Interview Paige West, The Claire Tow Professor of Anthropology
Please describe how you have navigated transitioning your courses, your pedagogical approach and your classroom/student community online.
I'm teaching one class this semester which is the Interpretation of Culture. It's a very large lecture class. I'm also the Director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University and co-director of the Barbara Silver Horwitz ‘55 Scholars of Distinction Program and there's a course that goes along with that.
Interpretation of Culture is a course that fulfills some general education requirements, a course that all people who are thinking about majoring in Anthropology take and it’s also a course that lots of other people who were thinking about majoring in the social sciences take. It’s a lecture and the students also have discussion sections that my wonderful teaching assistants who are PhD students at Columbia run: a Barnard alum, Clare Casey, Stephanie Ratte, Emily Hoffman and Akshay Ragupathy.
We've all been reading lots of things very quickly about how to migrate a course online and online pedagogy and it seems that students do better when you don't have long uninterrupted lectures. The course is twice a week: I lecture for 55 minutes and then the students ask questions. What we're moving to is a combination of both live lectures that are shorter in duration that I'm also going to record so that people who don't have sustained internet access can watch them on their own time. It is a mix of my lecturing and interactive media and we’re putting together videos for students to watch that I will lecture to. The National Film Board of Canada has this incredible archive of indigenous media and indigenous films online and we’re going to use some of those. We’re trying to mix it up and make it more multimedia than it usually is.
We're also using some guest lectures: some of my friends whose work I’m teaching in the class have agreed to come and give a lecture on the day that we're reading their work. What it's made me do very quickly is learn a lot about what works online and what doesn’t, and to realize that to be a brilliant online teacher you actually have to put a ton of work into it. So, I'm not expecting for me or for my students that we're going to do this as well as somebody who's been teaching online for 20 years would do it. What I'm doing is continuing to provide a space for them to think with me and think with their colleagues in the class about Anthropology, and to do that through a lot of forms that I usually don’t use very often in class.
IMATS at Barnard and the online folks at Columbia have been fantastic. For me the system has worked very well. The interface between Zoom and CourseWorks works; it’s worked for my TAs, too – so I’ve been really pleasantly surprised how easy the technology is to use, how intuitive.
You have created, along with Rice University Professor Zoe Wool, an excellent resource: Collective Anthro Mini Lectures Project for #COVIDcampus. How did you develop this project? How are you and other faculty at Barnard, Columbia and beyond using it? Please describe the project and also how your students have been or will be using it as part of your courses.
The day that all of this happened - when we went online with the idea that it would be a for a couple of days and we would have Spring Break and reassess, I like everybody else assumed that meant we would be online for the rest of the semester. I got home that day and just thought, “You know, I have no idea what I'm doing teaching online and I have no idea how to actually to begin to mount a class like this.” I then thought, “Every single person I know and love in my field of study is in the exact same boat. What would it be like to create a platform where anthropologists can come together and say ‘I do this really interesting research, I have this thing I’ve been working on – a book, an article, anything – and do a short lecture about it.’”
And so I put together the Collective Anthro Mini Lectures Project with my colleague Zoe Wool. The idea is for anthropologists in the next week or so as we are all scrambling to re-do our syllabi to be able to draw upon that resource. Say I’m going to do a week on pandemics now. I’ll have a lot of learning that I will have to do to read a lot about it. Duke University Press has brilliantly put their entire catalogue that has anything to do with disease online for free. I’ve already been reading things there. I’ll learn a bunch of stuff, I’ll lecture to the students about the things that I’ve been learning and thinking about, I’ll do some lectures about medical anthropology that I already know about and then my colleague that I started this online platform with, Professor Zoe Wool, has a really good lecture on pandemics she has already uploaded, so then I’ll have the students watch that, too.
The resource that we have created is meant to be a supplement. If there are topics that you’re not an expert in, you can draw on them. But there are also things on the platform to just break up traditional lecture classes as all the data shows those just don’t work online.
How are the Teaching Assistants managing the transition?
What we’re doing is turning their discussion sections into open office hours. They will be there, they will be online. Students who want to check in then can check in, they can talk about the readings, they can talk about whatever they want during those office hours. We decided not to do the mandatory discussion sections online because those really work best live in a classroom setting where students are asking questions and engaging with each other. We’re really, really aware that not all students are going to have access to streaming internet. A lot of people have access to the internet through coffee shops, through public libraries and we understand that not all students have that, so we decided to turn those discussion sections into spaces where people can check in with the TAs and talk about things but not do them the way we’ve been doing them because I was feeling that that was going to put a lot of pressure on the students. If we’re scrambling as faculty I can’t imagine how much they’re scrambling to learn all this technology.
