COVID-19: Responsive Teaching and Learning in Anthropology

(This document is available for viewing and sharing at

Angela Jenks, Associate Professor Teaching and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Anthropology at UC Irvine; Editor-in-Chief of Teaching and Learning Anthropology

Nell Koneczny, Accessibility & Meetings Coordinator, American Anthropological Association

Michael Wesch, Professor at Kansas State University and Co-creator of

Due to COVID-19, many anthropology instructors are transitioning to online teaching. How can we respond to the CV19 moment while staying true to our core pedagogical goals and values? In this two-part webinar from the American Anthropological Association, you will learn ways to:

  • Save time and frustration for you and your students so you can focus on what matters;
  • Build engaging and profound learning material quickly and relatively easily;
  • Create a weekly rhythm that is consistent and predictable for students (and you);
  • Create a stronger sense of social presence and community
  • Build in flexibility that accommodates student needs without creating more busy work and chaos for instructors;
  • Maximize accessibility for a wide range of students and technologies;
  • Create assignments that don’t just feel like “busy work” and may help students use the tools of anthropology to understand and navigate the world at this time;
  • Create assessment practices that encourage deep learning and reflection.

Part 1

Wednesday, March 18, 2020, 1pm ET/10am PT

Access the video from Part 1 of the webinar here.

Backwards Teaching

  • Start with why not what or how. 
  • Mike’s Why: Create voracious self-learners who lean into difference
  • How:
  • Show them great free materials (podcasts, documentaries, books, etc.)
  • Help them find a rhythm and way to work it into a busy life
  • Create “challenges” (assignments) that get them practicing in their daily life
  • Build a passionate learning community where passion for learning spreads
  • What: Podcasts, Passionate readings, Great Conversations

  • Reconsider your goals and broad student needs. We can’t expect everything to continue as normal, but our classes can offer familiar routine and an opportunity to connect with others in a frightening and uncertain situation. How can our classes care for students in this moment?

Build Community (and a sense of normalcy)

  • Create a welcome video and share something about yourself. Then invite students to do the same. (I usually kick off the semester with a “3 things about me” video, but if you are shifting mid-semester due to CV-19, you might create a video about the space you are working from during social distancing. Show them around. Then invite them to show their space.  (You can see Wesch’s example on the ACUE online teaching toolkit)
  • Accessibility Points:
  • Include captions, whether open (directly embedded in the video) or closed (can be turned on and off by the video player, i.e., YouTube).
  • Provide audio description, whether in-the-moment visual descriptions or as additional text provided in the video (or an additional audio track if you want to get fancy).
  • Note: This is required for blind, low-vision, and students solely using audio files.
  • If you struggle to be on camera, think of it as connecting rather than performing.
  • Be “present” in your class. This can happen through weekly video or podcast introductions, comments in discussion boards, and feedback to students. (Set expectations and limits on this - see self-care below)
  • Organize students into small groups (6-8 people) who they primarily interact with throughout the course.
  • Create an informal communication option where students can check in with each other to share how they’re doing. This could be a separate, ungraded (or extra credit!) discussion forum in the learning management system. Invite students to post about how they’re doing and what they may need help with. Post your own updates about how you’re managing life in isolation and resources you’ve found. (Here is a sample text from ACUE.)

Create a simple online course structure with a weekly rhythm

  • Use modules in your LMS to:
  • Maximize accessibility features built-in to the LMS
  • Ensure a clean look across platforms (mobile)
  • Allow you to organize materials neatly
  • Automatically add “next” and “previous” buttons for navigation.  
  • Create a clear “to do” list in some LMS’s. (See an example from Jenks’s class in Canvas on the right)
  • Limit student access to information “behind the scenes.”

  • Try to keep the “to do” list for students simple and consistent:
  • For example, each week there will be the materials, 2 discussions, an assignment, and a quiz (just 4 things and always the same 4 things).

Build Materials Easily

  • Curate vs. Create. Use existing videos, documentaries, and podcasts
  • Read to students and add commentary  (this also increases accessibility). Reading the readings to students is a quick and easy way to make a podcast/lecture for them. (Easiest way: Use your phone and record in mp3 to keep a small file size)
  • Offer multiple forms of engagement: Assign written work as well as audio or video materials. For assigned readings, consider blog posts, op-eds, fiction, and news articles. These may be more accessible than journal articles.
  • Consider using collective annotation platforms to present readings. With Perusall, for example, you can upload pdfs, use your own comments to guide students through the readings, and ask students to add their own comments or respond to your questions.

Start each week / module with 3 things:

  • A printable overview. Create an overview of the week’s material in pdf format (and html on the LMS). Here is an example of Wesch’s first week of Intro to the World’s Religions
  • One Clear email. Send out one clear email per week that has important things in bold (Robin Roscigno). (This worksheet can help you make sure you include important info.)
  • A Recorded Online Meeting. Invite students to an online meeting (via Zoom or other service) and go over the overview and assignments for the week. Record this and put it at the top of the module.

Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) 

  • Provide materials in multiple formats if possible (and always for critical information).
  • Incorporate basic accessible teaching strategies for all online materials (see Hamraie)
  • Image descriptions and alt-text for all images and videos.
  • Captions and/or transcripts for all videos.
  • PDFs with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) for screen reader access.
  • Checking for screen reader accessibility with a tool such as Webaim.
  • If possible, create a single downloadable file (mp3 and/or pdf) of all materials for the week so students with limited internet access can download once and have everything they need.
  • Consider an all-audio option for busy students who may be completing class work while commuting, doing other chores, or caregiving. You can put podcasts, videos, and your own recordings into a single audio file. These smaller files require a lower internet speed and can be listened to on the go.
  • Ask students what they need. Remember that students may not have reliable access to computers and the internet. Many are facing job losses, food and housing insecurity, and greatly increased caregiving responsibilities, in addition to their own potential illness. See this sample survey by Lauren Cagle that can be adapted to gather information about student needs and preferences.  
  • Connect students to resources for basic needs like housing, food, and health care. Use this resource on Supporting Students During COVID-19 to identify some possible approaches.

