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:
Kishonna Gray’s Intersecting oppressions and online communities: Examining the experiences of women of color in Xbox Live (2012),
David Leonard’s “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other” (2003),
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:
“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
“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.
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.
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.
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:
Both women and men 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 both men and women.
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
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
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.
“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.
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.
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
for the outline is really very simple (see link to template below). It asks for
piece of evidence/data you plan to use to support your thesis.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WHAT ARE INDIVIDUALIZED CONFERENCES?
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.
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.
ARE THERE DISADVANTAGES? 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.
HOW DO FACULTY IMPLEMENT THEM?
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.
TIPS TO MAKE IT WORK
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
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