One of the great joys of being an academic is teaching. The classroom is a combination of laboratory and incubator: we perform experiments together and nurture change. For me, passion, humour and artistry are part of this mix, not just from the instructor, but from the students as well. The best teaching brings together emotion and intellect, inspiration and skill. When I’ve been asked about my ‘teaching philosophy,’ I struggle, because to me, it’s about constantly learning and recognising the real value of what we’re doing. (That said, here’s a teaching philosophy video that Michael Rampe of Macquarie University helped me put together.)
During a fieldwork trip to Brazil, I was staying with landless farmers in an encampment on the side of a highway far out in the rural west of São Paulo state. No plumbing, no electricity, living in tin sheds — hundreds of families were dug in working for a piece of land and a more just society. They faced hired guns, an implacable local government, and seemingly insurmountable odds.
I had a rental car and told community leaders that I was heading into town: was there anything I could pick up for them? I expected them to ask for cooking oil, rice, beans or some other basic staples.
They said, books. They wanted me to get more books because, in the months — years even — that they had tenaciously held on to the side of the highway, they had read everything in their ‘library,’ an improvised tin shed with a paltry shelf of communal books on offer. What sort of books? Gramsci. Paul Freire. ‘Eco-agricultura.’ Green farming techniques.
To this day, whenever I hear students being cynical or lamenting the apparent weakness of educational efforts, I recall these farmers on the side of a highway, struggling to build a sustainable future for their family. Convinced that the most important thing for their future was to read, to debate, to prepare their minds and knowledge for the day when they could build a better community for themselves and their families.
Over the last few years, my teaching has increasingly come to concentrate on human diversity, forming a coherent trajectory of courses that explore our species, from its evolutionary origins and biological nature, through its psychological and cognitive variation, through to the moral, ethical and political implications of this diversity. I chose to title the MOOC that I designed with Open2Study, ‘Becoming Human: anthropology,’ because I believe that we can only understand ourselves if we recognise that we are a ‘self-made species,’ a type of life that, although continuous with other living things, has social, cultural and technological facets that have influenced who we are for as long as we’ve been human.
Open education movement and sharing
Since 1995, I have taught at Macquarie University, University of Notre Dame, Columbia University and the University of Chicago. These days, I teach an introductory course on Human Evolution and Diversity, a course on Psychological Anthropology, and both an undergraduate and graduate unit on Human Rights. In 2015, I’ll be convening a new course, a PACE unit that will involve field study in Fiji with partners at the University of the South Pacific. I’m also the designer behind Open2Study’s course, Becoming Human: Anthropology, a free online MOOC.
Like many anthropologists, I’ve had to teach a wide range of subjects – from philosophy and world music through to sport and radical social thought. Some of these courses I’m likely never to revisit. When preparing for these jobs, I’ve leaned heavily on those who have been willing to share syllabi and course outlines, so I’d like to make mine available. I’m a strong believer in the Open Education Resources movement, a philosophy of sharing and making teaching resources available to other instructors and students. The fact that our disciplines or employers may not recognise fully the value of these resources is disappointing, an obstacle to progress and drag upon what should be greater exchange and two-way teaching.
Please feel free to borrow from these, to check them out to see what readings we used, or to just peruse them for whatever entertainment value they may offer. Like my other material, this is licensed for free non-commercial use and adaptation, so long as you (a) acknowledge your source, and (b) license derivative materials under the same conditions.
- Anth 151: Human evolution and diversity
- Anth 207: Psychological anthropology
- Anth 323: Culture and human rights
- Anth 818: Human rights, aid and intervention
- Becoming Human MOOC
- Bringing the Learning Home
- Fiji Field School
- Former teaching
- Teaching philosophy video
Teaching materials by Greg Downey are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0. This means that you are free to use these materials, but you should acknowledge the source (me), not seek to resell them, and, whenever possible, share works derived from these.