Teaching Anthropological Analysis through Annotated Participant Observation Essay

Teaching Anthropological Analysis through Annotated Participant Observation Essay

By: Danica Loucks

Students just beginning their undergraduate education may not have a strong grasp of the distinction between description and analysis and what that looks like in anthropological work. If they’re just beginning to be introduced to anthropology and/or other social sciences, this may be especially so. In order to facilitate the growth of students’ abilities to conduct anthropological analysis, gain a better understanding of how description and analysis relate to each other, and see how anthropological concepts and theories can become useful tools, I have assigned Introduction to Sociocultural Anthropology students what I call an annotated essay.

With this assignment, students carry out participant observation in a public space. Afterwards, they use their field notes to compose an essay describing their experience. I ask students to write their essay in a formal organized style (i.e. aiming for strong macro, meso, and micro organization, clear topic sentences, etc.) but to focus on describing their experience/what they observed. After writing this essay, the students then must annotate their own writing. With each annotation they must identify a concept or theory introduced in the course that their observation relates to. They must explain how the concept relates or detail why their observation is an example of that concept, as well as provide a formal definition of the concept (you can also require citations if that is a desired learning outcome of your course/the assignment). Carrying out this conceptual work as annotations separates and makes distinct basic analytical skills–a distinction that can be pointed out to students to help them identify how analysis differs from description. This assignment can function well as a precursor to an assignment later in the term in which students will be expected to write into a way that integrates analysis into the main body of their compositions.

Skills and learning objectives: de/familiarization, semi-structured field observation, taking and organizing field notes, applying anthropological concepts and perspectives to data gathering in order to gain experience in how anthropologists “code” observational data.


  • This could be done as an ongoing “observation journal” in which students write field notes numerous times throughout the academic term (e.g. weekly or biweekly) and annotate with concepts as they are introduced in the course.
  • If you are leading discussion sections and are not in a position to create/choose formal assignments for your students, you could modify this to be on a smaller scale or ask students to analytically annotate news articles, media, etc.

See the following text for an example of how this assignment has been presented to students:

  • First, spend 30-60 minutes in a publicly accessible location (a space that is available to you as a member of the public, student, or worker, not one that is private, proprietary, or requires special permissions to be in and report about). This space can be an everyday place, or a site where a particular event or gathering is taking place. Direct your attention to observing the space and the people, beings, and things around you. As you observe, take down notes of all you see and notice.While recording everything you observe, try to identify what things you might usually take for granted. If you’re in a familiar space, challenge yourself to make the familiar strange, in other words, to write about things you take for granted as something culturally produced and not necessarily “right” or”natural” or “common sense.”  If you’re in an unfamiliar setting,try to make sense of what is going on in terms of those who belong to it–that is, try to make the strange familiar. Write down descriptions that don’t assume you know what something is or why something is done a particular way.  Also, using our course concepts, feel free to include speculations in your notes.
  • Take into the field a notebook, writing instrument, and phone for pix or video if you want (not required). Take also a mental “checklist” of socio-cultural features that we know, from our work in class, that can be observed in human social spaces. This list includes but is not limited to:  language/gesture, sights and sound, ideologies, ways relations are structured or enacted, relational activities (human and non-human),how material cultural objects are part of or excluded from the space, rituals and performances, gendered signs and processes, racialized spatializations,social inclusions or exclusions, sexism, racism. Combine walking around and using defamiliarization and semi-structured observation (as we will discuss in class) to immerse in the space. Take detailed notes while you are doing this or wait until you are finished and write down your experience right away so you don’t forget. Write down everything you see, hear,feel, smell, taste, and or perceive in any other way.  We’ll talk about strategies in class!
  • The final product for this assignment should be 4-6 pages of typed (double spaced) field note-based description and footnoted annotations. Minimum 1500 words (including footnotes/endnotes). 
  • Here are instructions and requirements:
  • Write up your field notes into a clear, cogent description. Although this is not a formal essay with a thesis or argument, you must title your essay, use standard good writing skills, and organize description through logically flowing paragraphs.
  • Read over your description and use the colored highlighter function to highlight phrases or sentences that relate to concepts or processes we’ve studied in class.
  • Then annotate your highlighted parts, here’s how:  Use the footnote function to put a footnote after those highlighted phrases or sentences. In those footnotes,relate what you observed and highlighted to a concept or process we have discussed in class. Explain what that anthropological concept or process is,then offer your own analysis or speculation of what is going on. You do not have to do a bibliography referencing the concepts or lectures, because the purpose of this is to show how you can observe and identify examples of what we’ve been exploring. You can go ahead and speculate to – use educated guesses when you can. Some of your footnotes will point to things that require that you reference multiple concepts and processes, this is just fine and indicates how social life is anthropologically complex. You must provide a minimum of 10 annotations, but see how many anthropological concepts and processes you can discover and point out!
  • Skills and learning objectives: In this assignment you will practice de/familiarization, semi-structured field observation, taking and organizing field notes, applying anthropological concepts and perspectives to data gathering in order to gain experience in how anthropologists”code” observational data.

