Student Blogging and Effective Teaching: Neuroanthropology in Action

Play and the PostNeuroanthropology and the Power of Student Blogging
by Daniel H. Lende

This spring, in my graduate class on Neuroanthropology, the students crafted excellent posts that brought together their own interests with the interdisciplinary approach at the heart of this new discipline. Now all eight posts are up. Here’s a taste of each one!

I also include my own section on “Blogging and Teaching” at the end. Blogging adds a tremendous amount to how students learn and to the mastery of important skills in today’s academic and work environments.

Student Posts

Alexis Winter, Sensory Anthropology Meets Neuroanthropology

Neuroscience and ethnography both provide evidence that the senses, however defined, form an integrated sensory system… This interconnectedness is what makes Geurts’ “sensorium” and Gibson’s “sensory system,” such useful conceptual tools in the study of perception. They provide us the vocabulary to talk about sensory experience without imposing a Western five-sense taxonomy on societies where that taxonomy may not apply.

Trevor Duke, Developing a Neuroanthropology of Social Space: Implications for North American Archaeology

I propose that we view the human experience of past human spatial organization as an exploratory activity; one that is based on a constant interaction between bodily experience with the ambient environment, sensory perception and how our brains map these things internally, all of which inform and intricately define one another. In doing so, we can avoid resorting to purely social or ecological explanations to define the human experience of sedentary life in the past and can provide frameworks that are formed in the type of holistic reasoning that still serves as one of the unwavering strengths of anthropological research.

Ariane Tulloch, Adult Learning across Cultures

In Western society, adult learning often appears to be individualistic and egalitarian. However, do these characteristics of adult learning hold up cross culturally? If not, what characterizes adult learning in other parts of the world? What techniques do teachers of adults employ so that their students learn? What insights can neuroscience offer us about the way that adults learn cross culturally? Do different pathways light up in certain societies as opposed to others? How will this change or influence the way that adult educators teach?

Sarah Fishleder, Learning Determines Choice OR What I Did During My Spring Vacation

The term for how a culture retains its past and effectively passes it to future generations is called the ratchet effect. This, Tomasello (1999) bravely typed, is also the primordium of culture, as it is the means by which populations begin and maintain traditions. Through niche construction, this ratchet effect can lead to new abilities for humans to do neuro-cultivation.

Russell Edwards, Carefully Crafting Consumption: Understanding the Craft Beer Revolution

Round three [of the experiment], which used an entirely new set of beers and vessels, allowed participants to use a provided beer flavor wheel while making their tasting notes.

The terms used in this round were more reflective of those found on the flavor wheel than the first round, suggesting that participants were agreeable to having more terms at their disposal to describe what they were experiencing. Interestingly enough, Abdi claims that the overwhelming majority of professional tasters and critics of beer and wine don’t actually have a more refined perception of flavor, but that they are simply able to draw on a more expansive vocabulary surrounding flavor than the average individual.

Tess Standfast, Connecting Mind and Body through Yoga and Embodied Cognition

Movements and sensations by way of practiced postures and breath control in yoga are a means of embodied experience. I will first describe the philosophy and physical practice of yoga in this post as a way to understand how the body can cultivate the mind. Then I will turn to embodied cognition and its attention to perception-action systems of the body, and develop the argument that sensorimotor experience in yoga creates and alters cognition.

Karen Castagna, Facts or Fictions about the Teenage Brain: Is it all gasoline, no brakes?

What is not known is just how much of the synaptic proliferation and elimination is contextually dependent, and if so then we should expect to see brain differences linked to differences in experience. We do know the quality of each individual’s social environment can have profound influences on the development and activity of neural systems, with repercussions on a variety of behavioral and physiological responses (Curley et al. 2011). Given this research, changes in brain plasticity in adolescents living in dysfunctional environments are likely to be distinct from the changes of those in protective and supportive ones.

Farah Britto, Vision and Culture: A Neuroanthropological Approach

Action sequences are characterized by fast-paced movements and a quick succession of shots during the scene. Both of the videos above reflect this. However, the amount of shot changes is greater and the pace is much faster in the American film. The American film also uses more close-up shots, while the Ghanaian counterpart utilizes wider angles. The contingencies that the filmmakers exploit are different, leading to different viewing experiences.

What do these differences mean? Are they a result of the real differences in the way Ghanaians and Americans experience vision? This question hints at the notion that different cultural experiences can alter visual experience, and this concept deserves further attention.

Blogging and Teaching

Blogging proved an effective tool for teaching during this graduate seminar on neuroanthropology. It made students focus on writing well, develop a set of integrative ideas, and deal with the demands of a broad audience. Several years after I wrote The Power of the Post, I can once again declare, Student blogging works!

The basic structure of the assignment went (1) an initial draft, (2) a draft post on-site, and (3) the final post. I provided feedback on both drafts. Students also led a class session on their topic, and at the end of the semester, produced a final paper based on their teaching and blogging. This approach, particularly the blogging, produced multiple benefits.

The series of drafts developed writing skills. They learned to say things succinctly and to develop their overall argument. Students also learned how to integrate links, images and often video into their posts. Writing and social media skills will help them, whatever career path they take.

The posts, with their shorter format, helped students focus on a core set of ideas. Typical graduate student papers often have long literature reviews and a meandering style, a process of “figuring it over” and “demonstrating knowledge” that is quite useful in proper context. This process is also quite effective at filling 15 to 20 pages quickly. But it doesn’t make for a compact and engaging blog post. Students learned that they had to focus on the most important things they wanted to say and then say them well.

This process helped them discover connections between different ideas. Combining ideas from neuroscience and anthropology is not easy, and doesn’t get easier when topical interests are thrown in – adult learning, yoga, cultural evolution, and the like. By focusing on what they found most important, students had a better sandbox in which they could try out different combinations and see what worked. Blogging helps interdisciplinary development.

Another reason that blogging works well is because it opens up the potential audience for student work. The student posts are closing in on 10,000 total views in a little over a month. Even the least-read post has reached 400 people. In contrast, their final papers got one reader – me. Sure, I can provide expert feedback. But I already did that as part of developing the post itself. Blogging became a win-win: feedback on their ideas and a wide audience for their work.

A final benefit is that their final papers were among the best I have received. They knew what they wanted to say. They meandered less and focused on covering additional research and theory. They worked more at integrating key approaches that we had learned during the semester. In other words, they were not as caught up in producing a final paper in a mad rush of writing. They already had half of it basically written before they even started.

I now expect several students to develop their posts into peer-reviewed paper submissions. I know that this has happened on other sites, for example, at Somatosphere. Greg and I have done it here. No reason students can’t too. Posts become papers. Just as with their final paper, they are already well on their way to doing that.

Image Credit: Early 19th Century Colored Engraving Elaborate Carved Wooden Frame, Joy’s Antique Dolls: “Wonderful early colored engraving of children playing on a fence gate… The print is signed C. Cousen, Engraver. and W. Collins, R.A. Painter.”

While the children are quite a bit younger than my students, I love how they are climbing and leaping over a closed gate. Plus there is a prominent “post” in the engraving itself, just the thing that sustains their play.

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Student Blogging and Effective Teaching: Neuroanthropology in Action by Neuroanthropology, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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One Response to Student Blogging and Effective Teaching: Neuroanthropology in Action

  1. Bravo. Wish I’d had this course to take when I was in graduate school.

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