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.

Let’s Fund Every Graduate Student for 7 Years

Several years ago, I had an incidental conversation with a senior colleague, Ken George, who was at the time the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He had come up with an idea to fund graduate students for seven years, and not through some enormous endowment, but through state funded education. It’s been a decade, and to my knowledge, no university has tried out a scheme similar to what George devised. So I want to put this idea out into the world and see if any institution will take me up on it — it’s a worthy experiment, and one that might radically change the way we train graduate students, how students experience graduate study, and the integration of undergraduates and graduate students on the contemporary campus.

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My memory of the conversation with George was that he reasoned that the average time to Ph.D. for an Anthropology student was seven years. So, to be a competitive program, Madison would need to fund all of its incoming students for at least that long. The kernel of the idea he pitched to me was that students would receive teaching  or research assistantships for years 1-3, then receive a fourth year that was fully funded — so they could conduct research unfettered and without the need of securing external funding — and then return to the university for years five-seven, during which they would serve as primary instructors for their own classes. The funding they would receive in years five through seven would be reduced to pay the university back for the research year. There were probably more details to the plan, but these are the parts that have stuck with me — including George’s mention that he had discussed the plan with a university financial officer who told him it was feasible. And, after almost a decade of teaching at state universities, I think it might be the necessary future to address many of the concerns faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates face.

During their instructor years, I’m assuming that graduate students are teaching two to three classes per year (probably three), basically a reduced tenure-track teaching load and not-totally-abusive adjuncting teaching load. Like faculty, most of the graduate student’s commitment during the school year would be to teaching, but he or she would also have time to write up the research from year four — and work on other professionalization matters. More importantly, they would receive a living wage, which would support them for three years and also provide them with security of employment so they could spend their summers writing and not seeking a new job.

I don’t want to be evasive, but I also don’t know the math. I’ve tried to puzzle out how this all might work, but every institution is different and what they pay instructors who are ABD vs. Ph.D. varies, as well as the cost of health benefits. But the basic idea is this: income should be consistent over the 7 year period, adjusting for inflation. So whatever one is paid in year four — the research year — should be the same as what one is paid in year five. It’s probably not going to be great — it might be the equivalent of $20,000 each year — but it should be reliable.

But if you just want some numbers to think about, consider that it might cost a university $40,000 per year per graduate student (including stipend and benefits), and that three, 20-student classes generate about $60,000 per year (assuming students pay a relatively cheap $1000 per class). Now, most graduate students don’t cost that much, and most undergrads pay more than that per class, so even if the margins are tight, the university would still be operating with a profit, which can go towards facilities, administrators, and all the other gears that need to be greased to make a university run.

One thing I’m always asked when I bring this proposal up is: what does a department do about a student who takes the fourth year funds and then never returns? Again, I don’t know that there’s one universal bureaucratic right answer, but basically the funds would be converted into a tuition fee and the student would need to pay it back. Likewise, if a student decided not to stay for the full seven years — say she or he gets a tenure track job somewhere — she or he could pay the prorated remaining balance from year four off. So, if a student takes a job at the end of year six, she would need to pay one year’s worth of the forward funding back to the university for year four (about $7,000). Students could also decline the research year and just proceed to the instructorship or pay off the research year with an external grant. It shouldn’t be a form of entrapment, but rather the kind of security that provides at least partial liberation from base anxieties (like paying rent and buying groceries).

The big challenge I see is having classes for the returning graduate students to teach. Given a modest graduate program of six graduate students, this would mean that during any given year (not adjusting for attrition), the department would have 18 instructors teaching a total of 54 new classes. Some of these courses might be in the major, but most of them would need to be channeled elsewhere. And this is the crux of the proposition as I see it — where does all this labor go?

My best guess is to create a new requirement for every major on campus, namely a two part writing or communication class that’s major-specific and taken during year one or two of an undergraduate career. For example, in an anthropology department, majors would be required to take a two term sequence in Reading Anthropology and Writing Anthropology. The first would teach them how to identify theses, supporting arguments, the use of evidence, basic genres of social scientific writing, etc. The second course would focus more squarely on getting students to write as novice anthropologists, with all of the expected generic conventions in place. Both of the courses would help them in their major, and benefit them overall with more intensive critical reading and writing training that could be applied in other courses they take, in and out of their major.

There’s another basic math problem, which is that the number of graduate students in any particular program might be out of proportion to the number of undergraduates enrolled in the department’s major. One way to handle this would be to have graduate students from cognate programs teach at the undergraduate level in departments with excessive majors. So, for example, biological anthropology Ph.D. students might teach the Reading and Writing Biology courses in the Biology department, freeing up graduate students there to do the laboratory work they are needed for by faculty in Biology.

The tougher question is what to do about majors like Computer Science, where conventions of communication vary significantly from other disciplines. But courses could be offered to train graduate students in the necessary skills, and there might be significant monetary incentives to lure them into teaching in these programs. Each institution would need to figure out what the roadblocks are and address them with local resources — or, potentially, start new interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs to meet the needs produced by new requirements.

In any case, the course content should be determined by the instructor to reflect her or his areas of confidence and strength, but assignments across iterations of the same class should be similar so as to ensure that standards are being met. Teaching critical reading and writing skills to undergraduates also benefits instructors, whose own reading and writing skills tend to further develop through teaching. And such intensive teaching helps graduate students gain confidence and skills in one of the primary skills they’ll need in their future as educators.

