Thursday, September 19, 2013

Engaging undergraduates in paleohistory

How do you get students to engage in ideas about paleohistory? As a cultural anthropology major I remember the dreaded "stones and bones" course, the catalogues of skulls, the charts of Mousterian implements, the dead hand (or so I then thought) of digging. 

If you've read my posts you know I have a much different feeling about these things now, a positive take that I have a strong need to impart to my students. But undergraduates are undergraduates. They lead busy lives in the present, they are taking a history course in addition to my required science course, and loading too much about our hominid and human ancestors on them just seems unfair. And a bit unrealistic. To go back to my initial question: how to engage students in this material?

So this semester I tried something a little different. In addition to my lectures, breathless with excitement about climate and tools and caves and effigies and dolmens and depictions, we worked on some new problems in lab. As usual, we started with a solid selection of skulls. And replicas of some very old tools, dating back about 700,000 years. Instead of including labels for students to copy down (or photograph) and then rush out of lab, I asked my students to study and sketch one skull or tool that interested them. I also had them read a couple of my blog posts 

and asked them to work as a group picking out what was "subjective" and what was "objective" in each post. In part this provided a vehicle for close reading, and in part, it's because the study of paleohistory is so fraught with controversy. Why not let the students partake?

Back to the sketch, I asked each student to post it to flickr with a title and caption addressing these questions:

How does it feel to the touch? How would you describe its shape? Which features about it stand out? Why do they stand out to you personally? How would parts of this tool/skull have been used? 

Then I asked students to look up three online articles on any one of these subjects. I asked them to start with wikipedia, then use an article cited there, and to finish up with an article (or abstract) from Science Magazine or Scientific American. I chose the subjects because they interest me, but I think I left a wide enough range for everybody's taste.

1) Origin of pottery

2) Origin of sculpture
3) Paleolithic
4) Neolithic
5) Chalcolithic
6) Olmec culture
7) Mayan cultures
8) History of writing
9) Aztec origins
10) Primate evolution
11) Early hominids
12) Neanderthal culture

After this bit of research I asked each student to make a short (2 minute) presentation to their table about the salient points of the articles they chose. Out of these presentations students were asked, as a table, to come up with 3-5 unifying concepts that connected the "research" readings, my blog posts, and the material we covered in lectures this week.

Finally, a tweet with their sketched skull or tool and a short statement on one of the unifying concepts from their table.


The results were a happy surprise for me. Periods of intense concentration interspersed with heated discussions about the readings, about concepts, and about the material in front of us in lab. 

I heard and received lots of communication, solid and well thought out discussion, debate, and inquiry about the topics of the week. 

This lab gave students an opportunity to use the social media sites they had signed up for the week before, and more importantly, it gave them a chance to observe, document, analyze, and abstract their ideas. It was a long lab--no one made it out until almost the full two hours. But I think we all got something useful and maybe even exciting out of it. 

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