Developing Student-Facilitated Asynchronous Discussions in a Contemporary Anthropology Course

Featured Faculty:

Chris Dole image

Chris Dole



I taught Contemporary Topics in Anthropology (ANTH 332) during the Spring 2020 semester to 7 students (with one additional student joining the course after the shift to remote learning). This course is a small, upper-level seminar course that is required for the Anthropology major. It enrolls mostly senior majors and as such, students tend to enter this course with a high level of engagement and motivation for the material. 

This semester, I had introduced a new writing component to the course, in which students were asked to complete ethnographic writing about a physical space or location in the Pioneer Valley. This assignment was framed as supplemental to the course as a whole, so that the stakes were low, and I introduced it as an opportunity for them to “try out” some of the theory they were reading in the course. The first assignment merely asked them to go to unfamiliar space they had selected and engage in sustained, thoughtful observation of the location. Subsequent assignments—which typically resulted in one page ethnographic reflections—asked them to attend in different ways to the space. During one session, for instance, they were asked to write about the ways that objects exerted agency in their spaces (see below for assignment description, which was included in the syllabus. A lot of the instructions for this were in the syllabus, along with supporting handouts, which are all attached below). The resulting observations were some of the most inspired writing I have ever received from students. It was the sort of writing that I hope for in other assignments. They not only demonstrated a sense of personal investment in their writing that I don’t typically see, but they also seemed to have a lot of fun doing the assignment. Something about the assignment—perhaps the low stakes, perhaps that they were engaging conceptually with a tangible space—appears to have inspired them to write not so much for me, the professor and evaluator, but for a larger, external audience. Some examples of this student work are below (forthcoming).

In addition to this ethnographic assignment, each 2 ½ hour class session prior to Spring Break included student-moderated discussion of the course readings. When we made the shift to remote teaching and learning in mid-March, I knew that this was no longer a tenable format. During our last on-campus class session, I talked with students about how we wanted to structure the course and how we wanted to stay in contact (including the creation of a GroupMe class channel for keeping in touch if we have problems with Zoom, or for sharing articles, videos, memes, etc.). Initially, students indicated that they wanted to shift the ethnographic component of the course to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although there was initial excitement about this, we revisited these plans after the first week and decided together that, given the complex ways that the pandemic was impacting their lives (as well as our growing anxiety and exhaustion), we did not want to engage with the coronavirus in this way. By this point, the course also had a sense of rapport that allowed for us to deliberate on revised goals for the rest of the semester. The central aim here was to establish clear deadlines and expectations for student work, but also to recognize that we’d have to be flexible with what this work might entail for different students. We also spent time talking about how to create a sense of closure and culmination of the semester. Out of this, we jointly constructed a plan for the rest of the semester.

Although our conversations over Zoom lacked the energy and spontaneity of our the pre-pandemic class, a surprising positive that emerged from remote teaching came from the incorporation of online discussions into class sessions. Rather than longer, in-person class meetings, I facilitated a shortened (60-90 minute) moderated discussion each week and then each student was responsible for serving as a moderator of an online discussion forum about the course material. Basically, the student-moderated discussion in the classroom assumed an online form. Unlike the in-person moderation, however, the online format allowed student moderators to embed digital content, videos, images, and other material that expanded on the course readings and conversation. In order to promote engaged discussion in the online fora, I required that the moderator post two questions over the course of the week, using staggered deadlines, so that they would re-engage with the conversation stream generated by their classmates. I also tried to be present in these discussion forums. But rather than answering specific student questions about the weekly reading assignments (which could instead be addressed by peers), I tried to help stitch student comments together with previous topics or conversations, as I also worked to connect them up to the wider horizon of course as a whole. This format seemed to work much better than the previous times I had used online discussion boards in my courses. In general, the depth and subtlety with which students engaged the texts in the online discussions far exceeded my expectations, and the staggered deadlines helped create a sense of a conversation unfolding over time.