Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology Loring Danforth is this year’s recipient of the Kroepsch Award for Excellence in Teaching. The Bates Student had the chance to sit down with him last week for an interview.
Sam Learner: What scholarship have you been working on recently?
Loring Danforth: The most interesting thing I’ve done in a while was take a short-term to Saudi Arabia. It was a wonderful teaching activity and also really interesting from the point of view of my scholarship. We had so many interesting experiences there; I decided to spend my sabbatical this year writing a collection of essays on different aspects Saudi culture—about museums, science, evolution, and religion in Saudi Arabia—instead of doing a project in Greece, which is what I was going to do. We all came away impressed by how little Americans know about Saudi Arabia. What they do know tends to be so negative—executions, no rights for women, no democracy, sand and oil—period. There’s just so much more going on than that. These essays as a whole will try to demonstrate the complexity and variety of Saudi culture that Americans are not aware of.
SL: What has your work for most of your career focused on?
LD: I did my dissertation on spirit possession in northern Greece. Since then, I’ve done a book on modern death rituals in Greece, a book on Greek nationalism—the Macedonian-Greek conflict over whether Alexander the Great was Greek or Macedonian. It’s really a big political issue in the Balkans. Most recently I did a book with a coauthor about child refugees in the Greek Civil War.
SL: Why Greece?
LD: Third grade we had to pick three places in the world we wanted to go. I picked Greece because of the ancient Greek culture. I also picked Panama and Iceland. I’ve spent years in Greece, been to Panama once, and am going to Iceland in May. I also studied ancient Greece in high school, and went to Greece the first time to study archaeology. I then went back to teach for a year and discovered modern Greek culture was really interesting. I was still interested in ancient Greece, but the problem with archaeology is that you can’t talk with people. Archaeology is not as fulfilling as being able to go live in the place you study and talk with people every day.
SL: Let’s move on to your teaching. How did you win this prize?
LD: Well, I think you defiantly get better at teaching over time because you figure out what works and what doesn’t work. The biggest challenge for me is to get students to be engaged, to take what we’re talking about seriously, and to get students to want to ask questions and figure out what’s happening. My ideal class is when I say “what did you think about reading,” and then students argue about what the author said. More often the challenge is to come up with questions that aren’t too vague and general or too specific. Students I think often don’t like to play that game where they fill in the blanks for you. Instead, I like to read something, go over it, and then take a contemporary example and say “how does what we read relate to this example?” I also like to set up a question or a problem and have students argue it out. I really like it when a student raises his or her hand, and says “I think this,” and then another student raises a hand and says “I think that.” Another student might then turn to me and say “well, I think this,” and I say, “no, talk to them!” If you can get a conversation going between students, that’s a lot of fun.
SL: Has your teaching changed over the years? Has technology changed what you do in the classroom?
LD: Well first, I’m probably one of the least technologically sophisticated faculty members—I’ve been known to use slide projector or overhead transparencies. You get as nice a picture as PowerPoint. One big change though was moving toward small group discussion in class. When I was a student, nobody did that. When you start teaching, you think “who is best teacher I had? I’m going to try to teach like that person.” But now, twenty years later, people teach in ways that I haven’t seen, so Bates teachers start experimenting, and new teachers bring in new ideas, like breaking larger groups up into smaller groups. I tried that and it worked really well. You know some people think I lecture because I stand in front of a class of fifty people. But what I try to do is maybe talk for five or ten minutes to make sure some difficult concept is clear and to provide some background. But then I’ll do a quick Q&A, followed by something else.
SL: Do you have any reservations about this new teaching style?
LD: Well, here’s the worst-case scenario: I sat in on a class where the professor broke the class up into five small groups and then circulated around the room, group-to-group, listening in. Meanwhile, I was in another group where the professor wasn’t, and the students just started talking about the football game, the weather, or the dance. But that’s the worst case. You also see great things. For example, one time a student sat in class for weeks and never said a word. One day we broke into groups and the student was full of great ideas and asking great questions. I said to this student afterward, you have great ideas, I would love for you to contribute. I told the student to feel confident. That is another thing that contributes to good teaching—having a personal enough relationship so that the student knows you really care.
SL: You mentioned that professors often turn to past professors for teaching inspiration. Have any one of your professors inspired you?
LD: It’d be hard to pick one. I had an anthropology professor who would stand up in front of one hundred people and keep us fascinated. I was also an ancient Greek literature major, and so I had classes with just four people sitting around a table translating Greek, so I can’t pick just one person.
SL: Now that you’ve been recognized for your teaching, have you found “it?” Will you keep changing and experimenting with your teaching, or do you plan to stick with what you know works?
LD: Well, you’re always learning, always trying different things. The world keeps changing, and I keep reading new books. For example, there’s a book called “Things Fall Apart,” which I’ve been teaching for thirty years, and it continues to be a delightful book to teach kids about cultural relativism. But new events happen in the world that are directly relevant to this book. For instance, the big scandal a few years ago with Shell Oil polluting the lands of the Ogoni people in Nigeria is directly comparable to what “Things Fall Apart” talks about, except the book takes place one hundred years earlier and deals with British colonialism. So now I can assign “Things Fall Apart,” find some websites with Shell Oil PR and the movement to save Ogoni people, and have students read these to see how they are related to the course. It’s really just a combination of wanting to continue to be a good teacher, going to programs Bates sponsors for teaching, and keeping alive yourself—and that’s where doing scholarship and teaching come together.
SL: So how do you balance your teaching with your scholarship?
LD: First, there are some schools that value scholarship 90/10, and other schools where the ratio is reversed. Bates is about 50/50. I really like that balance and wouldn’t want to be at a place where nobody cares how you teach, or, conversely, where nobody does scholarship. There are lots of people at Bates who like that balance. The challenge is to do both well. My strategy is to devote myself 100% to teaching during year, but then, during the summer or when I’m on sabbatical, it’s like flicking a switch. From the day after graduation to the day before classes, I’m in Greece doing fieldwork, or sitting in the library writing an article or a couple chapters of a book.
SL: How do you think teaching anthropology will change over the next thirty or forty years?
LD: (laughs) You need to ask someone who is 30 years old. One thing I will add, however, is that the Harward Center, community service, and service learning have all been a huge change that I think will continue. I taught a course on fieldwork and research in the Lewiston-Auburn area for ages. But when the Harward Center became active and the idea of community service really took off, I began to offer, encourage, and even require students to tutor Somali refugees in Lewiston as part of their service learning component of the course. I did it too. It changed my life, and the students found it really rewarding. You know, the classroom is the real world. I’m not in some ivory tower. I feel that teaching is changing the world in a different way from, say, someone going out to give people advice about how not to get AIDS. But one of the greatest joys is to have students who go on to do things like that.
SL: Any big plans for the prize money?
LD: The most important part of the award is the satisfaction that comes from working really hard to be a good teacher for 30 years and to have students appreciate that enough to say positive things. I almost didn’t notice the money. I plan to divide it into 12 paychecks and go to the bank.