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.

The Mysterious Teaching Statement, Part 1

This is the first of a two part series on teaching statements. In this entry, I focus on my own expectations as a reader of teaching statements; in a future installment, I’ll present similar expectations from colleagues at other institutions.

My general sense of teaching statements as part of the job application process is that they’re principally used to separate the wheat from the chaff — that is, they’re used to disqualify job seekers on the basis of having little or no actual teaching experience, which can often be seen in teaching statements that include phrases like: ‘I embrace the Socratic method’ or ‘I believe that research papers are important in every class.’ Those are clear red flags that the author of the statement has spent little or no time in a university classroom, and might not be the best person for the job.

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That all being said, I do think there are some key things to cover in a teaching statement, and they are (in no particular order): 1) how you would approach teaching a ‘service’ course, 2) the curriculum that you bring with you (including courses on the books that you’re prepared to teach), 3) examples of your actual classroom practice, and 4) your approach to research or mentoring experiences. I don’t think they necessarily need to appear in that order — it should be organic in its presentation — but as a reader, that’s the stuff I would want to see.

So, to explicate a bit:

Service classes are things like Intro to Your Discipline, Methods, Theory, and maybe Intro to Your Area or Subfield. Every department offers these classes, and they’re often the staples of the curriculum. Seeing that a job applicant has taken the time to think about their approach to one of these classes shows that the applicant has thought about one of the likely courses they’ll be facing in the short term; it also serves as a good way to see what makes a job applicant characteristic in their thought. For example (and please forgive the italics):

I’m committed to teaching Anthropological Theory, which, as I teach it, focuses on the relationship of imperial centers of thought and the colonies; as much as I find it necessary to include canonical figures and topics, I also include a number of thinkers from the postcolonies — anthropologists and not — in an effort to make evident to students how anthropological theory arises in dialogue with local forms of thought and expertise. Rather than organize the course historically, with theory progressing from Boas to the present, I instead structure the class around current ethnographies to make evident how anthropologists both produce and engage with anthropological — and cultural — theory. For example, I’ve recently begun teaching Elizabeth Povinelli’s Empire of Love as a way to approach ideas about globalization, postcoloniality, and indigenous rights. Alongside Povinelli’s work, we read pieces from Walter Mignolo, Achille Mbembe, Franz Fanon, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Spivak, and anthropologists George Marcus, Aiwha Ong, and Anna Tsing. Students are asked to stage debates between anthropologists and their interlocutors, and, to do so, are tasked with uncovering and explaining the theoretical underpinnings to their arguments.

A paragraph like that lets your reader know that you’re willing to tackle a service class, and that you’re able to bend it to your own strengths. Moreover, it also gives your reader a sense of your perspectives as a teacher, which may vary significantly from your presentation of yourself as a researcher. For instance, I don’t think my commitment to global knowledge production is necessarily apparent in my description of my own work (which is largely U.S.-based, and pretty Continental in its theoretical influences). That being said, being honest about my approach might not make me friends among faculty who think that Anthropological Theory begins with Boas and ends with Sahlins…

On the subject of your perspective as a teacher, it’s worth thinking about what 3-4 classes you could offer a department on a two year cycle. Most departments will expect faculty to teach 1-2 service classes each year (or more), but also give you some flexibility about upper level courses, particularly tied to your training and interests. For example, although I’m tasked with teaching Intro to Medical Anthropology every other year (as well as another service class) at UCSC, I also offer at least two classes that are directly keyed to my research. So, I often teach a course entitled The Biology of Everyday Life as well as a class on Medicine and Colonialism. It’s worth including a sentence or two about each of the classes.

