Material Object: Assignment that Keeps on Giving


Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

Professor of Sociology


During my second year of teaching the General Education 4-Field (Biological, Archeology, Cultural, and Linguistics) General Anthropology course twenty-five years ago, I decided to create a very unusual assignment that my students and I have enjoyed thoroughly every year ever since. As it often happens when one invents something, the law of unintended consequences happen which tend to be negative. In this case the consequences were positive. The assignment was a brain child of my desperate search

Wooden Leg: Ancestor favorite Material Object

as an instructor to find  a solution to the problem of plagiarism. But I had no idea I would create an assignment that my students and I would enjoy and cherish as a staple of the course for the next 25 years.

My General Anthropology class is a 3 credit course that fulfills the General Education requirement for students from sophomores to graduating seniors. The class has majors such as history, art, sociology, physics, biology, psychology, chemistry, business, philosophy, and religion. During my second year of teaching the course in 1992, I

Swedish Bowl: Ancestor favorite Material Object

asked the students to write a paper in which they discussed how biological anthropology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, and linguistics can be used to best understand the human condition.

Ancestor-Material Object

It turned out that the topic was routine and generic enough that every one of my 30 students wrote average to good papers. But as a reflective teacher, some thoughts began

Knee Socks: Ancestor favorite Material Object.

to come to my mind. How much were my students really learning anthropology from the paper beyond simply repeating what they have read from sources? Since the topic was generic enough, what if just one of the good papers were plagiarized, how would I know?  Paper mills were very common at the time. A student could purchase a paper at a small price and have their name printed on top of it. It was mailed to the student and turned in as their own paper. Plagiarism was very difficult to prove during that period and it was also time consuming especially at the end of the semester when the papers were due.

Although I did not have any cases of plagiarism in my class yet, I had two self-imposed challenges and concerns as an

Mickey Mouse Watch: Ancestor favorite Material Object

instructor: “How could I ensure that my students were really learning and applying anthropology?” Second, “How could I create an assignment in which students invested so much of their personal interest in that plagiarism was nearly impossible?” I created a new assignment after careful thought that summer. I created the “Ancestor-Material Object Anthropology Semester Project Paper”.

The handout describing the semester project paper was given to the students together with the syllabus during the

Cookie Jar: Ancestor favorite Material Object

very first class. This way the students had the whole semester to think, plan and implement the project toward the end of the semester. There were two parts to the project. The first was an in-depth open ended interview with their elderly ancestor. They would write a paper based on the interview material which was worth 50 points. The second part was a 5 minute class presentation about the ancestor’s favorite material object or artefact which was worth 30 points. The whole assignment accounted for 13% of the course grade.


Fall 2016

INSTRUCTOR: Dr. Mwizenge S. Tembo                                                                            August 31, 2016


Due: Object Project Presentations Nov. 14, 16, and 18.

Due: Project Paper (5 pages) Monday November 21

The objective of the paper is to determine the impact of some aspects of the cultural experiences of your ancestors on how you perceive the past, present, and the future. You will interview your ancestor(s) to find out what significant events influenced their lives ONLY between 1925-1965 or 51 to 91 years old.

  • You will ask them about stories of individual heroism, perseverance, and determination (myths and legends) that are very significant and have been passed on in your extended families.
  • You will ask them about stories of community and national heroes, leader(s), who showed great courage, perseverance, determination and vision. (Myths and legends)
  • Identify ONE significant material object that was important to your ancestor’s life.

You can interview older members of your immediate family or any close relatives or friends of your relatives who are

Cabinet: Ancestor favorite Material Object.

likely to know the information you are seeking. Possible title: “Impact of my Ancestors’ Experiences and Beliefs on who I am today.”

