NEW ORLEANS -- It is no secret that these are hard times for anthropology. The discipline claims little more than one-half of 1 percent  of undergraduate degrees conferred, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Anthropology departments across the country have been rebranded  or threatened with being merged  or scrapped; jobs have been targeted .
A panel here Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association pointed to one possible way to reverse these fortunes. The session, “Active Learning: Engaging Activities to Create Eager Students,” featured accounts from faculty members -- at community colleges and four-year institutions, and who teach both introductory and upper-level courses -- who have moved beyond standard textbook-and-lecture teaching methods to make anthropology more tangible, and make it come alive. What they learned suggests that the best way to save anthropology on college campuses may well be to allow students to actually experience … anthropology.
For example, Jerusha Achterberg, who was finishing her Ph.D. in biocultural anthropology at the University of Washington at the time, described how four rooms, which held a collection of bones, monkey heads, and animal skulls that had fallen into neglect, turned into an opportunity for two undergraduate students.
Rather than leaving to a future postdoc or fellow graduate student the job of organizing the collection, she assigned the task to two undergrads. The students, who normally would be kept far from such duties, she said, were trained in handling, cataloging, and labeling the collection. In the process, they got the chance to do hands-on research. Achterberg, who is now a preceptor at Harvard University's writing project, also had students conduct their own self-generated projects out in the field and present them to their peers and her colleagues. “Non-honors undergraduates are perfectly capable of this work,” said Achterberg. “They just need to have the chance to do it.”
Nancy Gonlin, a specialist in Mesoamerican archaeology at Bellevue College, a community college in Bellevue, Wash., said she realized that, for her discipline, in which half the work takes place out in the field, it only makes sense to expose students to real practice. “Why not do some archaeology in the classroom?” she asked.
Gonlin described how she brought a few of her students with her to do fieldwork in Oaxaca to work on El Mapa de Teozacoalco, a 5-by-6-foot map drawn around 1580 by indigenous people there. It includes Mixtec glyphs that identify the natural features, boundaries and genealogy of the area. Recognizing that trips to the field aren't always easy in the era of strapped budgets, Gonlin also has had her students draw maps of the campus area, but in the Mixtec style.
She credits the approach with increasing interest in the subject and boosting academic performance. In 2005-6, Bellevue's anthropology classes were filled to just 60 percent of capacity. This semester, the fill rate was up to 95 percent, she said.
Approaches that are simpler but equally pedagogically driven also have borne fruit. Gonlin's colleague Tony Tessandori described how he teaches first-year students the distinguishing characteristics of primates. He will ask one group of students to understand the physiology of a non-primate by wearing hats with a bar protruding from the bridge of the nose (which scrambles the natural ability to see in three dimensions). He will then toss students a ball (they often drop it) to demonstrate what an evolutionary advantage this kind of vision can be. He also asks students to wear red-tinted glasses and try to pick out one "safe" Starburst candy from among four "poisonous" ones -- a task that is made impossible because the glasses make their human eyes perceive in two colors, not three, and the candies all look the same.
As a final exercise, he tapes their thumbs to their hands and makes them open the Starburst candies (which is pretty much impossible without opposable thumbs). His students remember the distinctions of primates long after they have taken the class, he said, because they've experienced it. "These things should come with an anthropology textbook," one audience member joked.
Other classroom strategies orient students to areas they are already interested in. Dana Herrera, associate professor of anthropology at St. Mary's College of California, used the multiple-user, online, virtual environment World of Warcraft to teach anthropology and, with her husband, economics professor András Margitay-Becht. She has used the game to teach introductory level students, and refresh upper-level ones, about cultural practice and learned and shared patterns of behavior. Students also examine what happens culturally when interacting with others when their gender, age, race, and general appearance are unclear, due to the anonymity of online activity.
Herrera said the experience has been eye-opening for students in the introductory levels, as they come to recognize that anthropology does not concern itself solely with far-away tribes from long-ago periods. It ponders human behavior as it occurs in the here and now. “My students say, 'Wait, this is anthropology?' ” she said, which prompts a second question: “ 'Wait, can I be a major in anthropology?' ”
She estimated that between 5 and 10 students have opted to major or minor in the department at her 2,300-student college over the last several years as a result of her use of the game.