Resource Contributed by: Danica Loucks, University of California, Irvine

Danica Loucks is a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine. Her dissertation research examines how different stakeholders understand public lands in the U.S., considering how differing ways of knowing landscapes, contrasting ideologies about land and property, and competing historical narratives (as well as understandings of how history matters) shape contemporary public lands conflict. Danica is a Pedagogical Fellow through UCI’s Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation and is currently conducting research regarding how students develop anthropological analytical skills.

Seriously, you can teach with these data (even if you’re not an archaeologist)!

Seriously, you can teach with these data (even if you’re not an archaeologist)!

By: Dr. Ian Straughn

Perhaps you are a cultural anthropologist who has been toying with the idea of how that other, grubby subfield – archaeology – could make a cameo appearance in your introductory course or even an upper level seminar on race, colonialism, or the body. Or, take another scenario in which you find yourself assigned to teach or TA an archaeology course when your colleague is on leave (curse you and your last-minute sabbatical), and want to shame them by adding something awesome and new to the syllabus. In both instances, and many others we might concoct that are not motivated by vengeance,I will demonstrate here the potential for utilizing the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS — https://www.daacs.org/) as tool for teaching an array of topics and concepts to undergraduates through actual data sets. DAACS is a resource which bills itself as a “Web-based initiative designed to foster inter-site, comparative archaeological research on slavery…”with the intention of assisting students and scholars from “different disciplines use archaeological evidence to advance our historical understanding of the slave-based society that evolved in the Atlantic World during the colonial and ante-bellum periods.” Without getting into extensive detail about the history of this database and its structure, much of which is amply and carefully documented on the site, it accommodates educators’ varying comfort levels with archaeological data by offering a range of pathways for navigating and querying the materials from the more than 50 sites it covers. In what follows, I offer a few suggestions for how to incorporate this tool in teaching students to explore archaeological assemblages and incorporate material culture into their anthropological thinking.

The first exercise I want to share allows students to get a feeling for the database and its potential for doing comparative analysis. It has them establish a query of a particular artifact category across a set of sites, the parameters of which are theirs to determine. In this example they would open the query database tab, choose the option for “object query,” and navigate to Object Query 3: Select Artifact Attributes by Type. In the first step of their query they have a variety of options of subsets and for this example I will suggest using “object form” as it can allow for a more precise choice of the artifact type. Students should consider and document what they see as significant about the particular artifact type they are tracking across the various sites in the database. In the second step students limit what set of sites to include in their query. Here, as well, they should discuss why they choose their specific parameters (or defaulted to selecting all) and what it might demonstrate. Perhaps the student is interested in evidence for whether enslaved populations had access to stimulants as part of their diet, and did this vary across the coverage area of the database. From this point they can retrieve their results which might look something like the following search for “Ceramic: Coffee Pot” across all sites:

The student’s analysis might document how such vessels were found at multiple sites all of which were in Virginia and not elsewhere. The expectation is not that students will make conclusive arguments, rather that they will begin the process of using material culture to ask interesting questions about patterns of social practice such as sociality and consumption. It is also important to note that students can download data results to an Excel file by clicking on the query options button. In order to further contextualize their preliminary findings they should also examine the wealth of information about the sites connected with their results by using the “Archaeological Sites” tab.

It is also productive for students to approach these data from the specific site as the starting point rather than a category of objects. As another exercise I will assign each student or group of students a particular site to explore in order to identify a specific “feature” within that site to investigate through the assemblage of artifacts associated with it. Not all sites are equally suited to this exercise, so it is necessary to limit students to those that strike a balance between sufficient quantity of materials that may demonstrate patterning or facilitate useful comparisons and those where assemblages are either overwhelming or thin. Some sites that work well include Monticello buildings l, o, r, s, and t, Palace Lands, and Mount Vernon’s House for Families, though you should feel free to experiment with others. After students carefully read the “background” and “before you begin” sections of their assigned site, they should run an Artifact Query 1: Basic Inventory in which they click the radio button for site in Step 1 and chose their specific site in Step 2. This will return a finds list for the entire site organized by artifact type and category. After downloading the data into an Excel sheet they can produce basic histograms and charts of the counts and discuss those findings.

