The Witch in Your Class

Recently, our department read an excerpt from My Freshman Year. In this book, Rebekah Nathan reports about her examination of life as a first year student. As an anthropology professor, she had a much different perspective than she got from going back to school. One of the things she writes about is classroom culture, the norms of the interactions between students and professors, and how we can better identify those norms. She explains, “There is an exercise I sometimes do in my large introductory anthropology classes in a unit on witchcraft to show how accusations in a culture can operate to reinforce unconscious social norms. I tell students there is one witch in the room who is responsible for all the bad things happening to them in class” (90).  Consistently students who violate the norms of the class by asking in-depth questions or staying after class to talk to the professor are frequently identified as the hypothetical witch.

This idea appeals to me because it so eloquently summarizes our feelings toward people who violate norms in so many other situations. One of my colleagues brought up the point that witches are contextual. That is, norms for social situations change; thus a witch in one situation may not be a witch in another. With this in mind, I wondered if I could change the culture in my classrooms to create a different set of norms. Maybe I could even negate the idea of a witch in the classroom! Although I have seen instances (e.g., one class period or an out-of-class experience) in which classroom norms fall away, I really don’t think it is possible to break out of classroom culture completely. If nothing else, I am the witch in my class. That is, the teacher must enforce some norms even if (s)he would like to challenge some others. So, although I didn’t mean to post of picture of myself with this post, I may have done so nevertheless.

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