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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
INSTRUCTOR: Dr. Mwizenge S. Tembo August 31, 2016
QUESTIONNNAIRE GUIDELINES FOR THE ANTHROPOLOGY PAPER
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
likely to know the information you are seeking. Possible title: “Impact of my Ancestors’ Experiences and Beliefs on who I am today.”
- How old are you and describe where you were born and grew up?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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,
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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