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Vol. 7, No. 4: December 15, 2000

From a Country School to Cyberspace:
An Educator's Journey and Reflections on Pedagogy

by William Washabaugh, Professor of Anthropology,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Quick link to Prof. Washabaugh's curriculum vitae

My teaching career began in 1967, when I took over the fifth grade in a country school in eastern Connecticut. The superintendent who hired me was not put off by the fact that I had never taken a course in teaching methods. He did, however, require me to plug the gaps in my academic background with a summer course at a local college. I fulfilled the requirement all right, but the experience left scars.

Our summer class in teaching methods was held in a third grade room, where fifteen of us, all in our early twenties, were seated in tiny chairs, at desks made for little ones. We spent hours practicing classroom "skills." For example, we devoted a whole session to the task of learning how to sharpen pencils properly, with a firm hold on the wood, but not so much pressure as to shatter the point. We practiced and practiced, meaning that each of us would take a turn struggling up out of our chairs, addressing the pencil sharpener on the teacher's desk, then wedging ourselves back into our seats. Up and down, practice, practice. Eventually, we all learned how to put a fine point on a No. 2, but the psychological aftershocks of this summer were significant. If innovative teaching was built on trivialities such as sharpening pencils, then, I vowed to myself, I could do just as well if not better by relying on common sense.

After earning a master's in anthropology at the University of Connecticut and a doctorate at Wayne State University in 1974, I accepted a position as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My teaching and publishing focused on linguistic anthropology and on creole language studies in particular. The complexities of human expressive practices continued to concern me as I extended my research focus to sign languages of the Deaf and eventually to musical expression. My recent books deal with flamenco music and politics, and even my forthcoming book on trout fishing in popular culture concerns itself with wrinkles in contemporary expressive life.

During most of this professional life, my teaching was colored by the painful memories of that summer in Connecticut. I shied away from methods. I assumed that good research and lots of enthusiasm were all that one needed to generate excitement in the classroom. The best methods were uncomplicated and commonsensical. If you speak clearly, modulate your intonation, employ illustrative gestures, use appropriate pacing, and are enthusiastic about your topic, then that should be enough.

But in the mid-1990s I had an awakening. I learned that even most profound and controversial ideas of the day could put graduate students into a coma if not presented imaginatively. As exciting as some ideas might be, they won't stimulate learning if students are not primed and prepared. So I took a second look at my pedagogy.

I developed classroom exercises that relied increasingly on attractive problems that caught students' attention while simultaneously directing them toward deeper understanding of social practices. I started making use of single-frame cartoons such as those published in the New Yorker to sharpen the students' skills in perception. I shortened the length and increased the number of writing assignments to help students develop more effective skills in argumentation. When the web became available and sufficiently flexible, I shifted my teaching to a web-assisted format, which made it possible to provide students with problems to analyze and debates to enter at their own rate and convenience. Always on the lookout for attractive problems to address, I exploited the internet's capability to support audio and video tracks. Eventually almost all writing assignments were structured so that they could be submitted electronically and subjected to peer evaluation.

Two projects currently occupy my attention. The first is an undergraduate course "Comparative Studies of Music, Gender, and Race in Nationalism" (156-328). Currently, I am teaching this as a hybrid, combining face-to-face presentation and distance education. The class meets face-to-face for about two-thirds of the scheduled sessions.

During the remaining sessions, we meet in cyberspace, carrying on dialogues and arguments, first about cartoons and film clips and then about the proposals of students with respect to a musical style and its bearing on national identity. At the outset of the course, I distribute three CD-ROMs that contain about 50 two-minute video clips of social events involving music and dance. Each is selected with an eye to the problem it presents regarding music and national identity. Andalusian flamenco, Argentine tango, Brazilian samba, Cuban rumba, Portuguese fado, Algerian rai, Greek rebetika, Irish dance, Gypsy song, and American swing are all represented. The students' challenge is to puzzle over these clips and eventually select a style from these examples-- or others if they wish-- for extended study. Intermittently, during the course, we return to the recorded examples for illustrations of the role of music, gender and race in the formation of national identities.

Since this particular anthropology course is so highly specialized and not likely to be supported at very many institutions of higher learning, I plan to offer it as a distance-education course in the near future, one that will complement existing courses in nationalism or ethnomusicology. For more on this project, visit my website.

The second project that I've undertaken involves a web-based collaboration between UWM and a neighboring high school, Riverside University High School (RUHS). My wife, Catherine, who spearheads an innovative team of teachers at RUHS called the Career Integrated Technology Team, anchors that side of the collaboration. Ours is a two-pronged initiative aimed at meeting pressing needs in the anthropology department at UWM while also launching a novel form of collaboration with RUHS. First, I will develop a new undergraduate course in museum studies at UWM called "Museums, Real and Virtual." The aim of this web-assisted course will be to introduce UWM students to concepts in museum studies and to provide them with the tools and skills that they will need in order to critically evaluate and eventually construct virtual museum exhibits as websites.

Second, I, along with others who are knowledgeable in museum studies, will provide instruction to teachers at RUHS as they develop web-assisted teaching practices, and in particular, as they begin a program of project-based teaching that includes a study of virtual museums. I will visit RUHS regularly to guide their project, and will encourage the UWM students who have successfully completed "Museums, Real and Virtual" to earn credit coaching RUHS students as they learn to use computers in their studies of museums. For more on this project, see the related website.

As I work through these two projects -- the hybrid course on music and nationalism and the web-assisted collaboration between UWM and RUHS -- I've come to see that now more than ever teaching cannot be left to common sense. I can certainly sharpen my No. 2 pencils without professional coaching, but I cannot build an effective web-assisted, project-based, dialogue-rich course without formal study, generous time commitments, and heavy reliance on the expertise of our teaching consultants here at UWM.

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