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Faculty Experiences - Alessandro Duranti

Alessandro Duranti - photoALESSANDRO DURANTI


Interview Topics
What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?

Bring an experience to the classroom

Review materials

Show what you're talking about

Thinking like a researcher



Class web site

Multimedia presentations

PowerPoint (software)


Learning How to See

I always try to create in a large classroom an experience that is similar or identical to what I do in my field of study. I want my students to be able to step back and analyze what people do in everyday life. The question then is: What can I do to help my students understand what I find interesting in my research?

In my field (linguistic anthropology) we have come to use technology as a teaching tool to simulate field situations or expose the students to the logic of our research projects. Since a lot of what I am teaching is about the culture of communication, and especially the cultural side of face-to-face interaction, the challenge for me is how to bring this interest of mine and the experience that I have in working on it to the classroom. The western civilization way of teaching is that you lecture for an hour and a half; the students are sitting in front of you (and not always in comfortable chairs); you talk and they have to listen. You might be very good at lecturing but you can't always  show them what you are talking about, especially if you are an anthropologist and what you are describing is some interaction among people who live thousands of mile from your classroom.
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My training is in linguistics, where  audio recording has always been important. In the 1970s, a few of us started using video tape to capture both sounds and images of people's interaction. It was then that we realized that we could  bring an experience to the classroom and really ask students, "What do you see?" A video image is not a natural thing. It is an artifact with a particular kind of relationship to the experience that was being lived by the people who are shown on the screen. Therefore,  I try to teach students how to see or what to look for when they watch a videotape. Technology can thus help my students learn how to see or how to project what might happen next. For example, the human body and movement is important in anthropology. Who is moving towards whom? Why now? With technology, for instance, you can see the dynamics of how someone is being greeted. Of course, I could just tell my students what happened, but if I show them through video images they can see what I am talking about.
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I use multimedia in almost every lecture. My general rule is: the less familiar the students are in the field, the more I use multimedia as a teaching tool. All my lectures for my lower division course (Anthropology 33: Culture and Communication) are in  PowerPoint, using sound files, still images, and video. Over time I have increased the use of sounds and images. I integrate text (what is said), image (what something or someone looks like), video (what was going on), and maps (schematic representations of spatial configurations).
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The students in general are very appreciative of the use of technology. It gives them a better sense of what we are talking about beyond what any kind of plain text can provide them. Technology does not replace, of course, thinking and what the readings bring to problem solving in a particular field or study. However, technology can allow you to experience what it means to  think as a researcher by making available the kind of information that researchers use in their problem solving. It can also help in keeping students engaged.
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The negative aspect of technology is that you can get so caught up in the process of using technology that you forget why you are using it. You should not be tied by technology. So, for me, if I feel that I'm being too constrained by the technology--like my PowerPoint lecture--then I'll just turn it off. I tell my students "I'm going to be old-fashioned and just stand up here and tell you some things." I think it's important to have that attitude sometimes--to step back.
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Another risk with technology is that you can spend a lot of time on a project and it might not work or it might backfire. For example, I was one of the first faculty members at UCLA to incorporate video on my  class website. I used it so that I could send my students to the website to  review or revisit some material I had discussed in class. That can be useful. But there can always be some bugs when things are new. One time I had 250 students try out a new interactive program I had been working with (with some people from the Office of Instructional Development at UCLA) and it turned out that the program would only work on some of the students' computer. This was a huge headache. I solved it by giving alternative assignments to those who had technical problems accessing the program on the web. You have to prepare for those unexpected things. There's always unpredictability when using new technology, and teachers need to be aware of it. You have to say "I'm going to try this and I know that it might not work. Is it worth it? If yes, what can I do to have an emergency plan in case it doesn't work?" For one thing, you can alert students that you're trying something for the first time and they have to be patient. Students like to be part of the plan. And technology, especially in a big class, can, in the best cases, make them feel part of the "team" instead of just being passive observers. That makes it worth it for me.
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Oral Interview, April, 2003
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