Experimenting with Montessori in the College Classroom

When my first child enrolled in preschool, I started to get interested in Montessori approaches to education. As a pedagogical practice, Montessori approaches have largely focused on preschool and elementary education, but there’s a growing interest in finding ways to apply Montessori approaches to higher education — through middle and high school, as well as in the university classroom. In Fall 2018, I taught a small Social Studies of Science and Technology class where I decided to experiment with a more Montessori-like approach. At its heart, Montessori education seeks to instill in students the ability to ask their own questions of the course material, and to facilitate their finding answers to those questions. Rather than impose expectations of content from above through the lecturer-expert instructor, a Montessori approach seeks to create a more symmetrical relationship between the instructor and students. Overall, it seemed to work pretty well.

That would be Theseus following Ariadne’s thread straight into the Minotaur’s lair. A bit of a metaphor, maybe?

The course ended up only having five students (down from a peak of 13), and they were sophomores and juniors, only one of whom was an Anthropology major (which matters only because it was an Anthropology class, ostensibly). I declined to put General Education distributions on the class, which likely kept the enrollment low since students are Gen Ed hungry at my institution. I have a sneaking suspicion that the format of the class might have also turned off some students, especially since my recent experience is that many students just want to be lectured to (hence my experimenting with a format like this). As a result, I thought the class was a little too small, and that a larger class (more like 12-15 students) would have worked better. As it was, one student was really engaged, and most of the other students seemed to be along for the ride… (You can see a copy of the final version of the syllabus here, as well as a list of the guiding questions and threshold prompts.)

This is how I structured the class: We started by reading a book that I hoped would set the tone for the class, and also help the students generate a list of “guiding questions.” That book was James Jones’ Bad Blood, which is about the Tuskegee syphilis “experiment” and the long history of medical and scientific abuses of racialized bodies in the United States. It raises all sort of questions about race, objectivity, data, ethics, media, and methodology, and is written for a pretty general audience. We took a class period to watch Nova’s The Deadly Deception episode, which interviews Jones and brings the book’s project up to date (circa 1993). We then took a day in class to generate a list of guiding questions that would help frame the next section of class. This all took about a week and a half.

As we prepared for the next section of class, we read the Introductions (and sometimes first chapters) of several books — Helen Verran’s Science and an African Logic, Kim TallBear’s Native American DNA, Priscilla Song’s Biomedical Odysseys, Warwick Anderson’s Colonial Pathologies, and Mario Biagioli’s Science Studies Reader. My goals in doing so were to give the students a sense of the breadth of possible topics that might be covered, as well as the shared mission of science studies scholars. We spent a lot of time talking about methods and the citational practices of each of the authors. Who was being cited, how were they being cited, and what specific articles, chapters, or books were being discussed?

That led us to generate a list of author names and readings that we used our guiding questions to shape. As much as we could, we relied on the Science Studies Reader to provide us with readings, which was easy for a lot of the most canonical content (e.g. Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, etc.). It also led us to select readings from the Science Studies Reader that I normally wouldn’t have picked, but which made sense given our guiding questions. Toward the end of this section, we again took a day to generate a list of updated guiding questions, which revised the earlier list with some nuance and added several new questions.

At this point, the students had their first assessment, a written Threshold assignment. Each of the Thresholds — and there were two more throughout the semester — posed a big question and asked the students to pair guiding questions to it in the search of an answer. Students were free to use any of the course materials from the preceding section by way of providing their answer, and could pair the guiding questions in any way they wanted to. Over time, they had more and more guiding questions to draw from, and at only one point did I ask them not to use a specific guiding question (because they had all used it once already) in a Threshold paper.

Since I had demonstrated to them how to go about finding readings associated with the guiding questions (through our citation tracking), the next section of the class was curated by the students. They picked guiding questions they wanted to seek answers to, and I paired them together based on their shared interests. In a larger class, the groupings would have been larger, and this section of the class would have lasted longer. Each student was responsible for presenting a reading to the class, and they could draw on any of the books we had on hand, as well as articles and book chapters they located through library searches. The result was way more diverse than I would have ever planned — they picked scholars, topics, and readings that I had never encountered.

