Acts of Creation

[private]Pedagogy is the art of getting people to learn. As college professors, teaching people how to learn is at the heart of our profession.  The activities we assign need to be geared toward that end, and so this post is about tips for creating effective assignments, ones that motivate learning through action.

My richest vein for creativity that I tap tends to be my own undergraduate experience.  I think all of us had some version of the experience of listening to a professor talk about ‘political economy’ or ‘hegemony’ as if we should know what they were referring to (fill in the appropriate term from your discipline).  Another common one is seeing the words, “Needs More Analysis” written in red ink on a term paper.  Most students have only the haziest understanding of what analysis means, so to ask them for more of it is an exercise in futility.  It’s like the canard, ‘how can I look up a word in the dictionary if I don’t know how it is spelled?’

What were other gaps or frustrations you experienced?  How can we anticipate and fill these for students? Going beyond this, what are some useful aspects of your discipline for ‘real’ life? How can we get students to apply theory to transcend their understandings of everyday existence?

I personally aim for them to ‘think different’ at the end of an activity.  I also like to intersperse activities such that they wake up oxygen starved brains and shake up sleepy limbs – so one example is that I have students do a Survival Exercise after a quiz in Cultural Anthropology.  I have them team up, and taking notebooks and pens, they head outside on campus, looking for useful plants and animals in their immediate environment:

Instructions for Patterns of Subsistence/Survival Exercise

  • Get into groups of four – each group will be a band.  Pick an animal to be your totem, i.e. The Squirrels.
  • During this class period you are going outside to collect data on as many useful plants and animals as you can find on campus
  • You have ½ hour to head outside, scout around, and note down (no picking) as many plants and animals as members in your group can identify, name, and use.
  • When the half-hour is up, return to the classroom to compare notes with the rest of your tribe.  Remember, the tribe is counting on your for survival!


  • You may also write down (no picking) plants and animals that you know for a fact are at another location on campus.
  • If you find nothing, your whole band is considered to be deceased.  You lose! You join the spirit elders and help to break any resulting ties.
  • When considering a plant or animal – think about all uses: edible, drinkable, inhalable, topical, etc.
  • Don’t forget all parts when identifying uses – roots, leaves, seeds, and so on.
  • If you unknowingly pick a poisonous plant, you will die or at the very least experience extreme discomfort, at my discretion.


  • For every useful item you identify, you get one (1) point. 
  • Every item means, if you identify a root for roasting, seeds for toasting, leaves for salad, and flowers for tea, you would get four (4) points.
  • The band with the most points will become the tribal leaders.

As students read about hunter-gatherers and their patterns of subsistence, they will be able to compare the numbers of useful plants they can identify (usually 10-20) with the thousands used by groups like the Ju|’hoansi ( 

This exercise thus also helps them begin to deconstruct pernicious us/them attitudes about ‘civilized/primitive’ which is a primary learning objective in any Intro to Cultural class.  In terms of promoting pedagogical goals, this exercise uses vocabulary terms (band, tribe, totem) while it also promotes teamwork and cooperation, and gives them a transition from one learning module into the next. 

I came up with the exercise by thinking back to how little exposure I got to everyday plant life until I went out and learned it on my own, as it isn’t really something we learn in passing.  Hopefully, the exercise shows students the utility of paying attention to one’s own environment for sustenance, as well as sparking some general interest in the natural world around us.[/private]

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