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Set Them Free, They’ll Grow Wings

I occasionally teach a course at the University of Alberta. It’s called Anthropology 207: Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. The class is intended to give students who are majoring or minoring in anthropology an introduction to the foundational ethnographers and ethnographies of our discipline, the lessons we’ve learned about human society and culture, and a sense of what it is that motivates ethnographers, what it is we actually do.

The usual syntax for a single term course is to assign readings, usually from a text book and an ethnography, provide lectures and tutorials based on the themes in those readings, and evaluate the students’ acquisition of information and synthesis of knowledge with some sort of mid-term test, an assignment based on independent research with library materials, and a final exam. Sometimes the structure of the process can be counter to the intent. The excitement and verve of anthropological insights can get lost in mundane and logistical hoops of tests, essays, lectures etc. So I’m always looking to ways to make Introduction to Cultural Anthropology more interesting.

This term (Winter 2012), I assigned David Graeber‘s Direct Action; An Ethnography, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen‘s Small Places, Large Issues. I chose Eriksen because he provides a readable, yet intellectual, cosmopolitan (and non-nation-centric) perspective on cultural anthropology, because he very neatly encapsulates the iconic ethnographies and the historical issues that we anthropologists want our future colleagues to know about, and because Eriksen has a perspective on anthropology that matches my own: the idea that anthropologists should be relevant for the present, that in our study of the human condition, we should be paying attention to the social faultlines of inequity and disparity, and be alert to re-imaginings of the human condition. In other words, social and cultural anthropology should be a public discourse of the present. I chose Graeber because his book represents something unique for Canadian anthropology students: an ethnography about youth protests, and a particular protest that took place in Canada. It’s tailor-made for talking about contemporary issues of social justice, social organization and governance, gender, creativity, the relationship of the individual to the state, globalization and corporatization, freedom of speech and media, nationalism and Canadian vs USAian culture… many of the issues that are fundamental to contemporary life . The fact that Graeber was part of the planning for the stupendously, surprisingly, successful Occupy Wall Street protest of 2011, and that his ethnography was about the planning and execution of a precursor protest at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, was an added bonus in the ‘contemporary relevance’ tickbox.

Within the usual structure of a term course, the most enjoyable part of the pedagogical design process is coming up with ways to get students engaged, to let their natural creativity be harnessed to the task at hand: learning about cultural anthropology. So far, Alberto Gomes, at La Trobe University, has my vote for the best first class in cultural anthropology. The worst things a university professor has to think about fall within the realm of ‘policing’. Academic dishonesty, mostly plagiarism and cheating on tests, are the things that drive us crazy, and that suck inordinate amounts of time from what would otherwise be a pleasurable occupation: sharing interesting ideas and perspectives with bright young minds. Plagiarism is something the University of Alberta takes fairly seriously — though how successfully, I can’t say. Academic dishonesty is so rampant that it supports an industry of people who create essays for purchase, people who market them, people who create software to document plagiarism, people who sell that software, and people who create and administer policies designed to deal with student plagiarism. When Pulitzer Prize-winning authors like Jared Diamond and Deans of Medical Schools like Philip Baker get caught plagiarizing, being the thankless plagiarism-cop in an undergraduate anthropology class can feel like a war already lost (but an important battle nonetheless).

Part of my solution to the Pushme-Pullyou of student nurturing and policing is to design evaluation projects that are less likely to put students in the zone of temptation. To reduce the potential for students to ‘recycle’ papers, to get them enthused about the contemporary relevance of what they are researching, AND to get them to think outside of the box, so excited that they won’t want to cheat, I often ask the students to focus on a particular, timely, theme. In previous years my students have done their major assignments on trash, or on public spectacles like the Olympics and music concerts. I also encourage my students to show me the product of their research in a creative way – they can write an essay if they wish, but they can also create a video, use social media, produce a graphic novel or an epistolary. Making something publically visible is great incentive not to plagiarize.

