A NOTE TO STUDENTS REGARDING THE PUBLIC ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT
Sometimes students approach introductory-level courses with a certain ambivalence. They are paying a considerable amount of tuition money for their schooling and, not unreasonably, they wonder what the educational benefits are for such courses. With the Public Anthropology Project, students gain important insights and skills – making it, in the view of most students who participate in the Project, well worth the effort put into it. Let me explain.
The Public Anthropology Project reinforces three key skills students need for meaningful lives and careers.
- Foster critical thinking: Find ways to effectively approach important social issues that will mobilize broader support for addressing them.
Basic to anthropology is the engagement with difference. It is important to learn how to interact effectively with others who have different backgrounds, beliefs, and behaviors. Viewing such difference in terms of heated debates and polarizations – us versus them – may temporarily make students feel good because it provides a way of defining themselves in opposition to others and taking some sort of action. But over the long term, this approach tends to prove less effective than finding common ground with others to build coalitions for change. Talking to people on a more personal, more emotional level often softens differences as two people, with opposing views, come to better understand, on a more personal, emotional level, the experiences that shaped their differences.
- The hope is that in learning this skill, students can extend it not only to friends and relatives but, in coordination with others, to larger social/political contexts that will allow a more effective addressing of key social problems. Instead of polarized, heated arguments that may end in violence, this approach fosters understanding and collective action that changes social institutions.
- Storytelling is basic to the human species. It is how for millennia humans have understood the world around them and how they can express themselves to others. Improving their story-telling skills makes students more effective communicators both within and beyond the university. Framing a position in seemingly “rational” ways may convince a student and those who already agree with them that they are right. But relating to other people in terms of personal stories – how certain experiences they have shaped their perspectives – often allows people to effectively communicate across their differences and find common ground with them.
On the negative side, the project costs $15 (U.S.) The money is used solely to support the Center for a Public Anthropology. (See publicanthropology.org for a description of the Center.) On the positive side, the project not only helps students develop key skills they need in life, but students are given two free books. One, Why a Public Anthropology? provides important insights on how to navigate college so, when students are graduated, they have more than a certificate, more than the appearance of an education. They have important critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed in life. The other, The Intellectual Roots of Prominent Anthropologists, uses autobiographies by some of the field’s leading scholars to help students gain a better sense of anthropology on a more personal level.
The project takes roughly three to four hours over a two-week period outside of class. It is done online. Students from several schools across North America participate in each three-week session. During the first week, students write stories regarding how to effectively address a specific social problem. The focus is on drawing different people with different perspectives to work together on the problem. During the second week, students evaluate the stories written by other students from other schools. The process helps students become better storytellers. During the third week, students have an option for doing extra credit. Students stories are checked by two artificial intelligence plagiarism checkers to ensure students have written the assignment themselves and not relied on one of the artificial intelligence writing applications (such as ChatGPT) that are available.
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