Next students can drill down into a specific artifact type or category that is well-represented in the data through a second query that explores its attributes. For instance, using an Artifact Query 3: Select Artifact Attributes by Type, they could choose button as the artifact category in step 1 along with several attributes (e.g. material, manufacture, shape), no selection in step 2, and Building S at Monticello in step 3. Such a query might be designed in accordance with either a formal hypothesis about sartorial habits or as part of a broader inquiry about access to prestige items or other aspects of the domestic life of slavery. Once the results are downloaded into an Excel table, students can visualize the data in appropriate charts and analyze their findings. These examples only scratch the surface of what is possible with DAACS. The many scholars involved in making these data available also provide valuable guidance and suggestions under the site’s research tab. Such data do not need to be intimidating even for the introductory classroom. This is particularly the case in providing students with skills in comparative analysis and how to approach material culture in formal assemblages. Even within the context of a socio-cultural course such exercises encourage students toc onsider material culture as a lens into anthropological concerns over bodily practices, social class, consumption and more.

Resource Contributed by: Dr. Ian Straughn, University of California, Irvine

Dr. Straughn is an archaeologist whose research focuses on the spatial and material formation of the emerging Islamic tradition in the Levant. Additionally, he published on issues of Islamic heritage in the Middle East. He is currently co-editing a volume on the Islamic textual tradition of West Africa and developing new pedagogical tools for teaching archaeology and material culture.

First Day Activity: Ten Things You Believe to be True

First Day Activity: Ten Things You Believe to be True

This resource was originally published by Cultural Anthropology: Teaching Tools: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/851-first-day-activity-ten-things-you-believe-to-be-true

By Angela Jenks

The first day of class is often a challenge for new instructors. After addressing the inevitable logistical issues (e.g., enrollment, the syllabus, access to course materials), should you end early? Dive right into a lecture? Engage students in an ice-breaking activity?

Like other faculty (Lang 2008; Nilson 2003), I have several goals for the beginning of a class: 1) I want to introduce the course topic and ways of thinking about course materials; 2) I want to introduce myself as an instructor, setting the tone for the rest of the course and stimulating student interest; 3) I want to encourage students to talk to each other, both to learn about their colleagues and to make connections that may prove useful if they want to form study groups or share notes and resources later on; and 4) I want to learn more about who my students are and why they chose to enroll in the course.

Here at the University of California, Irvine, courses run on a quarter schedule, so we have just started spring classes. This has given me the chance, once again, to bring out one of my favorite beginning-of-class activities. I first participated in this activity when I was a student in a folklore course taught by Alexandra Griswold at the University of Pennsylvania. I remembered it years later when I began teaching on my own, and I have used it routinely in both introductory cultural anthropology and anthropology of religion courses. I often use it on the first day of class, and always during the first week. It is easily adaptable to both small and large courses.

The activity has 6 steps:

Step 1

Ask students to write a list of ten things they believe to be true.

In my experience, the activity works better if students do this before class, rather than writing the list during the class session, although I’ve done it both ways. I tell them that I will collect the lists, so all of the items should be things they are comfortable with me knowing, and at least three should be things they are willing to share with other students in the class.

I purposefully leave the interpretation of the term belief up to students, although I often say that they are not limited to listing religious beliefs. Students’ lists often do include statements about the supernatural: I believe that God exists; I believe in karma; I believe that I have seen a ghost; I believe witches are real. Others include statements they perceive to be explicitly anti-religious: I believe in evolution; I believe that science can answer all our questions; I believe that there is no life after death. Many will include statements about their everyday lives: I believe my boyfriend loves me; I believe I live in California. And there are always some whimsical responses: I believe that chocolate makes everything better.

Step 2

In class, students are instructed to find a partner who they do not know well. Each student should interview his or her partner, learning the partner’s name and other information (e.g., major, year in school, where they are from) and three things she or he believes to be true. Small groups of three are also fine if necessary. I often explicitly tell students that they should not simply trade lists to read, but should share their three beliefs in conversation. This step can usually be completed in 5–10 minutes.

