Teaching together at the University of Alabama, our objective is to transform students into anthropologists—whether for a semester or a lifetime. We take an active learning approach and push the students to do anthropology, actively producing knowledge rather than merely being vessels for it. This strategy removes anthropology’s aura of esoterica, connects the discipline to students’ practical concerns, and fosters higher levels of engagement and retention.
Revealing how anthropological knowledge is generated (while teaching it) is no simple task. When students become anthropologists, instructors face planning and logistical challenges, but we have developed a set of concrete, technology-based solutions to those challenges that can enhance student research, encourage collaboration, and facilitate the distribution of anthropological perspectives. Drawing on examples from several courses, we explain how we have adapted the tools of our trade in student-led linguistic, cultural, and bioanthropological projects. Specifically, we:
- Outline successful practices for training students in the use of digital technology for audiovisual projects and video ethnography
- Discuss the educational adaptation of Podio, an online work platform for collaboration and project management, which can be used with Apple and Android devices
- Evaluate the pros, cons and best practices for involving students in digital anthropology through blogging.
Data Collection and Analysis
Video ethnography acquaints students with contemporary tools of data collection and analysis but can be challenging information for a beginner to assess.
Course Setting: Students collected video recordings of social interaction in the context of traditional ethnographic research. They proposed a social setting to investigate, developed research contacts, obtained consent, and then conducted observations, interviewed participants, and video-recorded relevant social interactions. The instructor (Wolfgram) has IRB approval for students in the course to collect ethnographic and video data, and, ultimately, the data will be compiled as part of a research archive of spoken English.
There are two key problems with video evidence of social interaction and, in particular, its use in training novice researchers. First, video is fairly easy to collect yet challenging to analyze. A 15-minute recording of classroom discourse, for example, will yield a semiotically dense record that can be analyzed from multiple perspectives. Larger recordings are easily collected, but will elicit an overwhelming abundance of data that is challenging to organize and analyze in a meaningful way. Yet, while one problem with video is the density and potential amount of data, another is that video recording systematically excludes relevant context, by framing the recorded event and the proximate visual-spatial information as the only focus of inquiry. Thus, video is at the same time too rich and, deceptively, not rich enough.
Two approaches resolved this double-bind. The first was a technological solution, which involved training students to use video and discourse analysis software called Transana (www.transana.org). Transana was designed at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, primarily for analyzing classroom discourse and enables analysts to segment the linear sequence of video data into relevant units (or clips) that can be transcribed, coded, and annotated. The second resolution is the integration of ethnographic insight. Clips are compared and sorted into categories, and analytical notes gained from this process are appended to the clips. As compelling analyses emerge from this process, the students present their video and interpretations to the class for criticism. Organizing video data in Transana helps mitigate the problem of the semiotic density of linear recordings. The focus on the video data, however, compounds a tendency toward over-objectification of the event as the focus of inquiry. Therefore, students are required to document the social setting, as well as their framing of scenes (which includes justifying the positioning of cameras and microphones) in field notes.
The ethnographic encompassment of video data encourages students to be both practically committed to the analysis of the social interaction documented in the encounter but also critical of that evidence. Ultimately, the goal is to socialize students with a disposition of critical realism—that social realities are simultaneously knowable yet complex and problematic—by involving them in anthropological research.
Anthropology is increasingly collaborative, but group work is difficult in contemporary college culture, as is ensuring data security in shared class projects.
Course Setting: Upper-level undergraduates are tasked with developing and implementing original, ethnographic research to meet the information needs of UA University Libraries. A single, designated class project is developed in order to involve the greatest number of students in meaningful research, while keeping the instructor’s supervisory load to a manageable level. Students receive identical in-class training, and their labor is pooled for data collection and analysis tasks. Yet, each individual is assigned to one of three small project teams to develop their “deliverable”: the final written report, a PowerPoint slidedeck and oral presentation, or the public-facing, course website. As an instructor, I (Cooper) appreciate the ability to teach research design and methodology with an applied slant and at a level that is manageable for undergraduates, but this is a model that demands group work and a secure, reliable, and accessible space for collaboration.
The lone anthropologist is a thing of the past with the proliferation of interdisciplinary teams and increasing attention to the questions and research priorities of the peoples we study. It is no longer simply a case of “when they read what we write.” Anthropology’s informants have become participants, from project design to data analysis. Our discipline is collaborative, but unfortunately, our students are often not.
As Cathy Small relates in My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, within contemporary college culture scheduling is a complex art. With varied course work, living accommodations, employment, and extracurricular activities, organizing a series of face-to-face meetings for a class project is often viewed as an undesirable burden. Luckily, technologies such as Podio are easily adapted for educational use.
