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Using Social Media to Teach Theory to Undergraduate Students

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Carole McGranahan.

“Political economy?” “Symbolic analyses?” Post-whatism?” Semester after semester, my advanced anthropology students told me they couldn’t remember the theories they had learned in their introductory anthropology course (even, they sheepishly confessed, if I had been their professor for that course). In response, I built a review of general anthropological theory into my classes and developed a theory course for junior and senior anthropology majors.

But re-teaching theory at the advanced level was not enough. I needed a better strategy for teaching theory at the very beginning level of anthropological instruction which, for me now as professor and earlier as graduate student, meant in a large lecture class of anywhere from 100 to 550 students. How could I teach theory so that introductory students could retain and use this knowledge beyond exam day? What new pedagogies would enable students to carry the theoretical messages of Levi-Strauss or Mead or Ortner with them? My strategy was to turn to social media, to teach theory by putting students in dialogue with each other: I created two new course assignments, a student-generated theory wiki and a theory blog.

Inspiration came from online discussions about pedagogy among digital humanists, from folks such as Cathy Davidson at Duke University’s HASTAC collective, Howard Rheingold’s Social Media Classroom project at Berkeley, and here at the University of Colorado, our ASSETT program‘s focus on teaching with technology. In the summer of 2010, grad student Marnie Thomson and I crafted the wiki and blog assignments as complementary and required components of the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course I taught that fall with an excellent team of graduate student teaching assistants, including Marnie as Head Teaching Assistant (TA).

We had no idea what to expect. Would the students really be able to create a theory wiki as first-year anthropology undergraduates? Would they theoretically engage each other on the theory blog in the ways we hoped for? The answers were ‘sort of’ for the wiki, and ‘yes’ for the blog, where their work went beyond even what we had imagined. Here is what we did:

Food and love. All students wrote two 500-word essays applying two different anthropological theories to a topic of their choice under the rubrics of food and love. Essay due dates were staggered over the semester, with some groups of students writing first about food, then love, or vice versa, and applying the theories they were learning at that particular moment in the course. TAs graded the essays, and selected those to put up on the blog. We posted the essays under gender-neutral pseudonyms, and students were required to submit six “substantive comments” on the blog (three on food essays, three on love essays). Their Theory Blog + Wiki Assignment explained:

What do we mean by substantive blog comments? We are looking to create a truly dialogic space for exchange about anthropology. We ask you to engage with the posted essays—for example, offer your thoughts on the author’s argument, raise questions, make connections to other course topics or cultural phenomenon, in general, participate in such a way that conversation is started, continued, or otherwise enabled.  

All comments were moderated, meaning they were not made public until a TA or myself had read them. Any student who did not want to post under their real name created a pseudonym for their comments. The essays and blog comments were 50% of their recitation grade, which made up 40% of their course grade.

Did it work? Beautifully.

Students had respectful, intellectual conversations not usually possible in a large lecture class. They read, responded to, and benefitted from each other’s writings, rather than just writing for the instructor. Collectively, the students turned the blank blog into a space of intellectual exchange and growth. The TAs and I decided not to participate in the blog but to allow it to be a student space for discussion (except for the time a middle-aged man not in the course commented on the “cougar” essay, and I as professor had to reply; a teaching moment, indeed).

We posted six “food” essays and ten “love” essays (turns out as much as we all love food, we love “love” more). In one essay, a student analyzed the US locavore movement using structural-functionalism and cultural ecology. Another wrote about “bromance” from functionalist and Boasian perspectives. A third student critiqued Facebook profiles using symbolic and feminist anthropology. Following each essay are student comments, which were extensive, thoughtful, and productive. The format was a great success in terms of getting students to think with rather than about theory. Again and again, they asked each other “what would a ______ anthropologist think about this?” and thought through the different theoretical approaches to any one topic.

While the course was in session, students gave positive feedback on the blog, and their understanding of theory was evident in the essays they wrote on their final exams as compared to prior semesters. Students from this 2010 class who have since taken more advanced courses with me are comfortable with theory, clearly retaining knowledge from the earlier class, and thus further marking the pedagogical impact of the blog.

The wiki was not as successful and remains unfinished. Each theory (and a handful of topics) were given a page with four sections: main points, key figures, key texts, and critiques. Some sections are competent, while others are incomplete or even convoluted in places. Designed to accompany the course blog as an introductory theory resource, the wiki covered contemporary and classic theory (rather than just classic theory as some sites do). Course students wrote all entries, and frankly, one semester was not enough time to get to a baseline of content for further refining, editing, and developing. Anyone interested in helping out with it—as part of a course, or on their own—is welcome.

Not all of my Digital Anthropology experiments have been a success (cough, cough, Twitter course feed), but the theory blog was successful beyond my expectations. There is no anthropology without theory, and so teaching it well to our newest students is important, giving them a base on which to build as they go forward. I offer our model and experience in the spirit of sharing and would love to hear what has worked for others, as both instructor and student.


Carole McGranahan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She regularly teaches theory classes to undergraduate and graduate students, and just debuted a new course this semester on “Reading Ethnography.”


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