Teaching Race through the Lens of Gaming

Akil Fletcher

Image courtesy of pxfuel.

Race can be a difficult topic for both students and teachers to discuss and it has not gotten much easier over time. In fact, in many ways conversations around race have only become more complicated with the increasing use of social media and digital technologies. One particularly effective technique to critically discuss race is by analyzing video games. The goal of this activity is to introduce critical race theory to students and to help students engage in aspects of race such as race in virtual spaces, race in online social networks, and other areas which may escape their typical purview. The lesson can be used in any class that addresses the topic of race or online/gaming communities and would be especially appropriate for courses such as “Race and Ethnicity” and “Race and Power”.

Assigning the Literature

This lesson is focused around three short readings:

  1. Kishonna Gray’s Intersecting oppressions and online communities: Examining the experiences of women of color in Xbox Live (2012),
  2. David Leonard’s “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other” (2003),
  3. Akil Fletcher’s White Fans, Liberal Ideologies, and the Erasure of Black Stories in Gaming (2019).

These three texts serve as the foundation for the lesson. Gray’s piece offers a harsh but powerful example of gaming communities and race by analyzing discrimination through the experiences of black female players. Leonard and Fletcher offer examinations of the industry by examining high budget video game titles that help shape these communities. Leonard explores the typical trends in the video game industry such as the high rate of violence against black women in games like Grand Theft Auto, and Fletcher examines a controversial decision around Jax, a black character in Mortal Kombat 11.

The readings serve to present students with real instances in which race has come to the forefront of gaming communities and engage them with diverse topics related to race. After all, many forget that race is just as prevalent in digital spaces as in physical spaces. These readings also bring an intersectional approach by providing students with questions of how inequalities based on gender and class compound those based on race. This helps to underscore the large-scale effects these topics have within the industry.

Grouping and Videos

Once the students have read the articles, they should be broken up into three groups. Each group will be assigned a short video (see the links below) to analyze taking into consideration what they learned from the readings. Each group must highlight a list of themes, images, and instances in which race is at play, and should consider how the developers, fans, and players may have reacted or used the images and ask for what purpose were they used. The students should consider who is the main subject of the images or audio and should additionally ask who is at risk by creators and players, making these images something to be played or played with. For example, is playing through Jax’s story a successful attempt at diversity or is it an offensive reduction of a black character. The three videos are:

  1. “Mortal Kombat 11 Jax’s Arcade Ending”, the controversial video mentioned in Fletcher’s piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmE_TuekaYU
  2. “Leeroy Jenkins” an older staged video made by PALS FOR LIFE a guild in World of Warcraft:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLyOj_QD4a4&t=99s
  3. “Do you know the way: Ugandan Knuckles”, a video which became a popular meme from VR Chat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJp_3-VZZjI

Each of these videos illustrate aspects of race and provide instances in which game producers and gaming communities engaged directly with race, either directly or implicitly. Notably, “Do you know the way” which features the once popular meme “Ugandan Knuckles” is a powerful example. It is a fan creation based on Knuckles the Echidna (a character from the Sonic the Hedgehog series) transformed into a smaller pygmy or “chibi” version given a heavy Ugandan accent taken from Ugandan film Killing Captain Alex. The Knuckles is featured clicking in a stereotypical fashion and coveting women who it calls the queen. This provides easy examples of stereotypes to deconstruct for the students as both the clicking and the chasing of women are easily identifiable African and Black stereotypes. With this being both a game and meme phenomena, one could ask the students if this is harmful or simply a joke. Or, you could ask, just because people found this entertaining does this make it less harmful? Here questions of embodiment and representation emerge that can be pointed out to students so they can question what race and its representation come to mean. For instance, is playing this embodiment of a black stereotype (Ugandan Knuckles) a form of digital black face? Why or why not? Considering the character is not black but rather is perceived to be, how can such a clear cut usage of black cultures not be a form of racial embodiment?

The same can be done for “Leroy Jenkins” which is a staged video that ends with the player saying “at least I have chicken” (a racialized stereotype). A similar analysis can be done with“while different”, with Jax who offers the player a literal chance to end slavery. The objective of this task is to have students think broadly about race and racism and how it incarnates within digital spaces, where race is not so easily defined. Analyzing the intent and reception of these videos helps students think about race in these ways.

