Monday, November 22, 2010

active learning

There's an article on insidehighered.com about active learning in anthropology classrooms. I'm a huge proponent of active learning, and I incorporate a lot of it in my introductory classes, in particular. We walk like chimps, draw rock art and have others try to interpret it, analyze virtual archaeological data, and apply class concepts to all aspects of our own society. Some of the examples of active learning that they gave in the article sound like a lot of fun. I am definitely making my students tape their thumbs to their hands and try to open a starburst.

On the other hand, the article is touting active learning as a way to increase anthropology majors. As a member of a threatened anthropology program (we may be downgraded to a minor if we can't increase the number of majors), I'm very aware of the need. Dynamic instructors and fun classes will increase the number of majors to some extent, but I'm skeptical that they would have a significant effect.

Personally, I think there are two things that might increase our majors: 1) convince students that anthropology is relevant to their daily life and teaches skills that will be useful on the job market. I try to do this when I apply class concepts to our own society, and I do a "what can I do with an anthro degree" lecture each semester. Until we can convince society at large (aka: employers) of the utility of anthropology, we have an uphill battle on this one.; and 2) convince students that it doesn't really matter whether their major is anthropology or sociology or political science, or history. Unless they major in a clearly applied field (like business), then one general liberal arts degree is just as good as another on the job market, so they might as well study something they enjoy.

Obviously, I'm only talking about increasing undergraduate majors here, not grooming students for graduate school. I'm pretty hesitant to encourage students toward graduate school, given the current job market for anthropology PhD's. There are exceptions (I have a Native American student who wants to be a bioarchaeologist, for example), but in general I let the students decide they just can't live without a PhD in anthropology before I will talk to them about graduate studies.


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