Step 3

Ask students to introduce their partners to the entire class and to share one thing their partner believes to be true. At this stage, I have divided the board into three columns. I write short versions of these beliefs in the first column. In small classes, every student is introduced; in large classes, I ask for volunteers to introduce their partners.

Step 4

Ask students why, when they were being interviewed, they chose that set of three beliefs to share with their partner. I write these responses in the second column on the board. Common responses include: Those were the three I felt strongest about; the three I’m most certain of; the three I thought were least weird; the three I thought others would agree with and not judge; the three I thought would be most controversial; the three I thought were most unique to me.

Step 5

Ask students why, when they were introducing their partner to the class, they chose that one belief to share. Again, I write the responses on the board, this time in the third column. Common responses include: That was the one I agreed with; the one I thought everyone else could relate to; the one that was most different from my own beliefs; the one I remembered; the one nobody else had said yet.

Step 6

Depending on the course I am teaching, this activity provides a segue into future conversations about epistemology, the culture concept, anthropological representation, or ethnographic research. In introductory courses, I ask students to reflect on their understandings of the term belief, and I use their lists to help demonstrate multiple ways of knowing. Following this activity, we might talk about the problems of defining culture or religion in terms of easily articulated beliefs, and I emphasize the normalized, invisible aspects of cultural life that we would never think to write on a list or to state to a stranger.

This activity is also helpful as I encourage students to question common understandings of culture that presume bounded groups: the Azande believe X; the Trobriand Islanders believe Y; or Latinos believe Z. Would it be possible, I ask, to create a list of what college students believe?

The activity is also a simple way to introduce some of the complexities of ethnography and to encourage students to think critically about the way anthropological knowledge is produced. What factors, we discuss, might affect the ways in which people talk to an anthropologist or the ways anthropologists write about their data and craft ethnographic representations? Are any of those similar to the factors that affected what students in the class chose to share or report?

In upper-division classes, students and I engage in a deeper interrogation of the concept of belief in the history of anthropology, and this activity leads into a discussion of introductory readings by Malcolm Ruel (1997), Byron Good (1993), or Stanley Tambiah (1990).  

I have found this activity to be successful at a variety of institutions. In addition to introducing and encouraging critical reflection on course concepts and providing a reference point for future class discussions, the “ten things you believe to be true” activity gives students an opportunity to meet each other, encourages their active participation in the course, and allows me to learn more about my students and their understandings of anthropology.


Good, Byron J. 1994. “Medical Anthropology and the Problem of Belief.” In Medicine, Rationality, and Experience: An Anthropological Perspective, 1–24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lang, James M. 2008. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 

Nilson, Linda B. 2003. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. 2nd edition. Bolton, Mass.: Anker.  

Ruel, Malcolm. 1997. “Christians as Believers.” In Belief, Ritual, and the Securing of Life: Reflexive Essays on a Bantu Religion, 36–59. Leiden: Brill.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. 1990. Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Resource Contributed By: Angela Jenks, University of California, Irvine

Zombies in the Classroom: The Importance of Teaching the Zombie Apocalypse in Anthropology Classes

Zombies in the Classroom: The Importance of Teaching the Zombie Apocalypse in Anthropology Classes

Photo by: Eneas De Troya, Zombies in Mexico City, México (Los zombies en el DF / Zombies @ Mexico City) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Note: This post was originally published by The Geek Anthropologist. We have received permission from the author and The Geek Anthropologist to cross-post this resource on the Teaching and Learning Anthropology website.

By Jennifer Trivedi

The zombies were everywhere – on televisions and film screens, in books and online searches, at doors in October. And they caught my attention.

I mostly teach anthropology, but my own research interests encourage me to incorporate disasters and disease outbreaks into my classes. Seeing the CDC’s zombie themed preparedness planning, I wondered how I could bring a zombie apocalypse into the classroom. I began introducing zombies in lectures, using them to capture student interest when discussing concepts like cultural perceptions of death. While the students were interested, I thought I could branch outside the regular lecture format. I have tried more unusual approaches in the classroom before, like group work and discussion in classes of 100 to 150 students, or mixing reading sources from popular culture pieces to academic journal articles. But in the Spring of 2018, I got to teach a 300-level anthropology course at the University of Delaware on Culture, Health, and Environment as a three-hour night class. While the format was intimidating at first, with the idea of keeping undergraduates engaged for three hours on a Monday night, I quickly realized it was also an opportunity.