It may help to provide students themes/prompts to look out for, for instance uses of racial slurs, racial stereotypes, accents, racialized visuals and so on. Additionally, asking the students to be on the lookout for the style or “point” of video may also yield a fruitful discussion. For example, both the Ugandan Knuckles and Leeroy Jenkins videos are meant to be comedic, if this is the case, who then is the intended audience? Who is meant to laugh and at whose expense? I typically provide at least 15 minutes for this exercise. I assign one student in each group to take notes or use large poster size paper for the groups to document their thoughts. Once the groups have had ample time to discuss,  I bring the class back together for a final discussion.

Wrapping Up

Gaming can be a sensitive topic for many students because, for many, these franchises hold a beloved spot in their hearts. However, providing the class an opportunity to come back together and share their thoughts can can offer students a chance to be heard. Nevertheless, these discussions can be divisive. It is common to get push back from students who are reluctant to be critical of games and topics they hold so near and dear. Worse yet, discussing games in the context of race, when many wish to see games as apolitical, can be a painful process and can result in strong and passionate conversations. As with discussing any sensitive topic such as race and gender, passionate discussions are to be expected and can in fact lead to authentic learning. The idea is not to drill in that these treatments of race in games are harmful (although this should be addressed), it is to get students to think critically about the online and offline spaces of gaming and provide them with tools in order to analyze them effectively.


Fletcher, Akil. 2019. White Fans, Liberal Ideologies, and the Erasure of Black Stories in Gaming. Platypus: The CASTAC Blog. http://blog.castac.org/2019/05/white-fans-liberal-ideologies-and-the-erasure-of-black-stories-in-gaming/

Gray, Kishonna. 2012. Intersecting Oppressions and Online Communities. Information, Communication & Society, 15:3, 411-428. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2011.642401

Leonard, David. 2003. Live in Your World, Play in Ours: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other. Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education. 3 (4): 1-9. 10.3138/sim.3.4.002.

Akil Fletcher is a doctoral student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Irvine who researches race and gaming. His current research explores the expressions of race online and the ways in which black bodies come to be known and experienced online. His work explores the ways in which black people come to navigate the intricacies of online gaming spaces that are quite often perceived to be predominantly White and Asian. 

Cultural Differences and Positionality: Reflecting on Cultural Differences through a Roleplay

Sandy Wenger

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I discovered the blueprint for this roleplay years ago when teaching a seminar on cultural difference. As I am unable to trace the original source, I am sharing my own version of it here. The roleplay works best in smaller classes with both men and women present but can be adjusted for bigger groups, and any differences within a culture can fall along lines other than gender. However, gender has worked very well for me in the past because it is often perceived as an obvious, inherent, and fixed human trait. Thus, twisting ideas about gender is something that students tend to pick up on quickly, and it allows them to recognize that both gender and culture are fluid social categories that shape each other. This, in turn, opens the door to discussing and complicating students’ understanding of other social categories that are often seen as stable and universal.

Learning Objectives: I have used this roleplay in introductory social anthropology classes, courses on fundamentals of modern culture, and seminars about anthropological perspectives on issues of power and culture. Participating in the roleplay will enable students to identify and evaluate concepts such as culture, stereotype/stereotyping, the Other/othering, and cultural socialization. By reflecting on the roleplay experience and discussing their observations, students will be able to realize and analyze the ways in which their own positionality shapes interactions with people accustomed to different sociocultural expectations. It also allows them to think critically about social categories such as gender or ethnicity.

How to: One can easily spend 30 to 45 minutes on this roleplay, so it is not the kind of activity that lends itself to shorter classes. To get started, I divide the class into two groups, each of which is given a sheet outlining behaviors characteristic of the cultural group they represent. Each group will only know about their own traits. Here is a list of some of the traits that I have used in the past that has worked well:

The DurianiansThe Mangosteenians
All people like to chat and laugh a lot. Men may only speak when spoken to and never initiate conversations.
Eye contact is important as it is a sign of interest and respect for people.Men cannot look directly into a woman’s eyes.
People greet each other by hugging. Men must always be accompanied by a woman when going out- men should not go out alone.
In order to show interest, enthusiasm, assurance, or respect, people touch each other’s arms or hands. Physical contact of any kind is considered inappropriate and rude, especially when initiated by men.

