By Melanie Banks
A. This semester I am teaching a graduate seminar on Professional Development in Anthropology and Anthropology 1500, a large introductory general education course on Great Discoveries in Archaeology. The introductory course satisfies two general education requirements, so it is typically popular with freshmen looking to check off two requirements at once and explore a topic that they may not have been exposed to before. This semester 150 students are taking the class, and a class of this size can often feel impersonal, even when the class is held in person. At the beginning of the semester, I felt that it was important to welcome each student individually, so that everyone felt that they had at least one faculty member they could reach out to and realize that, despite physical distancing, we are all still part of a bigger class and college community here at UConn. I feel really lucky to be teaching this course—I have been teaching it for more than 15 years and love it! Last year, well before anyone had heard of COVID-19, I worked closely with Betsy Guala, a course designer here at UConn within the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning to develop a fully-online version of the course. While the online course was developed with a much smaller group of students in mind, having the online course shell available made it easier to pivot to online instruction this fall. As an aside, for any interested instructors out there, this course has been approved as a UConn ECE course and the online shell is available for you to use!
This semester, I am assisted by two Teaching Assistants, who help oversee weekly online discussions. About four weeks into the fall semester, I conducted a class survey to check how everyone was doing and I asked the students to share top tips on surviving the unusual circumstances we are all facing. Many students shared strategies they had developed for managing their struggling with time management and the many and varying demands placed upon them by their different courses. Some students reminded their classmates of the importance of eating, breathing, and sleeping and I have to agree—eat well, breathe deeply, and get good sleep! Students are juggling many sets of deadlines and technology-related learning curves on top of the course content. This has been overwhelming for some. I try to make the technology and time management pieces for Anthropology 1500 as easy and straightforward as possible, by sending out regular updates and reminders, and checking in with students who appear to be falling behind. Given that so many freshmen take the class, I firmly believe in the need to provide instruction on strategies that help students succeed in college. Alongside discussions of archaeology, I provide links to resources on campus, strategies for approaching readings and taking useful notes, and exercises that help deepen critical thinking. It can be easy to focus on the challenges that many of us have faced as instructors in light of COVID. There are some silver linings too! As part of the online version of Anthropology 1500, students get to explore archaeology and engage with cultural heritage in a very different way—after watching a lecture on early art, for example, they can now dive straight into a virtual tour of Chauvet Cave in France (archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet/en/virtual-visit). Or they can virtually explore the galleries within the British Museum in London (blog.britishmuseum.org/how-to-explore-the-british-museum-from-home/) as part of our ongoing discussions of cultural heritage—or they can admire the view from the top of a the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico (www.360cities.net/image/pyramid-of-the-sun-teotihuacan) as part of our consideration of state-level societies in Central America. By diversifying the range of instructional materials, and allowing students to progress as their own pace, the course is, in some ways, better suited to a wide range of learning styles than the in-person version!
Q. Professors in the humanities and social sciences are uniquely positioned to read the news and put it in a larger context. How do you engage with the news in your classes and give structure to the moment we are living in?
Anthropologists are very well placed to provide instruction on cultural diversity, race, and racism, and I feel that we have an ethical responsibility to do all that we can to share this knowledge and enhance the cultural-literacy and sensitivity of our students. As part of Anthropology 1500,* students explore how colonial histories have shaped diverse views of the past. In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of the diverse ways of life of people across the globe and through time, students also gain a deeper appreciation of the complex relationships between the past and the present, and learn to discuss and debate multifaceted issues relating to cultural heritage from multiple perspectives. Issues relating to cultural heritage rarely have one simple correct answer. I believe that providing a safe space for discussion to allow students to explore new ideas and change their minds, possibly multiple times, is particularly important right now in light of the divisions we sometimes see in the media.
New archaeological discoveries often appear in the news—these are included as part of a “New Discoveries” forum within the class. Students are also provided the skills that they need to read a news article and evaluate it for thoroughness and potential accuracy. In additional to obtaining cultural sensitivity and emphasizing critical thinking, underscoring the need to evaluate readings for accuracy is essential for today’s students.
* The Anthropology Department is now offering two courses through the UConn ECE program: ANTH 1000: Peoples and Cultures of the World and ANTH 1500: Great Discoveries in Archaeology, both of which explore issues of race and cultural diversity throughout the world. Fully-developed online course content shells are available to certified UConn ECE Instructors to use as resources. If interested in learning more about ANTH 1000 or ANTH 1500, please reach out to Alexia Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Q. While you give structure and context for your students, how do you advise students who come to you confused, disaffected, and/or angry and not knowing how to make positive change?
A. Sometimes students new to archaeology or the social sciences struggle with the way that information is structured. If a student is confused, I review the structure and scaffolding that archaeologists use to gather and interpret data. My background spans the sciences and the social sciences so I can often emphasize with the difficulties that students may be going through as they approach the topic, having experienced them myself!
I haven’t experienced too many students who are angry this semester, but I have interacted with a few. I know that technology struggles can sometimes push people over the edge, myself included! In those instances, I ask what the main issue is and brainstorm potential solutions. In one instance, I connected a student with a resource that could help provide them with access to a laptop. For students who are disaffected, it is a little more challenging this semester—I often send emails checking in to ask whether everything is ok and whether there is anything I can do to help. Oftentimes, this makes the student realize that they are not “unseen” or anonymous in a large online class and they re-engage. Sometimes they don’t engage, however, and that is the hardest part—given that email, or communication tools within the online course, are the only ways I have to communicate with students, I feel somewhat limited in those instances. I can only interact with them if they choose to reciprocate.
In some cases, it is clear that a student is experiencing difficulties well outside my area of expertise. I make sure that students are aware of the range of social supports or mental health resources we have in place on campus and ensure that they understand how accessible these resources are. More rarely, when I have sensed a deeper problem, I have reached out to the Dean of Students’ office to ask them to call a student to see if they are ok. The help is always there—sometimes the students just need a little guidance finding it!