I am not the first professor to put zombies in the classroom. Many professors teach zombies as a way to engage students across a range of issues (Nail 2009; Morrissette 2014; Pielak and Cohen 2014; Kimble 2016; Smith 2016; Wallin 2016; Wadsworth 2017). The literature on zombie pedagogy includes using zombies as a teaching device to discuss everything from climate change and the environment, to culture and what it means to be human. In many of these cases, zombies are a pedagogical tool to get students excited about other ideas professors want them to learn. As Nancy Wadsworth describes, a “new pedagogical approach offers fertile provocations and a sustained mode of creative critical inquiry that can render political theory more resonant for the Millennial generation” (2017: 5). The zombie apocalypse can also serve as a scenario in which to test theoretical constructs like international relations and real-world problems such as ethnic conflict (Morrissette 2014:3). Zombies can also become a contrasting point compared to humans: “the zombie, being one or turning into one, performs the unadulterated difference between the inhuman in its serial and mindless form, on one side, and the human and its equivalents, the individual and the rational, on the other” (Moraru 2012: 107).

My efforts to introduce zombies into the classroom pulled from all of these techniques – getting students engaged in material in a new way, testing their understanding of theoretical constructs and real-world issues, and contrasting different views of humanity and culture. However, for this undergraduate exercise, I also wanted a few other things for the students – the chance to demonstrate what they had learned throughout the course, show critical thinking skills, and push themselves to think outside the box. Most importantly, I also wanted them to enjoy it.

I divided students into groups and set the scenario: a zombie virus begun in Atlanta had spread, primarily via bites and bodily fluid contamination, making people contagious within 24 hours, dead in 2-21 days, and reanimated in 8-12 hours. These factors were designed to call to mind discussions about other epidemiological outbreaks. Following American popular culture about the undead, the zombies could only be killed by decapitation or destruction of the brain stem. I added that a small number of people showed immunity and a cure was in progress.

Unsurprisingly, my students also brought their own ideas about zombies. As Phil Smith describes: “I have no recollection of any student ever asking me to explain or clarify” what it is like to “imagine that they are ‘the last human survivor of a zombie apocalypse’” (2016: 86-87). These preconceived notions were helpful, allowing the students to have a background outside of our class to help imagine their place in this hypothetical reality. They referenced zombies they had seen in media – unthinking, unfeeling, and unaware of their pre-zombie ties to other people. My students noted that if their family members were zombified it would be emotionally difficult for them. They also referenced behaviors of non-zombie characters in such media like the movie Zombieland (2009) or the videogame Left 4 Dead (2008) when discussing survival needs – even students who admitted they had never shot a gun deemed weapons a necessity in a zombie apocalypse because “you shoot zombies.” Encouraging students to bring their own experiences into the classroom is critical to me as an anthropology professor – it helps students to understand that “culture” is not limited to people outside of the students’ own lives or, more broadly, outside of the United States, and to better understand key concepts by examining them through a lens they already know.

I also added an element of chance to the classroom exercise – a twenty-sided dice rolled for potential good and bad results. An odd number on this first roll, for example, allowed a group to save one person from zombification. Saving someone was important to the students, not only with their focus on winning the game, but also due to a strong desire to not become zombies. To win, a team had to have the highest point total – each person on a team had a number of points assigned to them (starting at five points and then adjusted up or down depending on specific characteristics they had, discussed further below), all of which were added into a team total. Teams lost the points of players who became zombies.  So to win, teams had to avoid zombification. It was interesting how students viewed the zombies beyond this – the undead creatures remained “the ultimate foreign Other,” a status to be avoided at all costs (Bishop 2006: 201). Zombies for the students were seen largely as more creature than human, even when students were faced with classmates who were now flesh-eating corpses.

Each student had to list three people from their lives who they wanted in their larger group and culture in this zombie apocalypse scenario. I wanted there to be an emotional tie for students beyond the bounds of a shared class experience, something I thought might be influential when making tough survival decisions. The students surprised me with their insights in the best possible way – pointing to their own bonds with these people and the cultural reinforcement of the importance of those relationships as both a strength and a weakness in the situation.

