Guerrilla Teaching


September 12, 2014
GUERRILLA TEACHING with Leah McCurdy, PhD Candidate & Adjunct Professor, and Will Roberston, PhD Student & Adjunct Professor. Will and Leah first heard of Guerrilla Teaching from a Faculty Focus article. This article inspired Will to bring Leah in and implement some Guerrilla Teaching in his class. We discussed what Guerrilla Teaching is, how Will implemented it in class, and possibilities for such methods in the future.

Leah introduced the topic of guerrilla teaching, providing background from the inspirational article. Guerrilla Teaching is a term coined by Mark Anderson and Micah Fierstein (2014) in their article entitled “Using Guerrilla Tactics to Improve Teaching” in Faculty Focus. Guerrilla teaching is founded in a cooperative teaching spirit with goals for improvisation in class, fostering dynamic classroom environments, and collaborating with other instructors directly in front of students. This all started with a normal class day and Fierstein walking down the hall past Anderson’s classroom. Upon hearing some interesting bits of Anderson’s lecture and discussion, Fierstein entered the class and posed a question to Anderson’s students (without Anderson’s foreknowledge). This “border crossing” as they call it “unleashed a series of questions and ideas that tumbled around each other like clothes in a dryer.” Thus, guerrilla teaching was born. After this initial experience, the authors determined that some guerrilla ground-rules were necessary. They stress invitations rather than totally unexpected class visits, a period of initial, unobtrusive observation by the guerrilla, a maximum of 10 minutes guerrilla interaction and involvement in class, and the guerrilla’s departure before the end of class.

Based on Anderson and Fierstein’s original article and some commentary to this article on the Faculty Focus website, as well as the blog “Academically Oriented” by Amanda Sain, Leah discussed the following student and teacher benefits that can develop from guerrilla teaching:

Student Benefits:

  • exposure to more faculty
  • exposure to multiple and possibility divergent perspectives on a topic
  • introduces a change to the classroom dynamic and can help students refocus
  • faculty can model for students ways to engage intellectually and effectively in discussion about class content
  • enhances the open and friendly discussion atmosphere in a class and hopefully entices shy students to join in

Faculty Benefits:

  • get a chance to observe how students engage with other faculty members (who may have a different teaching style)
  • small introduction to team teaching and the dynamics of collaboration
  • opens up discussion about teaching techniques and specific class content between faculty members
  • depending on faculty levels of experience, this can serve as a way for faculty to learn from each other

Will implemented guerrilla teaching into his upper division class on Kinship at UTSA in the Spring 2014 semester. He invited Leah to come participate in his entire 50 minute class session. The particular class session was scheduled to be a discussion on the subject of Personhood, guided by the well-known Comaroff and Comaroff (2001) article on personhood in Africa. The students were expected to come to class having read the article and prepared to discuss it. Will invited Leah for this particular class session because he was aware the she applies Comaroff and Comaroff’s (2001) ideas about state of being and process of becoming in novel ways to her archaeological research on construction practices and labor of the ancient Maya. Will knew that Leah had a good understanding of the article and would be able to address both its detail and broad significance. Beforehand, Will and Leah discussed their “plan of attack” for this guerrilla teaching situation. Will was interested in shaking his students up (as he had been doing throughout the semester) so he offered Leah the task of rattling cages, challenging everything, and generally bringing an energetic guerrilla spirit to the discussion. Leah wholeheartedly accepted this directive!

In class, Will introduced Leah briefly and her role as questioner and challenger for their discussion. Will framed the discussion around the definition of personhood he provided to the students in the previous class session. To initiate the discussion, he asked whether this definition is valid, is there anything wrong with it, does it jive with the article’s themes? Leah started in by questioning what we mean by person, individual, and even states of being, building upon the article’s emphasis on process. Throughout the discussion, Will walked among the students, allowing Leah to pose questions, and then probing students to respond and think critically based on the article’s message. There was a great energy to the discussion. While Leah and Will share a similar teaching style, Leah acted the part of a guerrilla. She posed difficult and critical questions (often unknowable questions), challenged student responses, asked the students to critically engage with previous comments. The amount of participation by the class was very encouraging. This was a very dynamic class session with a great sense of spontaneity. The students seemed to appreciate the flexibility and energy of the class.

In particular, Will and Leah feel that one of the great benefits of this class for the students came from their modeling of academic discourse. At several points during the session, Will and Leah engaged in mini debates about smaller topics, probing each other to expand on their thoughts or think in a different way. They were modelling a critical discussion with all the vigor and energy that typically is only held behind closed office doors. In this class session, students experienced first-hand the sort of intellectual discussion that breeds new ideas and spawns new perspectives. Further, they were able to participate directly, often raising their hand to challenge Leah or Will’s contributions. The student response to this guerrilla session was very positive. Several students who preferred to not participate in discussion previously in class made inroads to contribute in this session. Will and Leah attribute this to the energy, spontaneity, and openness that this guerrilla teaching approach inspired.

Meeting participants were interested in discussing the differences in guerrilla exposure time. They came to consensus that shorter bursts, as suggested by Anderson and Fierstein (2014), would be more appropriate for introductory classes in which students have less experience with the class content. Longer guerrilla sessions like that implemented by Will would be most successful with a more experienced and discussion-ready audience. Participants also discussed the similarities of this guerrilla approach to bringing guest lecturers into one’s class. Emily Lloyd discussed her experience in inviting multiple guest lecturers into her Introduction to Anthropology classes to discuss their specific research interests and experience with her class. She implemented this with similar motives of exposing her students to a wider range of faculty and graduate students in the department and to bring in different perspectives on fieldwork and research. We all discussed the great benefit of the energetic guerrilla approach to shake-up a class and reinvigorate students to the subject matter. Often, a new voice (in very short or longer bursts) can achieve this goal. We were all very interested in building dynamic learning environments in class. Hopefully, there will be more guerrilla teaching efforts in the future!

Meeting Attendees: Rey Villanueva, Emily Lloyd, Paula Pebsworth, Lori Barkwill Love, Will Robertson (via skype), and Leah McCurdy.


Anderson, Mark and Micah Fierstein
2014 Using Guerrilla Tactics to Improve Teaching. Faculty Focus: Effective Teaching Strategies. Online Publication.

Comaroff, John L. and Jean Comaroff
2001 On Personhood: An Anthropological Perspective from Africa. Social Identities: Journal of the Study of Race, Nation, and Culture 7(2): 267-283.


Controversial Topics


April 2, 2014
DEVELOPING COURSES AROUND CONTROVERSIAL TOPICS with Ashley Hurst, PhD Student & Adjunct Professor.
Ashley has used controversial topics as a fulcrum for undergraduate Anthropology courses with much success. We discussed her innovation, implementation, and ideas for the future.

Ashley offered to present a meeting on teaching controversial topics within anthropology to undergraduates, especially focused on engaging freshman and sophomore level students in critical thinking exercises. Ashley described how her process of using small group discussions allows students to participate in peer-peer learning, while also discovering that there are many perspectives to take into account and, often, no clear “right answer” to a problem. By choosing to focus on controversial topics, students are encouraged to engage in real scientific debates in a structured context. Ashley emphasized that to successfully incorporate this type of learning technique in the classroom, instructors need to set clear expectations for class behavior and participation in the syllabus, and to reinforce these expectations frequently. Students must read some background material before class and commit to an opinion at the start of the class period. During class, groups follow specific prompts within their group to stimulate discussions and fill out an answer sheet. At this point, Ashley gave examples of controversial topics within all the subfields of anthropology and passed around copies of readings she used, as well as one of her answer sheets.

Meeting participants asked a series of questions about how these discussion sessions were graded and expressed concern regarding the amount of prep-time and grading involved. Ashley agreed, saying that that she had initially incorporated ten topic discussions per class (during a 15 week semester) but that this was excessive in terms of grading and that some topics were far more successful than others. Participants were especially apprehensive about using “intelligent design vs. evolution” as a topic as this might be perceived as acknowledging ID as a valid scientific hypothesis, which is a particularly sensitive issue given the demographics of the UTSA student body. Ashley reiterated that the purpose of these discussions is to evaluate evidence and have students draw their own conclusions. Special attention needs to be paid in clearly explaining the arguments made by each side and, in this example, the weight of evidence for evolutionary theory should thus be fully evident. In reflecting further on the successes and failures she encountered, Ashley gave specific advice for maintaining class focus and not giving the students a personal opinion until later in the class, as students are liable to latch onto this as a “correct” answer. Lastly she advised to bring students to a final, personal conclusion on the topic.

As this was our last ATF session of the year, we discussed some other initiatives the ATF is supporting, including a collection of cultural and archaeological artifacts for use in classes, curated by the department. We dined on homemade pie and took a commemorative photo of the ATF members.

Meeting Attendees: Professor Deb (Wagner) Moon, Jenna Bonavia, Lori Barkwill Love, Griette van der Heide, Jessica Juarez, Lynn Kim, Guillaume Pages, Leah McCurdy, and Will Robertson