Once the students know how they are supposed to behave, I tell them that both groups are abroad and meet at a party. Their task is to get to know one another in this party setting and act according to their assigned cultural norms. I ask them to pay attention to what people in the other group are doing, how members of the other group respond, and how these interactions make them feel. I let them know that after the party, each group will have to come up with a list of cultural traits they believe are important for the other group.

I usually give them about five to seven minutes to play out the party, after which I give them an additional three to five minutes to discuss what they have observed in their respective groups. Then, we spend about five minutes as a class to compile two lists of behaviors that the groups have observed about one another, which I write down on the whiteboard. It is important to record the precise language used to describe the groups, because that is often very revealing when discussing perceptions. Once this is done, the groups get to share the list of traits that was given to them at the beginning of the session. I usually add the information to what is already on the whiteboard to make it easier to compare what is known to what has been observed.

We then discuss their experience and analyze how and why perceptions of other people’s behavior can differ so much from their intentions—what does that tell us about understandings of cultural differences and how we should approach them? I also use the discussion to introduce and discuss different concepts (e.g. the Other) that are associated with cultural differences. One of the things that tend to happen is that the perceived traits are viewed negatively, and students are often surprised when they compare their own perception to the list that the others have been given. This allows the class to reflect on notions of prejudice and stereotyping. During the discussion, I encourage students to reflect on moments in their lives when they have felt misunderstood or experienced a cultural clash. Usually, a few of the students are happy to share some of their experiences, which can help bridge the gap between the roleplay and real-life experience.

Sandy Wenger is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines how queer men in Malaysia navigate competing societal ideas about masculinity, sexuality, and the body, and how this is negotiated in understandings of love and through different types of relationships. Before moving to UCI, Sandy spent several years working as an assistant professor at KDU University College in Malaysia where she taught courses on modern culture, food and culture, media policies, and personal development planning. She also has extensive experience teaching German and English as foreign languages at universities and in language schools.

Conceptual Outline Template for Constructing an Argument

Georgia Hartman

Image courtesy of Pexels.

“Since the dawn of humankind …” how many times have you read a student paper that started like this? Or perhaps simply a paper with an argument WAY beyond the scope of the evidence presented to back it up? I have certainly found these to be common tendencies among students at the various public and private institutions where I’ve taught. Many students arrive at college believing that a good argument is a powerful argument and that a powerful argument is one that makes a big claim (i.e. people are like this, society does that). What they don’t understand of course is that making a big, unsupported claim also sacrifices the quality of an argument.

This conceptual outline exercise is aimed at helping students to: a) construct an argument that is supported by the evidence they have collected, b) similarly, to construct an argument that is derived from an analysis of the evidence—as opposed to an argument imposed upon their evidence, and c) how to use evidence to effectively support their argument.

When I was in college, these skills did not come easily to me. I, like my students arrived at college with an idea of how to structure a paper (e.g. intro + thesis statement, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion, bam!), but I had little idea of how to structure an argument or how to use evidence to effectively support it. I would mic drop quotes into essays, assuming the evidence stood for itself. I was simultaneously afraid to be too explicit about what my evidence meant, and overconfident about making grand generalizations.

After years of running into this with my students, I finally decided to break the mechanics of argument construction down into a simplified template. This template for a conceptual outline is best employed as a sub-assignment of a larger scaffolded project. I typically require its completion within 2-3 weeks before the deadline for the paper of which it is a part. This lead time ensures that students are thinking concretely about their project sufficiently in advance of the deadline. It also allows sufficient time for conceptual adjustments and/or additional data collection.

I encourage students to approach the exercise as a draft. It is important for them to feel comfortable to take risks in their argument and analysis and not to feel judged in doing so. I suggest that they experiment by proposing more than one possible argument. The idea is for them to try things out. While I do not grade the assignment, I do give feedback. Thus, this can be a bit of work intensive exercise for the professor. That said, I’ve found that the work put in at this stage yields vastly improved final papers, which are ultimately much less work to evaluate.

