Reflecting on the Scholar-in-Residence Program: An Interview with Angela Jenks

Over the past six months, the Teaching Tools section of the Cultural Anthropology website has been proud to host Angela Jenks as our inaugural Scholar-in-Residence. The residency program was a central component of Section Editor Leah Zani’s new vision for the Teaching Tools section. In this post, we reflect on Jenks’s six-month residency and its ongoing impact on the Teaching Tools section.

Professor Jenks is a Lecturer with Potential of Security of Employment and director of the Master’s program in Medicine, Science, and Technology Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her teaching focuses on the anthropology of medicine and science, with a specific emphasis on race, ethnicity, and the politics of difference in the United States. These topics have inspired her posts and her overall pedagogy. Below is an interview with Angela Jenks, followed by links to all of the posts Jenks has contributed to the Teaching Tools section during her residency.

Interview with Angela Jenks

Michelle Hagman: In your first post, “Teaching and Learning in Anthropology,” you write about your first teaching experience at a community college. In this piece you state that you didn’t think that much about pedagogy when you started your first job, and from the pieces you contributed over the past months, we have learned that now you do think about it a lot. Could you share some concrete things that you do different now compared to then, and why?

Angela Jenks: I started teaching while I was working on my dissertation and, like a lot of graduate students, I felt overwhelmed by what I didn’t know. I was concerned about whether I had done enough—enough reading, enough learning—to actually contribute to scholarly conversations. That anxiety carried over into my first teaching experiences, and I focused on reading as much as possible to prepare for class rather than thinking about pedagogy.

Today, I try to think more about my students and less about myself. Teaching isn’t about covering every relevant topic or author, and learning isn’t about knowing everything. I ask different questions as I start designing a class: Who are my students? What do I want them to get out of the class? What does anthropology have to offer them? What are the best materials for them to engage with? I think that perspective then carries through to all of my other teaching activities.

MH: The next post you wrote was a “Teaching Resources Round-Up,” which gathered resources from the scholarship on teaching and learning to concrete tools to use while teaching a course. In this post, you mention a number of blogs and websites. If you could choose only one to suggest that graduate students start following now, which one would it be?  

AJ: Many of the resources I listed are great for reflecting on pedagogy or when looking for potential activities and assignments. I try to follow all of them, but I most often find myself bookmarking posts from Sociological Images. It’s a great source of multimedia and popular-culture examples that can prompt discussion or help illustrate concepts that my students might not have considered before. Although it’s not exclusively anthropological, there’s a lot we can learn from our sibling discipline about communicating social-science insights to nonspecialists.

MH: Your “First Day Activity: Ten Things You Believe to be True” is particularly appropriate to review right now as the fall term starts. In this post, you introduce an activity for the first day of class. You mention that one of your aims is to stimulate student interest, and I think this is very important for the first class, especially in more introductory courses. Introduction to Anthropology and similar courses are often taken by students from a range of disciplines, some related and others not so much. Could you explain how you would go about stimulating student interest on the first day of class, in a context where many students are taking the course to fulfill a requirement?

AJ: James Lang (2008), who I mentioned in that post, points out that students will always have preconceptions about the subject of a class, and many of those preconceptions will be misconceptions. It’s important for us as instructors to figure out how students are thinking about the topic, and it’s important for students to get an idea of what the course’s actual subject matter will be. A lot of introductory students come into our classes to fulfill requirements, and they don’t really have any idea what anthropology is. (As someone who enrolled in my first anthropology class because of the Indiana Jones movies, I can relate to that.)

Good first-day activities give students a chance to share their own perspectives and get them thinking about anthropological approaches. I’ve used the “ten things you believe to be true” exercise in general introductory classes, but Erin McGuire from the University of Victoria recently shared an example on the Teaching Culture blog that I may try to adapt. Building on Richard Robbins’s (2007) “Visiting the Happy Meal” activity, McGuire brought a box of Timbits to the first day of class and used it to start a conversation about globalization, sustainability, domestication, nationalism, identity, and language. That’s a great way to introduce course topics, help students start to reflect on their own social worlds, and stimulate interest in the class.

MH: You also write about engaging students from other disciplines in your post “Lessons for Learning-Centered Course Design.” This post builds on Louise Lamphere Beryl’s previous Teaching Tools post on backwards course design, and it explains how to start with what you want your students to have learned at the end of the semester before coming up with assignments and readings to get your students to that point. In this post, you talk about the balance between developing course-specific skills and more general skills. Could you elaborate on this, and suggest some activities relevant to those different objectives?  

AJ: Most anthropology classes require students to use reading, writing, analytical, and collaborative skills, but we don’t always explicitly teach those skills. Doing so can be challenging in ten- or fifteen-week classes when we already have a lot of discipline-specific goals to achieve. But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I’ve been trying to find ways to encourage students to develop those broader skills at the same time that they learn anthropology. I wrote about some of the assignments I use to help students become stronger readers in my post “Why Don’t Students Read?

Writing is one of the other major areas I’ve focused on. I think it’s important to teach writing as an actual skill that requires a process. Many of the students I’ve worked with tend to see themselves as either inherently “good” or “bad” writers, and very few of them actually go through the steps of outlining, drafting, and revising their written work. Rather than having students just turn in a final paper, I try to walk them through these steps as much as possible.

One of my favorite writing assignments is self-annotation. After they receive feedback on the first draft of a paper, I ask students to write a revised version that includes footnoted annotations that document their writing decisions. They might explain why they chose certain words or phrases, might identify important aspects of the essay (transitions, arguments, etc.), or they might ask questions about issues they’d like feedback on. This assignment isn’t explicitly about the content of the course, but it helps students become more conscious and self-reflective writers and usually results in stronger papers that achieve course outcomes.

