Why Students Take Anthropology (at a School with No Department)

Posted by on Jan 28, 2015 in Teaching Anthropology | 0 comments

Anthony Kwame Harrison
January 28, 2015

Teaching introductory anthropology gives us the opportunity to introduce a broad range of students, with vastly different interests and anticipated career trajectories, to the distinct perspectives and approaches in our field. A handful of these student will go on to take more anthropology courses or, possibly, pursue it as a career. Yet even those students who don’t, can come out of an Introduction to Anthropology class with their worldviews expanded and/or with the critical firepower to support the just causes they’ll encounter in their lives. As instructors a key aspect of this involves reaching our students in meaningful ways—making the class more than just a way of earning three credits, meeting a requirement, or filling a schedule. On the first day of the first anthropology course I ever took at the University of Massachusetts, I was delighted to see a familiar face in the front of the lecture hall. Richard Holmes was a doctoral student who, five years earlier, had taught social studies at a small independent school I attended in Historic Deerfield. Seeing “Mr. Holmes” again, I was immediately on board with the class—personally invested in making it a great experience. The rest is history.

Having taught anthropology now, off-and-on, for eighteen years, this emphasis on getting and keeping students on board has become central to how I approach introductory courses. The process is often more intuitive than prescriptive. Yet one effort towards this goal involves developing an early understanding of who my students are (collectively moreso than individually), what brought them to the class, and what expectations they have for it.

This information is particularly pertinent at my current institution, which has no anthropology department. For as long as I have been teaching at Virginia Tech, on the first day of class I’ve asked my students to fill out notecards detailing information about their major, year-in-school, interests, and, most relevant here, why they are taking the course. I recently went through notecards from the six times I have taught “Introduction to Social Anthropology” over the past dozen years. While many of the results are what you might expect, the process of going over them has enhanced my understanding of what draws students to anthropology at a school that has no department, major, or (for now) minor.

Although not a scientifically valid study, I nevertheless provide categorical percentages for the 260 notecards I’ve accumulated. A handful of students (8%) simply said that they were drawn to the class because I was teaching it. The majority of students emphasized that they took the class for a requirement (19%)[1] or because they generally found it interesting (40%). By general interest I mean a statement containing no particular indication that they know what anthropology is. For instance, one student wrote, “Never taken Anthropology, seems interesting, something new.”

I separate general interest from what I call informed interest. Thirteen percent of students gave detailed answers demonstrating some familiarity with anthropology, or at least its traditional non-Western emphasis. For example: “Interested in different people and points of views, and I want to minor in International Studies. I wanted challenging courses where I actually feel like I’m learning something useful;” and “Would really like to learn about non-western cultures, boy am I sick of Europe!” It’s possible that many of the students providing general interest answers had similarly informed understandings of anthropology; they just didn’t care to communicate them.

Several students (15%) expressed their interest in taking the course through some past or anticipated future exposure to anthropology. A few students shared that they had been exposed to anthropology through courses offered in their high schools. One student from Columbus Ohio had her curiosity sparked when anthropologists from Ohio State conducted a study in her high school. Some students did not realize that Virginia Tech did not offer anthropology until after they had decided to attend. One of these, a freshman, was thinking about transferring but nevertheless was “interested in seeing what it was like.” There were also students considering anthropology programs for graduate school; three simply stated that they “want to be an anthropologist.”

Another small grouping (5%) came to my anthropology course through the recommendations of friend/family who had taken courses at another school. One explained that his brother had got his Master’s degree in anthropology; another shared that she had “friends @ other schools that majored in [anthropology] & love it.”

The remaining few notecards I grouped as miscellaneous. A couple of seniors cited anthropology prerequisites for non-anthropology graduate programs. Another pair of students anticipated a connection with “law enforcement.” A first-year engineering student hoped the class would offer “a lot of critical thought/discussion;” meanwhile a fifth-year engineer signed up for the class because he “didn’t need to use a calculator.” One of the most memorable explanations came from a junior Business student who explained “I build game worlds, from the ground up. I believe this class to help me add Realism to my fictional races” (!).

So what does this all tell us? Quantitatively, not much. For if given the opportunity, undergraduates tend to cite requirements or fall back on general interest as their reasons for taking most courses. Yet qualitatively, we can see that anthropology appeals to those who appreciate their position in an increasingly globalizing world. Anthropology is recognized as an important supplement to many majors and a prerequisite for various graduate programs. Exposure to anthropology, increasingly through high schools but also, judging from the “law enforcement” comments, via popular culture, cultivates an interest in learning more. And many of the most compelling statements came from students who were encouraged word-of-mouth by friends and family. Finally, there are those delightfully quirky explanations that signal a non-conventional spirit I’ve always noticed within my anthropology classes.


Anthony Kwame Harrison is the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Africana Studies at Virginia Tech. Kwame received his B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Syracuse University. He is an Executive Committee member of AAA’s General Anthropology Division.


[1] This percentage would have likely been higher, had I not at some point early on started asking students to give a reason other than to fill a requirement.

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