Anthro Brown Bag

News and interesting stuff for Anthros and beyond!

Teaching, Grading, and Banging My Head Against the Wall? March 31, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — MallyMay @ 12:16 AM

Over the past couple week or so, as I’ve attempted to grade 40+ Intro to Cultural Anthropology tests, I’ve been thinking about teaching, grading, and the impact it does (or doesn’t) have on my students.

Whenever we teach, whether we’re grad students teaching a real class for the first time or seasoned veterans with tenure, it seems we always manage to harp on about all the terrible questions we get during class or answers we see on tests.  My personal favorites from this particular test include: apparently at some point during my lectures a student learned that incest is considered appropriate in Hawaiian culture (?!?, wtf, I KNOW I never said that!), and the answer “monogamy is still common because it is the formal way of marriage and living since the beginning of time” (*facepalm*…).


But I’ve also learned to look for the subtle clues that the student really IS learning SOMETHING.  It’s in the mostly wrong answer that is leaning toward the right attitude while using the wrong terms: “The Australians were ethnocentric because they thought they could take all the natives’ stuff because they were barbarians and didn’t know how to use good technology”.  Or it’s in the student who comes up to you after class: “I didn’t realize polygamy was so common around the world!  It still seems really weird to me, and I don’t know why any woman would be ok with it, but I really thought it was just a Mormon thing!”  To our anthro ears enculturated with cultural relativism, statements like these make us cringe.  And yet, when we compare them to what the student may have thought coming into the class, we might be able to claim a little victory.


A recent post by Matt Thompson on Savage Minds had a great quote that I thought was worth sharing.

“For the majority of them my precious notes were a waste and you know what? That’s fine. They are not going to be anthropologists. In all likelihood they’ll never write another essay outside of college. Instead of teaching them to write like anthropologists I’d rather start them on the journey (and it is an iterative process, for all of us) of trying to think like one.”

Matt was talking about writing assignments, but I haven’t been brave enough to attempt one of those during an intro class yet.  The closest I get is putting short answer questions on the exams.  (And then I had one kid leave all of them blank!  Blank!  I was so tempted to write “Why even take the test?!”)  However, I think his insight here can apply to grading tests as well.


Fortunately, I managed to read Matt’s post BEFORE starting to grade my tests, and I’ve been trying to keep this in mind while I grade.  Instead of looking for the perfect complete answer, I look for some indication that the student has grasped the main point of what I was trying to teach on that issue.  If they mix up polyandry and polygyny, but get the benefits and possible reasons for development correct, I’m going to give them at least half credit.  And if every single person misses a question, perhaps it’s not the students who are at fault?  Did I not cover it well enough?  I have to keep in mind that most of these kids are NOT going to be anthropologists, and this may be the only exposure they ever get to what I consider a critical change in thinking patterns.  Isn’t that what should be most important about these classes?


Also, I should note that I have a standing rule when I grade.  If, after all the tests I’ve graded and all the smart-ass comments I’ve read, the student manages to make me actually Laugh Out Loud…they get at least half credit, whether the answer was at all correct or not.  Gotta have some room for humor in academia!


2 Responses to “Teaching, Grading, and Banging My Head Against the Wall?”

  1. I feel you, and I love it when their responses make me lol. But I think one of the harder things for me is when they get it wrong in ways that aren’t just wrong in terms of anthro but racist in ways they are now using what I’m teaching to support …

  2. Ayesha Says:

    this is a very insightful blog you have written that i am about to share on my face book community page South Asian Anthropology (
    am an anthropologist myself currently a research student also teaching in university of london’s external programs. would keep a lookout for interesting stuff on this blog 🙂

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