Fallout 4: just a sole survivor and his dog against the apocalypse

Fallout 4: just a sole survivor and his dog against the apocalypse

Students had to list strengths and weaknesses for each group member, each of which resulted in points being added to or deducted from their personal and group totals. This was also when I had to start adapting to the exercise, as students began to raise issues I had not considered, like adding points to a person’s total for having a well-trained dog for protection or hunting or docking points for the desire to not survive the zombie apocalypse. The discussion of potential benefits like animal companionship or the stress of finding oneself in an apocalypse also led to discussions about mental health in the situation, something we had discussed throughout the semester. This emphasis on mental health was reinforced by the guest graduate students who had come to participate in the exercise and who seemed quite focused on their desire to not survive because they thought it would be an uncomfortable and ultimately fruitless endeavor, citing literature like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954). My students pushed back on this nihilism, reigniting a discussion we had been having throughout the semester: “what is health?” Students debated their consideration of mental and physical health, raising questions about whether mental health was equal in importance to physical health, and how this perception varied between cultures, reinforcing the idea that there are no universal definitions of health.

Each group had to decide who they thought was the person most at-risk of being attacked and what should be done with them: should they use resources to protect that person, abandon them and risk their becoming a zombie, or – the culturally unthinkable for many – end that person’s life to prevent their zombification? Once students made this decision, they had to explain it to the class, citing things like the importance of a person’s knowledge and skills or the desire to prevent their becoming zombie. Some groups, though, did abandon people, leading to the first zombies within the class itself. In having these discussions of risk and potential vulnerability,  I wanted students to engage in three related discussions building on our previous work in the class: What was more important – the individual or the collective? How would they weigh a person’s strengths and weaknesses against the needs of the group? And is death the worst-case scenario for a person and, if so, what is the cultural context of death as a concept, particularly in contrast to health – i.e. was poor or even simply imperfect physical or mental health preferable to death?

Students also had to choose a location from a pre-determined list of areas we discussed during the semester like Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana (where we looked at climate change and hurricanes and how they had affected the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe), Cape Town/Town Two, South Africa (where we had discussed HIV/AIDS and cultural perceptions of the disease), or Bhopal, India (where students debated the Union Carbide gas leak). They then had to discuss the pros and cons of the area in the context of a zombie apocalypse. Once done, I told students to pass their sheet to the left to be relocated. This forced students to think about two different locations, including questions like population size, natural or man-made hazards, and pre-existing cultural beliefs, behaviors, and power structures. By allowing students to choose one location and to discuss the same set of needs and problems in another location they were assigned, albeit unknowingly, by their peers, I was able to test not only the knowledge they retained of specific locations, but also if there was a pattern to what they were retaining about different locations we discussed.

I wanted students to demonstrate what they remembered about the locations—the people there, and issues that could affect their efforts to survive like climate change, disease spread, or environmental justice and racism. This part of the exercise also required students to weigh different potential risks against one another, just as people do in their real life day-to-day and emergency decisions, a theme we had discussed throughout the semester. Flint, Michigan, for example, was dismissed as a location by one group, citing the water contamination issues and sparking a discussion of the related issues of environmental justice and racism with the conclusion that they remained “unfair,” even in the zombie apocalypse. Some students noted that they were lucky to be able to choose the location of the exercise which, in their mind, made them more likely to be able to survive, but also allowed them to avoid problems like air, water, or soil quality that we had discussed in the context of environmental justice issues.

The groups then had to describe what they felt their group should prioritize, beyond simply having the most people avoid zombification. Throughout the course, we had discussed beliefs and behaviors in different cultures, including how they were important in moments of crises and disaster related to health or environmental hazards. For instance, we can consider how in Hurricane Katrina some people believed that surviving previous storms was an indicator that Katina was manageable and how this belief influenced their behavior by discouraging their evacuation. I also had students think about the supplies they would need to survive and how they would maintain access to those supplies, combining their explanations of what they believed was important with how they would need to behave to get and maintain those supplies believed to be crucial to survival. Dice rolls in the next series of moves determined zombie bites at random, introducing an element of luck that students had to plan around, especially as they organized to see which group members they would send to find ingredients for a zombie vaccine. They had to think about the practical elements of survival both for the larger group and the foragers, determining the best balance for the needs of both. Luck with the dice rolls also determined how successful their foraging group and ultimate vaccine were.

After a final series of dice rolls, in which zombies attacked and brought new zombies into their horde, the students returned to their original groups and discussed the exercise, figuring out who had survived; what supplies, skills, and knowledge they still had; what these shifts meant for the group’s survival moving forward; what their successes and failures were; and how these all related to larger cultural, health, and environmental issues. They had to present this information to the class, opening up a larger discussion. This discussion was meant to give students a chance to reflect on what they had learned in the exercise, their decisions throughout the process, and how it related to the class as a whole. I find reflection to be a critical pedagogical tool. Reflective discussion as a group in the classroom has benefits for students ranging from self-examination and promoting individual confidence to enabling students to better learn from others. As Annetta Tsang notes: “Within this supportive community context, students build on each others’ experiences, successes and failures, challenges each others’ views and insights, leading to collective learning, unlearning and relearning” (2011: 15).

