Moving On Up To The Projects

The JeffersonsI’ve written previously on project-based learning. From this point forward I’ll post occasional updates about making my new course on globalization more project-based.

I first designed and taught this course last spring; it is intended to serve two student learning outcomes for the university’s global studies program:

  • Apply an interdisciplinary research methodology to understanding and addressing contemporary global issues.
  • Analyze multiple value-based approaches to solving contemporary global problems.

As I discussed in a previous post, I failed to explicitly incorporate these learning outcomes into assignment directions, which complicated assessment. I’ll be more careful next time.

Two of the assignments were a commodity chain analysis and an ethnography of consumption. For the commodity chain analysis, each student had to select a globally-traded commodity and demonstrate through a digital medium (rather than solely through text) the links between the production, distribution, and consumption of their specific commodities. This meant identifying the various actors involved and their motivations, as well as considering relevant social and environmental effects.

Many students used Prezi for their commodity chain analyses and embedded video clips into their presentations. In many cases, the video was just empty filler and didn’t provide critical information. Next spring I’m allowing only video produced by the students themselves for this assignment.

In the ethnography, students were supposed to research the consumption patterns for the commodities they had already analyzed. While the commodity chain analysis traced the path of a commodity from its origin to its final consumption, the ethnography was supposed to examine the cultural context in which the consumption occurred. I instructed students to consider questions such as:

  • What, where, how and why do people consume the commodity?
  • How is the consumption of this product related to ethical, religious, or political values?
  • Do people of different backgrounds all consume this commodity for the same reasons?
  • How does consumption play into the creation of social and personal identity?

Students had to get my prior approval for their ethnographic research, and I ran an in-class workshop on how to develop appropriate interview and survey questions. I warned students to avoid asking questions that might cause personal harm or damage a subject’s reputation. Although I’m no expert at survey methodology, I did semi-structured interviews in Vietnam without an interpreter as part of my dissertation research, and this experience was helpful to draw upon when giving students advice on what to do and not do. The same was true of my habit of eating lunch with anthropologists and psychologists.

Although the vast majority of students rose to the challenge of these two assignments, it became apparent that two adjustments were needed.

First, in my original syllabus I did not specify that each student’s “globally-traded commodity” had to originate outside the USA and be consumed locally. A couple students chose products that were produced locally and consumed abroad, which made the ethnography essentially impossible to conduct. I’ve changed the language in the course syllabus accordingly.

Second, both the commodity chain analysis and the ethnography make more sense as group projects. Instead of a half dozen presentations on various brands of organic coffee, why not have a team of students work together on the same product? So that’s what I’m doing for the second iteration of the course.