Participation: Putting theory into practice

Posted on May 10, 2010

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The fourth and final section of my course, “Archaeology of Sex and Gender”, which provided the opportunity to develop the book Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, asks students to put the theoretical approaches to understanding sex/gender in the past into practice.

Student groups will have already been formed following week 10, when each student is asked to identify a topic they would like to research further. In these brief project proposals, I ask students to identify a research question or topic, and a time and place where they think it might be possible to examine this question. Many build on the research they already did for a previous assignment of finding a journal article or chapter in an edited book to read and review.

Group assignments are inescapable given the class size (90-100 students), or else it would be impossible for students to present their work to each other, which would undercut one of the benefits of this section of the course: students teaching each other about new topics, or going into depth about already introduced topics.

I use two approaches to avoid some of the pitfalls of group projects. First, I do not let students form groups on their own, nor do I assign them arbitrarily. Instead, in reviewing their proposed topics, I group them together myself, often in ways intended to push them beyond what they wanted to do. For example, a person proposing to research India’s hijras can be put in a group with people researching other recognized third genders, requiring everyone in the group to think about the generalizable aspects of these situations.

This approach gives me groups that are not just friends, or just random. But in any group of students, there is the potential for someone not to pull their weight (or be perceived not to pull their weight). So I use peer-grading of participants in the groups to ensure that there is an incentive to contribute, and a means for individual group participants to single out someone who truly falls below expectations. Some students turn out to be quite severe graders.

The format and content of the group presentation is up to the members. They submit a proposed outline, and I give them comments– including suggesting narrowing or broadening scope where needed. I assign each group presentation time based on how much new material they have to present, not giving each group the same amount of time automatically. I schedule groups revisiting societies we already discussed first, with those least familiar last, so some groups finish early (but are expected to do more sophisticated presentations of content, since they are scaffolding on content presented previously) while others get extended time to prepare (and may not achieve as deep an understanding of a topic if it is entirely new).

Student groups have taken the format freedom incredibly seriously, making videos of original scripted plays, writing and performing puppet shows, and making a video of a Google Maps based tour of the red light district of San Francisco, to name a few of the more striking examples. I learn something new every year.

Joyce 2008: Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives Ch 5

Goals: to take the disciplinary approaches presented and put them into practice through the development of group presentations.