This semester, I have been teaching ANT 297/298 Anthropologists Abroad. This is a new course for the Department of Anthropology designed to help our students make the most of their study away experiences. In essence, we want them to be anthropologists critical of their surroundings and engaged in intellectual thought while they are away. In 2015, we came together to design the course collectively, and it first launched in AY 2016-2017. One of our priorities for this course is for students to learn from each other, so students who are getting ready to go away meet in the same room with students who have just come back from away. Additionally, we ask that students who are currently studying away submit either written or video reflections of their time while they are away. In this blog post, I will call attention to the benefits and challenges of using video reflections while students are away.
There are numerous benefits to students who are currently studying away submitting a video reflection to the course here at Connecticut College. Students who are away are asked to respond to a series of six to seven prompts during the semester. Responding to focused questions allows students who are away to think critically and intentionally about a focused issue. It forces them to think through challenging situations critically and anthropologically – not just reactively. Often times, such focused reflection allows students to see the larger social, structural, and cultural processes at play in their experiences. The reflections can also be moments of connection to home, a welcome and needed relief for some of our students.
For students enrolled in ANT 297/298 at Connecticut College, seeing their classmates and hearing their reflections throughout the semester helps them connect with each other, analyze their experiences, and prepare for studying away. Often times, I use video reflections to open discussion at the beginning of class. Every time, at least one returning student has faced a similar situation as something highlighted in the video reflection, even if the students studied in very different places. For students preparing to go away, they are able to see the changes in students over the course of the semester, the absolutely wonderful and energizing aspects of traveling, and how having an anthropological approach is beneficial when studying away.
In essence, the reflection videos become a kind of text that we begin with. After watching the reflection, I ask students in the room to reflect, and we then spend time working through the material presenting. This proves to be a unifying and cohesion-building activity, and it allows students to engage in learning from and with one another.
For all of their benefits, there are some challenges to video reflections. First and foremost is that students who are away will need to know how to record a video. They will also need internet strong enough to upload the video into the designated Google Drive folder. On more than one occasion, this has been a challenge.
Another difficulty is controlling or anticipating what is coming in the videos. Our students are often in very different ethnographic settings. There are occasions when students are not thinking like anthropologists in the reflections. Instead of not sharing these with the class, however, I take them as learning moments when we can collectively think through what it means to think anthropologically, which is conveniently one of the course goals.
Overall, video reflections are a useful tool for this kind of course where co-constructed learning is privileged and ethnographic experience forms the text for the class. When it works, the outcomes are exceptional.