The template for the outline is really very simple (see link to template below). It asks for the following:

  1. Proposed thesis/argument.
  2. One piece of evidence/data you plan to use to support your thesis.
  3. What is the significance of this evidence?
  4. How does this evidence support your argument?

It requires that they provide and analyze 3 pieces of evidence, though they are welcome to include more if they would like. Similarly, I indicate that while this exercise only requires 3 pieces of evidence, their final paper will inevitably require far more.

For many students, completing this outline template is a completely new experience and can be a bit of a struggle. Though I take pains to detail what exactly constitutes evidence/data (i.e.  a direct quote, an observation, something specific), some students nonetheless include unrevealing “data” such as, “interview with interlocutor,” or they place their analysis of the evidence in the place of the evidence itself. I also find that students still want to make arguments that are beyond the scope of the evidence they present. Indeed, they struggle to figure out what is an appropriate scope. Many express concern that an argument about a small group of people or about a single text is not sufficiently powerful to constitute a strong thesis statement. But this is precisely why this exercise is so helpful! Together we are able to narrow down a compelling, evidence-driven argument.

Note, this exercise is particularly helpful with projects based on independent ethnographic research, though it has also been helpful with assignments where the data is drawn from text or other media. For students doing their first ethnographic projects, it can be challenging to understand that the interviews they conducted and observations they made are data. This exercise helps to make that clear.

The exercise, along with feedback from the professor, helps them to recognize what exactly is evidence, to analyze its significance, and to use it to support a compelling argument based upon it.

Georgia Hartman is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UCMEXUS). She is currently conducting research at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She previously taught for two years as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pitzer College and variously as Instructor of Record and Teaching Assistant at UC Irvine and UC San Diego.

The Anthropology “UnEssay”

The Anthropology “UnEssay”

Katie Nelson, Ph.D., Inver Hills Community College

Marc Kissel, Ph.D., (Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Appalachian State University) regularly teaches two general education courses; Our Primate Heritage and Gender, Race, & Class. Tiring of the limited range of assessment options commonly used in higher education (such as multiple choice exams and formal essays), he has chosen to assign a different type of learning activity: the “unessay”. 

For this project, his students pick a topic that interests them and then they think of a way to produce something that addresses that theme. He lets students choose the topic, the format and final product. “The idea of having students choose not just the topic but the medium in which they can best present their ideas seemed to jell with the themes of my classes and would give non-majors a chance to explore the topic in a way that is meaningful to them” (Kissel). 



An unessay is a type of assignment in which students select a topic that interests them (related to the course content), conduct research and then demonstrate their understanding of the topic in any manner that is meaningful to them. The final form of the projects can vary greatly. Here is a sampling of some of the types of projects Mark Kissel’s students have submitted:

  • A Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing game about evolution
  • A magazine-style story on Homo floresiensis
  • A watercolor about breastfeeding
  • Comic strips about primates, the island rule, and pronoun use
  • Clay sculptures of hominin skulls
  • A play about life as Fa’afafine
  • A canvas about gender roles and fluidity
  • a lesson plan on primates designed for 8th graders

This sort of assignment aligns with anthropology learning because, as Mark Kisse states, imagination and creativity are inherently human qualities. Sadly, creativity has been ‘educated out’ of us. An UnEssay project gives students a way to creatively interact with the class themes (Kissel)”. The unessay allows students to use their creative abilities while also reflecting on how humans continually use creativity to solve problems in unique ways.

Unessays also allow for students to apply an anthropological lens to view their research projects from different perspectives. This may also allow students to engage with their arguments in deeper (and potentially more meaningful) ways as they have to present their ideas in a different format than an essay.  



This type of assignment is often new to students, so to introduce it, many faculty first provide an explanation for why they assign it and what students can expect to learn. Many also provide a range of examples of topics and final products to give their students initial ideas. Most require that students present their topic and project ideas for instructor approval prior to completing it.

Emily Suzanne Clark, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University), offers her students the choice of writing a traditional essay or an unessay. She then provides a prompt and a clear rubric for how she will grade the final projects. “…students choose their own topics, they present it in any way they choose, and we evaluate [it] based on how compelling it is. The idea is to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment” (Clark).   

