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).
WHAT IS AN UNESSAY?
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.
HOW DO FACULTY ASSIGN IT?
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).
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
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
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.
The interactive webpage, Ancient Egypt, hosted by the British Museum allows students to digitally learn about topics like mummification, pyramids, geography, and religion through stories, activities, and quizzes. For example, students learn about timekeeping through a story about an ancient temple and by exploring a timeline of important developments in ancient Egyptian history. Students then test their knowledge by placing important objects in chronological order from oldest to most recent.
These activities require you to have a flash plug-in, like the free one offered by adobe, downloaded onto your browser.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The Learn.Geneticswebsite created by the Genetic Science Learning Center offers a wealth of free educational resources on genetics for students and teachers alike. The resources can all be used to complement a classroom lecture, activity, or demonstration. Students can also use the resources independently. The resources focus on basic genetics and cover such as chromosomes, inheritance, proteins, RNA, mutation, and observable human traits. Using pigeons as an example, students can also learn about the intricacies of inheritance in fun, easy to understand lessons and activities. There are also lessons and activities on epigenetics and genetic science.
There is an additional classroom materials section where educators can explore active learning activities covering translation, mutation, inheritance, and DNA structure.
Note: Some of the interactive resources require a flash plug-in, like the free one offered by adobe, downloaded onto your browser.
Resource Contributed By:Megan Danielle Neal, University of California, Irvine
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
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
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
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
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).
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
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 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
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.
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