At the start of every semester, I look into the faces of the new crop of students I’ve been entrusted with and I wonder. I wonder what sort of stories these new students will have to tell. I wonder what new things I will learn about their lives and cultures. I wonder what new connections will be made over the next few months– connections between students, between ideas, even between communities. I wonder what new mistakes I’ll make this semester, and how I’ll fix them — and what I’ll leave broken for my students to piece back together.
Most of all, I simply wonder. Anthropology is a wonderer’s discipline, revealing (without always solving) mysteries all around us in the most seemingly trivial everyday events. For over six years now, I’ve made it my goal to share that sense of wonder with my students, to instruct them in the use of the academic’s tools to uncover the many connections that lay hidden in their daily interactions and everyday routines.
My six-plus years in community college and public university classrooms have been full of wonders. Never could I have imagined the diversity of Las Vegas students! I’ve taught students from some sixty or so different countries, ranging from Pakistan to Serbia to Uruguay to Uganda to Malaysia. Alongside them were students from dozens of American subcultures: Navajo and Shoshone, African-American and Asian-American, practitioners of Santeria and LDS missionaries, high school juniors and retired Marines and elderly ex-showgirls. To help them make sense of “our culture” in these surroundings requires a constant awareness of and adaptation to the subtle and not-so-subtle similarities and differences that define them.
My goal has been to turn the diversity of my students from a barrier — between them and me but also between them and each other — into a resource. I’ve always used a variety of writing assignments that encouraged students to relate their readings to their personal experiences, and recently I’ve expanded on this concept by establishing a class website where they can share their stories not just with me but with their fellow students. These frequent writing assignments allow me to evaluate the development of students’ mastery of the material over the course of the semester, tracking their growth on a week to week basis. But more importantly, because they are shared with their fellow students, they create a huge “database” of diverse experiences, a house full of windows into one’s classmates’ unique and varied experiences.
With every assignment I seek to lead students to look beyond the lives and the world that they know and to explore the connections that bind them to lives and worlds outside their own. All my assignments ask students to demonstrate not just their knowledge of the ideas we cover in class but their ability to apply those ideas in understanding the world around them. I have also organized trips to local museums where students can see first-hand the material reality of the cultures we discuss only as abstracts in class, and assign various events around campus and throughout the local community as extra credit to encourage students to engage, both personally and academically, with the society around them.
Teaching has finally taught me the meaning of E.M. Forster’s cryptic admonishment to “Only connect”. Connect ideas and descriptions to students’ lives; connect students’ lives one to the other; connect the experiences within my classroom’s walls to the world outside them. These connections start in the wonder that real engagement can elicit, and end in a greater understanding of the community that I’ve come to see not merely as the setting for instruction but the context, and indeed, the point, of academic instruction.