In addition to the final unessay product, Holly Norton, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Cincinnati), also asks her students to prepare a two-page reflective paper that details what they learned in the process of making their projects. “This lets me learn more about what excited them, what they understood, and what I need to do a better job of teaching next time around” (Norton).

» Link to Dr. Clark’s grading rubric: https://esclark.hcommons.org/the-unessay/
» Link to Dr. Kissel’s assignment guidelines (at the end of the post): https://marckissel.netlify.com/post/on-the-unessay/


Unessays can be hard to grade and faculty that assign them often state that it involves rethinking the grading scheme. Without clear and measurable grading guidelines, grading can be challenging and frustrating for both students and instructors. Additionally, this type of assignment may not work as well for certain upper-level courses or especially large courses (ie: 100 or more students). Some students can struggle with coming up with ideas while others will thrive with this sort of freedom. For this reason, providing examples and assigning the project in steps can help all students complete the assignment successfully. 


Tips to Make it Work

  • Provide clear and measurable grading criteria
  • Explain the reason(s) you are assigning the unessay
  • Provide examples to students of high quality unessay projects
  • Ask students to reflect on what they learned
  • Work on the project in steps throughout the course
  • Allow students the choice of writing a traditional essay or an unessay
  • Consider having students present their final unessay projects to one another in a conference-style setting
  • Consider allowing students to work in groups




I would like to thank Mark Kissel, Emily Suzanne Clark and Holly Norton for generously sharing their experiences with unessay assignments. I would also like to thank Nina Brown (Community College of Baltimore County) for suggesting the topic for this piece.


Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Sample student unessay work. Courtesy of Heather Norton.

Integrating Individual Conferences

Integrating Individual Conferences

By Katie Nelson, Ph.D., Inver Hills Community College

During the first few weeks of each academic term, Dr. Kathryn A. Kozaitis (Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Georgia State University) conducts individual conferences with each graduate student in her signature courses on Anthropological Theory and Praxis and Applied Anthropology. This, she finds, helps her build a relationship with them, and “from this relationship emerges a kind of accountability to one another” (Kozaitis). She also holds mandatory office hours for follow-up progress reports throughout the semester. Through these interactions she gets to know the backgrounds, strengths, and areas for growth of her students, and works closely with them to facilitate their success in the course. The early-semester conferences also serve as individualized pre-assessments allowing her to gauge where the group’s level of preparation is relative to the content of her course, and tweak her instruction or course design to ensure that all the students move forward in their understanding of the material. She feels this technique helps cultivate a particularly productive community of learners and a classroom culture of trust that fosters deeper and more transformative learning.


Individual conferences are intentional one-on-one meetings with a student and faculty member with a particular purpose. The objective can be to discuss coursework, evaluate course progress, address problems or concerns or explore other matters. They can take place at the beginning and end of the term or regularly throughout, and can range from structured assessments to free-flowing conversations. Some faculty build these conferences into the course design and require them as part of the grading criteria. 

From a pedagogical/andragogical perspective, conducting individualized one-on-one conferences with students offers a number of advantages. It helps the instructor get to know the student on a more personal level and allows for better differentiated instruction. Faculty can learn what is working in the classroom and what needs tweaking. Students can gain trust in the instructor and feel known on a deeper level. It can also provide an alternative environment in which the student (and instructor!) can ask questions of one another. In essence, student conferences offer a foundation for relationship building.

⇒ Click here to download a sample of a pre-conference writing assignment I use.

I would argue that in many ways, anthropology education is (or should be) about relationships; relationships with students and instructors, but also, relationships between the student and the course content. Authentic learning (that is retained and integrated into one’s intellectual orientation), of course, doesn’t occur in isolation or in the abstract, but by making connections. Individualized conferences foster these types of relationships and connections. Importantly, they also offer opportunities for contextualized learning and reflective, reflexive and critical thinking. Conferences can help students integrate the course content into their life experiences and appreciate how it is relevant to their lives and learning paths. 


