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18 February 2012

Tech in the Classroom and Anthropological Pedagogy

I recently rediscovered one of my favorite anthropologists bringing technology to education.  Mike Wesch at Kansas State University has been showing anthropologists and professors in other disciplines how to inspire and motivate students using tools such as wikis, blogs, twitter, facebook, etc.  He certainly influenced me, as I try to bring as much of his influence to my teaching as possible (given that I've only TA'ed and never led my own class).  This article shows a change in thought - a realization that it's not the technology that makes a good class, but the teacher.  Good teachers may or may not use technology, and the same goes for bad teachers.  In fact, technology-for-technology's sake makes classes fail more often than not.

I'm an advocate for what I would call "appropriate technology" in the classroom.  Use what makes sense, and don't use it if it doesn't make sense.  In other words, if you have to choose between some technological method and a non-technological method that works just as well, use the non-tech method.  Technology often puts an unnecessary burden on teachers and students alike, often just adding to the work without really changing the nature of the class.  If you're going to use technology, make sure it really makes a difference - if it doesn't, it's not worth it.

But more importantly, I think what makes a class and a teacher great is engagement with the students.  In the past, I've referred to an "anthropological pedagogy."  What I mean by that is that we apply the principles of anthropology and anthropological methods to the classroom experience.  According to Tim Ingold, anthropologists, more than any other social scientists, "work with" people.  That's what I think makes for good pedagogy.

It means recognizing the students as subjects - not merely as objects which must be filled with knowledge (this means not demeaning them or belittling them - even behind their backs as some grad students, and I'm sure faculty have a tendency to do).  It means viewing the classroom as a space of mutual co-constitution - people (students and teachers alike) working together to construct a shared understanding.  That doesn't mean that teachers should give up their leading role in the classroom - sometimes that's still the best way.  It also doesn't mean that teachers should acquiesce to student's knowledge claims and accept them as equal to their own.  It means listening and fostering healthy discussion so that knowledge can be shared and developed collaboratively.

There are no strict methods or rules of thumb that can bring this about.  It requires teachers to be attentive, and reflexive - to adapt and continually attempt to improve.  Really that's the key - if every professor did that, then college would be a much better place for everyone involved.

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