This year, given the massive numbers of people involved in the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, and given the fact that their assigned ethnography charts people who are part of a social movement questioning the corporatism of society and our political system, the Anthropology 207 student projects were focused on social movements (there is even a journal dedicated to social movement studies – I must be on to something).The students could write on any social movement, anywhere, even in any time period, so long as it was relevant to the present. The criteria were to use at least 10 scholarly resources in their research and to provide an anthropological analysis of that particular social movement. This could include considering how that movement was an aspect and reflection of the society and culture of its participants, how cultural symbols and aesthetics were evidenced in the activities, tactics and/or motivations of the participants, and/or what the strategies, forms of protest, etc. showed us about that society and culture. Students were provided with very clear marking rubrics that demonstrated my expectations of their paper, social or visual media, and were required to submit an outline in advance, so that I could steer them right if the topic choice was unwise.

The topics students picked ranged widely, from the Zapatistas to Apartheid, and tell us a lot about what today’s youth are thinking about. Gender, hacktivism, and animal-rights figured frequently. The Occupy Movement, surprisingly, was not well-covered. Nor was the Arab Spring, the Burmese Democracy Movement or the variety of other political activisms currently preoccupying our news. Perhaps this reflects the academic resources available more than a lack of interest in politics. The results are not perfect. Nobody followed all of the parameters in the rubrics, for example, and some of the projects look more like journalism than anthropological analysis. But hey, these are not professional anthropologists, these are undergraduate students. What they’ve produced is impressive.

I asked the students to be creative, to have fun, to learn something new and to put what they learned in Anthropology 207 ‘out there’ for the world to see. In a class of 75 students, 30 produced either a blog or a video. That’s over 1/3 who chose to step out of their comfort zone and grow wings. Many had never blogged before, let alone made a video with interviews, sets, props and graphics! I’m so proud of the courage the students have shown. I’m also thrilled with the way the bar has been raised in terms of quality and initiative, and that some students are saying they’re going to keep on blogging about their chosen subject, even after the end of term. Next year’s class has some great inspiration upon which to build!

See for yourself:


“Free Tibet” http://vimeo.com/39146777
“New Atheists Movement” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nX2H28JkXOY
“Tea Party Movement” http://vimeo.com/38896340
“The Black Panther Movement” http://youtu.be/GIadMjddrMQ
“Anonymous: Internet Liberation Army,” https://vimeo.com/38890447


The Asexuality Movement http://project-ace.tumblr.com/

The Anti-Fur Movement http://allisonsmf.wordpress.com/

South African Anti-Apartheid Movement http://southafricaanthropology.wordpress.com/

Anonymous http://ualbertaanthro20712bmchambe.wordpress.com/

Vegetarianism http://christopherclemens.wordpress.com/2012/03/

Pro-Life Movement http://dstonehocker.wordpress.com

Haida Lyell Island Blockade http://lyellisland.wordpress.com/

Aboriginal Women’s Movement http://aboriginalsocialmovements.wordpress.com/

The Occupy Movement http://whats-the-deal-about-occupy.tumblr.com/

Anti-Gay Movement http://bandwrainbow.blogspot.ca/

Fair Trade Movement http://fairtradeanthropology207.blogspot.ca/

The Zapatistas http://zapatistaaa.wordpress.com/

LGBT Movement http://anthro207.tumblr.com/

The SlutWalk http://anthro-207-slutwalk.blogspot.ca/

Anti-Nuclear Movement https://sites.google.com/a/ualberta.ca/the-antinuclear-movement/

Jonathon Nyau: European Anti-Nuclear Movement http://thenuclearstandoff.tumblr.com/

Fair-Trade (Coffee) http://jordanamcelwain.blogspot.ca/

LGBT Rights http://weare-equal.tumblr.com/

Native Sovreignty Movement http://nativesovereigntymovement.blogspot.ca

Animal Liberation Movement http://www.thoughts.com/mblavoie

Women’s Rights Movement http://newtothewalk.wordpress.com/

LGBT Movement http://www.thoughts.com/ndabbagh

Anti-Nuclear Movement (Japan): http://antinuclearmovement.blogspot.ca/

Movement to Decriminalize Marijuanna http://anthro207socmov.wordpress.com

Gay & Lesbian Social Movement http://gaylesbian-socialmovement.tumblr.com/