Teaching: Building Schemas and Personal Style

The first semester I ever taught intro to cultural anthropology, a student came up to me at the very end, turned in his final, and explained how he found the subject matter boring. (He also thought I should be a stand-up comedian — so he let me off the hook on that one.) I had a few different reactions to that, one after the other.

First Thought: “He’s Right.”

From the outside, people think of anthropology as exciting (if not terribly lucrative). Anthropologists travel to far off places, wrestle with the “big” questions, and seek answers in places that angels sometimes fear to tread. Sounds pretty exciting, huh?

A basic cultural anthropology class substitutes reading for travel, challenges assumptions but rarely provides firm answers, and spends its time trying to feed students enough information to challenge their underlying assumptions about the nature of the world in which they live.

Anthropology 101 is necessarily thick with jargon, difficult and challenging concepts, and — above all — plenty of reading. While it’s only an introductory course, it’s introducing a whole new way of seeing the world. Doing all of that in just 14 weeks makes it challenging for the professor as well.

So, yeah, the student was right. The first uncertain steps into a larger world are, indeed, boring.

Second Thought: “That’s Okay.”

When we can make education entertaining, it’s definitely a plus. Especially when challenging students’ assumptions about the world, a sense of humor and some compassion go a long way.

On the other hand, college teachers aren’t professional entertainers. The material should be as engaging as we can make it, and yes, that means keeping up with technology and current trends in culture.

At the same time, teaching anthropology is about introducing students to information that is intellectually interesting. But that kind of interesting isn’t always as captivating as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or even Downton Abbey. At our best, we’re generating a passion for learning.

Third Thought: “Teach the Way You Teach”

As a new teacher, it wasn’t easy to hear that the field I had spent years studying was boring. But on the flip side, the beginning studies of every field are “boring.” They have to be. It’s all jargon and new ways of thought.

So how do we help students past this hump? For new teachers, reading books on how to teach can help. Working with mentors regarding developing your own teaching style also helps. Even, and perhaps especially, socializing with other teachers can give a new teacher a boost.

The “trick” (or at least my “trick”) to teaching, I believe with all my heart, is developing a personal style that fits not just your target student population, but who you are.

Teaching is about connecting with students. It’s about leading them on the path to knowledge, not standing on top of a metaphorical hill and shouting for them to “come this way!”

Leadership means developing some level of trust, and that means “creating” a stable intellectual environment for them to explore. It also means making it enticing enough for them to engage.

I believe that teaching is always personal. Teaching isn’t just about the information, but about the connection. We talk about “mentoring relationships” with students, but in a sense every one of those students is being mentored. If they’re not, they might as well just go read a book.

I found that, at least for my teaching style, I had three main methods for keeping the students engaged:

1. Be passionate about the material.

I know it’s a cliche, but if the teacher’s not excited by the material, the students aren’t going to be, either. Maybe it’s something you’re born with, maybe it’s just having been bitten by the “teacher bug.” Who knows? But if you’re having a good time with the students, it all works out so much better.

2. Remember (and remind the students) that you’re not just imparting information.

Teaching is a form a of leadership. For a couple of hours a week, we lead students into new areas of thought and introduce them to knowledge that will change them. With that leadership comes responsibility, and acceptance of that responsibility means developing trust. This is especially important in cultural anthropology, where the topics can sometimes veer into the incredibly personal — race, child marriage, female circumcision, religion, and war can all be pretty challenging topics even before our students’ personal experiences get involved.

You’re helping them address the big questions of life. Remind them that what they’re learning is a necessary step…but that it leads them where they want to go.

3. Accept feedback for what it is.

If you’re a teacher, you know how invaluable the right feedback can be, and how painful the wrong feedback is. Teachers sometimes have to brush off what can seem like harsh criticism, knowing that their only shield is that their boss has also been a teacher. Every teacher I’ve ever known has received bad feedback from one student or another. And I’ve never known one who wasn’t upset by it.

This, of course, is the danger of making one’s teaching style personal. But trying to teach by rote, rather than delivering students what they need, seems like a terrible waste of a vocation.


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