International Development and Poetic Practice: An Online Classroom Activity

Anne Schiller – George Mason University

Cultural anthropology courses frequently satisfy world cultures requirements, attracting enrollments from across the university. My 150-seat online introductory course, for example, typically draws students from at least a dozen majors including some that prioritize technical writing.  Producing an ‘anthropology paper’ can seem daunting. To nurture writing skills, I create short assignments that promote experimentation with different types of writing. Perhaps surprisingly, the exercise that receives the most enthusiastic reviews requires the class to express itself through verse.

The subject is international development, which, like other assignments, corresponds with a textbook chapter. Students create new stanzas for the poem ‘The Development Set’, an ironical riff by Ross Coggins on the privileged work lives of international development specialists. In crafting their verses, they are asked to reflect upon a concept from class that particularly interested them. After posting their contributions, they comment on those of others. The submissions that are identified most often as affecting, stirring, or clever are discussed in class.

‘The Development Set’ appeared in 1976 in a journal now out of print. A shorter version was published in 1978. Coggins, a Baylor University graduate, served as a missionary to Indonesia, then in US-based denominational positions, and eventually joined USAID as a foreign aid worker. Regarding the professional lives of development workers like himself, the author satirically suggested

The Development Set is bright and noble,
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes,
Our thoughts are always with the masses.

I came across “The Development Set” in graduate school. A photocopywhich included a sketch of a fellow in a safari suitwas taped to my neighbor’s study carrel. Other copies popped up like mushrooms. An internet search revealed that other people first encountered the poem on a professor’s office door, a department bulletin board, or (more recently) on someone’s blog. Coggins’s verses have been cited in academic publications (Aguilar 2014; Bleiker 2000) and quoted as opening lines in conference presentations. Regarding conferences, in fact, he wrote:

In Sheraton hotels in scattered nations,
We damn multinational corporations;
Injustice seems so easy to protest,
In such seething hotbeds of social rest.

Among topics that we explore early in my course are challenges and opportunities that accompany culture shock.  I explain that those negative and positive feelings can be points of access to deeper understandings of other cultures. The “Development Set’ assignment comes late in the semester. Nevertheless, the majority chose to incorporate the notion of culture shock in their verses. That choice demonstrates that students continue to reflect upon the experience of immersion in an unfamiliar culture, and offers evidence of learning and retention.  Some examples follow.

My eyes have been opened, now I’m awake,
I will try hard not to make the mistake;
Of thinking my own way is all that there is,
In a world filled with cultural biases.
Sometimes we deal with surprise culture shock,
Must be careful, of course, that we never mock;
The sooner we learn to enculturate,
The more effectively we can communicate!
In anthropology studies we all have learned,
To be open minded — respect must be earned;
Closed minds are a kind of prison incarceration,
Understanding comes with fieldwork and enculturation.
I step off the plane and return to a new land,
Thrown into a lifestyle I no longer understand;
With my former companions I now feel alone,
I’ve become a foreigner in my own home.

In a recent conversation about this assignment a student described some classmates’ verses to me as ‘lit’, complimenting their cleverness in college-speak. I share that enthusiasm. Colleagues interested in employing this activity may also want to consider modifications, such as delineating a more specific focus for the verses, assembling teams to write a Development Set-style poem collectively, or asking groups of students to illustrate their stanzas with slides or posters and giving a joint presentation to the class.

Coggins’s complete poem is available at:

Aguilar, F.V., Jr. (2014). Editor’s Introduction. Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, 62 (2), 147-148.

Allen, B. 2011. ‘Send Me, O Lord, Send me’ Author Ross Coggins Dies. Baptist News Global, April 9.

Bleiker, R. (2000). Editor’s Introduction. Alternatives, 25 (3), 269-284.

Coggins, R. (1978). The Development Set. Journal of Communication, 28 (1), 80.

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