Teaching through Tension at the Crossroads of America


Valerie Miller1, Shradha Naveen2, Amanda Waller3, Jennifer L. Johnson4

  1. Purdue University. mill2206@purdue.edu (corresponding author)
  2. Purdue University. snaveen@purdue.edu
  3. Purdue University. wallera@purdue.edu
  4. Purdue University. jlj@purdue.edu

The pandemic experience is shaping understandings of student success and how becoming an active learner alongside students can help achieve this. Moving beyond expected learning outcomes, we highlight how learning is enacted within our course. We teach introduction to cultural anthropology at Purdue University — a predominantly white, STEM focused, land grant institution in Indiana. Here, widely accepted premises of our discipline are assumed by many to be political positions, not scholarly ones (e.g., no biological basis for race, difference in sex and gender). Teaching through the tensions at “the crossroads of America,” our work unsettles conventional wisdoms and encourages complexity in thinking beyond bifurcations. We encourage students to be reflective of their experiences and to question and expand their preconceived ideas (and ours!). Reconfiguring the teacher-learner dichotomy within a virtual space alongside shifting realities, we ask: how do we continue to create inclusive active learning environments? Here, we share our strategies implemented during this pandemic, highlighting students’ needs for reflexive instruction and open communication.

Firstly, we engage students as active participants. Teaching is typically conceptualized as an input-output exercise, even requiring learning outcomes. Instead of strict adherence to an input-output model, our semesters are an exercise in throughput. How to think through complex ideas and concepts is prioritized over what to think. Lessons learned within and through each teaching moment far outweigh listed learning outcomes. The forgettable and memorable chunks of anthropology that evaporate or seep in, respectively, are going to be wildly different for each student.

All didactic materials challenge this input-output unidirectional framework and focus on negotiated throughput. We try to meet individual needs by integrating multiple formats. Guided discussions, group presentations, peer-review sessions, and debates train students to speak and write in diverse ways. Moving away from conventional testing measures, we promote creative and critical thinking using short form written and verbal assignments. Students’ efforts are honored by following up quantitative grading schemes with qualitative feedback. Ultimately, each assignment encourages students to place anthropology in conversation with their own lived experience.

We begin class with a quick poll – “how are you right now?” – acknowledging students’ wellbeing. Students love the music that greets them as they enter the meeting and the “plant of the day” portion that completes each class. Fortunately, Zoom affords social interactions that are differently inclusive of learning styles. By being attentive to when lecture should stop so discussion can begin, we can adapt content to best match students’ learning desires. We closely monitor the chat function that serves as a less formal space for students to approach difficult questions. Being prepared isn’t just having thoughts and materials organized – it is being mentally and emotionally ready to learn, accept criticism, respond to difficult questioning, and navigate interruptions.

Lastly, we assign AnthroPods – small peer groups that encourage co-learning discourse. AnthroPods address a need for communication and accountability and offer a first point-of-contact when students have questions or concerns. They provide a comfortable environment where students rely on one another and can openly share their questions/thoughts without the pressure of always needing to email instructors. AnthroPods provide an extra layer of support during lonely and isolating pandemic semesters. 

Many of our students are struggling – we anticipated this – and need conscientious and compassionate educators who listen and adapt. One of our first emails from a student read, “the class survey is the first time I’ve felt treated like a human since coming to campus.” Thankfully, learning is a negotiated process that doesn’t always go according to (lesson)plan. Recognizing that each teaching-learning moment is enacted within its own context, we thank you for allowing us to briefly share what has been working for us within ours.

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