Briefly Noted: Teaching Writing in Anthropology

As part of my grad school experience, I teach 5-credit writing seminars to undergraduate students. My students are all concurrently enrolled in anthropology courses, thus the purpose of my seminars is to help students write in the discipline. Although I have been “writing in the discipline” for the better part of a decade, prior to teaching, I never had to think about what it means to write in anthropology.

Now that I look back on three terms of instructing students, I still don’t think I have a distinct answer – anthropology writing is personal, scientific, ethnographic, (auto)biographic, global, local, theoretical, storytelling, public, scholarly, poetic, verbose, prosaic, mundane, significant, situated, etc. In short, anthropology writing is a lot of things, and I think that benefits our discipline by allowing for many kinds of expression and exploration.*

When it comes to introducing such a vast library to my students in anthropology writing seminars, I choose to build from the personal. I ask students to begin by considering their own identities and positionalities within the university and other spaces they inhabit, then build their awareness out from there to the experiences of their classmates and then out to other communities. By situating themselves first, students start to better understand themselves as knowers and as creators of knowledge, which gives them the tools and the confidence to make arguments, evaluate the arguments of others and get a sense of how arguments are built from both evidence and experience. Thus the sequence of assignments moves from a positionality statement to a student-designed ethnographic project to a more ‘traditional’ argumentative research paper and, finally, a reflective piece looking back at the journey.

Along the way, we cover other ‘writing’ topics like citations, paper organization, intros and conclusions, transitions, editing and revising, etc., but I hope that the biggest takeaway for my students is the confidence to join the conversation (of the academy, their professional careers, their communities) thoughtfully, respectfully and from a place of self-awareness.

 

*That being said, I recognize that not all forms of expression nor all forms of scholarship are equally valued in the academy, and it saddens me to see amazing public scholarship, community-building and creativity often go unremarked in academic circles.

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