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Frame It
Miguel Vasquez, PhD

What I Want To Accomplish in My Teaching:
Advice from a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow

Humanity is a mystifying species. As an applied anthropologist over the past 20 years here at NAU, my fundamental interest has been to help my students determine for themselves how and why we as humans do what we do and, with that understanding, inspire them to become lifelong learners and productive agents of change.

Humanity needs all the help it can get right now. As educators, we have a unique opportunity to contribute. Thus my goal in teaching and facilitating learning at NAU is a simple one. I want to help students see the world in new ways—ways both traditional and innovative—that expand their horizons beyond the sometimes ethno-, class-, or gender-centric viewpoints of family, school, friends, and media; and then use that understanding to make practical and positive differences in the world. I ask them to see cultures, including their own, as experiments in sustainability. If we continue as we are, what will things look like when they are my age? What do we want them to look like?

There is no requirement that they necessarily agree with me. It’s often more interesting when they don’t—we all learn something. I do warn them that they might hear something on occasion from classmates or from me that will cause their blood pressure to rise—and to welcome it. It probably means that they are listening and might learn something. Regardless of their conclusions in all this, it might be useful to begin thinking about it. We are not likely to get anywhere we’d like to be by just muddling through. We need to frame it.

As we are learning from recent breakthroughs in cognitive science, human understanding seems to come about best through the mental process of “framing,” of placing what we experience within a larger, already familiar context. For educators, this means the use of stories, fables, anecdotes, myths: approaches that take the abstract and theoretical and contextualize them, relating them to peoples’ own experience in order to best comprehend what it is we are learning. Humor—especially about the frequent absurdities we are all capable of—also helps. Happily, anthropology lends itself well to this aspect of our natures. Social theory is notoriously dry, obtuse, and difficult to digest. All of us experience the world, however; and most of us try to make some sense of it. My experience has been that many students seem to comprehend fundamentally that “something is off or misguided” with the contemporary world, but they have not really been given the tools or the time to examine it in any depth. So “framing it” becomes a means to help students see what others have said about globalization, sustainability, immigration, climate change, diversity, etc. and apply it to the context of their own lives. That’s what social theory is all about.

What I have found is that, as an educator, if I can help students “connect the dots” they will respond. I recommend personal or student stories that lay out a situation, then examining that phenomenon from a variety of perspectives in which students can locate their own and others’ experiences within a larger framework of understanding. Many become engaged; some even change their majors. They have discovered the tools to take their understanding to the next level. Specifically, the tools I strive to help students discover include skills that will serve them well in any professional capacity:

  • The capacity to recognize and transcend ethnocentrism
  • Social agility in unfamiliar situations
  • Cultural sensitivity—behaving with preparation, understanding, and empathy
  • Accurate, informed interpretation and analysis of social contexts and patterns
  • The ability to appropriately challenge conclusions using new knowledge
  • Problem-solving and strategic planning
  • Clear and persuasive written and oral communication
  • The capacity to “act locally and think globally”
Miguel Vasquez

These are unfortunately not the sort of tools that naturally emerge in the American educational system. Somehow in our society we seem to have become quite adept at socializing children from an early age to boredom, disengagement, and a lack of any real sense of agency in life. Young people do not thrive in those conditions; neither do democracies.

—Miguel Vasquez, Professor of Anthropology and NAU President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow