Controversial Topics

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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

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