Teaching Anthropological Theory: Reflections on Course Design and Pedagogy

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Reflections on Learning Theory

I have served as an anthropology lecturer at Chapman University in Orange, California, since 2013. During that time, I have had the privilege of introducing courses to the university catalog as a part of Chapman’s initiative to expand its anthropology course offerings. One of the first courses I proposed was covering anthropological theory. This course was intended to serve the growing number of self-designed anthropology majors at a campus with only a dedicated anthropology minor program, housed within a sociology department. The demand for more anthropology classes grew and the self-design major option gained in popularity. I soon found myself interacting with students who were interested in pursuing anthropology at the graduate level, and they were hungry for more courses to equip them for the future. It was challenging to imagine expanding anthropology’s footprint within an institution that does not list anthropology as an available major. There wasn’t a department approved syllabus or guidelines for curriculum to help me in creating the course, so I was truly on my own. I realized the first step in creating this class was to reflect on my own experiences learning theory as an undergraduate. As someone who majored in anthropology in an established anthropology department, I remember the prominence my theory course had in shaping my understanding of the field. Out of all the classes I took in college, anthropological theory was the most impactful. The content alone was not the reason for my affinity for theory, but the mentorship and intellectual tools I received were critical in crafting my own anthropological lens. If it were not for the theory course I took as a nineteen-year-old college sophomore, I doubt I would have felt confident enough to apply to graduate school and become an anthropologist.

Undergraduate anthropological theory courses guide students in learning about the historical and contemporary perspectives in anthropological thought and the foundations of praxis. However, when I was approached to design and teach my anthropological theory course, I asked myself: what is the best way to introduce students to theory? While first-year introductory courses teach the basics of ethnography, including a smattering of case studies read by students who are seeking fulfillment of a course breadth requirement, a theory course must serve as the in-depth introduction to anthropology for majors, minors, and other anthropologically inclined students.

In this piece, I present my experiences with course design and pedagogy, while offering a critical evaluation of how anthropological theory is taught to undergraduate students. First, I challenge instructors of anthropology, theory and otherwise, to consider the role anxiety plays in the classroom as students approach the learning of theory. I want to encourage us to develop pedagogical strategies to alleviate stress and to evaluate our relationship with theory to reach our students in ways that are more supportive and equitable. Second, I add my two cents to ongoing debates regarding teaching the theory canon and address calls for the decolonization of anthropology. Considering these conversations, I propose suggestions for syllabus creation and note the importance of presenting an honest and critical understanding of anthropology to our students. Lastly, as this is a post in the Teaching Tools section, I provide insight with assigning coursework and developing evaluation methods that challenge normative perspectives of learning content.

Course Expectations & Managing Student Anxiety

Designing any syllabus involves managing student expectations and clearly outlining the course objectives. Through teaching theory, I realized that many students did not know what to expect and were uncertain about what was implied by “theory.” Students attend the first day often feeling in the dark and overwhelmed after reading the syllabus. I find the best way to overcome these pedagogical obstacles is by going back to basics and having students skim an online accessible introductory-level textbook before the start of term. Although many anthropology instructors have turned away from traditional textbooks in favor of requiring students to read primary sources, I have found that giving students a resource that includes an overview of concepts, and a general glossary of terms, alleviates initial anxieties. Also, centering the first day’s class session on reviewing the basics of anthropology and how theory fits in with the field's history promotes a sense of security before diving into complex primary source material.

In my experience teaching, student apprehension is exacerbated by K-12 education’s propensity toward rewarding rote memorization of facts and figures. Students arrive at college expecting to master knowledge throughout the fifteen-week semester. But is theory something we ever truly master? This question always brings me back to what anthropologist and Distinguished Professor Emeritus Thomas C. Patterson told me in my first graduate theory course at the University of California, Riverside. He was bluntly honest and said that he is not done learning even after decades of studying, teaching, and writing theory. After hearing that, the other professors co-teaching the seminar nodded in agreement. At that moment, my anxiety did not suddenly disappear, but it was significantly reduced. I learned to enjoy the ambiguity and relax (just a little) when I encountered challenging readings and concepts.

