I have taught my upper level course, History of Anthropological Thought, three times in three different institutional settings, and I can say that students have consistently found one part of the class to be the most important and yet the the most impenetrable: the texts of the anthropological theorists themselves. I wondered if there was a way to make them more accessible. I can’t make the text any easier to read, nor could I legitimately choose simpler theorists. What if, instead, it were possible to change the way students engage with the texts? I recently learned about a set of technologies which I believe could achieve this goal: social annotation software.
After working through a few of them with Morris Pelzel, my current plan is to use software called Hypothes.is. Instead of struggling alone with Claude Lévi-Strauss or Victor Turner, students could connect with others in sharing their struggles and insights. Students would log in and see where other students had questions, tentative answers, or are debating over the meaning of a key term. I would be able to log in before class and see how the reading went and adjust the class discussion accordingly. In an 80 minute class, I would typically spend the first half discussing the texts with students, and it is my hope that this software makes that discussion much more interactive.
This change would produce at least three effects that would be invaluable for the course. First, students would become better readers of difficult texts. They could understand not only that there are different kinds of reading possible, but that reading the excerpts of theoretical writing requires line-by-line thoughtfulness and attention. Second, it will help students become much better thinkers about anthropological theory, which is the primary objective of the course. This growth will be through the process of internalizing and debating the meaning of these key texts, whereas without a serious reading they would simply be taking what I say as some kind of truth which they can memorize and give back on an exam. Third, they will learn to collaborate better by doing something that challenges all students. They must learn to take useful ideas of others and expand on them without shutting doors and, frankly, getting into the divisive kinds of all-or-nothing debates that constitute the ‘high theory’ level of many disciplines. This might be asking a lot of any kind of technology, but social annotation software simply allows us to share in our reading.
The growth in students must come from engagement with those texts and each other. Beyond my own impressions, it will be possible to track student development after implementing this change in course design through a comparison of midterm analytical papers and take home final exams which require students to apply the theoretical thinking which they have honed throughout the semester. With this program’s assistance, I will teach the course following this plan in the Spring of 2016, 2018, and 2020.
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