Anna de Aguayo

chimpanzee-baBy-1A. What might an Introduction to Anthropology course look like with writing emphasized?

 Anthropology involves many genres of writing: archeology site reports, anatomy lab reports, linguistic analysis, ethnographic interviews, ethnological comparisons.  But mastering this wide range of writing is often left to upper-level undergrad seminars or graduate school. However, with a little work, college-level courses can introduce students to the wide range of writing styles in fun and engaging manner.

Some examples:

Mini-Interview: In the first class, take five minutes to have students interview each other, finding out similarities and differences in their experiences. Taking down their answers, they can submit a paragraph to you, introducing their colleague. It can even be used to orally introduce each other to the class. Students seem to quite enjoy finding things in common.

Reflexive Journaling: After the class lecture on Culture Shock in Cultural Fieldwork, have the students post to the Lea or Moodle Forum at least three full sentences describing a Culture Shock they have experienced. Students often post lengthy descriptions. It is one of the most read exercise by other students.  

Linguistic Patterning: Have a student interview another by recording their favourite quote from a song or poem. Have them say it, noting the intonation pattern. Then look up the origins of each word, determining the language family and meaning originally. Write a long paragraph explaining the history of the language as depicted by the quote to the participant who gave you the quote. Students are quite amazed how much history they can get from a single quote.

Biological Anthropology: Have the students analyze the mystery bones, looking for clues for handedness, muscle patterns, age and gender. Write up a short one-page report as if you were a CSI technician giving forensic evidence to the court on the identity of the bones. Students really enjoy the dry official tone to this.

Archeology: Holding one of the stone tools, imagine how it might have been used by the creature who made it. Describe in a stream of consciousness writing what this tool might have meant to the user. It could be a Neanderthal mousterian blade, a Home erectus Acheulean Hand Axe or early human spear point. Imagination is a big part of archeological hypothesis development and this exercise often generates some very thoughtful reflections.

The course has a required Ethnological Comparison Report which has previously been poorly done. By scaffolding and using a fieldnote-to-report approach, this assignment has genuinely improved and students have enjoyed it much more.


B.  A Scaffolded Ethnological Report

Ethnology – the comparison between societies, so as to reach general conclusions about human culture – is a key feature of anthropological analysis and a major writing genre. It is difficult to teach as it requires avoiding ethnocentrism and using cultural relativism. Essentially, you need to ‘see’ like an anthropologist before you can do it. But by using a scaffolded approach and ethnographic films, this approach or ‘seeing’ – looking for key cultural symbols in a comparative manner – can be taught in even an introductory-level course.

I ask students to take ‘fieldnotes’ as they watch two films about foraging societies in two very different environments using thirteen themes that we discuss in class. A blank sheet is used to help focus their note taking. We discuss the idea of taking rough notes and then reviewing them as a major part of anthropological writing. We also discuss writing them clearly due to the role of field notes as archival documents that community members and colleagues can consult.

Students are also asked to research the foraging mode of subsistence by reviewing their textbooks and lecture notes. I then ask students to imagine being a professional anthropologist who has been asked by a philosopher or a biologist if Environment has a major impact on foraging. They must try to answer the question in a two-page report using at least three anthropological vocabulary terms from the textbook.  They have to have a strong thesis argument in the introduction, mentioning the films as research sources and then use at least three categories for comparison from their fieldnotes. Students have used categories such as technology, gender relations, communication styles, and built highly engaging and thoughtful reports. Content is rarely a problem in the reports anymore, the tone is much more professional, respectful and insightful.

Fieldnotes on Film One: Baka: People of the Forest, Cameroon – Equatorial Rain Forest.

Fieldnotes on Film Two: The San: Hunters of the Kalahari, Botswana – Kalahari Desert.

Ethnological Report: Answering a theoretical question in a two page report.


Last Modified: April 15, 2015