This classroom is a total deadzone

Pedagogically, the examples in the zombie assignment served as a space for students to demonstrate that they had retained information from the semester and could apply it to other scenarios. The original discussions of people’s beliefs and behaviors in different cultures, especially as it related to health and environmental issues, were a key part of the class and its goal of having students better understand the intersections of culture, health, and the environment in a diverse range of populations. Allowing the students to apply knowledge from throughout the semester to the zombie apocalypse scenario gave them space to piece together cultural, health, or environmental issues from different contexts. The exercises encouraged students to consider our discussions of environmental justice in Flint with perspectives on long-term contamination in Bhopal, in relation to ideas about health from our conversations about cancer from a medical anthropology perspective, thinking about the diagnosis not just a problem of physical health, but tied intrinsically to gender, identity, and culture. And to take this a step further, the exercise allowed students to think about such constructions in an applied sense – what would these mean in a real world lived experience of the zombie apocalypse – would clean water, avoiding long-term soil contamination, and their cultural constructions of what it meant to be healthy play a role in the supplies they needed to survive?

Students were graded on their participation in the exercise, including groupwork and discussions, which I monitored when they shared with the class, in each groups’ ongoing discussions, and in paperwork students submitted. The students, however, were also quite engaged with who won the game, what elements they thought were fair or not, and how they thought their knowledge from the semester played a role in their success or failure. While sometimes frustrated with things like dice rolls, or game twists like moving locations, the students seemed to enjoy the exercise. They were animated and engaged for the whole period. They clearly demonstrated that they knew the material from the semester and could use critical thinking skills to apply it in new ways, something I was thrilled to see in action. The students themselves asked tough questions – both of each other and me – and pushed themselves and their peers to think about things like group dynamics, their own knowledge and skills both inside and outside of the classroom, and their desire to survive as a group in new ways.

The students also raised questions for me that have pushed me to make modifications to the exercise itself. For example, I had initially planned to let the student zombies retain some thinking skills, allowing them to pick who they wanted to “bite” in attacks and the zombies went after the most valuable group members. But why, my students asked, should the zombies not instead have to figure out who the most at-risk person in a group was and take them? I have since made that change in the exercise.

The exercise underscored to me the value of interactive pedagogical events in class. It revealed how topics trending in popular culture can be leveraged not only to get students engaged with topics like anthropology and disaster research, but also to get students thinking about their lives outside the classroom and how to apply critical thinking skills to important concepts and their application in larger settings. This ability to allow students the space to think critically and engage with real world examples and anthropological concepts, in combination with other literature on zombie pedagogy, underscores the importance of such exercises in the classroom.

Teaching Resource Contributed by: Jennifer Trivedi

Jenn Trivedi is a disaster anthropologist. She earned her Ph.D. and MA in anthropology from the University of Iowa researching short and long-term recovery from Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Mississippi. Her research interests include disaster vulnerability, evacuations, recovery efforts, media depictions, and the importance of historical and cultural contexts to our understanding of disaster and response. She has just completed a post-doctoral research position at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. While there she worked on the Hazards SEES Type 2: Dynamic Integration of Natural, Human, and Infrastructure Systems for Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering (NSF #1331269) project in 2016-2018 and taught in the Department of Anthropology in 2017-2018. She has also taught at Illinois State University and Roger Williams University, and as a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa. In both her research and teaching, she maintains an interest in how popular topics like zombies and college football can be used to better understand people’s perceptions of culture, other people, and disasters.

Works Cited

Bishop, Kyle. 2006. “Raising the Dead.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33(4): 196-205.

Kimble, Julie. 2016. Dystopian identities: Exhuming the world of zombies through the camera’s eye: A documentary. Doctoral Dissertation.

Matheson, Richard. 1954. I Am Legend. Nelson Doubleday: New York City, New York.

Moraru, Christian. 2012. “Zombie Pedagogy: Rigor Mortis and the U.S. Body Politic.” In Studies in Popular Culture 34.2. Pp. 105-127. Rhonda V. Wilcox, ed. Louisville, Kentucky: Popular Culture Association in the South.

