My baby: the Ancient Goddess (or, why to give creative research assignments)

In ninth grade, my English teacher Del Hayes (who would leave the next year to can fish in Alaska) gave my class an open-ended research assignment and I decided to make my first website. It was, more or less, a Wikipedia page on the Byzantine Empress Theodora, although in 1996 there was no other mention of her online (at least according to AltaVista) and Wikipedia was still a twinkle in someone’s eye. But I threw myself into the basics of HTML so that I could choose just the right shade of Hex Value, and I went to the Library of Congress so that I could learn more about Theodora than my school’s Encyclopedias could offer. It was enormously fun.


The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, by Francois Navez (yes, that’s where we got the word from)

Shortly after, I put my feminist interest in Greek myths into code and started work on the opus that would become the website “” (my attempt to translate “ancient goddess” before I knew Greek). For years, it was the first hit on Google if you typed in “Greek Goddess,” and the work that I poured into it led me to major in Ancient Greek Language and Literature at Oberlin College (I had intended a more practical major in psychology). For more than ten years, I stayed up late into the night, posting pre-Raphaelite and WPA-art deco-mural paintings of goddesses that didn’t make the cut to D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths.

Then, as now, my interests were wide-ranging. My fascination with creating a beautiful database of woman-centered Greek myths waned as I became more academically competent in studying them (and I gave away the site), but the research skills I had learned translated easily. The limitations and merits of interpretation were some of the biggest takeaways. The strength of finding my own voice as a researcher was another. I went to work in my own community in the DC area after graduating, and soon the questions I was asking there drove me to graduate school.

Today, I am an anthropologist who does research in Ecuador on how rights and responsibilities change with age, and my love for retelling Hesiod’s myths of gender transformation almost never comes up. But what I know now, that I could not have known then, is that website was as important to my sense of self then as my anthropological work is now. And then as now, it was because of my personal investment and ownership of the work.


Cybele, by Erika Meriaux (seriously, look up the myths about her and Attis, who is lurking in the background)

So now when I teach, I, too, try to include opportunities for my students to come up with their own research projects. I keep adjusting my guidelines because too much latitude is overwhelming for students who are less excited or less confident. Students benefit from having some control over their learning process, but don’t naturally know the critical skills that come with learning how to research. But at the end of the day, my academic journey began the day I came to know myself as a creative contributor of knowledge, and I can think of no greater gift.

tl;dr Inquiry-based learning for the win!

On Civilization (V) and the Academic Job Search

I have a confession: I love the academic job search. I love it for the same reason I love playing Civilization. I like to play on a higher setting than I can usually win on, and whenever I start a new game I like to spend a few hours researching strategy guides for new techniques. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to prioritize using my limited production to the best long term effect. When I finally start the game I look for the land tiles with the resources my civilization needs most and then adjust my strategies as I get to know the competitive field. Looking for a tenure track job as a sociocultural Wu Zetian, from Civ 5anthropologist focusing on the life course seems to have a lot of overlap.

Although I took anthropology classes as an undergrad, I first really connected to the discipline when I came across the Washington Post’s obituary for Clifford Geertz on November 2, 2006. I was still working as a direct service provider at Identity, Inc, but I was already itching to engage the kinds of big questions that intellectually curious people ask when they regularly encounter systemic social problems. Although I am not the kind of person who clips things out of newspapers, I clipped out Geertz’s obituary and bought the book it mentioned: The Interpretation of Cultures. The second or third time I read it, the margins had started filling with questions, arguments, and emojis. I was already hooked by the time I started reading Abu-Lughod, Capps and Ochs, and Mendoza-Denton.

By the time I finally started graduate school, I knew that the job market was inhospitable but my whole-hearted conversion to anthropology demanded action. I believed in the truth-value of particularity and in the methods for paying attention when a culture “bodies forth and enmeshes you” (Geertz After the Fact 44). I wanted to learn it, but I also knew I wanted to teach it. So, from the beginning, I attended every professionalization workshop and anthropological pedagogy talk I could. I started reading teaching blogs, and following anthropologists on Twitter. For seven years I made preparing for the job search my break-time treat. So now? I am pretty excited.

I am still playing on a higher setting than I can reliably win on; in the current job market, I am a PhD candidate competing against people who have had two or three years to prioritize building their publication records over things like researching and writing a dissertation. But the game has now started, and I am enjoying searching out the few positions best suited for the kind of anthropologist I want to be. I hope, of course, that I will win the game – find the place where I can do the kinds of teaching and research that have motivated my adult life – but in the meantime, I am having a lot of fun just playing.

Once upon a time the Nacirema …


I love this book …

I spend a lot of time daydreaming about creative alternatives for assessing your students. Are you shocked reader? I thought not.

