Learning for life

Anthropologist imparts useful skills in the classroom

Gail Wagner believes students should leave her classroom with something concrete, a skill they can carry with them long after the semester ends.

“I like to be able to list for students at the start of the course, ‘Here are the things you’re walking away with that are useful for your life, not just for this subject, but for other subjects or for getting a job or getting into graduate school or just furthering you as a person,’” she says.

That’s one of the reasons the associate professor of anthropology began requiring undergraduate students in some classes to perform original research and have the opportunity to earn a professional-level national certification for the work. Students can receive CITI certification in Human Subject Research, meaning they understand how to treat interview subjects in an ethical manner. During the project they conduct personal interviews, analyze the results and write a hypothesis-driven paper based on their original research. She has put more than 480 of her students through the process since the early 1990s.

“This can make them stand out as an undergraduate,” Wagner says. “They can say, ‘I’m an advertising major, and I’m certified in how to interview people.’”

To devote enough time to complete that type of project, she decided to drop some of the content she had taught in earlier classes. While she says that was difficult at first, she soon realized the trade-off was well worth it.

“Yes, I teach ethnographic techniques and sampling strategies, and we discuss professional and research ethics, but then I devote a fair amount of class time on mutually formulating with the students a new or updated standardized interview that we all will use; on how to write testable hypotheses and create a good table that will test one; on how to interview; on how to write a hypothesis-driven paper and cite sources; and on how to make a PowerPoint presentation,” she says.

“I made the decision that this process — what the students get out of it — is more important and lasting than individual facts about my subject matter,” Wagner says. “This is a thing students come back to me five years later or email me or send me something they saw on their project. They’re still thinking about it.”

All students in the class take part in the major research projects, and Wagner chooses projects that might at first appear to have obvious answers. For example, the longest running project from her students, with more than 800 interviews, asks subjects, “What is a vegetable?” While that word is used frequently, there is no uniform description: Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no set definition.

“I particularly like to imagine how I can take something that is common or everyday and throw a spotlight on what we can learn from closer examination,” she says. “I believe these sorts of examples really stick in students’ minds and supply them with conversational fodder with friends and family. While the topics look simple, they introduce student to complex personal and cultural ideas.”

She also likes using tools that students have, so in some classes students use their smart phones to make movies to illustrate a topic or a research finding. In her three-week summer ethnobotany class, where there is not as much time for reading and the focus is on more hands-on work, students make one-minute movies for the class YouTube channel.

Wagner, whose specialty as an archaeologist is paleoethnobotany, teaches undergraduate and graduate classes. Her primary research is on plant-human interactions requires analysis of plant remains from archaeological sites, and she has led numerous field schools that teach techniques of archaeology, including excavation, survey and instrument mapping.

“I want my students to be actively involved in the subject matter, as well as to understand real-life applications for the subject matter.”

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