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.