Today I am particularly excited about my idea: children’s books as final or midterm projects for intro to anthropology classes. The basic assignment would look like this:

  1. Write and illustrate a book introducing one of the main course concepts to children. Include a final 1–2 pages with an “Author’s Note” for parents explaining the concept more clearly. Be as specific or abstract as you want in the children’s part of the book.
  2. Length: 9-31 pages long; 60-240 words of children’s narrative; 300-600 words of “Author’s Note” giving additional information about the topic.
  3. Illustrations: You do not have to be able to draw: if you want to make a collage or photoshop images together (including images photocopied from the texts you read in this class) go ahead and do that. These projects will not be published or sold and so they do not have to comply with copyright law. If you want to do the illustrations yourself, do whatever you want: paintings, cartoons, photographs, go crazy!
  4. Writing: The main narrative of the book should be something my 8 year old niece* would enjoy listening to, but don’t worry about censoring the material, she has very liberal parents. The Author’s Note should include at least two works cited (in Chicago style), and should give a compelling reason why you think this is an important topic to know about, as well as more detail on some of the themes you raised in the main narrative.
  5. Format: I want a hard copy to be handed in at the start of class. If you really want me to look at an electronic version, I will, but only IN ADDITION to a good hard copy, not instead. It does not need to be bound, there are no rules on paper size or stock.
  6. You will be graded on a) How well you represent the course concept you choose (60%), b) Presentation (30%) and c) Creativity (10%).
  7. I will return all of your books with comments on STICKY NOTES so that your masterpieces will be unharmed and yours to reminisce with for years to come.

Secretly, the “course concept” that started me thinking about this was a wish for a children’s books introducing the variation in cross-cultural marriage practices. But don’t you think it would work well for lots of intro to anth concepts?

Has anyone ever tried an assignment like this? I would love to hear how it went … The incredibly dorky fun of coming up with the ideas is reward enough, but talking about them makes it even better, so comment if you have questions or suggestions!


*I don’t actually have an 8 year old niece, but do keep your imaginary audience in mind.


Online Discussion Pedagogy

So if you’ve ever been in an online course – or even a face-to-face course with an online component – you have probably come across some variation of the Online Discussion Board. Modeled on the threaded bulletin boards that once defined internet communication, they are often imagined to replace the kinds of spontaneous conversation that emerge in face-to-face classroom teaching. The most common approach to these “discussions” is to require students to post a thoughtful post of a certain length responding to some sort of weekly prompt, and to read the posts of their peers.

I hate them.

cartoon gif="Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet"

Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet

I do not hate them because such posts are pedagogically useless – they aren’t. But they aren’t the equivalent of an in-class discussion, they’re the equivalent of being handed a worksheet in class with and being asked to write a short answer. There’s value there, particularly in the context of an online class, but its a different value. The problem is when teachers are seduced by the misnomer “discussion” and think that requiring students to read and respond to each others’ replies teaches them something.

The reason I hate them is because I actually think that students CAN get something out of online discussions, but only if teachers stop thinking that the genre accomplishes the same goals as face to face conversation or even open-ended online discussion boards. And that’s not possible if you’re using the space as an easy place to post short answers worksheets.

In case its not as obvious to you as it is to me, here are a few of the differences between the typical online course discussion board and the models it is supposedly built on:

  • Written replies in asynchronous forums, unlike real-time face to face conversations (or online chat), are not spontaneous or easily refined through quick back and forth discussion.
  • If a classroom teacher standing at the front of the room asked the class to respond to a question or idea, and went student by student so everyone could hear all the answers, that would definitely not constitute a discussion.
  • Face to face discussions with students often allow for students to signal their confusion or lack of clarity with nonverbal cues that allow the teacher to redirect in situ.
  • Most non-school online discussion boards have more lurkers (people reading but not participating) than posters, and responders are highly selective about who merits a reply.
  • In some types of non-school online discussion boards (e.g. more anonymous boards with changing groups of commenters), the majority of replies are not discussions of content but ad hominem attacks and critiques of style.
  • In some types of non-school online discussions (e.g. the threaded responses to posts in Livejournal), interlocutors have long-standing relationships that they have been slowly developing over long periods of time, and replies are as much about building and maintaining those relationships as responding to the content.

It follows that many of the things those communicative genres accomplish do not translate into the style of online discussion common to most courses.

But there are ways to run an online class discussion that might actually be a little closer to deserving the label. These maximize what the online discussion board speech genre actually DOES offer, namely:

  • an opportunity for a student to get a survey of their classmates’ ideas on a given issue
  • a space for thoughtfully crafted short replies

I think the key difference that this highlights is that online class discussions are valuable for having students take ownership of the reading by creating well-grounded critical questions. The responses from their peers are still “short answers” for the ones writing them, but when they are actually engaging with their peers’ ideas, there is value for the askers that wouldn’t be otherwise available. In other words, students get value from having other students engage with questions they have, not answers they have.

