I taught my first undergraduate anthropology class seventeen years ago, which is sometimes hard for me to believe. In that time, I’ve had over two thousand students enrolled in my courses, many of whom have left an impression on me. I hope I make a good impression on them too, though sometimes I have my doubts. A few years ago, a student asked me what my name was as they started to fill out the line after “Instructor” on the front page of their exam blue book. That was about halfway into the semester. You can’t reach them all, I suppose.
During my fourth year of teaching “Introduction to Biological Anthropology,” we got about two-thirds into the semester, and I paused to take the class’ pulse on how things were going. I asked them if they had any general thoughts about the class, such as what ideas they found interesting (or not), things they wished we could discussed more in depth, etc. I have since forgotten most of the students’ comments, except for one.
I remember that he wasn’t exactly the best student, and that he had struggled with most of the graded assignments. Nonetheless, I still learned something from him that day. He told the class that he thought evolution was an interesting idea, but he was skeptical about it applying to humans because, as he said, “Well, I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey.” This all occurred a long time ago, but I remember that at first I was puzzled by what he meant. And then it clicked.
I have had many memorable students over the years. Since 2003, the class I’ve taught most frequently at my university – nearly every semester – has been one of our staple courses, “Introduction to Biological Anthropology.” In all, I estimate that I’ve had nearly a thousand students enrolled in that one course.
Out of those thousand students, the single best one (the one who received the highest grade) was a Sudanese refugee named ‘John’ (a pseudonym). He got every exam question right, mastered every essay and assignment, and also received every available extra credit point. That was nine years ago.
During the first week of the semester, I used this scene from the movie ‘Gravity’ in my Introduction to Biological Anthropology class.
This came after I asked the class: why should we even care about biological anthropology? What’s the point? I used the image as a metaphor to say that what we’re trying to do is to get our bearings as to where we fit in nature. It can be difficult — things are moving fast, we’re disoriented, there’s a lot of debris (or data) flying around us.
Despite that, we can look to what’s around us to orient ourselves. There’s the earth, the sun, ’empty’ space, etc. I think the same applies to biological anthropology. We look to the fossil record, genetics, anatomy, the living primates (and to a lesser extent other living species), human variation, etc. to figure out our approximate position.
I’m not sure if the metaphor worked, but I had some fun with it.
One of the better examples I’ve yet found that conveys the concept of evolution comes from the 2002 NOVA documentary “Search for the First Human.” The main focus of the video is the species Orrorin tugenensis and it’s possible place in our family tree six million years ago. However, two particular segments stand out to me, and I think do a pretty good job of conveying the idea of evolution to students.
This is the fourth year I’ve visited the 8th graders at the KIPP school in Lynn, Massachusetts to talk about anthropology and evolution for a few hours. Every year, their teacher has them write me thank you notes, about 90 in all over three classes. That alone makes the visit worth it.
Over at Scientific American, Kate Wong compiled a list of some of the most compelling discoveries in human evolution from 2013. I won’t rehash her entire list here, but the ones that will stick with me for a while include the variation found among the Dmanisi hominins, probably all within the same species. The other is the genetic evidence for interbreeding between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other extinct humans. Fascinating.
Sometimes students need a boost, as they can get pulled down into the routine of trying to balance school and life, studying and making ends meet. Sometimes I’m right there with them. I’m keenly aware that they have different motives for being in school. To some, university is just what’s been expected of them since they were children. It’s just the next step. For others it was a more deliberate decision. And of course for nearly all of them, a diploma is seen as a ticket to a better future. However, that doesn’t automatically translate into curiosity or enthusiasm.
On those days when I need to remind myself to look up and remember what it’s all about, I’ll turn to a few key ideas to get me back down to bedrock. What’s the point? It’s got to be more than trying to memorize keywords and jumping through all the right hoops in order to graduate. I think it’s pretty simple: trying to use our very short time here to better understand the world while we have the opportunity. Knowledge for its own sake.
To get that across to one of my classes, I recently shared this passage from Frank McCourt’s autobiography Angela’s Ashes. In this part of the book, McCourt is a young boy in school in gritty, western Ireland in the 1930s. Most of the boys in his class face some level of hardship, with many struggling for necessities, including food and shoes. The teacher tries to inspire them:
“Mr. O’Halloran (the teacher) says, You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it… You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” (p. 208)
Our students are pretty diverse, with many first-generation college students (as was I). Depending on the conditions in which someone grew up, this passage might come across as sappy or inspirational. I prefer the latter.
These are the class rules and motivations I gave my students this semester, borrowed from the good people at KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I thought it would be better to keep things simple and positive, and these sounded a lot better than a list of “don’ts.” Continue reading
My 8th grade class. It’s relevant.
Last week, I spoke with three 8th-grade science classes at the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academy in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s my third visit in two years, and I’ve found my time there to be very well-spent. KIPP is a neat place. The teachers are passionate and believe in their students, who in turn are highly enthusiastic and engaged. On its website, the program mentions that its objective is to help students in under-served communities around the United States “climb the mountain to and through college.” This is accomplished through effective teachers, a lengthened school day and week, and by instilling “a strong culture of achievement.”
One very admirable aspect to their philosophy is that “demographics do not define destiny.” More than 87 percent of KIPP students nationally come from low-income families, but the school feels that this can be overcome through hard work, and they have the data to back this up. “There are no shortcuts,” is one of their school mottos. Good for them.
Some of the fossil casts I brought with me. Except the one on the left. That’s a boy (my son, actually).
Though many people may not realize it, faculty are usually required by their university to do more than teach. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, which to me is essentially taking ideas that excite me and sharing them with students. In addition to this, faculty usually must also conduct academic research and writing. This is often the activity most valued by the university, though to many people outside of academia this may seem like superfluous activity. The third arena is service, which is usually the least acknowledged of the three primary duties. Service activities can be directed toward one’s department, university, profession, the community, or some other larger population or organization. My university has written into its Mission and Values a commitment to the local urban community and the greater public good.
… Continue reading