The presentations — like all student presentations — were a mixed bag. But when I needed to, I intervened to keep things on track and get students to think about the connections between the stuff they had picked and the other course content. And throughout the course, I sometimes stepped into the role of lecturer, especially when they were encountering difficult content for the first time. This didn’t stop during the presentations, but I tended to use my interventions sparingly and definitely let students feel the pressure of being underprepared.

Because the group was rather small, the time I had set aside in the syllabus for student presentations was too much. As we approached the end of the student presentations, I asked the students what they were curious about and we generated a list of topics. It ended up resolving into a section on bodies as epistemic objects, and we covered a wide variety of kinds of bodies, from the microbial to the human to the planetary.

Opening the class to student curiosities — and supporting their labor — definitely resulted in a different class than I would have planned on my own. That said, in many ways the kinds of questions and answers the students generated were along the lines I had hoped they would be, but the ways they chose to get there varied (especially in terms of the readings they chose). A larger version of the same class would have probably been much more dynamic. I doubt such an approach would work for a class larger than ~25 students, but maybe…? If you experiment with classroom approaches like this, let me know — I’m really curious about how it might be refined.

Asking for Letters of Recommendation (for Undergraduates)

These are the general criteria I have for writing letters for undergraduate students, particularly for graduate school. I assume most other professors have similar standards, so I’m listing my criteria here so that students can plan appropriately. If students don’t meet these criteria, it’s very unlikely that I’ll write a letter of recommendation on their behalf.


1) A student must have taken at least two classes with me, and preferably more. If you only take one class with a professor, all they can write about is your performance in that one class. What’s more compelling to readers of your application is seeing consistency or trajectory — i.e. either that you are a solid, high achieving student across classes, or that you are maturing as a student and are improving in your achievements.

2) A student must write an original research paper in at least one of the classes taken with me. It’s fine to write about your performance on tests, quizzes and your general classroom behavior and achievements, but what’s even more important is the ability of a letter writer to speak to your ability to conduct original research and write a compelling, well argued research paper — since that’s what you’re going to have to do in graduate school.

3) I have to recognize your face and name. This might seem incidental, but if you’ve done 1 & 2, then it’s most likely the case that you’ll already meet this criteria. If, however, you’ve taken a number of classes with me, never spoken in class, met with me outside of class, or distinguished yourself in some way in my memory, something has gone wrong. If I know your name in class, I’ll probably remember it a few years later.

If you meet all those criteria, please don’t ask to come see me in my office just to ask me to write a letter of recommendation; an email will suffice. Please also take the time to read this guide on applying to graduate school, and plan on sending me your personal statement and the list of schools you’re considering. if I suggest other schools, take my suggestions seriously and at least look at the programs I mention.

A few other things to keep in mind as you prepare to ask people for letters of recommendation:

First, don’t ask graduate student teaching assistants for letters of recommendation. Their letters don’t carry the weight that faculty letters do, and, frankly, it’s not part of their job to recommend you.

Second: try and get letters from faculty who are in some way related to the kind of program you’re applying to. This can sometimes be difficult to manage, especially if you’re changing disciplines. But if a reader recognizes the name of a letter writer, that letter is going to prove much more effective in getting you into the program.

Finally, if you have weak or uncertain letters — i.e. you don’t meet the above requirements but are still getting letters from people — don’t waste your money on applying to Ph.D. programs, just target M.A. programs (which weak letters can probably get you into, as long as you have a solid GPA and personal statement).

If you’re thinking about graduate school and you don’t meet the above criteria for anyone you might ask for a letter from, the best option is to apply for post-baccalaureate enrollment at your alma mater and to take a few more classes with professors you previously worked with. This can give you the chance to work closely with professors, and to impress them of your readiness for graduate study.

Graduate school is a big commitment — time-wise, emotionally and monetarily — and preparing for it socially and academically will make a big difference in your ability to get into the programs you’re interested in.

