Teaching Excellence Awards

 Year Awarded: 2013

Faculty Award winner

Joanna Mishtal

 College of Sciences


Having grown up in communist Poland, my memories of school days include intimidating oral exams in front of the class, punitive pop quizzes, severe discipline, and a symbolic barrier between student and teacher. After more than 20 years in the United States, these memories remind me of the kind of teacher I do not wish to be. My own approach to teaching is student centered—working with students based on their current understandings and respecting their varied learning styles—and interactive—promoting engagement through discussions and debates and creating a supportive atmosphere for learning. Teaching cultural anthropology lends itself very well to this kind of engaged learning process.

Anthropology "makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange," as we like to say. With this approach I hope to expand students' worldview and spark curiosity by drawing them into unfamiliar contexts of other cultures and, likewise, inviting them to examine what they take for granted in our own society. In doing so, students learn a method of inquiry and a tolerance of diverse viewpoints that will provide lifelong tools in any career or field of study they pursue.

The best way to accomplish this is through active learning and engagement. In teaching I aim to cultivate critical thinking and intellectual curiosity and to promote engaged and rigorous analysis of important debates. In discussions, whether one-on-one or in the classroom, I encourage students in their own discoveries and interests and insist on their participation in the learning process. Even in my larger classes, I work to facilitate student discussions by posing problems, pointing out contradictions, and allowing students to explore the questions and issues in an atmosphere of collaborative learning. I encourage students who find large class discussions intimidating to visit my office and discuss concepts in a smaller setting.

By using material—whether textual or audiovisual—that is conceptually rich and empirically grounded, I encourage students to grapple with the specificities of particular local experiences by using in-depth ethnographic examples before considering broader conceptual debates of international and global relevance. Thus, students learn to think critically about the interconnectedness of global, national, and local contexts.