Faculty who use individualized conferencing in their course design say it can be a time consuming and labor intensive strategy. It often requires preparation for each meeting, writing notes after the meeting and providing additional written feedback to students. Because of this, it might be impractical to implement in especially large introductory classes. It can be logistically challenging setting up meeting times, so careful preparation to scheduling should be thought through. Conferences with faculty can also be intimidating to some students unfamiliar with the strategy. Setting clear expectations and explaining the purpose (and how it will help students) at the outset can help with these concerns. 


Hilarie Kelly, Ph.D., University of La Verne, teaches a senior thesis class in which she integrates individual conferences into the course design. A primary objective of this course is for her students to design and execute their own research projects and present them to the class. To do this, the students first review the relevant literature and discuss what sampling and data gathering methods to use. They then analyze their results, write the formal thesis, and finally give short, professional-quality presentations in a conference setting, usually with PowerPoint.

Towards the end of the course, in place of holding regular classes, she meets almost entirely one-on-one with students. The conferences are scheduled, required, and semi-structured in that they are set up to discuss each student’s completion of specific portions of the thesis project. It is possible to have students schedule their specific conference time on the appointed day (in lieu of class meetings on certain weeks) by using their Learning Management System (Blackboard), which can also be used for discussion board conversations as well. The full schedule of class meetings and conference days is listed on the syllabus at the beginning of the semester. Most sections of the senior thesis class meet once a week in the evening, so those also serve occasionally as conference days and a set, predictable time frame. This works because students are expected to attend the class every week, whether it is s group meeting or individual conference. This avoids logistical scheduling difficulties when holding the 1:1 conferences.

Sarah Martin, Ph.D., (Professor of Anthropology at Spokane Falls Community College, Co-Chair of the Institutional Teaching & Learning Improvement Committee and Co-Chair, eLearning Advisory Committee) teaches anthropology courses that are part of a writing intensive program designed to strengthen writing skills outside of composition courses. Faculty teaching these classes are required to include revision opportunities in their course design and provide significant feedback. How these components are incorporated into the class is up to the individual instructor.

The majority of her students are exposed to anthropology for the first time in this writing-intensive class. As such, she approach student conferences through three phases: Feedback, Reflection, and Assessment. Also, she refers to the conferences as Instructor-Student Conversations in hopes of conveying that this is a dialogue centered on student growth rather than an evaluation tool.

(Pssst: Download a copy of her assignment overview by clicking on the page on the left or the button below it.) 

Mark Busse, Ph.D., (Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Auckland) uses individual meetings in his two postgraduate courses—Anthropology and Intellectual Property, and Ethnographic Research. In each of those courses his students write a long research paper on a topic of their choice related to the course. To encourage students  to get started early on their papers, Mark asks them to write essay proposals, which are due about half way through the semester. He meets with each student a few weeks before the essay proposal is due, and again a few weeks after their essay proposals are submitted. 

The individual meetings  last for about 20 to 30 minutes. The first meetings are mostly focused on helping students identify a research question and identifying textual sources on which to base their papers. He also uses this meeting to get to know students and their interests (if they haven’t previously taken courses with him) and to talk about their verbal participation in seminars. The second meetings focus on giving feedback on their essay proposals and to address any questions that they have about the essay or the course more generally. These meetings are in addition to his regular weekly office hours.

While the individual meetings are time-intensive, he thinks that they are valuable because they help students produce higher quality work. Importantly, they also help him identify students who are struggling early in the semester and address their problems before they become too large.


  • Early in the semester, explain the purpose of the meetings and how it will benefit students.
  • Set clear and concrete expectations and outline specific objectives (for both yourself and the student).
  • Ask students to do pre-work or reflection writing before the meeting and review it.
  • Include the conferences as part of your course design and assign points to completing them. 
  • Include the full schedule of class meetings and conference days on the syllabus at the beginning of the semester.
  • Give students the opportunity to sign up for a time that works best for them. Consider using software like Doodle [https://doodle.com/] to help with scheduling.
  • For online courses, consider offering meetings via web conferencing.
  • For in-person meetings have a bowl with candy or treats and offer them to students to help them settle in. 



I would like to thank Kathryn A. Kozaitis, Hillarie Kelly, Sarah Martin and Mark Busse for sharing their insights and detailing how they use student-instructor conferencing in their anthropological teaching practice.


