Wednesday, January 12, 2011

introducing the culture concept

I talked about the first class of my Introduction to Biological Anthropology class in a previous post. Today, I'll talk about the first class of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class.

My main goal in this class is to make students aware that culture is "naturalized", so many of their beliefs about what is "naturally" or "fundamentally" human (gender roles, attitudes toward material goods, etc.) are actually a product of what they've been taught as a member of their/our culture. In my experience, this simple concept is incredibly difficult for many students to internalize.

As with BioAnth, I do an activity before I even hand out the syllabus. I take this activity from John Omohundru's Thinking Like an Anthropologist textbook (highly recommended for anyone with an interest in active learning.) I ask students to draw a "typical family" in their notebooks, just a quick, stick-figure sketch. I give them a little time, then I draw on the board a "standard" mom, dad, little boy, little girl, (and dog, just for fun). I ask how many people drew the same thing (plus or minus the dog), and almost everyone raises their hands. Then I ask how many of them come from a family that looks like that picture. A much smaller sub-set raise their hands. Then I tell them that far less than half of households in the U.S. look like that picture. I ask them, "If it's not actually typical, why is this considered a "typical" family? How did I know what you drew?"

I lead the following discussion through the anthropological concept of culture, specifically discussing how our culture teaches us what a "typical" family is "supposed" to look like. I then ask about the other ways that families can be structured, and we discuss that the "typical" nuclear family isn't just a minority of families in the U.S., but is a minority world-wide. I lead them to the conclusion that the nuclear family is not a standard or default form of family structure, one that comes from some basic biological adaptation. I wrap up the discussion by suggesting that we've engaged in a process of exploration that will serve as a model for the whole class. First, we recognize what we've been taught by our own culture, the richness and fullness of our lived cultural experience, and the assumptions that are part of that experience. We then explore the wealth of alternative concepts and structures around the world, while gaining the recognition that "our" way is not an inherently characteristic of all humans but is one among many equally exciting ways of being human. Finally, we are able to talk about fundamental aspects of humanity in a deeper and more sophisticated way (for example, by recognizing that the concept of "family" is universal, even if conceived of in different ways.)

I'll admit, there are students who still don't get it, and the majority of students only understand my point imperfectly. My hope, frankly, is just to get such students thinking about their own assumptions. Whatever else they learn is gravy.

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