Ian Cook: Teaching Portfolio

Teaching Portfolio

Ian Cook


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Teaching Statement

I am one of the lucky anthropologists who get to see their research and teaching interests coalesce. The situated learning practised by Indian rural-urban migrants who navigate rapidly changing and intensely rhythmic cities selling flowers, coconuts, or fruit might at first seem very different from the type of learning which takes place in university lecture halls and classrooms but, as I noticed upon returning from the field and entering the classroom as a teacher for the first time, there are interesting commonalities. Learning in both cases is about the creation of a certain predisposition, the way that knowledge is structured, the way learning is sequenced and the way learning is rewarded or punished (cf. Bruner 1966).

Critical Thinking and Communities of Inquiry

The disposition towards learning must be one of critical engagement. In a  subject like anthropology critical thinking involves using both one's sociological knowledge (or conceptualising: looking for examples, identifying commonalities and teasing out conceptual structures) and sociological imagination (or contextualising: linking the text/problem at hand to wider social issues) (Grauerholz and Bouma-Holtrop 2003). We want and expect our students to use these two components together as they judge, reflect upon and raise questions about topics, texts and issues. Accordingly, I am inclined towards courses built around seminar-based discussions which, for example, could include integrative learning projects in which students take concepts into the local field or assignments that ask students to reflect on their own experiences through relevant theoretical lenses.  I believe a teacher's most important job is to help ferment an inclination for critical thinking so that students can continue to learn outside the lecture hall, both within and outside academic settings, as they grapple with the universal questions that are taken up by anthropology in small and contextually-dependent settings.

A classroom that allows for such thinking is one that embraces in the inherent vulnerability of being a student (or for that matter teacher) when faced with the enormity of the anthropological cannon. This can be hard in an environment like academia where prior knowledge, rather than openness to learn, is often celebrated and mysterious jargon is used to cloak perceived failings in understanding. Writing can be good for precise and carefully chosen sentences, but classrooms are places where ideas are twisted and reformulated as they are (re)learnt and whilst this needs clarity, it also needs the ability to admit mistakes and no fear of being 'wrong'. All this is possible whilst still maintaining a solid grasp on the texts and theories that guide and inform the discipline, if the teacher helps foster the times and spaces needed to develop 'communities of practice' (Lave and Wenger 1991) or more precisely in a higher education setting 'communities of inquiry' (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer 1999), where social presence (open communication, group cohesion), cognitive presence (explorations, interrogations) and teaching presence (design and organisation, facilitation of discourse, direct instruction) come together.  This might include allowing students to choose the rules governing discussions at the start of the course and selecting a moderator each session, peer feedback on written assignments, online collaborative projects (i.e. blogs, wikis) or asking students to select a certain portion of the class readings.

Planning for Learning Cycles

'That which must be learned', whether it be the city or anthropological theory, has a certain amount of fixidity, but it is also fluid and dynamic. This makes structuring learning both extremely difficult and exciting. Accordingly, I always endeavour to be widely and deeply familiar with the topics taught and am happy to utilise certain cognitivist-inspired approaches, such as the deployment of argument mapping (Davies 2011) when trying to highlight the structure of complicated ideas and demystify theories. Yet at the same time, and more importantly, as a teacher I am also open to the reflections and reactions of students, as I help them build on their prior experiences as social beings, explore their relations with myself and others through collaborative learning and draw on their motivations and interests to drive the learning process.

In my short time working as a teacher, both as a teaching assistant in an MA introductory course and as an independent tutor in a special programme for Roma graduate students, I have learnt that the more I prepare for classes the more freedom I have to allow students to lead the learning. In classes where students are eager to explore topics themselves I am confident that a well planned (and timed) class will allow me to return to the most important points I want to get across. In lessons where students seem more hesitant to interact, I have activities to stimulate learning that go beyond, yet still utilise, lecturing.

My planning – both on an individual lesson and syllabus wide level – is sequenced in a way that reflects the cyclical process of learning suggested by Kolb (1984), where learners first experience and reflect; before conceptualising via theorisation or reflection; which in turn leads on to a synthesising of experience, reflection and theory, thus modifying the learning cycle; that finally loops back upon itself, producing knowledge growth, developing practice and deepening understanding. This feeds into the way I construct assignments and give feedback to students. This might include a series of structured reaction papers throughout the course that require students to make linkages to previous classes or social phenomenon, building up to a literature/theory review as a final assignment or as part of a larger project. Thus the rhythmic assignment process, punctuated with encouragement and requirements where necessary, loops back into the classroom setting.

The Learning Imperative

In a world in which education is evermore commercialised or instrumentalised as a tool for career development, I believe there is a strong need to radically reassert the intrinsic importance of learning about sociological and anthropological themes and theories. We know that learning can be hampered by class-ridden institutional norms that arise from wider relations of production (Bourdieu and Passeron 1990), but we also know that learning has revolutionary potential (Freire 2000). This learning must be done in a way that reflects our findings from the worlds we research in – we know cultures are are made up of relations, and that these relations are heavy with power; we know people learn in a variety of ways and that this can inform our teaching practices in the West, where individual-centred Cartesian mind/body dualism permeates into our teaching and learning practices. I take my teaching as seriously as I take my research, and am happy to have them inform one another.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron. 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Sage.

Bruner, Jerome Seymour. 1966. Toward a Theory of Instruction. Harvard University Press.
Davies, Martin. 2011. ‘Concept Mapping, Mind Mapping and Argument Mapping: What Are the Differences and Do They Matter?’ Higher Education 62 (3): 279–301.
Freire, Paulo. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum.
Garrison, D. Randy, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer. 1999. ‘Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education’. The Internet and Higher Education 2 (2–3)
Grauerholz, Liz, and Sharon Bouma-Holtrop. 2003. ‘Exploring Critical Sociological Thinking’. Teaching Sociology 31 (4): 485.
Kolb, David A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge university press.