Below, Prof. Graham Jones describes various aspects of how he taught 21A.00 Introduction to Anthropology in the spring of 2022.
OCW: Your classroom policy bans the use of cell phones and laptops. Have you gotten much pushback from students about this policy? Under what circumstances have you made (or would you make) exceptions to the ban?
Graham Jones: Take that with a grain of salt. These days, most students do their reading on devices (they even read PDFs of articles on their phones) and take notes on tablets. So it’s really not feasible to ban devices. However, post-pandemic I have increasingly reduced my own reliance on devices in teaching. When I started teaching 21A.00 in 2012, I had a multimedia powerpoint and carefully scripted lectures for every class. Now, I mostly come to class with the reading and a piece of chalk. I try to let things flow organically, in traditional Socratic fashion. Of course, it’s hard for students to focus on seminar discussion for an hour and a half twice a week, but I feel it’s important for me as a human being to demonstrate the possibility of sustained interpersonal engagement without multimedia stimulation.
OCW: Session 16 took the form of a field trip to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. What did that trip entail?
Graham Jones: Because the trip to Harvard on the subway takes about 30 minutes both ways, we usually only have about half an hour in the museum. I give a fast-paced guided tour myself, trying to highlight some of the connections between the Museum and the content of the class (which, changes year to year). Mostly I spend a lot of time in the Native American collections, focusing on the Northwest Coast cultures. I discuss the politics of the Museum’s relationship to the Indigenous communities whose artifacts it has amassed, and the role of Native curators in stewarding collections and shaping new exhibits. We examine the theories of culture that the Museum is designed to convey, but also some of the competing theories reflected in its relationship to the Natural History Museum, with which it shares a space. Most students have never been to this kind of museum before, so my goal is to spark their curiosity and equip them to critically engage with similar venues, whether it be in New York, Chicago, or Paris.
OCW: Ritual design plays a significant part in this course. What do students learn by actively designing new cultural practices, as compared to analyzing aspects of existing cultural practice?
Graham Jones: Everyone creates cultural practices for themselves as a part of living a human life, but because MIT students are particularly attuned to activities of making and an ethos of learning by doing, I thought it would be interesting to try to approach ritual as a design problem. Ritual in general can be thought of as a kind of technology, often an extremely sophisticated one, designed to produce specific social, cultural, and psychological effects. To be clear, students learn to analyze existing cultural patterns and ritual practices before attempting to design their own; this is a necessary step in learning to identify key components and how they work together in a dynamic system. Today ritual design is emerging as a professional field and, indeed, a career. My belief is that applied, design anthropology should be at the forefront of that field. Moreover, I think that students like ours best internalize concepts when they need to apply them to problem solving, which made giving them a ritual design brief particularly exciting.
OCW: You’ve taught 21A.00 six times in the past ten years. How has your approach to teaching it evolved over the years?
Graham Jones: From the time I started teaching the class, I have always focused on two key themes: kinship and ritual. These topics are crucial for the history of the discipline and serve as focal points for issues related to many faces of human experience. Kinship connects with family, love, sex, gender, reproduction, and death. Ritual connects with performance, communication, symbolism, tradition, religion, and belief. Because most of my students aren’t anthropology majors, I don’t approach the class as an historical overview of the field, but rather try to expose students to some of the more interesting recent research that’s out there. I try to draw on research spanning the widest possible range of human cultural diversity.
When I was planning this iteration of the class in 2021, the book The Dawn of Everything was topping bestseller lists and being hotly debated in the mainstream press. I couldn’t remember another time in the course of my career that a book by anthropologists had made such a splash. A few students who were planning to take the class encouraged me to adopt it as the main text. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever used in this class, or any class for that matter: it’s mostly historical and archeological, and it’s very polemical. But I thought it would be exciting and memorable for students to feel like they were engaging in an active intellectual controversy that was then unfolding around us. Moreover, we were just emerging from Covid restrictions, and the book’s ambition to boldly reconsider everything we thought we knew about human history seemed very resonant with the moment of upheaval we were all still living through. Thus, the version of the class I taught in 2022 was very much a time capsule of that particular historical moment.
OCW: What would you like to share about teaching 21A.00 that we haven’t yet addressed?
Graham Jones: One thing that is really neat about the class is that it leaves a lasting impression on people. Students get back in touch years later, often out of the blue. One student wrote me seven or eight years after he took the class because he wanted to apply some of the lessons he had learned from our discussion of Amazonian funeral rites to planning his wedding! Another wrote me because research we had read about the US-Mexico borderlands helped him make sense of news reports on the migrant crisis. In that sense, I’ve learned to take the long view. Patterns in human culture and society recur, and my hope is that students will carry tools to interpret the patterns they encounter, or conceptualize the patterns they want to create, far into the future.
- GIR HASS-S
- 21A.00 Introduction to Anthropology can be applied toward a Concentration, Minor, or Bachelor of Science in Anthropology, but is not required.
- 21A.00 Introduction to Anthropology is a required course for the Bachelor of Science in Archaeology and Materials.
Once or twice a year, most often in the spring semester
Assessment and Grading
Students’ grades were based on the following activities:
- 20% Attendance and participation
- 8% Presentations (2 presentations at 4% each)
- 32% Commentary papers (4 papers at 8 % each)
- 8% Ritual design
- 32% Research papers (2 papers at 16% each)
Enrollment in this subject roughly reflects the overall undergraduate student population: mostly engineering majors (and of those, mainly computer scientists), followed by science majors. There was one SHASS major, with a handful of anthropology minors and concentrators.
How Student Time Was Spent
During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:
- Met twice per week for 1.5 hours per session; 26 sessions total; mandatory attendance.
Out of Class
- Outside of class, students read assigned texts, completed written assignments, and prepared to deliver in-class presentations.