Morrissette, Jason J. 2014. “Zombies, International Relations, and the Production of Danger: Critical Security Studies versus the Living Dead.” Studies in Popular Culture 36(2): 1-27.

Nail, Allan. 2009. “Pedagogy of the Living Dead: Using Students’ Prior Knowledge to Explore Perspective.” The English Journal 98(6): 49-55.

Pielak, Chase and Alexander Cohen. 2014. “Yes, But, In a Zombie Apocalypse…” Modern Language Studies 43(2): 44-57.

Smith, Phil. “Pedagogy and the Zombie Mythos: Lessons from Apocalyptic Enactments.” In Generation Z: Zombies, Popular Culture, and Educating Youth. Pp. 85-98. Victoria Carrington, Jennifer Rowsell, Esther Priyadharshini, and Rebecca Westrup, eds. Springer Science +Business Media: Singapore.

Tsang, Annetta. 2011. In-class Reflective Group Discussion as a Strategy for the Development of Students as Evolving Professionals. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 5(1): Article 7.

Wadsworth, Nancy Dawn. 2017. “Awakening the ‘Walking Dead’: Zombie Pedagogy for Millennials.” Radical Teaching 107: 4-13.

Wallin, Jason J. 2016. “Into the Black: Zombie Pedagogy, Education and Youth at the End of the Anthropocene.” In Generation Z: Zombies, Popular Culture, and Educating Youth. Pp. 55-69. Victoria Carrington, Jennifer Rowsell, Esther Priyadharshini, and Rebecca Westrup, eds. Springer Science +Business Media: Singapore, 2015.

Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning

Photograph: Trans performer, model, and AIDS educator, Octavia St. Laurent walking in a ball in Miramax film, Paris is Burning. 

I’ve used clips from the ethnographic documentary Paris is Burning (1990) in undergraduate anthropology courses, as well as a graduate-level linguistic anthropology course, to teach linguistic concepts of speech acts and speech communities. The film presents an intimate portrayal of drag “ball” culture in New York in the 1980s. In one scene, drag performer Dorian Corey explains the nuanced difference between “reading” and “shade.” Reading is the art of playful insult, considered somewhat of an art form in this community. Shade, on the other hand, is considered to be the nonverbal counterpart to reading; it includes alluding to flaws with gestures or ignoring a person altogether. The way these forms of speech are portrayed in the film can not only be used to discuss Bauman’s speech acts, but also how language can illuminate or build speech communities.

Here’s a link to the specific clip I’ve used: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnVSklVO-t4

There is also potential for it to be used to teach gender and kinship, and it would be a brilliant addition to an undergraduate cultural anthropology course syllabus. The drag performers in the film are frequently working to enact an authentic gender performance on stage, which they dub “realness” (as in “butch queen realness,” or the performance by gay men of male heterosexuality). The film simultaneously portrays the daily struggles of gay men of color and trans women of color to perform gender off stage. It is through these struggles, along with the shared experiences of homophobia, transphobia, racism, HIV/AIDS, poverty, and homelessness, that this community is able to fashion forms of alternative kinship and intentional families. Various individuals in the film discuss these topics outright, providing ample scaffolding for students to get a basic sense of these ideas before discussing them more in depth.

The film is 78 minutes long. If used in class to discuss language, I would recommend finding relevant clips online (like the one posted above), providing some background on the film, its cast of characters, and the significance before showing them. If used in class to discuss gender performance and alternative kinship, I think it’s worthy of being shown in full.

As of 09/21/18 Paris is Burning is available to watch on Netflix and on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/199274267.

Other resources (specifically for graduate-level courses):

  1. If you’re planning on teaching Paris is Burning at the graduate level, I’d recommend pairing it with chapters from this book which provides further context, analysis, and critique.
  2. For a critique of the film from multiple angles (e.g., the position of the documentarian, drag in the film as misogynistic), see:
    • hooks, bell. 1992. “Is Paris Burning?.” Black looks: Race and representation. 145-156.
  3. For an exploration of authenticity in gender performance, see:
    • Butler, Judith. 1997. “Gender is burning: Questions of appropriation and subversion.”  Cultural Politics 11:381-395.

Teaching Resource Contributed by: Evan P. Conaway, University of California, Irvine

Evan P. Conaway is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Irvine. His dissertation work examines how computer servers shape the way gamers experience place, memory, and law. With funding from an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, he is exploring the experiences of gamers, companies, and museums who are using servers to preserve, memorialize, and resurrect online game worlds. He is also a Contributing Editor at Platypus, the official blog of the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing