Challenging Anthropology: Teaching with Positive Messages

What is advertising doing to us? How does it effect different people
differently? Photo courtesy of Advert Lover.
Views from the ANThill
by douglas reeser on January 23, 2013
By now, most of us in the academic world are back in the classroom, teaching or taking classes. For me, it's a return to the classroom after about a year and a half of research in Belize. At this point, the culture shock of being back in the US has begun to wear off, but the levels of consumption, the degrees of insular individualism, and the sheer amount of stuff remain palpable. I'm not thrilled to be back, but I'm also trying to steer clear of the negativity, find the positives, and maintain some optimism about the world I find myself in. Interestingly, I find myself in a similar situation in the classroom.

Critique of the world around us is one of the most valuable tools of anthropology. Our research, our work, and our thinking seek fuller pictures and deeper understandings about all aspects of our lives and society than may be readily apparent. Such examinations shed light on the myriad problems facing humanity today, and without such critique, it's likely that many would be worse off than they may be currently. In the classroom, one of my main goals is to demonstrate the value of critique, and then encourage my students to engage with that tool a bit more in their own lives and work. What is sometimes challenging, is the ease at which critique can slide into criticism and negativity, of which there is already too much in this world.

The class I am teaching this semester offers a somewhat unique challenge. It is a class on diversity for upper level undergraduates who are mostly junior or senior level students. It's a fun lens through which to explore the world, but the challenge for me lies in the composition of the students. The class was originally designed for non-anthropology majors, which creates the need for some introductory-level instruction on most anthropological concepts. Recently, policy was changed, and anthropology majors were allowed to take the class. This change has resulted in a classroom of students that range from 4 years of anthropological training to some who don't even know what anthropology is. How do I teach to such a range of topical knowledge and understanding?

My approach to the challenge is to use a discussion format in the classroom in which I give short talks on main themes and topics, and then let the class discussion evolve as needed. Students with less familiarity can ask questions and offer input from what could be considered a "public" with little knowledge of anthropology. Students with more experience in the discipline are able contribute to the discussion at whatever level of budding expertise they possess. My job is to create a flow and find connections between these varying levels of understanding and thinking.

The process is engaging and fun, but we often find ourselves on that path of negativity. For instance, a recent class discussion included the damaging effects of television and advertising on people living in poverty, especially in the developing world. Most of the students had never considered advertising as something that could have negative consequences. Through reading and discussion, our critique of the topic demonstrated why such a task is important. However, towards the end of class, I found us at a point at which we were faced with a societal problem with no easy answers about how to address it. It's sort of like students are thinking: "Wow! I had never thought about it like that before, but what could I ever do about it?"

If I leave my students thinking this way after our classes, then I am failing in my job. And this, I think, is my greatest challenge. I need to find ways to make my students feel empowered and to think about potential for change, and not about the negativity of the way things are. Uncovering the way things are can be quite depressing, especially when the exercise is done twice a week for four months. It remains with me to make sure that students leave class with something positive, some semblance of hope. And first I, myself, have to hold that positivity and that hope.

Coming back to the US after so long in a different culture, I have found it a big challenge to find positives about where we are and the possibilities that exist. But I have to tell myself that change is happening. I look to movements like Occupy and Idle No More for inspiration, and the knowledge that people are out there working for change. I've realized that my students are really the first generation to grow up with the ability to uncover global connections at their fingertips every waking hour. Never before has it been so easy to know what goes into the creation of our products, our consumptions, our lives. Never before has it been so easy to know that other people exist in this world, and are impacted by our decisions in this center of the consumer universe. Never before has it been so easy to know other people exist. People who we may never meet in person, or see with our own eyes, but people who we know are trying to live on this planet just like us. The question then becomes, what are my students going to do with this knowledge? They have the choice to use this knowledge for change. My challenge, then, becomes enabling them to see their own challenges.


If you would like to read a bit more about the influence of television and advertising on those living in poverty, check out the classic "Advertising and Global Culture" by Noreen Janus in the Recycled Minds Free Library.

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1 comment:

  1. I agree that we need to inspire our students as well as provide them with the means to critically examine their lifestyle and the world around them. One way to get this dual message out is to have students volunteer in their community as a part of the class. It's a big undertaking, but students generally value the experience.


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