Teaching Anthropology during a Global Pandemic

By Sherry Fukuzawa

Social distancing, masks, and quarantines changed the way we all live in this world. As post-secondary institutions closed their campuses and scrambled to move online, anthropology departments had little time to reflect on the impact of this global pandemic and what it means to teach and learn anthropology.

The one year anniversary of our university’s closing of in-person instruction has come and gone and the exhaustion seems palpable as we enter our third lockdown in Canada. As I finish the term teaching online I seem to be spending more time in online office hours listening to students’ heart breaking stories of overwhelming academic loads, isolation, uncertainty, and a range of mental health issues.

Our discipline is rooted in understanding and conveying the universal human experience, and I cannot help but question the benefit of cramming in online lectures, assignments, and tests on a cohort of students who are dealing with everyday hardship. As instructors in a rigid academic system, it is easier to try to keep up with our so called “academic standards” of assessment rather than try to think about teaching (and learning) as a flexible discourse where students’ determine their own learning journey. These thoughts align closely with my understanding of Indigenous pedagogy (e.g. Battiste, 2013; Styres, 2017; Wilson, 2008) grounded in positionality and relational responsibility.

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Anthropological ethnographic methods may be a good place to instill these concepts, and community-engaged learning is a good place to start. In the second year undergraduate course “Anthropology and Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island” students begin the course by writing a positionality reflection using the D.E.A.L. method (Ash & Clayton, 2009). Students locate themselves in their personal and academic journey to gain insight into how they have formed their worldviews (Windchief & Ryan, 2019). They then reflect on how their positionality affects their learning experience and evaluate why they are taking this course, and how it is situated within their social activism, academic learning, and personal growth. The reflections are repeated twice through the course. At the end of the course students read their initial reflection and discuss their learning through the course in the three areas. The goal of the reflections is to instill an individual retrospective learning journey. There are no tests in this course. Instead, students complete a take-home assignment with a series of questions from numerous topics that they can choose to investigate using course materials that include a range of resources (podcasts, videos, readings) by Indigenous scholars. Similarly, the term assignment is a choice amongst a series of active learning and more traditional exercises (e.g. live group presentation or video recording, poster, written paper, book review etc.). In their course evaluations students appreciated the flexibility in both the content and the assessment methods. As one student stated,

“This course has allowed me to better understand myself, because for the first time, I have been asked to consider my own positionality when learning new things and relating myself to the world around me. This course has also surrounded me with a diverse set of people who I would otherwise not likely come to know. Through this, I have been able to consider how other peoples’ positionality might come to inform me on my own, and how others’ perspectives can give me a richer understanding of the world”. Yasmine Vella (4th year undergraduate, University of Toronto Mississauga)


Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 25-48.

Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Purich Publishing.

Styres, S. (2017). Pathways for remembering and recognizing Indigenous thought in education. University of Toronto Press.

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Fernwood Publishing.

Windchief, S., & Ryan, K. (2019). The sharing of indigenous knowledge through academic means by implementing self-reflection and story. AlterNative, 15(1), 82-89.

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