Print This Issue

Talk About Teaching and Learning

September 20, 2011, Volume 58, No. 03

Making Abstract Ideas Experience-near

by Greg Urban

My first real challenge as a lecturer came in the spring of 1981. I was launching my career as an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. I had been asked to take over the large introductory cultural anthropology class from the department’s most popular anthropology teacher, Chad Oliver. A notable science fiction writer (under the name Symmes C. Oliver), Chad crafted his novels and short stories around anthropological themes. He was a hard act to follow. I was confident I would succeed, though, because I was so excited about my subject matter. I wanted to communicate that excitement to bright-eyed undergraduates, whom I thought of as budding anthropologists. Things did not go the way I imagined.

It took half a dozen lectures or so for me to grasp the full extent of my failure. I had created my own syllabus, built around what I understood to be key ideas: cultural relativity, the nature to culture transition, cultural variability, alliance, the semiotics of language use. Little did I appreciate that the ideas, so fascinating to me, were hopelessly abstract for the students.

I looked out at the class of over a hundred. Some students were reading newspapers. Others had their feet up on chairs, their baseball caps on backwards. Some were already settling in for a nap. A few were eagerly taking notes in the front row. As the lecture progressed, students began nodding off one after another. The next lecture, fewer students showed up.  More nodding off. And so it went.

Finally, discouraged, I said to my wife: “Probably none of them will become an anthropology major.” I’ll never forget her response. Rather than consoling me, she said: “What an elitist attitude! This is a great opportunity. You can get the students to appreciate how anthropology is relevant to their lives, whatever careers they choose.” We discussed how learning about culture, ethnocentrism, relativity, and other ideas might impact business, law, medicine, and other areas.

The light went on. It was obvious to me that anthropology was a relevant discipline. Its central concept is culture, how people are shaped by the cultures in which they grow up and live. Everyone needs to understand this. The world is getting smaller. People are coming into contact more and more with those of different cultural backgrounds. I understood this, but I had not communicated it to the students. Why should they want to learn what I had to teach? That was the question I had to address.

This meant rethinking the class. I had no intention of giving up on the core ideas I sought to communicate. However, I had to give those ideas a palpable reality that made sense in terms of the students’ lives and trajectories. I kept the syllabus as it was, but I changed my approach to preparing the lectures. While continuing to build each lecture around a core idea, I asked myself this question: How can I get the students to connect the idea to their experience of the world, and I emphasize, their experience?  How could I make the ideas part of a living reality for them?

I developed two general principles. These may prove useful, with modifications, in other disciplines as well, but I discuss them here only with examples from my teaching in anthropology. The first principle was to illustrate an abstract idea with stories from my own experiences or those of others which involved “a ha” moments. Students could relate to these stories and imagine themselves experiencing what I or the character in the story had experienced.

In one lecture, I was attempting to get students to understand the variability across cultures in orientations to physical space. At an abstract plane, the idea is this: the cultural contexts in which we grow up and live influence how we orient ourselves to the physical space around us; they shape our expectations and preferences, what we feel comfortable with, what upsets or disorients us. 

Proceeding abstractly, as I had done prior to my epiphany, involved explaining the concept and giving examples from the anthropological literature. For example, in some central Brazilian Indian tribes, houses were built in a circle around a central plaza. In northwest Amazonian Indian settlements, in contrast, people lived in large elongated houses (known as Malocas) strung out at considerable distances from one another along the banks of rivers. These arrangements involved differing expectations about communal living and proximity.

To make the idea experience-near, I used examples from my own life as well as from the lives of others. As a high school student in the midwest during the 1960s, I had picked up two hitchhikers—male college students—who turned out to be from France. When they talked to me, in otherwise delightful French accents, I felt decidedly ill at ease; I realized that they were getting too close to my face. I can still recall how large their heads appeared. I tried to pull back as far as possible, but, being in a car, I had no room. What an unpleasant drive that proved to be, though, ostensibly, the conversation was good.     

It was only years later that, as a budding anthropologist, I learned why I had responded that way. As Edward T. Hall’s explains in his book, The Hidden Dimension, different cultural backgrounds pre-dispose us to expect different inter-personal distances. This is a matter of gut feelings, not just awareness. My small town midwestern Anglo-American upbringing had conditioned me to feel viscerally disquieted at distances that made the French college students feel most comfortable. Reportedly, in many Arab countries, people like to stand so close to their interlocutors as to smell the garlic on their breath. 

A personal experience of this sort brings an idea alive for students. Even recounting in concrete detail an “a ha” moment when I first grasped an idea helps students to relate. What matters is proximity of the experience—and, hence, of the idea—to life.

Recounting my own personal experiences (or those of others) proved to be one way to make abstract ideas concrete. The other principle I developed was this: get students to marshal their own pasts in the service of conceptual understanding. In large lectures, this can be done only with special care. However, a well-placed question to an audience, even an audience of over a hundred, can yield a narrative that renders an abstract idea startlingly palpable.

In one lecture, I had finished explaining the historical prevalence around the world of polygyny—where one man is permitted and even expected to marry more than one woman at a time. It is extraordinarily difficult to get female American students to appreciate how people can tolerate this practice. After a question along these lines by one student, another student raised her hand. “I would just like to say,” she began, “that I am from Nigeria. We have a polygynous culture. And I cannot understand the American practice of divorce. In Nigeria once two people are married, they enter into a life-long bond. In America, you feel that you can simply discard someone, like trash, and move onto someone else.” Nothing I dreamed up could have made the concept of polygyny more palpable.  And I was later able to use this story in subsequent years.

I always communicate to my teaching assistants the necessity of making abstract ideas experientially real for the students. My advice to them—and this is advice, I believe, that may prove useful, with modification, in other disciplines as well: Figure out how to get your students to connect with the idea. Make use of these two principles: First, employ your own experiences (or those of others) to tell stories that bring the idea into a personal context; Second, solicit experiences from the students that connect the idea to their lives. The most abstract idea is, after all, of human value only if it helps us to grasp our existence in the universe.

Greg Urban is the Arthur Hobson Quinn Professor of Anthropology and
in 2011 he was the recipient of both the Abrams Award and the Lindback Award.


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - September 20, 2011, Volume 58, No. 03