My approach in an upper level online class I am currently teaching is to have students sign up for a day to lead a discussion on a reading they have all been assigned. Then that student provides their peers with a short summary of what they think the major take-aways of the reading are, and provides a number of critical questions on the reading that the other students then reply to. The Discussion Leaders are given clear guidelines on how to create questions that inspire conversation related to the day’s topical goals, the larger course goals, and the lines of thought that will be useful for other assignments (e.g. papers). In this class I have seen students develop and articulate theoretical questions and lines of inquiry that I have not seen in other assignment formats. And I have seen students who formulated questions that betrayed a lack of reading comprehension get valuable correction from a number of students that addressed the issue more thoroughly than I, as a teacher, could have done in any single response.

While this particular discussion format won’t work for all levels or types of online class, I think that any online class discussion should keep in mind the particularities and differences of the formats – what is does do and what it doesn’t do – when they are designing their course activities.

What’s your animal?

Some people hate icebreakers – if you’re one of them, maybe pass on this post – but I’ve got one that I learned from my undergrad adviser* that I swear by. The central gist of it is that each student comes up with an animal that starts with the same sound as their name. For example, my name is Sam so I could go with Serpent, Salamander, Snuffleupagus, Socially Awkward Penguin … you get the picture**. Not everyone can think of their own animal, at which point you can invite the rest of the class to make suggestions that the undecided student can choose from.

“Icebreaker” kind of implies “activity designed to make people comfortable,” but without other goals that’s a waste of everyone’s time. In this case, however, the activity serves two more important functions:

  1. It’s a mnemonic device that helps me remember everyone’s name. I often can remember every student’s name after the very first class with this, but if I forget, I just ask them what their animal was and the sound prompt narrows the options enough that I can almost always get it. Since I highly value learning all my students names (and helping them learn each others’ names), this matters to me.
  2. Students can organize themselves into groups based off of similarities between their animals. It’s best if you can tie this to the course material somehow. For example, in the bioanth class I’m TAing, each group had to identify itself based off of a shared “morphological, physiological, or behavioral trait,” which got them using new course terminology. I’m a big believer in small group work, so it takes care of that for me, but for students it gets them actively participating in course content in a low pressure situation and thus doesn’t feel like a waste of their time.

The activity takes about 30 minutes (including group formation) for a class of 25.

* The amazing Kirk Ormand, whose awesomeness cannot be summed up in a footnote.
** Oddly, however, it is not uncommon for at least one student NOT to get it. Halfway through the class, I’ll get someone who announces they are “Doug the Horse.” But it’s pretty easy to redirect this without shaming the student.

Applied Post-Apocalyptic Biological Anthropology

Zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) I offer to you a lesson plan* I made for a week on natural selection and cultural adaptation in a bioanth class. Use as you like!

GROUP 1: zombie pandemic**
GROUP 2: a chain reaction of global warming put 98% of the earth under water***
GROUP 3: unidentified disease causes human lifespans to drop to 25 years (osteoporosis by 17, mental senility can start by 20)****
GROUP 4: worldwide governments instituted the use of self-maintaining and reproducing humanoid robots who kill people apparently at random to decrease overpopulation*****

It is the year 2030, one year after a massive worldwide apocalypse. You have been observing the changes taking place in the area that we currently call North America. In small groups, discuss what the post-apocalyptic world looks like, make up any details not identified in your group’s listed apocalyptic cause, and answer the questions below. Be prepared to give a five minute explanation of your post-apocalyptic world and your answers to the group and to give feedback to other groups on their worlds.

Begin by separating your section into small groups and assign them their apocalyptic cause. Give them 20 minutes to discuss their post-apocalyptic “natural experiment” in human variation and answer the questions. Then give each group five minutes to present their situation and explain their answers to the rest of the class. Have the rest of the class contribute other possible answers for each section (1 minute per group). (50 minute class)


1. Give a paragraph overview of what the post-apocalyptic world looks like.
2. List two new problems that threaten individual human survival and reproduction in this environment and explain how they might have differed from problems during the EEA.
3. List two existing psychological mechanisms might help face these dilemmas and explain why.
4. List one existing psychological mechanism that might make these dilemmas more difficult to handle and explain why.
5. List two accumulated cultural adaptations that could be useful in this environment and explain why.
6. List two accumulated cultural adaptations that could be maladaptive in this environment and explain why.
7. Imagine a meme that might spread in this new environment. Describe it and why it might be selected for in this environment.

* this is inspired by Chapter 15: Evolution and Human Behavior of Boyd and Silk’s How Humans Evolved
** see Brunch of the Living Dead
*** see Water World, starring Kevin Costner
**** see Orson Scott Card’s short story “Geriatric Ward” in Brave New Worlds
***** feel free to steal this idea for your own story