Course management software is designed for top-down, information transfer and its numerous features can be overwhelming. Podio, in contrast, assumes that information will circulate through a team, and therefore prioritizes discussion. The set-up is flexible and familiar as users design their workspace by selecting free applications from Podio’s App Market. This process encourages students to think through how they will work together to accomplish the assignment and what tools they will require. It also provides a stable, protected environment for data storage. Hosted on Amazon’s cloud, data access is consistent and rarely sluggish, while information is secure enough to satisfy IRBs with in-motion encryption during transfers and at-rest encryption in storage. Even Podio employees lack access to the data as there is no super-user account. Moreover, by providing a detailed audit trail of each student’s activities in a single location, it becomes easier to hold individuals accountable and anticipate and correct poor group dynamics. Larger universities are likely to have an existing Podio account that instructors can piggyback onto—as is the case at UA—but where this is not possible, Podio offers “sponsorship” (ie, free access) to student groups.
Students need a low-risk venue to develop their voices through evidence-based exploration and connect to a larger audience.
Course Setting: For a recent graduate-level physical anthropology course, we set up the “Anthropology Blog Network” (anthropology.ua.edu/blogs/), which enables anyone affiliated with our department to have an independent blog site within the network to write about anthropology. Students in the course were required to fully set up their sites (i.e., give them names and identities with photos and bios), with the hope that some would be motivated to continue blogging after the course. Each week, a few students summarized readings as blog posts, writing both for their peers—to be used as study material—and the public – aiming to be accessible and interesting. A benefit of independent blog sites within a network is that there is always some activity, regardless of the posting frequency of any individual, preventing the “dusty” look of an infrequently changed website. Moreover, any single post by any blogger increases the likelihood that readers will stumble across the posts of others bloggers, increasing site-wide traffic.
The downside of blogging is that it involves time sometimes better spent on the “real” nuts and bolts of anthropology. In reality, the value of blogging for anthropology students far outweighs this con. It is a low-cost means of engaging in public anthropology, molding the discipline, publicizing research, and being creative within one’s workflow. Blogging can be particularly useful for upper-level undergraduates or graduate students, whose writing skills, creativity, and research activities are more advanced. For faculty, setting up a blog site to facilitate this is technically “free” but may involve some opportunity costs in learning how to do so. For instance, WordPress is popular open source software that is user-friendly; as in our case, a university may even have web specialists to assist in site setup and management.
For students to make the most of a novel endeavor like course blogging, actual demonstrations of its potential are useful. A list of biological anthropology blogs currently on the internet was compiled to provide students with inspiration. We also hosted a visit by paleoanthropologist John Hawks, author of “John Hawks Weblog” (johnhawks.net), among the web’s most successful science blogs. Speaking to the students, he noted that many public outreach websites, such as those hosted by museums and other organizations, receive far fewer visits than one might imagine—some on a scale of only hundreds—and that this volume of traffic can be achieved relatively quickly and easily by one active blogger or a series of posts by a collective.
In discussing readings on a public blog site, using categories and tags to make key terms searchable, students open themselves up to discussions with the very scholars they are summarizing. At least one student was contacted this past semester by a scholar she was blogging about, who sent her more recent articles to flesh out our understanding of the material. Finally, blogging provides a means of writing about research before it is technically time to write about research. Students can begin to formalize their thinking about the theory and research with which they are engaged, while holding back material that would undermine their future efforts at publishing in peer-reviewed journals. This is important, because writing for peer-review becomes increasingly stressful as the pressure to “publish or perish” mounts. Blogging provides students the opportunity to develop confidence in their voices through evidence-based exploration while connecting to an audience for their work and future in the field.
Ultimately, our pedagogies utilize different tools to involve students in the work of anthropology—from data collection and analysis to collaboration and dissemination. This survey of teaching technologies illustrates how tech-based solutions can be deployed to connect students with our discipline.
Elizabeth Elliott Cooper (MPH, 2006, PhD, 2009, U South Florida) is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Fulbright Fellowship, she has conducted extended fieldwork in Sarawak, Malaysia addressing food security, household coping strategies, dietary delocalization and food-based identities.
Christopher Dana Lynn (PhD, 2009, U Albany) is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Funded by the National Science Foundation and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, he studies religious commitment in Costa Rica, fireside relaxation response, tattooing and immunoresponse, and co-directs the Evolutionary Studies program.
Matthew Wolfgram (PhD, 2009, U Michigan) is a linguistic anthropologist and assistant professor at the University of Alabama. His research is on the role of discourse practices in the post-colonial history and practice of South Asian medicine, and on gesture and social interaction in STEM classrooms in the US.