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Classroom Sessions: Introduction to #Anthropology: “Be good people” #liberalarts #highered #augustanacollege

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When I attended Dr. Adam Kaul’s Anthropology class, I knew from the moment I sat in my seat that this was going to be different from any class I’d visited so far this fall. 

It was lively, and the rapport between Dr. Kaul and the students was genuine and warm. There was quite a bit of banter as students entered and settled in the classroom. It felt like a safe space for students to exchange ideas without judgment. I am quite sure this is, no doubt, in part, because of this statement in his syllabus: 

“In this class we will discuss social issues that might be deemed sensitive (e.g. religion, race & racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc). For a variety of reasons these topics might cause discomfort for some people. A reasonable amount of discomfort is actually good for the learning process because learning should always challenge our assumptions. That said, you should never be expected to tolerate unreasonable discomfort, and certainly not when it is inflicted upon you from your classmates or teachers. I do not tolerate intentionally disrespectful language or behavior in my class. I expect you to treat one another with civility and decency, and I will absolutely do my best to treat everyone with the utmost respect. Here are some group rules for respectful class participation:

  1. Begin by acknowledging and respecting each other’s differences. This is called “tolerance” and it is not enough.
  2. Go beyond tolerance. Try to understand each other’s differences. This requires “active listening” and empathy.
  3. Give yourself and others permission to make mistakes. There really are no dumb questions.
  4. Give yourself and others permission to self-correct and change your/their minds.”

Kaul expects students to prepare in advance and engage actively and deeply. In fact, there’s no space for a student who doesn’t do the work. This was obvious to me as I listened to pairs of students discuss the book-length ethnographies that each student had selected to read during the first 10 weeks of the semester. During the 10-minute discussions, I overhead both curiosity and connection, and didn’t once witness conversation about something other than the ethnographies. These students were into their reading, whether it was culture related to World of Warcraft, Second Life, sex workers, aboriginal peoples, the incarcerated, the drug addicted or Native Americans. 

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Throughout the session, Kaul continually reminded students about the importance of context—whether while listening to different dialects from the British isles or discussing access to healthcare. He did so in a gentle but very effective way. I can’t imagine any student completing this class without the valuable skill of being able to assess context. 

Awareness of and curiosity about context is one of the superpowers of a liberal arts education, and I was pleased to witness such deep emphasis on it. 

Kaul also spent time emphasizing the importance of agency. He asked questions about agency during discussions on the ethnographies and skillfully described the difference between choice and assimilation related to culture. He used meaningful examples to ask students if a marginalized culture had any choice or agency in responding to culture change. Kaul is planting the seeds for this group of students to consider whether one is empowered by or suppressed by dominant culture, and what it feels like to not have agency—something I am guessing that most in this class had not actively considered previously. 

Finally, in this intro class Kaul made a compelling case for all of us to become sociologists. Here’s what Kaul recommended, which might be relevant for all of the liberal arts:  

Go out and see it! 

Listen and learn! 

Interpret! 

When in doubt, cite it! 

The 75-minute class session flew by for me. But, just as everyone was leaving, Kaul yelled out, “Have a good day and be good people.” I don’t know if this is a common farewell or conclusion to each class session, but I was struck by his words and stopped in place to write them down. 

I am quite confident the teaching and learning occurring in this class will ensure that these students are becoming and will be good people. And, frankly, that’s exactly what I expect from a liberal arts education. 

You can learn more about Dr. Kaul here.


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