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Innovating Anthropological Pedagogy: Insights for the present and future

By Louise de la Gorgendière, Carleton University, Winner of the 2021 CASCA Award for Teaching Excellence (Faculty)

In what ways do we, as ‘anthropology teachers’, provide opportunities for our students to better understand the important anthropological insights they can bring to creative problem-solving and engagement in the real world? [1] There is widespread recognition that anthropologists have much to contribute by actively engaging in our rapidly changing circumstances where socioeconomic inequality, injustices, discrimination, and human rights abuses are rife. For instance, today we bear witness as Covid-19 shifts everything, as recent IT/digital advances create larger gaps between the haves and have-nots, and as the pervasive legacy of colonialism continues to structure global relationships. How do we prepare students facing such complex issues and an ever-changing global landscape through our teaching? Moreover, how can we transform our pedagogy to benefit learners who face immense levels of precarity in future employment?  In approaching the teaching of anthropology as a reflexive pedagogy, I intentionally integrate my intellectual background and identity as a professor, researcher, and applied anthropologist[2]. My varied experiences provide a unique vantage point from which to imagine novel ways to develop anthropology-specific teaching and learning strategies.

First of all, it is imperative to acknowledge that very often our students do not know what they know! This is a major concern that we cannot overlook as we endeavour to impart knowledge and encourage students to become co-producers of knowledge. How can we teach our students to implement what they learn in the “real world”? Our pedagogical approaches can make use of innovative ways to help our students be better prepared through a combination of theory and applied knowledge. The current push by universities for experiential learning can enhance students’ awareness of what is going on beyond the classroom in their field of interest – through placements, internships, community engagement, co-op opportunities, or volunteer experiences. What can we do to build upon such strategies? Despite the benefits of hands-on learning, though, experiential learning outside the classroom is not always feasible for many students and not easily adaptable to certain courses. How do we bring such ‘experiences’ into the classrooms when we teach? What follows is a brief account of one attempt to do this by organizing a ‘development workshop’ for my students.

In my anthropology of development course (second year, 55-60 students), I hold a ‘workshop’ later in the term. Groups of 5+/- students work together to unpack an assigned case study to identify key issues related to development. Each group works together over a two-week period to design a ‘development project’ that must involve local ‘participants’ and other ‘stakeholders’ in decision-making processes.  I provide each student with a personal workshop folder with information about the assignment and suggest possible modes of analysis for prioritizing issues and moving forward. I assign each student a specific ‘stakeholder/participant position’ (actor role) to take on as they work together to design their proposed project. This assignment, therefore, includes an element of performance, as students take on various roles of ‘development actors’ in their efforts to identify and prioritize key issues for their ‘development project’. The assignment teaches students to be critical of development processes, while also reflecting on the very real problems targeted in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The final deliverables and group oral presentations allow students to showcase their collaborative efforts in a poster board display. The exercise includes the use of the Logical Framework Analysis model, a widely employed ‘tool’ for development practitioners that provides a synopsis of an actual development project from start to completion (Wider Goal, Specific Objectives, Outcomes, Activities, Inputs, SMART Indicators of progress, etc.), and uses If/Then logic functions to identify assumptions in planning and to eliminate risk. At the end, students submit final written assignments linked to their group project in which they reflect on their experience, consider the core concepts and literatures covered in the course, and respond to critiques of ‘development processes’. The ‘eureka moment’ for many students is that the process of ‘doing good’/‘doing development’ to address the SDGs is much more problematic than they anticipated.  The project requires students to ask themselves: If working collaboratively to prioritize issues and design a project with a small group of peers was very challenging for them, then how much more so is it for development practitioners, who must engage with numerous North-South or South-South stakeholders/actors at all levels from donors and staff to government/non-government and grassroots/local collaborators and project participants? For students who complete this project, theory and practice come together in unforeseen and creative ways. Students reflect on what the possibilities are for development endeavors, who holds ‘power’ for decision-making, how gender issues are implicated, whose voices are heard, and which issues are prioritized and by whom. While acknowledging their own privileged status, students also identify underlying issues that are not openly acknowledged (e.g., N-S postcolonial relations) and consider the role(s) that anthropologists might play in addressing these concerns – as facilitators, researchers/theorists, practitioners/consultants, and students/professors.

Upon completion of this course, students have gone on to do placements or work with NGOs or other agencies. They reported to me afterwards that one of the first meetings they attended included a discussion of a Logical Framework, and how excited they were that they could actively engage and contribute ideas right away.

Scaffolding and developing key competencies, as I do with this assignment, emphasizes deep learning and higher-level cognitive skills and takes an interactive and constructivist approach to facilitate students’ learning. It is an experiential activity that strives to develop students’ critical analysis and problem-solving skills, alongside overlapping, “soft” skills such as networking, sharing, teamwork and collaborative learning, participation, communication, digital competencies, planning, research project conceptualization, and creativity. Throughout, anthropological theory and praxis are intertwined. These competencies are viewed as essential learning and employability skills for the future – no matter which direction learners decide to take. Such learning experiences are participatory, social, and supportive of students’ personal life goals and needs.

[1] I would like to thank CASCA for awarding me the inaugural CASCA Award for Teaching Excellence for faculty (CATE), and for inviting me to share some of my pedagogical ideas here.

[2] My applied anthropological experience includes working as a Social Development Advisor and Gender Specialist for: the UK’s Department for International Development; Foreign Affairs Office, France; International Labour Organization / United Nations Development Program. I have also worked as a Senior Medical Research Officer, Government of Scotland, and as an expert witness for a Canadian-Ghanaian immigration case at Tribunal.


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