  1. How old are you and describe where you were born and grew up?
  2. Did you or my ancestors ever migrate from another region of the country or world? Can you explain specific acts of bravery and perseverance during this time that the ancestors may have shown?
  3. Describe what ethnic or racial group you belong to. Explain some specific achievements and experiences that your or our racial/ethnic group is famous for. According to your ancestors, what were the following groups widely known for: Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Italians, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, or any other ethnic or racial groups you or your ancestor(s) are familiar with?
  4. Describe a few of the significant community and national heroes, political leaders, religious leaders who may have been extraordinary men or women at the time. What did they do and what type of reputation did they gain from the community and the American people as prominent national heroes?
  5. Describe some of the famous stories about the culture including a significant Material Object, customs and traditions, which were common at the time. For example, courtship and marriage rituals, formal education, religious worship, farm animals, status of men and women, parental child disciplining practices,

    Chair: Ancestor Favorite Material Object

    Christmas, Halloween, beliefs, taboos, occupations, peculiar deaths, burial rituals, changes in technology and communication, radio, movies, music, dancing, singing, other entertainment. Changes in transportation; horse, automobile, train, boat, plane.

  6. Isolate any myths and legends from any of the above subjects that you think are the most important or interesting and why. For example, sudden mysterious deaths, famous elopement of young lovers and the consequences, challenges of being an immigrant, fighting and triumphing against racial and ethnic discrimination.

Your assignment is to carefully select some of these, including One material object, interview the individual(s), and write a paper. Select at least TWO anthropological concepts from TWO branches of anthropology that can be used to critically understand the social impact of these legends and myths on your life and the experience today. Explain with some very specific details and quote(s) from the textbooks how the anthropological concepts can be applied. In this way you will briefly summarize, discuss and creatively explain how your ancestors may have influenced or continue to influence your genes, beliefs and world out look to day, through inherited physical characteristics, the handing down from generation to generation of these past ancestral traditions, famous stories, customs, experiences, technical skills and other significant cultural experiences.

MATERIAL OBJECT PRESENTATION   –    6 Minutes   –     30 points

  1. Identify a material object in your ancestor’s life. Interview him/her about it so that you can get enough material to make a Six minute PowerPoint presentation before the class.
  2. If possible and at your discretion, bring the material object to show to the class as an illustration. If the object is too big or too costly to bring to class, obtain a good photograph of it.
  3. Some suggestions of what questions to ask
  • When was the material object obtained and why?
  • What purpose did this material object have in the life of the ancestor?
  • Why was it important?
  • Does it have any commercial value or is the value mainly sentimental?
  • To what extent did the material object enhance of reduce the experience of Kufwasa?
  • How has social change altered the role of this material object?
  1. Investigate and summarize whether and how knowledge of this object might be enhanced through biological and cultural anthropology, archeology and linguistics. Cite specific material from the text books.


The project provided a formal opportunity for the students to conduct some research and to analyze the data and write a research paper. They also did a presentation of a small part of the findings from the project. But what has happened during those last 3 periods of the class during the last week of the semester the “Material Object Presentations” has always provided memorable great events which have never appeared in course evaluations. It is as if each student shared or revealed a little more of themselves to the class; they got to know a little bit more about each other’s family backgrounds and history in those 5 minutes of the presentation.

Reflecting on the richness of the presentations over the last 25 years, my own thought is that there is a limit to empiricism and rationality in teaching pedagogy in drawing out the depth and meanings of social experiences. This is perhaps what philosopher Michael Polanyi refers to as the tacit dimension; that in many cases we can only experience a social event by paying our attention away from it. Breaking down each event into discrete pieces does not do justice or contribute to our understanding it in its full entirety or even its meaning. In my futile attempt to have the reader not just understand what went on beyond the usual limitations of empiricism, I will describe some of the events.