Theory is not something we learn and bank away in our minds; theory, like ethnography, is a process of continual engagement. Just as my professors sought to engage my cohort in productive conversation about the merits of theory, it is now my responsibility to invite my students to do the same. Many of us rely on our assumed expertise in the subjects we teach. This gives us both authority and confidence in the classroom. Teaching anthropological theory should provoke us to question our assumed knowledge and be vulnerable with students. Accepting that we are all students of theory, regardless of whether we are undergraduate or graduate students or seasoned PhD’s, works to dismantle cumbersome classroom hierarchies and permits students to take intellectual risks with us as colleagues.

Disrupting the Canon & Crafting a Syllabus

Calls to decolonize anthropology or to upset the canon have been circulating for decades. The 1991 publication of Faye V. Harrison’s Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation was the culmination of critique throughout the 1970s and 1980s, especially among Black anthropologists seeking to reconcile ethnography with its colonial legacies. While including readings by early Black and Indigenous anthropologists such as Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” (2018) by Zora Neale Hurston and Speaking of Indians (1998 [1944]) by Ella Deloria (both students of Franz Boas) expands the canon, it risks tokenization. Simply dropping in readings that are considered to represent a broadening of anthropology’s canon can leave students believing that inclusion alone atones for past harm. This can also lead to the uncritical belief that decolonizing anthropology is possible, a claim I question and present to students for consideration. For these reasons, I have chosen to start the class with a critique of anthropology and then continually revisit that critique as we move through the course. “Decolonizing Theory” should never be a standalone unit in a syllabus, instead, it should be a through-line that guides the interpretation of theory both past and present.

The traditional model of teaching theory is chronological and runs the risk of reproducing an advancement narrative. Starting with the sociological foundations of the nineteenth century, introducing unilineal cultural evolution, and then “progressing” to the Boasians, and eventually, the postmodern and literary turn presents a reductive snapshot of anthropology’s history. This thinking presupposes a view of theory and methods that is about betterment and the desire to create boundaries between outdated problematic ideas and those that are considered “correct.” Furthermore, presenting the Boasians as righting the wrongs of cultural evolutionists often leaves students with an uncritical perspective of Boas and his cohort. To avoid such a flattened perspective, I require my students to listen to the NPR Fresh Air Episode “The Renegade Anthropologists Who Reinvented How We Think About Race & Gender” (2019) while reading Lee Baker’s “The Racist Anti-Racism of American Anthropology” (2021). By pairing a podcast episode that articulates the key points of the Boasians’ contributions and critiques of biological reductionism with an article that is critical of early American anthropology’s approaches to understanding race and racism, students are presented with a nuanced overview of early twentieth century anthropology. Giving the history of theory with contemporary critique assists students in developing a critical lens throughout the class.

Although I am hesitant to embrace a chronological overview of theory, I believe that providing students with historical context brings theory to life. I have taught Thomas C. Patterson’s A Social History of Anthropology in the United States (2021) as a companion to the traditional theory canon. Patterson’s text aims to inform readers of the historical context of anthropology’s development. Gaining knowledge of the global socio-cultural, political, and economic processes at work throughout the twentieth century reminds students that theory does not exist in a vacuum outside time and space. I have found that by showing students how historical events have influenced anthropology, theory and ethnography seem less abstract and better connected to the real world. Making anthropology and theory more relatable works to break down hierarchies that students impose between themselves and “expert” anthropologists. Recognizing that anthropological theorists are everyday people instead of larger-than-life figures also helps students relax and enjoy considering new ideas during class discussions.