So You’re Applying to Graduate School (in Anthropology)

Applying to graduate school can seem daunting, but if you take it step by step it doesn’t need to be so. But this means starting the process early — like a year before you plan on applying — and making sure that you treat it like a job. After all, if you get into a program and finish your Ph.D., it will be your career (given that you can get a job somewhere). There’s four things to keep in mind: first, most admissions are done by committee, and not by individual faculty (although individual faculty can have strong votes); if you don’t get in a program one year, you might get in the next, if the graduate admissions committee has changed significantly. Second, the difference between undergraduate and graduate eduction is profound. Plan on working 60-80 hour weeks throughout graduate school (for very little money), and only focusing on school. And third: applications to graduate programs go up when the economy is bad, and there’s less funding for graduate students overall, which makes it especially difficult to get admitted to programs these days. Finally: there are very few jobs for anthropologists in universities; plan on keeping your options open for your career, since anthropologists can get work in any number of non-university settings.

If you’re undaunted, here are the most important things in the application process:

1) Make sure you’re applying to the right programs. Sometimes people will recommend programs to you based on reputation alone, and reputation usually lags by about a decade, since faculty move around and retire with some regularity. But take the time to see what faculty are there, and which of them are of interest to you. And then take the time to read 2-3 articles — or maybe a book — from each of those faculty. (If this sounds like too much work, then don’t apply to grad school; this is the tip of the iceberg.) And be sure to read the recent stuff: you don’t want to tell an interested faculty member that the piece of theirs you found the most interesting is one they published 20 years ago. If you can’t find at least 3 faculty that you find of interest, don’t apply to the program. Someone might leave for another job or retire, you might have personality conflicts with someone, or someone might just be over committed. You need to make sure you have enough faculty to work with in case any of these — or other unexpected events — come up. The more people that share your interests at a particular program, the more likely it is that it’s the right place for you.

2) Make sure you’re applying to enough programs. I tell people to apply to no fewer than eight programs, and as many as twelve. Part of this is because there’s a lot of competition to get into grad school these days, and you really want to hedge your bets. The other part is that it’s always good to have options. If only 25% of the schools you apply to admit you, if you’ve applied to eight programs, at least you have two programs to decide between. And until you get admitted and visit campus, everything will seem rather abstract; after visiting a couple campuses and meeting faculty and grad students, you’ll have a much better sense of each of the programs and where you want to be. Yes, it’s a huge investment — probably $1000-$1500 in application, GRE and transcript fees — but it’s an investment in your future career.

Also, be regionally diverse. Pick a couple programs on each coast, some in the Midwest and in the South. Different U.S. regions — and states — are experiencing the current recession differently, and where one state might be losing funding, another might be having funding returned to it. Most universities are in college towns anyway, so other than the weather, there’s often little difference from one university town to another…

3) Get in touch with faculty. After you’ve read a few articles from each of the faculty you’re interested in working with, send them each an email. There’s two reasons for this: first, to introduce yourself and your proposed project, and secondly, to see what kind of feedback you get from faculty. When you email people, send a brief description of your project — no longer than a paragraph — and rather than asking them if they’d be interested in working with you, ask how the project might change shape under their advising. If faculty don’t respond or respond negatively (e.g. they aren’t interested in the project), cross those faculty off your list of potential people to work with. And if they have suggestions, take them seriously and plan to incorporate them into your personal statement. If people make suggestions that don’t work for you — for whatever reason — again, cut them from your list. This should help you get a good sense of who you might want to eventually work with and what programs are right for you.

4) Get in touch with graduate students in the program. Most programs have lists of active graduate students, and you can cull that list for people with interests that match your own; you can also ask the faculty that you email for names of students they work with that you might get in touch with. Ask students about their experiences in the program, with faculty, in the city the program is located in, etc. Grad students are your best informants — both via email, and when you visit campus. And be sure to email students at various points in their careers — first or second year students, and students who are writing their dissertations — since programs can look quite different depending on where a student is in the process.

