Explosion of Images: My Anthropology Senior Seminar Experiment

For the first time since I started at Hamline, our anthropology department is offering a senior seminar and I am the one lucky enough to be teaching it.  With no history of offering such seminars, there is no set model to follow.  Also, the senior seminar is only a requirement for anthropology majors who declare beginning this year, so the class has only attracted a small number of students—only seven students—the smallest class I have ever taught. Very exciting.

Freed from the expectations of both departmental history and the opinions of a large number of students who might savage me in class evaluations if the class crashes and burns, I decided to try a number of experimental things with this class. I decided that I would blog about the class here—to document it for any future use, to share things that I learn, and even to try to reconstruct what happened if the whole endeavour fails.

I chose visual anthropology for the seminar topic.  For years I have taught classes dealing with museums, travel and tourism and have dabbled in film and visual ethnography.  For this reason alone, I was interested in doing some advanced readings, and spending a semester working with a group of upper-level undergrads.  Visual anthropology can also be easily connected to broader issues in the history of anthropology and many of its subfields.

Recently I have become fascinated with the explosion of images in our lives.  Social media—Facebook, Flickr,YouTube and Vimeo—combined with shrinking cameras and increased storage capacity have inundated us with images—saturating our lives with a constant stream of digital visual material.  The technology is now so cheap and commonplace that a student with an iPhone can be a filmmaker.  How do we make sense of this?  How do we teach with this? How and what do we learn with this?

Basically, this semester I designed my anthropology senior seminar to be an opportunity to work with students around issues of visual anthropology.  I have four goals:

    1. Think about and survey some history of image-making and documentary film in the anthropological tradition.
    2. Get some exposure to recent writing on visual anthropology.
    3. Work with image capture equipment as pedagogical tools—using cameras to teach and learn ideas and concepts.  If very soon everyone is going to have a camera in their pocket every day of their lives, then learning to use them in the liberal arts classroom is an important life skill.
    4. Finally, since the class is a senior seminar, I wanted to have the students do independent research and project work.

The first half of the semester we will read historical and theoretical texts, research ideas and practice using them by actually making short films.  In choosing readings I tried for a mix of texts that I have read and newer texts, by familiar authors, that I have not read.  I hoped that the syllabus would provide a foundation and basic context but not determine the entire semester.  I wanted everyone to read and think about still images/photography, silent film, narrated documentaries, drama, interviews and issues in cross-cultural filmmaking.  It is also important to think about place, space, storytelling, montage, narrative, emplotment, spectatorship and a lot of other issues.

Of course, it is one thing to discuss these issues and entirely another issue to confront them in practice, so instead of the weekly writing assignments that might be common in other classes that I teach I thought we would have regular short video assignments.  Since I have never done anything like this before, I have decided that I will do my best to finish all of the weekly assignments—doing my own homework assignments.

For the second half of the semester I decided to try something I have never done before—leave it completely empty.  I decided to set aside that time for project work and any readings or research that may be necessary.  I was uncomfortable with the idea of not having readings assigned, but my idea is that we would decide by midterm what the final half of the semester will look like.  Will we do individual projects?  Group projects?  My own personal preference is for the entire class to do a single group documentary project.  We will see what the class decides.

In any case, this is my syllabus for this semester, and I’ll be blogging how things go here on this site.  The tag will be senior seminar.


  1. Julie Johnson

    Looks fascinating, Dave. I would love to take a course where I got to design part of it! What a fabulous opportunity for these undergrads!


  2. Brian

    As an instructor, I would find it difficult to grade a video. I can distinguish between C, B, and A papers – but I don’t have a rubric for cinematography. I’ve graded a few videos over the years. I always seem to give better grades if I like the soundtrack. Unfortunately for my students my music taste includes John Denver and Abba! Good luck with the seminar. I’m glad you’ll be posting the crash and burn here for us all to enjoy.


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