In addition to teaching Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Ethnographic Methods, and Anthropological Theory, I am also interested in regularly offering classes related to medical anthropology and science studies. My Intro to Medical Anthropology is structured around four ethnographies, one each on Western biomedicine, Indian Ayurveda, African ‘folk’ medicine, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. My interest in exposing students to these four traditions is to unsettle their ideas about the lack of history of Western medicine and the naturalness of non-Western practices. I find that students often naively assume that non-Western practices are more authentic, and also, paradoxically, acultural. Situating these four traditions alongside one another exposes how each is historical, cultural and influenced by contemporary politics and concerns. I follow some of the concerns presented in this Introduction in Medicine and Colonialism, in which I focus the class on the use of colonies as a space for experimenting with medicine, subjectivity and governance. My Biology of Everyday Life class allows me to teach content related to my research on sleep, but put into a broader theoretical context regarding how basic biological functions — reproduction, eating, defecation, breathing — become the basis for subjection and politics across societies and history. Additionally, I regularly offer topically focused seminars in medical anthropology and science studies; over the last five years, they have focused on ‘risk and insurance,’ ‘chronic illness,’ and ‘the brain.’

If it hasn’t already been covered, it’s also useful to explain how your classrooms are organized and what kinds of expectations you have of students:

My classes are highly regimented, and through a combination of reading questions (that ask students to identify key concepts in the readings and provide examples from other class readings) and reading guides (a set of questions designed to help students identify an author’s thesis, evidence, and theoretical commitments) I help students work through difficult empirical and theoretical texts. Because the courses I teach are often very theoretically focused, I regularly quiz students and rely on extensive exams to assess their knowledge of the course material. Students who take multiple classes with me and excel in them are offered the opportunity to write a research paper instead of taking quizzes and tests, and I ask them to write ethnological papers, relying in part on HRAF. Across my classes, I work to include documentaries, podcasts, and other multimedia learning experiences; between these media exercises and the format of my classes, I am able to engage students from diverse backgrounds and with varied learning styles.

Reading that paragraph makes it apparent that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the classroom and that I know what my teaching style is. Near the beginning of your teaching career, it’s difficult to be so succinct and honest; instead, it might be best to take a look at syllabuses from faculty you’ve worked with. See what kinds of assignments they use, and, if you can, see how their assignments and classroom policies have changed over time. Often, by the time someone has taught for a decade, their teaching becomes fairly stable — so try and find an early associate or late assistant professor and take a look at their syllabuses for a few years of classes. And, if you can, look at some of their exams and other assignments to get a sense of what they actually ask students to do.

Finally, you should have a paragraph about your research opportunities for students, as well as your mentoring style. For primarily undergraduate institutions, the former is more important; for institutions where you’re be interacting with graduate students, the latter is more important (to the degree that you might cut any discussion of undergrads).

Much of my mentoring at UCSC has been designed around the problems that many students experience, and my own recent memory of being a graduate student. Broadly, I provide students with ongoing, direct intellectual support, as well as professional development opportunities, with the intent being that by the time they have earned their Ph.D. they will have published one or more articles, and they will have begun to work on a variety of individual and collaborative projects. In the category of intellectual support, I offer a monthly reading seminar for my graduate students, wherein we read an article or excerpts from a book of mutual interest, and use this as a centerpiece for our conversation; we then segue into conversations about individual work, and the status of writing projects. Along similar lines, I offer a professionalization seminar that runs fortnightly over the course of the school year, offering from 15 meetings. We cover topics such as writing job letters and preparing curriculum vitae to dealing with problem students and syllabus development, to writing articles and planning publishing trajectories. It’s a demanding seminar, but the students who participate find their anxieties about the transition from student to professional to be much less stressful through my demystification efforts.

Taken together, the document should be 1-2 single spaced pages. If the institution asks for ‘evidence of teaching effectiveness’ or has some other way to ask about teaching evaluations, it’s better to summarize what you have in a page or two (included representative comments from students) than it is to include copies of evaluations (which can vary significantly from institution to institution). Ultimately, it shouldn’t be too long, and, like a job letter, should not overstay its welcome.

Questions, comments, experiences? Post them in the comment section.