How old are you? An activity for the first and last day of class

When I teach cultural anthropology, the goal is nothing less than a total epistemological shift. I want them to see themselves, and the world around them, in context. I want them to end the class knowing how to go about answering questions they couldn’t have even imagined the first day.

First and last days of class are special in course design, because they frame the course. You are supposed to start as you mean to go on, and finish strong. Better yet if you can tie them both together in one big bow. This semester, I let my icebreaker do a lot of that work for me.

On the first day of class – which happened to be on “Aging and Culture” – I asked students to introduce themselves by answering the question “how old are you?” without using a number. On the first day of class, we followed that activity up with an analysis. How were they defining age? Were we talking about kinship? Institutional identities? Experiences of our own bodies? How were those things shaped by particular circumstances? What did they think might be universal? It set the tone for the questions we would ask throughout the course.

On the last day of class, after students finished their presentations and a Gallery Walk, and after I did my best to articulate where I hoped they would go next with what they had learned, we did the icebreaker again. I changed it a little. This time, since we had talked about chronology and how it was related to sociocultural infrastructures from disciplinary time to (post)colonial inheritance law, they could also use numbers. But, I added, the context of the age identity they shared should be meaningful to them.

Just like the first day, I took a turn first to confirm my expectations with a clear example. But what followed was a totally different experience. Everyone knew how to answer and so they could turn their attention to appreciating their peers’ reflections instead of worrying if they got it right. It brought home how much more thoroughly they could appreciate the context of their own answers. Even though the theory and methods they learned were necessarily incomplete – don’t we deepen our analytical skills with every project we undertake? – the icebreaker offered an ending to our semester long journey. A signpost where we could stop, and rest, and look around together at the horizon we had made together.

It was a good icebreaker. Good enough that I might use it in a cultural class that has little to do with aging and the life course. But it was also a special – a truly wonderful – group of students, and I will carry them and this semester with me as a touchstone of how transformative a good class can be for a teacher.

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AAA 2018 – Queering the Life Course

“Queering the Life Course” would have been a way better title than what I actually slapped on my poor paper for this year’s AAA. Sure, you may not be any more interested in “queering the life course” than in my actual title, which is, unfortunately, “Quotidian Present or Normative Future.”[ETA: jk! see note below!] But queering the life course approach is exactly what I’m hoping to do, so it still would have been a better title.

Another title I might have gone with is, “An analysis of 10th grade moments in urban Quito.” Or, because I set the bar pretty low, “Bailando, Happy Birthday, and a solo violin: three (queer?) times in a 10th grade age horizon.” At least those titles more accurately reflect that the majority of this presentation will be storytelling and not jargon.

Soy el futuro del pais

FB meme that made the rounds a few years ago …

Strained titles aside, I am very excited to get up and get evocative about interactions with three of my informants from Colegio Conquistador, a municipal high school in downtown Quito where I did my doctoral research. When I was in the field, I had one of those cool things happen where an everyday interaction that I observed gradually appeared a lot more meaningful. It turns out it makes a great story. And, adding cake to that icing, it’s a great story that I think makes a strong case for a particular methodological approach to analyzing age. Specifically, it’s great for showing how to add queer phenomenology to the life course approach.

I want to tell you more about it. And I will! At my talk! Which happens to be on Part 1 of the panel, “Anthropological Engagements in Queer Theories, Part I: Potentialities of Queerness” on Wednesday, November 14 from 12:00-1:45pm. Yifeng Cai put this whole thing together, and George Paul Meiu will be the discussant on my panel. (If you haven’t read Meiu’s article, ‘Beach-Boy Elders’ and ‘Young Big-Men’: Subverting the Temporalities of Ageing in Kenya’s Ethno-Erotic Economies, do yourself a favor and go read it now.) Frankly, I also heard Paula Martin give an amazing paper at last year’s AAA, and they’re on my panel, too, and I am super excited to see what they come up with this year.

I hope I see you there! Also, if you have a talk you want me to come to, please drop me your deets in the comments.

** [ETA: it turns out, I recognized how terrible that title was a while ago, and I changed it on the AAA site and then promptly forgot that I’d changed it. So you’ll actually find it in the program and on my CV as “Queering Youth Becoming: Socially Mobile Students in the Here and Now”]

Dixit, for an end-of-unit review in a theory heavy course

Making good tests is hard. And especially in theory-heavy classes, where my goal is primarily for students to become proficient at actually using the big ideas they are learning, I worry that my tests will reflect who among my students already happens to think the most like me, rather than what they have really learned.

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Dixit!

So when we came to the end of the second Unit of the class on aging and culture, I had already committed that I would not test them. Still, I wanted to give them the benefits of the opportunity to practice their retrieval, not to mention more chances to show them how much they have learned about the material.

We had already used group-based sketchnotes a few times in the semester to try and translate their understanding of course and reading concepts into a visual representation. Students discussed the concept in their group and revised their drawings in relation to what they learned from each other. The drawing was great, but it became quickly clear that the visual metaphor could work with almost anything if their sense of the concept were strong enough. In fact, the more theoretically dense the topic was – and in a class working heavily with comparing epistemologies of aging across sociopolitical contexts, the topics were often dense – the more useful the visual metaphor seemed to be in solidifying their knowledge of it.

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The winning card for the objective “Define adolescence as a “technology” and discuss embodying politics in bodies through time.” Lots of groups chimed in with connections to Foucault and disciplinary time that I didn’t see until they said them.

So instead of using Kahoot! to whip up an on the spot competitive version of a test, I brought my big box full of beautiful Dixit cards to class. The premise of Dixit is that a person chooses an ambiguous word or phrase to describe the surreal art on their card, and then the other players put down their own cards with a similar theme and try to guess which is the “real” card. In my variation, I put the unit’s objectives on the powerpoint and selected a card that I thought might be the best metaphor for that concept. Each small group chose their own card, and then a representative from each group guessed which one I had put down (because it was the “best”). They could not, of course, choose their own card. The group that put down the card that won each round was asked to explain the logic of how their image represented the particular objective, and then others in the room explained why they had chosen that same card.

I got to hear students articulating – without a hint of the anxiety that so often comes when asking students to speak about heavy theory – a strong and nuanced grasp of exactly what I had been hoping they would learn. They got as many points for other groups choosing their card as they did for guessing mine. In fact, they almost never chose my card, but if they didn’t touch on an element that I thought needed mentioning, I took the time to explain the metaphor on my card as well.

It took about 30 minutes to do 5 rounds, but it was worth every minute of class time. I think I actually like playing the theory version of Dixit even better than the real version! Anyone wanna come over and play some anthropological life course theory Dixit?!

P.S. Check out the Tabletop episode on playing Dixit that made me want to buy it in the first place!