Material Object Presentations

Each student stood up and often passed around the class the ancestor’s favorite material object. Some showed photographs on the screen. Since the vast majority of the ancestors were the students’ grandparent(s), there was tremendous pride in describing the history of the family. The source of living in the 1920s and 30s was connected to farming. Some grandparents had been orphans who moved a lot. They fought in wars and came back with medals and mementos that were either shown to the class or passed around the class. The details students uncovered about their families and the ancestor were fascinating. There were African American students whose ancestors lived in poverty and suffering on former slave plantations in the South. There was an Italian ancestor who was believed to have been a member of the Mafia. Women ancestors who flew planes during WW II in Europe. Then there was an ancestor and family that was at the center of the famous Hatfield–McCoy feud in West Virginia. There were so many family heirlooms the students would inherit down the line. One student used a family cookie recipe as the favorite ancestor material object and used it to bake cookies he served to the entire class. What started as a possible short term teaching pedagogy, has turned out to be an event or a gift that my 30 students and I enjoy every Fall during the last 3 periods of the last week of class.


Polanyi, Michael, The Tacit Dimension, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc. , 1967.

The empiricist fallacy


The Reality of Racism in America

On campus, conversations over social media have surrounded the issue of race for the past couple weeks. One poster on the anonymous social media domain Yik Yak denied the existence of institutional racism and was bothered when someone responded and pointed out his/her probable white privilege. So, does institutional racism exist? Or is it a myth that sociologists made up to make the white man feel guilty once again? The article below provides an abundance of information to answer this question.

Read it and weep, privilege-havers! As always, feel free to let us know what you think!

Biology or Sociology?

It seems that there has always been a question of how an individual grows into the person that they ultimately become. Some argue that it is biologically determined — known as the nature approach. Others argue that it is dependent on their social environment — known as the nurture approach. And there is even another group that appears to be unable to decide, rather concluding that it is a combination of the two.

It seems that there is a connection between the two approaches. However, it may not be the simple connection that both are present simultaneously. Rather, it is possible that our understandings of each are dependent on our understandings of the other. That is, nature does not exist without nurture and vise versa. Our understandings of the natural world around us (including biology) are influenced by our culture and society. In addition, our culture and society are impacted by the environment in which we live.

It is common for Westerners to believe that science is science. Biology is biology. However, we are only able to conceptualize an objective world, as we have no true access to it because of the huge impact that culture has in our lives. Regardless, I have included an article that provides a short sociological look at cancer statistics. Let us know what you think!


Fear Trumps All

The fact that a non-politician is leading by such a large gap in the Republican Party is astounding to many. Trump has seen immense success in his campaign, leaving some people entirely confused. With rhetoric that is, frankly, reflective of what was being spouted in the 1950s and 60s in America, many people are loving the messages that Trump is spreading. How could someone who screams at the crowd and throws out anyone who speaks against him gain so much traction?  The answer in a word: fear. America is a country that thrives on fear. In fact, some sociologists have written about this cultural phenomenon.

Most older people would have you believe that we are living in a truly dark and dangerous time. Phrases like “the good ol’ days” are used quite often to describe an apparent safe haven that used to be America. However, the truth is simply that we are not living in a darker, scarier time. The following article discusses our cultural perceptions regarding safety and threat.

The first two articles in that link describe the way that our society deals with fear, particularly through the influence of the media. Have ideas on solutions to the epidemic of fear? Share below!

Drones and Football Players

It seems that any time you turn on the news, countless images of violence are thrown in your face. Seeing all the atrocities in the world leaves many people asking themselves, “where does it all come from?” Some may be quick to jump the gun and blame some innate biological drive that leads humans to be violent toward one another. However, considering violence from a sociological perspective serves to dispel this notion. The following article discusses the role that contradictions, context, and constructs have in determining whether or not violence will occur as well as what our reactions to the violence are.

In addition to reading this article, I encourage you to consider the sociological influences that impact whether or not something is perceived as violence at all. For example, the systematic racism and classism in our society are very rarely (if ever) discussed. Feel free to share your ideas below!

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

We all have different tastes, but music serves an important role in the lives of every individual — whether or not you are a big fan of music. While less visible than physical institutions like schools and churches, music is a fundamental part of our culture. The following article discusses the purpose of music in our lives and the way that we use it in order to understand the world around us.