5) Your personal statement should be no more than 2 single-spaced, 12 point font pages. No faculty member is going to read more than 2 pages, unless they’re already hooked by pages 1-2. And if they are, then you can only lose them by going on for too long. And if they aren’t into pages 1-2, they aren’t going to read page 3… Your personal statement should have a robust description of your proposed project, what has brought you to the project and your relevant skills, and a good explanation for why you want to be in the program you’re applying to (with reference to faculty and their interests). Your personal statement should not start with an anecdote about how you found anthropology and how it changed your life; you’re applying to a graduate program in anthropology, after all, and the readers will be assuming that you know what you’re getting into. You should also not start with some anecdote about what you read this past summer — it should start with you (it’s a personal statement, after all).

Any good project description includes both empirical and theoretical content. You need to be able to describe a compelling project and demonstrate how it’s in conversation with contemporary debates in the discipline; what does it add to our collective knowledge? No one expects you to work on the exact project that you propose, but they do want to see what your general area of interest is and that you have a sense of how to develop a dissertation project and all that it will entail. You should also be sure to explain any language or area training that has prepared you for this proposed project; if you don’t have language or area specialties, be sure to explain how you’ll be acquiring them before your research starts.

It’s also very important to demonstrate to faculty that you’re a good fit for the program. The best way to do this is to identify faculty in the department who you’re interested in working with, and clearly demonstrating to the reader that you are deeply knowledgeable of their work. I often see personal statements where prospective students do nothing more than identify faculty based on their keywords listed on departmental websites; that’s lazy at best and insulting at worst. Since you’ve already read a bunch of faculty work, you should be able to write a paragraph or two about how your project fits in with their interests.

Your personal statement is the most important part of your application; more important than your GRE scores, your GPA, your letters or recommendation, and anything else that might be asked for. Start drafting it early, and revise it carefully. A compelling and well-researched personal statement can overcome a bad GPA or mediocre GRE scores — it happens all the time.

Here are some things to avoid:

1) Don’t plan on getting into a Ph.D. program straight out of undergrad. A lot of people think that if they take time away from school that getting back into it will be hard. But since grad school is such a different beast than undergrad, there’s going to be an adjustment for everyone. And since grad school is much more like a job than undergrad, people who come in straight from undergrad often have a much harder time acclimating to the changes than people who have been in the workforce. And, finally, some work experience will only improve your application and help you develop a meaningful dissertation project that moves beyond the sometimes insular concerns of the academy.

2) Don’t apply to programs just because they’re in an area that you want to be in. If you have a full time job that you plan on keeping while you’re in grad school, you might not be ready for grad school — or you might just look for Master’s programs in your area. Ph.D. programs are full time jobs, and you need to make sure you’re ready for them, both socially and financially. And, if you really feel like you can only live in certain parts of the country for a Ph.D. program, you might think about other career paths — getting into grad schools in an area of your choice can be hard; getting a job there is even more unlikely. Plus, living in highly desirable places for grad school (the coasts, major metropolitan areas) is a surefire way to come out of grad school with tons of student loan debt. Cost of living is something to consider, especially when any stipend or pay you’ll be receiving through your grad program is unlikely to be more than a couple thousand dollars a month.

3) Don’t plan on working with a bunch of very senior or very junior faculty; any good committee has a mix of faculty at various points in their careers. Junior faculty are usually stressed out from tenure-related concerns; very senior faculty are usually working towards retirement. Associate professors, on the other hand, are right in the middle of their careers, and should be ready for working with students. But, really, all faculty have significant publication, research and teaching burdens. There’s also the question of social networks, which is a big part of graduate school: pick faculty who circulate in different social circles (e.g. they have different research topics, come from different programs), since getting a job can be very dependent on social contacts. Lots of redundancy cuts down on the breadth of any social network. So people working with a diverse committee of people at various stages throughout their career is one way to ensure a bigger social network.

4) Don’t put all your eggs in the graduate school basket. At the same time that you apply to graduate school, apply to jobs (or plan on staying in your current job). In some cases, you might find that your options for graduate school aren’t very appealing; in other cases, you might decide that you don’t want to live a graduate student life of poverty. And, if you don’t get admitted anywhere, it’s good to have something to fall back on. When you get around to applying to grad school again, more life experience will only make you a better student in the long run.

That’s it — although I’m probably forgetting something. If you have questions, comments or contradictory experiences, let me know in the comments and we’ll continue the conversation.