropology that had enrolled a breathtaking 375 students. Too large for the available lecture halls, it had had to be “Bruincast” and its final exam administered in the grand ballroom. I can confidently say that about five to ten of those students were blown away by what they learned. These were the ones who showed up repeatedly for my office hours to talk about intersubjectivity, language socialization, verbal artistry, other languages they speak at home, and how the activities with which they intertwine might cause them to know the world differently, as well as why it’s possible to say, as Emmanuel Schegloff (1986) does, that it is in the phone call and other mundane everyday interactions where society resides. I’m certain that most of the remaining 370 were just trying to get through my possibly overzealous attempt to teach them all of the beauty of the subfield in ten weeks. When asked to teach a much smaller, upper division course in the spring I decided to try something new. In the fall I’d felt as though I were running a mid-sized company. This time I wanted to build a community. I decided that changing the end goal might help.

In addition to readings, written reflection and a midterm, the course required ethnographic analysis of a learning activity at UCLA. A brief ethnographic component is common in undergraduate anthropology courses. But my course went further in requiring a design component. Students had to use their findings in conjunction with readings to collaboratively propose ideas for restructuring college learning. This was perhaps too ambitious for a ten-week class, but it was surprisingly successful for most of us.

In what follows I bring to light some of my students’ research-informed proposals for how to remake UCLA, and then suggest that this experiment is an opportunity to reconsider how undergraduates are made aware of anthropology as a discipline.

Contextualizing Anthropological Theory by Design

Papier Mâché figurine of French schoolroom circa 1900. Photo courtesy flominator and wikicommons

Papier Mâché figurine of  schoolroom circa 1900. Photo courtesy flominator and wikicommons

We began the course with brainstorming all of the campus sites where learning occurs. We quickly moved past the formal classes (lectures, labs, discussion sections) and on to all the myriad activities students suggested: library study, surfing the internet, visiting office hours, social networking, academic clubs, doing internships, tutoring, having conversations in the dining hall, pledging the Greek system, engaging with political activists, exercising, attending sports practices and religious services, making art, participating in spoken word poetry events, and meditating, to name a few.

Roughly a third of our assigned readings were theoretical pieces concerned with explaining, for example, how cognition is located across multiple semiotic layers in interaction (Goodwin 2003). Roughly a third were applied, such as James Gee’s (2003) wonderful book on how video game culture can help improve literacy teaching. The remaining pieces, like Laura Sterponi’s (2007) work on clandestine reading or Elinor Ochs and Carolyn Taylor’s (1992) work on the connections between scientific problem solving and familiarity, were theoretical while also hinting at applications. To avoid 16 similar projects, I devised eight categories, randomly assigned two groups to each, and asked that their selected field site relate to it. The categories were: technology; classroom learning; creativity and problem solving; peer interaction; informal learning; learning and community; careers/jobs; and learning and identity. Students mapped spaces, diagrammed the embodied aspects of sites, recorded, transcribed and analyzed interactions, wrote individual and group field notes, and interviewed participants. They were asked to pay close attention to how other groups’ work might help with the design of their own research and eventual proposals.

We asked ourselves the following: How do our observations dovetail with the course’s main ideas, things like intersubjectivity, guided participation, distributed cognition and semiotic domain? How are participation, attention and emotion built into activities within traditional classrooms? What can be learned from non-institutional activities? Can and should you take what you’ve observed in activities like poetry readings or juggling practice and use it to change an institution like UCLA?

Student Ideas

Space prevents a full discussion of all projects but the major ideas that emerged can be highlighted. We were struck by how important familiarity and peer interaction are to problem solving, yet how absent they are from college classes. Students noted the available opportunities for peer tutoring but felt that peer work should reside within traditional classes, where clusters of sub-communities could exist over the duration of the quarter and be charged with solving problems or even influencing the course’s direction.