There are some significant reputation dividends to be gained with a program like this for departments and universities: the university can brand itself as especially dedicated to undergraduate reading and writing skills, and in a landscape where graduate training seems precarious if not exploitative, the university can cast itself as ethical and intensely focused on the professional development and economic security of its graduate students.

If you convince your department or dean to experiment with a 7-year funding plan, let me know. And if you can think of any thing I missed, let me know that too…

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.

The Future of Anthropology (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics)

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My partner forwarded me a short blog post about job prospects in anthropology looking better than they have been (started by The Atlantic), and we collectively began wondering whether there’s really anything to look forward to. And, the short of it is this: there isn’t. The number of Ph.D.s awarded annually has increased dramatically over the last 20 years (from 341 in 1991 to 555 in 2011, up from 472 in 2006 — a 17% growth) and the job projections at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show only a 21% projected growth in anthropology-related jobs. On the face of it, this might look okay, but when we look closer at the BLS numbers there are some things to be concerned about — and to prepare strategies for:

First of all is the actual number of jobs. The BLS lists the number of anthropology jobs in 2010 as 6100, with a total of 7400 by 2020. If the job growth is gradual, with ~160 jobs being created each year, that’s still ~300 anthropology Ph.D.s out of work in their field each year for the foreseeable future. And this assumes that the normal number of retirements continue, providing for the regular entry-level jobs that account for ~100 academic jobs annually (which is about the number of jobs posted annually on the AAA job center).

Second, when you look at where the jobs are projected to be, the BLS shows that most of the jobs will be in ‘professional, scientific and technical services’ (not education, but consulting), and that there will be shrinkage in jobs associated with ‘research and development in the humanities and social sciences’ on the order of 2.5%). The jobs associated with education (at all levels of higher ed — adjuncting and tenure track) only account for about 200 new jobs (if I read the table correctly). There’s also significant contraction in the number of jobs associated with the federal government (maybe related to human terrain work drying up?).

Most of the growth that’s projected is in ‘scientific research and development services’ — which, I’m guessing, means a lot of contract archaeology. Which is pretty much what the BLS says: ‘Archeologists should have the best job prospects in cultural resource management (CRM) firms.’ But, they warn, ‘due to the large number of qualified graduates and relatively few positions available, jobseekers may face very strong competition.’ (But this, I’m going to guess, depends on growth in the U.S. housing market, where archaeologists will oversee holes being dug…) They also shore up my summary, saying ‘job opportunities for anthropologists will expand in businesses, consulting firms, and other non-traditional settings,’ but that these jobs are going to be very competitive.

So, if that’s where the jobs will be, what can we do proactively to prepare for those employment possibilities?

We should probably slow down the number of Ph.D.s programs grant each year. If there’s continued ~20% growth in Ph.D.s granted, the growth projected by the BLS will only keep pace with the number of new Ph.D.s. And unless job growth continues at the same rate, it will quickly be surpassed by Ph.D.s granted (although there must be a ceiling to the number granted, I’m just not sure what that might be — especially since there seem to be more and more new Ph.D. programs… — who doesn’t want teaching assistants?). I’m not sure how Ph.D.s might be limited in the future, but it seems that at the level of the AAA some kind of ‘best practices’ could be developed — which would both ensure a diversity of institutions granting Ph.D.s (so it’s not all elite institutions) and rewards actual success (programs that only graduate 5 students each year, but most of them are employed should be favored over programs that graduate 20 each year and only get 5 employed). But that’s a pretty farfetched possibility… More realistically, students might take to heart the success of programs when selecting where they’ll go, which might lead to the same results, i.e. unsuccessful programs will wither while more successful ones grow.

More pragmatically, programs need to start training graduate students across the subfields to be able to do contract and consulting work, which requires a firm commitment to the professionalization of students that extends past preparing a pretty CV.

Mixed field programs might find ways for graduate students across the subfields to develop collaborative projects, both as term projects, but also as dissertations. Historical archaeologists and cultural anthropologists share many concerns, and teaming graduate students up to conduct collaborative work would prepare them for a future of working on research teams in consulting situations. And cultural anthropologists might think about ways to participate in and contribute to biological fieldwork, with both living and dead populations — which training in science and technology studies might prepare students for. Preparing multi-author papers will help prepare students for the possibility of team-written reports.

Programs might usefully invite local non-academically employed anthropologists for brown bag discussions with graduate students about locating and preparing for jobs in non-academic situations. Most academically employed anthropologists are fairly alienated from these realities, so finding mechanisms to make sure that graduate students aren’t is clearly vital. (If you’re a non-academically employed anthropologist and reading this, you should offer to visit your local Ph.D. granting departments for a brown bag lunch.)

With contacts in local non-academic organizations, students might look towards the possibility of developing local projects (maybe alongside their dissertations) with organizations that already employ anthropologists (Rachel Wright has a nice piece about this in a recent Anthropology News). Whenever I teach our graduate methods class, I have my students volunteer at local organizations — a trick I learned from Penny Edgell at the University of Minnesota. It helps students get their fieldwork feet wet, can result in an early publication, and it also helps them get a sense of how their professional career might involve working in a non-academic setting.

I’m sure there’s more to be done, but the low hanging fruit seems to be finding ways to prepare students for collaborative research possibilities (which cultural anthropology tends not to do, and that’s compounded by the meager funding opportunities that favor solo research) and to introduce them to non-academic employment possibilities. There must be more though — any ideas?