Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sometimes, students get it!

So, I taught a section of our Peoples and Cultures of the World (a junior-level course for non-majors) in the Summer A term; we met twice a week for six weeks, three and a half hours per session, and there were 45 students in the class.  I treat this course as an introduction to cultural anthropology, with a rich variety of "peoples" and "cultures" to illustrate the concepts.  The peoples we met included the Aymara (Central Andes), Yanomama (Orinoco Basin), Baka (Cameroun), Maya (Yucatan, Mexico), Maasai (East Africa), and of course Carriacou, where I've done fieldwork.

The final topic of the course, as I teach it, deals with globalization and the culture of capitalism.  For this subject matter I like to bring the students back to themselves, by including "us" as one of the "peoples and cultures of the world."  One way that I sometimes do this is by showing them the first 30 minutes or so of the John Sayles film Matewan.  This true story of the May 1920 Matewan Massacre deals with the culture of capitalism by showing how West Virginia coal miners in the early 20th century had to deal with exploitative coal operators, dangerous working conditions, and the threat of violence on the part of "agents" hired by the coal companies to prevent the miners from organizing themselves into unions.  It also touches on globalization, by showing coal company owners attempting to replace striking miners with African Americans and immigrants from Italy.

This time, I got an unexpected reaction to this bit of film.  A student, in her final reflexive essay, wrote this:
Also, I wanted to thank you for showing the video about the West Virginia coal miners. I am from West Virginia and came from a family of coal miners. I don’t think people in the United States understand how dangerous coal mining still is today. My Uncle was a survivor of the Sago Mine explosion that happened about 4 years ago and it hit my family with the realization that something can happen at any second. Even though devastating disasters like this still exist today, the mines do not take all the safety precautions to prevent explosions from happening in the future. I hope that this video has opened the eyes of some of the people in class to realize that the coal used to heat their homes, is mined in dangerous working conditions. 
 Unfortunately, I didn't read the essays until the course was over, and thus I could not go back into class and try to generate some extra discussion.  But at least there is satisfaction in knowing that something in the course was deeply relevant for at least one student, and that's a good feeling.

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