Many groups noted that a great deal of interaction goes into performing hierarchical relationships—professor versus student—that they found to be of little relevance to learning, often actually preventing student participation. We therefore wondered about the role that experts (professors) should play. Students were impressed by the improvisational and collaborative nature of spoken word events, sports teams, art studios, and a laparoscopic surgical training laboratory, contexts that exemplify guided participation and co-construction. Along these lines, we wondered why chemistry classes have labs, and sculpture classes have studios, but social science classes have neither.

We noticed that captivating learning often involves stories that persist longitudinally. The group researching “Econ 1” focused on the potential of a reemergent narrative, but wondered if the professor could push the usefulness of his story beyond a one-man performance and toward the incorporation of opportunities for student co-construction of a real, not hypothetical, story about risk and money.

Taking issue with the individual isolation of libraries and lecture halls, students suggested capturing campus space for collaborative work, where professors, TAs, and other experts could drop in on problem solving students, either in person or via digital connective tools.

We loved the idea that becoming and learning are intertwined. Students researching the campus Quidditch club evolved from mild derision to excited respect as they discovered that apprenticing to this semiotic domain requires implementing multiple layers of knowledge spanning the literary, tactical, interactional and athletic. They thus loved the expanded idea of knowledge promoted by Mike Rose (2011) and Jerome Bruner (1996), and argued that vocational/manual and academic/mental realms should be far more integrated.

Unlike any course I’ve taught before or since, students’ final presentations and papers made extensive use of course material. Admittedly, some of the analyses were perhaps too liberal with course concepts. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that most students had come to regard them as shiny, fascinating new tools, rather than items to be memorized. There was an almost hyper-connectivity going on. There was also extensive citation of other groups’ work and extensive input during presentations by students outside the presenting group.

What Can You Do with Anthropology?

The university within which anthropological training occurs is rarely subjected to ethnographic analysis itself. There are some exceptions (eg, Gaye Tuchman’s ethnography Wannebe U, or the undertakings of the Ethnography of the University Initiative at the University of Illinois), though these are only partially focused on learning. In general, the same scholars who write analytical critiques of other realms in US society—medical practice or political discourse, for example—accept that the collection of activities unique to higher education, such as lectures, discussion sections, and solitary library study, is the logical assemblage of interactional technology with which it should occur. This doesn’t mean that academics don’t critique the university. As Louis Menand writes, however, scholars in all disciplines, in utilizing the freedom of thought the traditional university ensures, even to critique university policies, require the security and credibility of the “institutional armature” (2010:124), which includes surprisingly ossified ways of teaching undergraduates passed down through generations. In general, scholars find their ideas enabled by this system but their actions stifled or, at best, several times removed from any impact. This cultivates a sense that they operate in a realm parallel to “the culture and the society that is being created and lived all around us” (Menand 2010:124).

There is a disconnect between how anthropology is taught to undergraduates and what anthropologists know about how human beings think and learn and about the very consequential ties between identity and knowledge. This particular separation between practice and theory should be vexing for anthropologists. What we know research is not just kept largely separate from the “real” world; it doesn’t even seem to affect needed changes within the sites we occupy regularly: college classrooms. We know that the assemblage of techniques we use is just one among many folk pedagogies, yet we allow its dominance.

One could argue that this is okay. The five to ten students who fell head-over-heels for linguistic anthropology in my gen ed class can become graduate students in anthropology, where they will be taught in much more collaborative, active and innovative ways. But one could argue that this is really not okay at a time when humanities and social scientific disciplines are being pushed to justify themselves. Moreover, if we don’t mobilize our knowledge regarding how learning is situated, collaborative, communal and familiar, we cede the innovative ground to simplistic solutions like MOOCs.

I believe this resonates with calls for an “anthropology of the contemporary” (Rabinow, Marcus, Faubion and Rees 2008). The authors focus on design thinking to retool ethnography to better study contemporary problems, not to solve them. But, while some caution is requisite before conceptualizing anthropology as “engineering,” I think my experience shows that asking students to engage with anthropological knowledge as a set of tools with which to act seems to inspire them to explore and hone that knowledge.

Sarah Meacham was a visiting assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Temple University, a lecturer at UCLA, and a Spencer Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has most recently published in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and Mind, Culture, and Activity.

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