I would encourage you to explore the website in its entirety if you have the time. There is a lot of neat stuff on there! In addition, if you have any comments about the article, please feel free to share them below!…Oh, and don’t forget to rock on!

Cultural Calamity

No one ever really wants to talk about depression. Why? Well, frankly our society has framed it to be an “awkward” and certainly not a “fun” topic. However, with the beginning of a new semester and our current season, it seems rather important. As you may know, a decent amount of individuals struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter season due to a limited amount of exposure to sunlight. In addition, there are also countless individuals who struggle every day with depression. So, I say it’s time we start talking about it! Groups like Active Minds do a great job to discuss mental illness and disorder from a psychological point of view in order to decrease the stigma surrounding it. However, sociological influences can be important as well. As we know, an individual does not exist separate from his/her/their own society. So, check out the links I have attached that offer some short (but rather interesting!) insight on the link between our society and experiences of depression.

And just a reminder, you need never be alone in your suffering if you are struggling. Seek help because people want to be there for you. And more than anything else, people want you here.

Give us some input! What do you propose we do in order to reframe the way society deals with and contributes to the prevalence of depression?

New Year, Same Norms

With a  new year comes new goals that we hope to achieve in the next 365 days. Everyone loves a good New Year’s resolution, right? Not quite! If you thought otherwise, you may have been suffering from a little bit of ethnocentrism. That’s alright, we’re all guilty of it sometimes. This article delves into the cultural history of New Year’s resolutions, enjoy!

Did you follow cultural norms and make a New Year’s resolution or two? Tell us about them!

The War on Islam

The us/them dichotomy is one that becomes very important within many cultures. American culture is not any exception. It is rarely discussed as such a dichotomy, but comes to light through interactions between groups — particularly through wars. In light of recent terrorist activity across the world, a particular us/them differentiation has become increasingly strong. It seems that any time such horrific actions are made visible, we see a new wave of Islamophobia. It seems almost natural — predictable after every occurrence of extremist terrorism. But why?

When such tragedy occurs, we feel the need to somehow separate ourselves from the “bad people” that orchestrated it. In order to create this separation, we need to be able to identify something that makes us fundamentally different. The most obvious label from which we try to remove ourselves is “terrorist.” However, because we already know that we are not terrorists, we have to find another identifier that distances us even farther. As many people know, ISIS claims to be doing things in the name of the Islamic faith. Therefore, oftentimes, people begin to become afraid of or hateful toward those that consider themselves Muslim. It seems that people only do this to separate themselves from the perpetrators of these horrors. However, it is an extremely hurtful practice in which we take part. It ostracizes an entire group of people, as well as puts them in unnecessary danger.

It appears that the best way to reduce fear associated with discrimination and prejudice is through exposure and education. While I realize it is a lot to ask, at least in Bridgewater, VA, to suggest that each of you go out an interact with someone of the Islamic faith in order to achieve a better education, there are other things that can be done. Simply gaining a better understanding of the religion can help to reduce anxieties. Fortunately, we live in an age where knowledge is abundantly available. In fact, it would almost seem that those that are undereducated about certain matters are choosing to be that way. Therefore, I include a link that discusses Islam from a sociological perspective. I highly suggest reading it. Even if you don’t, though, I still suggest you go out and read more about the religion if you do not know much. You may not realize the difference you could make by doing so.

Bars and Beyond

If you have taken a Criminology class (or even a basic Sociology course), chances are you are familiar with labeling theory. This theory proposes that once an individual adopts a label given to them by the rest of society, he/she is unable to escape it. The individual begins to fill the role to the best of his/her ability. In Criminology courses, this is often discussed in terms of labeling an individual a “criminal.” Clearly this label influences the rest of the individuals life, even when they come out from behind bars.  The article attached shows what some people are doing to get a very important conversation started.

Comment to keep the conversation going!