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Anthropology, Teaching, Empathy

Professor Michael Wesch’s reflections on Why Good Classes Fail received follow-ups and well-deserved attention. Unfortunately in some of the wider follow-ups–such as the piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the idea of empathy as a key component seemed to drop out. Empathy is crucial, not just for teaching, but for anthropological inquiry.

Anthropologists have long been thinking about empathy as a human characteristic, our perhaps uniquely-developed (if not always used!) ability to imagine from the place of another. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues human empathy is part of our evolution as cooperative breeders, a key component of our humanity, but which could also evolve away.

Indeed, the idea of empathy has even deeper roots than academic anthropology–in his 1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith talked about this as sympathy, which Smith saw as foundational to social life (Amartya Sen’s introduction to the Penguin 2010 version is particularly worth reading as a way to re-think Adam Smith).

Below are a collection of posts and resources around these themes. Some are directly related to Wesch’s piece, others are about teaching and anthropology, others about empathy and anthropological understandings.

Why Good Classes Fail, Michael Wesch
So what’s wrong? In short, the common thread I see throughout all the failures is quite simply a lack of empathy. There is no authentic encounter with students, or what Martin Buber called “a genuine meeting.” When we use all the right methods, and we still fail, it is most likely because we are encountering our students as objects and not as the rich and complex individuals that they are. When we do not bring our authentic selves to the classroom and open up to an authentic encounter with our students and the topic at hand we fail, regardless of the methods we choose. “Methods” and “techniques” need to grow out of an authentic encounter with students and the material. Any focus on method and technique alone will be prone to failure. Our questions will fall flat, our lectures flatter, and break-out sections, group work and other participatory methods become just one more thing to do, seemingly without purpose or relevance.

Digital Ethnography, 16 February 2012

A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working, Jeffrey R. Young
Wesch is not swearing off technology–he still believes you can teach well with YouTube and Twitter. But at a time when using more interactive tools to replace the lecture appears to be gaining widespread acceptance, he has a new message. It doesn’t matter what method you use if you do not first focus on one intangible factor: the bond between professor and student.

The Meaningful Life of Manophet, Patrick F. Clarkin
I can’t help but wonder whether the stresses Manophet experienced early in his life during the war were somehow connected to his premature passing. It’s impossible to know, of course, but there is a wide range of epidemiological literature that suggests the correlation is entirely feasible. Despite the tragedies in his life, he made the most of his time while he was here, helping others whenever possible and with a smile on his face. The world needs more people like him.

The Purpose of Anthropological Research, Jeremy Trombley
The purpose of anthropological research is not to “understand” others–different cultures, different people, etc. The goal of anthropological research is to build relationships with others.

Why the Cultural Conversation Should Never Stop, Melissa Rinehart
As anthropologists we are all part of a larger narrative, in fact I believe our abilities to narrate various chapters of the human story is what sets our field apart from other sciences.

Bonus! Anthropology Makes Normal Human Interaction Virtually Impossible, Rob Gargett
Anthropologists can help humanity prevail over its dreadful history, its inglorious present, and its uncertain future, but only if we involve the rest of humanity in our work. Like Melissa Rinehart, I believe that it begins with talking, one to one, just as you and I are doing right now. This medium–call it what you will–is making global understanding more possible than it’s ever been before. Let’s not squander the opportunities that we, as anthropologists, have been given.

Anthropological theory and ethnography summer course
I will be building a unique set of resources, including interviews, topical modules, and website devoted to the material. All this will be open access and free, so even if you’re not in the area, I still encourage you to follow along with the course.
I guarantee that this will be the most highly-focused and thought-provoking survey of anthropological theory–a boot camp in the history of ideas about culture and human nature. I can’t wait to start!

John Hawks Weblog, 25 March 2012

Statement of Teaching Philosophy, Kerim Friedman
As this is something many people also struggle with in job applications, I thought I’d talk a little about the genre and share my own statement in full. Sharing my statement takes a little guts, as I really struggled to write an honest statement as opposed to the kind of jargon and cliché ridden statements I’ve seen when sitting on the other side of a job search committee, or when looking for sample documents on the web.

Savage Minds, 13 March 2012

Using Social Media to Teach Theory to Undergraduate Students, Carole McGranahan
How could I teach theory so that introductory students could retain and use this knowledge beyond exam day? What new pedagogies would enable students to carry the theoretical messages of Levi-Strauss or Mead or Ortner with them? My strategy was to turn to social media, to teach theory by putting students in dialogue with each other: I created two new course assignments, a student-generated theory wiki and a theory blog.

Savage Minds, 5 March 2012


Tech in the Classroom and Anthropological Pedagogy, Jeremy Trombley
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.

Eidetic Illuminations, 18 February 2012

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