Kozaitis, Kathryn A. (Associate Professor of Anthropology, Georgia State University). Interview with Katie Nelson. November 20th, 2019. Vancouver, BC. 


Teaching Resource Contributed By: Katie Nelson, Ph.D., Inver Hills Community College

Teaching Early Societies (as a prelude to environmental anthropology)

Teaching Early Societies (as a prelude to environmental anthropology)

Arial view of winding road ocean.

In introductions to cultural anthropology, teaching hunter-gatherer societies might seem like a necessary (although boring) pitstop on the way to the exciting, recent ethnographic studies. For me, the “early societies” week in the syllabus is one of my favorites. While students might be reading about the Azande or the Trobrianders, I use this activity to remind them how these seemingly outdated perspectives are pertinent to their own relations with the environments around them.

I like to teach this week as if it were a prelude to environmental anthropology, encouraging my students to think about the ways they engage with their immediate environments, in this case, the college campus. I find that this activity is also an opportunity for some of my quieter students and kinetic learners to shine among their peers. My objective for this lesson is to have students understand that the way society is structured shapes their environmental engagements and imaginaries.

This activity can be conducted in several ways depending on how much time you have or your objectives for the class. The first iteration is fairly simple, teaching the hunter-gatherer perspective with a competitive spin. The second is to teach hunter-gatherer, pastoral, and agricultural societies in comparison to one another. This iteration is more complicated and takes more time, but it makes for better discussions and a more holistic perspective.

First Iteration: Hunter-gatherers

I separate my students into small groups, usually four or five students depending on the class size. Each group is a hunter-gatherer society, and as a team they have two tasks. First, they must research what local edible foods they may forage for, and what animals they may hunt. I generally give them fifteen minutes for this part of the activity. All of their potential food sources must be native and local to the area – no invasive or introduced species. With ten minutes left to the activity, each group elects one person to leave the classroom, tasked with finding something edible on campus (no, they may not buy or find processed food) and bringing it back to share. Groups not able to bring back anything edible fail as a society.

I had a student once bring back a poisonous plant. Her society died. In another class, one of my quietest students rolled off with his skateboard, coming back within eight minutes, and with nine oranges! His knowledge of the campus environment earned him applause from his society.

Second Iteration: Comparative early societies

In the more complex iteration of this activity, I separate my students into small groups (4-5 each), but groups are separated into either hunter-gatherer, pastoral, or agricultural societies.

  1. Hunter-gatherers have the same tasks I detailed above.
  2. Pastoral societies must research where on campus they would be able to raise animals, and how long this would take. The group must provide data on where and what they would raise, and why. In the first ten minutes of this activity, the group elects one person to scout the nearby campus, taking photographs of the animals they see and bringing them back to the group for analysis.
  3. Agricultural societies must plan where they would plant crops, what crops they would plant, and how many people these crops could feed. This society must research local weather and soil conditions in order to make these decisions. This group may elect one member to scout possible growing areas, this person has ten minutes to take photos of places and plants that the group could use to plan their society.

The group research and scouting part of this exercise takes about 15-20 minutes. I always bring students back together after this activity in a group discussion, asking them to reflect on how their perspective of the campus environment changed as a result of their tasks. I usually give them three-five minutes to do this in their small groups before we discuss as a class. Below are some possible questions for the class discussion.

Discussion questions:

  • What are some of the challenges you faced when planning your society?
  • What kind of political or legal conflicts would you have encountered based on your society’s plan?
  • What kind of social conflicts might you have encountered?
  • How far in the future did you have to think when you were planning your society?
  • How did you see the campus environment as you were planning your society, and how is this different than how you see it on a daily basis?
  • Which type of society do you think would best flourish here (on this campus, in this city, in this state)? And why?
  • What type of society do you – as a college student today – live in?
  • How does this shape the way you understand your environment (on campus)?

Kyrstin Mallon Andrews is a cultural anthropologist of environments, borders, and health on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. Her research examines how diver fishermen navigate changing ocean environments amidst emerging politics of conservation. She is currently finishing her dissertation as at UC Irvine, where she prefers to be outdoors or in the ocean, activities that are tertiary resource, of course.