August 25, 2015

Teaching a Graduate "Un-Seminar" in Biological Anthropology

This semester, I am leading our core graduate seminar in biological anthropology, which I'm calling Theory and Practice in Biological Anthropology.  In truth, though, there will be hardly any theory, and it will be heavy on the practice part.

I've designed it as an un-seminar course.  Or, perhaps more accurately, as a working group.  Part of this is because I loathed seminar courses as a PhD student.  We all read the same hoary texts (that most of us had read as undergrad or MA students) and tried to out-profound one another with thoughts on the anthropological canon.  Just typing that sentence gave me flashbacks.

The other, bigger reason that I am teaching an un-seminar is because the skills that go into being good at seminar discussions are not the same skills that I use on a regular basis as a professional anthropologist.  I don't sequester myself and think big thoughts about the great anthropologists of generations past. In both my research and my outreach, I work collaboratively on timely topics, and I seek out questions to answer.  I want students to acquire skills in critical researching, reading, and thinking, and I want them to practice those in the collaborative environment of the classroom.

So I flipped the typical seminar assignment: rather than assigning reading each week and tasking students with coming up with questions for discussion, I came up with what I think are interesting, somewhat open-ended questions for each topic, and students have to come up with readings and answers.  For example: "If we cloned a Neandertal, brought it back to life, and ate it, would we be arrested for cannibalism?"

This means that there are literally no required readings.  They are, of course, not exempt from reading.  They need to do enough to answer the questions fully, informed by appropriate sources.  So our second week of class will deal with finding appropriate sources, with understanding how biological anthropological knowledge is created and disseminated, and with contributing our source material to a collaborative bibliography through a Zotero group. By showing the behind-the-scenes research we do to come up with answers to questions, I am hoping that the general public (or whoever wants to check out the bibliography) will see that it often takes both breadth of sources and depth in order to fully consider a question.

As I type, I have given each student a question (such as "What language did Neandertals speak?") and 30 minutes to come up with a 150-word answer. They will then pair up and answer another question collaboratively.  I didn't warn them about this; I just threw them into the deep end.

We'll see how the un-seminar goes this semester.  Here's hoping none of us sinks.

The syllabus is below as images (click to em-biggen), but you can also click through here to a PDF of it.


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