Teaching Anthropology, Past, Present and Future

David Mills

Whilst one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we do judge journals by their editors.  This should come as no surprise. Despite all the talk of ‘Open Access’, journal editors remain key disciplinary gatekeepers.  Committed to stewarding their scholarly fields and their own journal’s reputation (not to mention their citation rankings), editorial decisions can make and break scholarly careers.

But the boundaries of academic journals are beginning to change. Online-only journals allow peer-reviewed submissions to be supplemented with a range of other content. The Open Journal Software, as used by Teaching Anthropology, Hau, Anthropology Matters, and many other online journals, makes this ever easier.

Meanwhile, existing print-led journals are often limited by their commercial publication platforms. This makes them surprisingly conservative in their editorial styles and policies.  In our discipline a few, such as Cultural Anthropology have adapted impressively to the new online possibilities, creating  a range of ‘content streams’ they call Fieldsights, which even includes a Teaching Tools blog. Some of the better-resourced journals are slowly following suit, but others remain stubbornly hidden behind high pay-per-view firewalls.

What of Teaching Anthropology and its editors?  Launching a free online journal committed to writing and research about our teaching practice posed a different set of problems. Whilst a few anthropologists had written about teaching and learning, few were actively engaged in pedagogic research or interested in educational theory. As the first journal dedicated solely to work on the pedagogy of anthropology, we worked hard to both recognise our forbears and nurture new voices.  Didi (my co-editor) and I found that postgraduates were often particularly keen to write about their first teaching experiences, and their fresh perspectives on small-group teaching filled our initial issues.

Looking back over our first five years is instructive. Our editorial style tended towards the didactic. Helped enormously by our peer-reviewers, we gave lots of formative feedback and encouragement, but also worked hard to ensure high standards of presentation and argument. We decided to encourage reflective reports from the classroom as well as peer-reviewed research-based articles. Most of our submissions fell into the first category, especially from US liberal arts and community colleges. They bubbled with enthusiasm and inventiveness. Teaching non-anthropology students could be made interactive, engaging and fun. We subjected them to light-touch review and published as many as we could. As a group they demonstrated a lively future for the field and its pedagogy.

Given our association with the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Education Committee and its long-term commitment to education at every level, we also sought to publish articles on anthropology teaching in schools, including on the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the UK ‘A-Level’ anthropology qualification. The rise and sudden demise of the A-Level took many by surprise (see our special issue on the topic), but the many lessons learnt will be taken up by others  (notably in Scotland, but also in the pleasing news about the growth of the Anthropology IB).

Journal editors come and go, bringing their own strengths and peccadilloes to the role. Some see their role as vibrant community and readership. Others have to work hard at attracting submissions and marketing their journal, without straying into self-publicity. Many have to worry about their impact citation factor and subscription base. None of this needs to worry Teaching Anthropology.  Instead the challenge is to continue to grow this scholarly conversation, and in these uncertain times for Britain, to reach out as much as possible to European and international communities of anthropology teachers.

What was one of the best things about editing Teaching Anthropology? It was the vicarious feeling of pride that came when reviewing applications to lead the new Editorial team. Proposals flooded in from all over the world from both new and established scholars, full of innovative ideas for developing the journal and making the most of its online platform.  The RAI Education committee (the journal’s editorial board) were spoilt for choice. In appointing Patrick Alexander and encouraging him to bring together a global team of co-editors and advisors, the journal can be confident about its future.

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