Twenty Years After: Some thoughts on my first semester back to the classroom

Grades are nearly complete (save the "Incompletes") and I have decompressed after my semester back teaching Anthropology after 22 years as a dean. My previous blog post noted some apprehensions and expectations and some goals. So, how did it go, you might ask.

My first impression of my students was that they hadn't changed all that much in 20 years.  Sure, I was now the age of their grandparents, but their behavior seemed consistent with what I remember, especially for the undergraduates.

The Introduction to Archaeology students were mostly first year.  They were basically doe-eyed, not really knowing what to expect and carrying on the educational culture in which they had been immersed the previous 12 years. They were passive.  This showed up in politeness and deference, but of course as we all know, it also kept them from stepping forward to speak for themselves even when prompted.  I pledged to keep an active classroom, and for the most part I did.  I rarely stayed on one topic for more than 20 minutes (of an 80 minute class), and always gave them a break of 5 minutes to do whatever they liked.  As you might guess, they mostly turned to their smartphones and laptops.

The  issue of keeping them responsive to me and away from their screens became a force of wills.  I understand the addiction to smart phones and the derivative need to stay in touch with friends and even parents continuously.  I began the class by telling them that this kind of behavior was not allowed and that the 5 minute break would allow them to fulfill this need (although I suggested that they get up an walk out of the classroom for 5 minutes).   For the most part my strategy worked with regard to cell phones. However, I then began to see an increase in laptops, which were flipped open during class.  Several students indicated that they used these for taking notes. Each class I had to ask students to close their laptops; some held out and insisted that it was for note-taking at which time, I told them to write notes. I have to admit that I was frustrated about having to do this each class, and I intend to be be more forceful next semester.

As for active teaching, I found that the new multi-media capabilities of the classroom were extremely helpful in enhancing the didactic, conversational and group work parts of the classroom.  I often planned  possible videos (youtube, Ted talks, Khan academy) but I also found that I could bring one up within a minute if something came to me.  Most classes therefore had some sort of multimedia component, many times spontaneous. 

Perhaps the most effective technique I developed had to do with encouraging students to speak to the class.

For this I yielded to extra credit, indicating that any student who wanted to present a news article related to archaeology and write a short (250 word max) report on it would receive points toward their grade.  About 1/4 of the two clases (which totalled about 60 students) took advantage of this and the results I think were quite successful and even enlightening.  First, the range of articles chosen showed a great diversity of interests among students. They also proved that they generally used the internet well by drawing on peer-reviewed articles (which I had explained to them).  Their talks ranged from biblical archaeology to zoo-archaeology. And the appeared sincerely interested in their topic. Finally  no one asked to present an article on dinosaurs! 

I then improvised off of these talks. After the talks for that day were completed, I gave the students a break, and dug up some video clip or imagery that related to each of the student talks.  They had all developed some visual with their presentations (usually a powerpoint), so I found something else on the web concerning their exact issue, or something related.  I then presented these drawing out the connections between each student's interest and topic and the class at hand.  I engaged most to the presenting students in some conversation with regard to their topic, thereby reinforcing their ownership and knowledge of the subject.

The other interactive aspect of the class involved software developed by in an e-text called Revealing Archaeology.  This comprehensive 'text' was the students' main reading and included short but rigorous exercises after each of 8 modules.  For example, after a module on how to excavate a site, students were asked to 'dig' a virtual site  and then describe and interpret the archaeological remains they recovered. They had to do this within a budget so they could not just excavate the entire site, thereby learning about sampling.  Students were responsible to meet the due dates of the module completion, a record of which was available to them and to me.  I assigned 5 points for modules completed on time, and 2.5 credits for late submissions.  The e-text offers an interactive grade book that automatically records their submissions and award points based on the due dates I choose. This e-text allowed me to flip the classroom, so each of the classes was about the topics in the modules, but focussed on the conceptual bases, with many examples from my experience in the field of archaeology.

For example, one of the modules was on the dating of artifacts. The question of how old something is, of course, key to understanding its cultural and historical context.  The modules discussed the two main ways to date things, relative (e.g stratigraphy) and absolute (e.g. radiocarbon).  My classroom discussion could then focus on the concept of time. My idea was to get them to think reflectively on what time means to western society; the various ways we conceptualize it and measure it.  I pressed them to think "Einsteinian"  by introducing the space-time continuum  and the measurement of time in terms of the spatial movement of the earth and moon and how this underlies our daily rhythms and activities. We talked about seasonal time (the semester), linear time (the solar revolution) and daily time (the analog clock on the wall).  We then related this to excavating back in time and interpreting seasonal archaeological sites. 

The midterm and final were also somewhat out of the box (if I may say so), although I borrowed the concept from an Art History at the University of South Carolina. Students were handed out a series of questions (6 for the midterm, 8 for the final) about a week before the in-class exams.  The questions focussed on conceptual  (e.g. time and space), methodological (e,g. excavation, dating) and 'real life' issues (e.g. explaining to their parents why taking an anthropology course was not a waste of time and money). The students were divided into groups, where they discussed one of the questions, and presented their thoughts to the class as a whole.  The midterm was subsequently comprised of 2  of the handed-out questions, and the final 3 questions, which were announced at the time of the exam.   The goal here of course was to have the students study the cumulative course material as an integrated whole. I am still assessing this method, but my preliminary thoughts are that this technique not only encouraged students to pay attention to the reading and class materials, but it also allowed them to process it so that their essays for the most part were coherent and even well spelled despite the fact that they were timed and in class.

So that is a first draft of my return to the undergraduate classroom. Stay tuned to part II: the Graduate (M.A.) students.