Proposed Assignments & Evaluation

Questioning the anthropological theory canon should not be separate from questioning how students will be evaluated. If we are committed to dismantling hierarchies and moving away from memorization-based instruction, then how should students be assessed? Allowing students to lean into their anxieties, confusion, and questions leads to productive discussion. I require students to submit weekly reading notes that include a reflection paragraph. This assignment keeps students accountable for reading without overburdening them with coursework. The reflection paragraphs challenge students to write about what they learned or what they found confusing about the required reading that could be used as inspiration for questions or comments during class discussions.

In offering guidance and mentorship, I am reminded of the need to facilitate both learning and unlearning of traditional schemas of memorization-based pedagogy. Theory cannot (or should not) be reduced to multiple choice exam questions. Instead, I propose presenting theory as a language to communicate dynamic ideas. A theory course must empower students to write about and discuss theory with their instructor and classmates. I ensure my students understand that learning theory is a process that anthropologists share and never complete. Being vulnerable with them, like my professors were with me, works to break down barriers and alleviate anxiety. I believe student assessments should reward their willingness to carefully consider theory rather than testing for accuracy according to “official” anthropological interpretations. This is not to say that students should be rewarded for grossly misreading or misinterpreting theory. Still, those moments of struggle should be viewed as an opportunity for instructors to ask questions, challenge perceptions, and engage in guiding conversations that build on acquired knowledge.

As a core component of the course, I require students to write a research paper about a theory or theorist of their choosing. Although they must select their topic relatively early in the semester, I provide enough background readings during the first week to give them a sense of their interests. I do this by requiring students to read an introductory-level textbook’s theory chapter to provide a brief synopsis of theories and theorists. This required reading also gives everyone the same basis of preliminary knowledge regardless of the level of theory included in their respective introductory courses.

While I previously alluded to my disdain for multiple-choice exams in theory classes, I believe a comprehensive written exam is an appropriate assessment of learning the language of theory. I provide essay prompts to evaluate their general knowledge, however, one of the essay questions is unique to each student’s chosen paper topic, where they can show growth by responding to my constructive criticism of their papers. This evaluation style empowers students to use their acquired knowledge while simultaneously building on their existing work. If there were inaccuracies or missing components in their theory papers, the exam enables students to demonstrate their growth and responsiveness to instructor feedback.

Concluding Thoughts & Invitation for Collaboration

My goal in writing this piece was to share my experiences teaching anthropological theory in a way that centers students rather than a commitment to traditional pedagogical practices and the theory canon. Equipping students with knowledge about theory that is critical of anthropology strips any pretense that anthropological knowledge is flawless or black-boxed. Being responsive to student anxiety about the complex subject matter while being responsive to a discipline that needs continued critique for its past and present entanglement with colonialism go hand-in-hand. Dismantling classroom hierarchies in content, teaching, and evaluation is a lesson that can and should be applied to more anthropology courses beyond theory.

Teaching anthropology outside an anthropology department is challenging, yet I have found that it promotes pedagogical creativity. Although developing a theory syllabus was daunting, I found I had the freedom to experiment with new ideas and modes of teaching, which was immensely rewarding. I had the unique opportunity to reimagine how students are exposed to anthropological theory and present a comprehensive overview that worked to unravel past missteps in the discipline and equip students for participating in the anthropology of today.

I do not perceive my approach to teaching theory to be perfect, nor do I understand it to solve every issue or conundrum that instructors face in teaching this complex subject. The legacies of white supremacy and colonialism are still embedded in this field and my approach in addressing anthropology’s dark past is one of many. Reconciling anthropology’s past with contemporary ethnography and making space for emergent trends in anthropological praxis is no easy task. However, I believe that by sharing our experiences, resources, and perspectives, we can collaborate to shape a future anthropology that is more accessible, engaging, and responsible.


Baker, Lee D. 2021. “The Racist Anti-Racism of American Anthropology.” Transforming Anthropology 29, no. 2: 127-42.

Deloria, Ella. 1998 [1944]. Speaking of Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Harrison, Faye V. (ed.). 1991. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Arlington, Va.: American Anthropological Association.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 2018. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Patterson, Thomas C. 2020. A Social History of Anthropology in the United States. London: Routledge.