MH: Over the summer, you wrote a post on “Crafting a Statement of Teaching Philosophy,” which is essential for job applications and can be daunting for graduate students and early-career scholars. Do you have any additional tips on how to become more aware of your teaching philosophy (long) before you start writing your statement?

AJ: In that post, I share some reflective questions that can help new teachers identify their own philosophies. Early on, though, I think the best way to learn about teaching is to pay attention to your experience as a student. Think about why you leave some classes energized and leave others frustrated. What makes one class or discussion work well when another doesn’t? How are some courses structured in ways that support learning and others in ways that make learning more difficult?

Treat being a student like an ethnographic experience and keep field notes. Not all students will be like you, of course, but your reflections and insights will help you start to identify the type of teacher you want to be and strategies you can use to get there. 

MH: Your post “Why Don’t Students Read” touches on another topic that is familiar for a lot of us, whether we are teaching assistants, instructors, or professors. You share a lot of great tips on how to encourage students to read, and you also shared a personal anecdote of walking away when it turned out students had not done the readings. You mentioned that walking away might not be the most effective solution to this problem. But let’s say that regardless of following all the tips that you give in this post, students still show up without having read the material. What would you do to have a productive class?  

AJ: Have students do the reading right then and there! This happened in one of my classes last spring. I was trying to lead a discussion about vaccine refusal based around an article by Elisa Sobo (2015). Students had a lot to say about the topic, but most of them were repeating assumptions that Sobo is explicitly challenging. Only two or three students (out of a class of eighty) were actually engaging with the article. I told everyone to take out a laptop/tablet/phone (or share one with a partner) and open the article. I divided the class into thirds and asked each group to focus on a specific section of the article. I gave them some time to read and take notes and then asked them to report on Sobo’s arguments to the class. We were then able to pick up with our discussion. I would have preferred not to spend the class time on work students should have done beforehand, but we were still able to meet most of my goals for the day.

MH: Teaching about race is one of the areas you focus on. During your residency, you contributed to a Correspondences session on Teaching Race; in fact, your post “Teaching Race: Provocation” kicked the session off. Now that you’ve had a change to read the other pieces in the session is completed, do you have any additional insights to share?  

AJ: My post in that series was published on July 5, the same day that Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge. The next day, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop outside of St. Paul while his partner and her young daughter watched. The day after that, five police officers were shot and killed at a protest in Dallas. As people around the world responded, we saw (again) the trauma and grief—along with the refusal to recognize this trauma and grief—that always seem to be part of public conversations around race.

Those same conversations come into our classrooms, and navigating these issues is one of the most enduring challenges of teaching about race and racism. Leah Zani’s Integration post highlights two important issues that weave throughout the series: the ways in which our teaching occurs in an already raced context, and the ways in which our own racialized positions affect our pedagogy. Our structural positions in the academy matter, too: contingent faculty and faculty of color are in especially vulnerable positions as they try to confront these issues. I think the session demonstrates that our conversations about pedagogy can’t be limited to sharing readings, class activities, and potential assignments. Race and racism, in their multiple forms, are never topics that we can step outside of, and continued reflective discussion is critical. 

MH: Many of the participants in Cultural Anthropology’s Contributing Editors Program are graduate students. One of the aims of the Scholar-in-Residence program is to involve post-PhD scholars in the various sections. I'm wondering if you could reflect on the Scholar-in-Residence program as you experienced it. Which were your favorite posts to write? With which post did you get the most engagement from the public?

AJ: The Scholar-in-Residence program has been a wonderful opportunity to contribute to and hopefully expand dialogue about teaching in anthropology. Teaching is one of the primary activities that anthropologists engage in, but it’s much less public than a lot of our other work. It’s important to have forums like this where we can share ideas, discuss challenges, and reflect on our craft. Throughout my time at Teaching Tools, I’ve focused on contributing to the skill-building mission of the section. My posts are generally aimed at students and early-career faculty, and I try to share practical teaching ideas as well as the reasoning behind them. I’ve really enjoyed having a chance to reflect on my teaching and to consider why I do some of the things I do. I’ve made several changes in my courses this fall as a result of my residency.  

I think readers have engaged most with my “Why Don’t Students Read?” post. That’s such a central frustration for many instructors, and I hope I’ve offered some resources that can help us all address it more productively.

MH: Finally, could you share your number-one piece of advice for graduate students who want to focus on teaching in their careers?  

AJ: My top advice is to start teaching. Seek out opportunities to teach independently while you are in graduate school and consider postdoctoral teaching fellowships. Try to teach across multiple subfields. Ask colleagues and mentors to visit your classes to provide feedback, and listen to the comments and critiques you receive from students. As you gain more experience, never teach the same class twice; try something new, continue to develop your teaching, and always be ready to respond to a new group of students.  

MH: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, and of course for being our first Scholar-in-Residence. Your posts were incredibly valuable for anthropologists at different stages of their careers, and I’m sure that many have bookmarked your posts to look back at in the future.

A Complete List of Posts by Scholar-in-Residence Angela Jenks

Teaching and Learning in Anthropology

Teaching Resources Round-Up

First Day Activity: Ten Things You Believe to be True

Lessons for Learning-Centered Course Design

On the Same Side: Crafting Humane Course Policies

It’s In The Syllabus

Crafting a Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Why Don't Students Read?

Preparing Your Teaching Demonstration

References

Lang, James M. 2008. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Robbins, Richard. 2007. “Visiting the Happy Meal.” In Strategies in Teaching Anthropology, 5th edition, edited by Patricia C. Rice and David W. McCurdy. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson.  

Sobo, Elisa J. 2015. “Social Cultivation of Vaccine Refusal and Delay among Waldorf (Steiner) School Parents.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 29, no. 3: 381–99.