Could you share a couple of examples either of 1. Particularly interesting research that your students are working on and have been working on well since the move online and/or 2. Some insights/’pleasant surprises’ about your courses, your approach to teaching, your students and classroom dynamic that have emerged and are emerging.
The first online lecture that I did was that Wednesday before Spring Break and almost all of the students who are registered for the class turned up for it. It seemed to go pretty well. I did not do the full lecture because everything I’ve read says that you cannot hold the students’ attention for that long. I lectured for about 35 minutes and then I just answered questions for about another 35 minutes.
You can see the students asking questions in the chat area and – this is going to make me cry – so they were asking questions but they were also saying how happy they were to see us, because they could see me, they could see their colleagues, and they were pretty happy to have something that seemed normal at a time when everything was falling apart. And I’m a little bit of a clown – of course a very scholarly clown – in class. I wear the clothes that I wear in the world which include knee-high rhinestone boots and things like that, so there’s a way in which that creates a kind of conditions of possibility for them to see me as a professor, but also as a professor who has a whole, full life in addition to being their professor. You could see that in the comments they were making because there’s a way in which there’s a more kind of discursive freedom in that commentary section [on Zoom] and they were saying things like ‘Oh, we miss seeing you!’ ‘We don’t have the music today!’ (because I always play music at the beginning and end of class). It made me realize what a community the classroom had been for them. It’s interesting to me to see how that community seems to be maintaining online.
When I came up with the idea for the Collective Anthro Mini Lectures Project, one of the things I was thinking about was how of course immediately all of our focus was on our students and that’s true across the world. I have friends and colleagues all over the world who are now teaching online. Everyone was thinking about their students. And there was this moment when I thought, ‘Who’s thinking about supporting us in terms of this learning curve to go online?’ but also ‘Who’s thinking about keeping all of us in this space where we’re thinking about ourselves as scholars who have these projects that are ongoing?’ It seemed that creating that resource [the Anthro Mini Lectures Project] would both help people be better online teachers but also would help remind us all that we have this scholarship that we’re doing and that might be on pause, but it’s important in the world and brings change to the world.
At the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University where I am Director, all of our work is on hold. It’s because all of our work is focused on faculty working groups who do things all over the world. We work with the Columbia Global Centers, we have a group of nurses who are working on a project called ‘Nurses on the Front Line with Ebola’ and they do all of this work in Africa. We have a menstrual health group that does all of this work with menstrual health education globally – and so all of that is paused, because all travel related to the university is paused at this point – all travel for all of us is paused.
The Barbara Silver Horowitz ‘55 Scholars of Distinction Program is focused on young women who have an incredible aptitude for the social sciences and humanities. Our students in that program do incredible things: Ruba Nadar has been developing this wonderful project on protest art and the Middle East, Jazmin Maco has a project that she's working on about the Caribbean diaspora. Each of the students we have in the program has an equally fascinating research project that they’re proposing. All of that is shut down. I think for me coming to terms with how I'm going to talk to these brilliant young women about needing to put that research on hold is a challenge. Luckily, I run the program with Professor Ellen Morris from Classics and we’ve talked almost every day since [the pandemic] started to think through whether if students are at home are we going to be able to find a way for them still to do some research or do we just put everything on pause. I think there are a lot of questions about student research.
In terms of my own research, I work on the Island of Papua New Guinea. I have gone there every single year of my adult life. I've worked there for 25 years and already had my tickets and I canceled them because I can't go. It will be the first time in a very, very long time that I haven't been. I have ongoing projects there; my long-term collaborator John is from there and he's also my closest friend in the world. It will be the first time in 12 years that I haven't spent the summer with my collaborator.
Everything's on pause now because they have the first two confirmed cases in Papua New Guinea and the healthcare system there is not equipped just like every health care system in the world is not equipped. Folks are trying to figure out what to do in New Ireland, where [my collaborator and I] work together. He has now bought some supplies and is trying to convince people there to practice social distancing. But social distancing is hard for us – it’s utterly antithetical to people who live in indigenous communities.
Please feel free to add anything else that you would like to mention about your courses, your students, your ideas going forward for the rest of the semester.
I'm always impressed by my colleagues. But we all get on with our work, we teach our classes, we do our research, we write our books and papers, but we don't come together a lot and talk about pedagogy. We all do it and we care about it but we don’t talk about it a lot. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the deep thinking and deep conversations that faculty have been having over the past three weeks about how we're going to continue to really create classroom spaces of extraordinary learning and at the same time create classroom spaces of kindness and of a kind of attention to the fact that this is not normal, this is not something that anybody has ever dealt with before. Figuring out together how we do that together I think is a real testament to the quality of the faculty and to the quality of the support we’ve gotten from the College.
The students are so capable of understanding that everyone around them is doing the best that they can do. I have just been so impressed with the students.