Build Flexibility into the Course

  • Flexibility is important in any course, but it is essential in this moment of extreme uncertainty. Build flexibility into the course to meet a range of student needs.
  • If you have multiple assignments of the same type, allow students to miss several or drop their lowest grades. For example, you can require 6 of 10 discussion responses or count the top 2 of 3 quiz grades.  
  • Set flexible deadlines. Include a “grace period” following deadlines in which no late penalties are applied. Give a “no questions asked” late pass that every student can choose when to use.
  • Do not require doctors notes or documentation for late work or extensions!


  • Think of “challenges” that allow students to put concepts into action in the world. See intro-level examples at  For example:
  • Adapt Challenge 8 and ask students to use social media to reach out to other people in other countries to see how CV19 is impacting their life
  • Students can do “mini-ethnographies” of CV19 related issues around them.  Insights can be aggregated in a group discussion.
  • More examples next week in Part 2 of the Webinar  (share your ideas here)
  • Think beyond exams and research papers as final products. Can students produce op-eds, videos, podcasts, graphic narratives, creative art, or web resources? Consider assigning an “unessay”.
  • Use multiple, low-stakes forms of assessment rather than one or two larger ones. These might include short quizzes, reflections, discussion posts, journals, or scaffolded assignments.
  • Give students a choice. Use a “choose your own adventure” assignment structure. Give students the option to participate in an asynchronous discussion board OR a synchronous virtual meeting. Allow students to write a book review OR give a presentation.


  • To increase the sense of “being together” and save yourself some time, use audio or video for assessment.  In small classes, give video or audio feedback on papers / assignments. In larger classes, give group feedback by video.
  • Consider alternative grading structures. Use a pass/no pass grading system or contract grading. Have students complete a self assessment; for example, see this example of an “ungrading” approach from Susan Blum.  Mike also uses a form of “Not Yet” grading (No “F’s”, just “Not Yets” in a scaffolded system of simple assignments building to a final project).


  • Establish expectations (and limitations) for your presence. (ACUE guide)
  • Remember you are not alone. If you need someone to fill in for you, consult this sick faculty guest-lecture exchange spreadsheet.
  • Less is more. Simplicity creates space for reflection, contemplation, and spontaneous depth.

Part 2

Tuesday, March 24, 2020, 1pm ET/10am PT

Access the video from Part 2 of the webinar here.

Our Respective Roles in the Following Discussion:

Mike: Creating engaging challenges for Intro courses that work online, build community, etc. that do not necessarily engage COVID-19 directly.

Angela: What role can our courses play in helping students manage through this crisis? What tools does anthropology offer to do this?

Nell: Prioritizing inclusion; for example, by creating multiple grading plans and allowing students to choose assignments weights. (Article on inclusive teaching in large courses)

Backwards Teaching

Adapting Course Activities to the Online Environment

  • Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology

  • For introductory-level assignments, see these adaptations to Wesch’s Anth101 Challenges
  • Digital platforms offer a good opportunity for students to create and share images and video. Students might create graphic narratives, memes illustrating key points from the class, or video responses to specific prompts.
  • Accessibility:
  • Teaching Ethnographic Methods

  • Doing fieldwork in a pandemic. This crowdsourced document initiated by Deborah Lupton offers excellent resources for remote ethnography, many of which can be adapted into course assignments. These include videochat and epistolary interviews, auto-ethnography, and using YouTube and online video as observation data (for an example, see Jennifer Cook’s description of having students practice ethnographic observation by watching Downton Abbey.
  • Biological Anthropology and Archaeology

  • The Facebook group BioAnthropology News includes curated lists of resources for teaching biological anthropology online. These include 3D hominin fossils and other skeletal materials, zoo webcams for teaching primate behavior, and links to online lab activities in addition to video and podcast suggestions.
  • SACC’s online course conversion resources includes a growing list of assignments and activities across the fields, but especially for bio anthro and archaeology.
  • This crowd-sourced spreadsheet of archaeology online educational resources includes links to virtual excavations, interactive digs, and other resources.
  • If you use Canvas, many instructors with online teaching experience have generously shared materials, labs, assignments, and entire courses in the Canvas Commons.

Using Assignments to Build Community and Support Students

  • Conduct class surveys and analyze the results. The example below comes from a Canvas survey in a Medical Anthropology course. Students responded at the start of the course, and then reflected on their responses as they worked through material on medicalization, ethics, and clinician activism.
  • Help students in small groups develop low-key check-ins, such as identifying partners, both for accountability and for basic support (as emphasized by Angela)
  • Ask students to share summaries (or for short assignments, their full assignment) in a discussion group so they can see what others are doing and discuss their ideas.
  • This works even better if they include a photograph related to the assignment or a photo of themselves doing something related to the assignment
  • Use the move online as an opportunity to place greater accessibility and support cultural change in virtual spaces to be more inclusive.
  • This is an opportunity to consider who is excluded via solely visual or audio resources when alternatives are not provided, and what actions to take to include those excluded.
  • Relate these ideas of “Who is excluded and included?” to the current social media world many students partake in and highlight ways to minimize exclusion.

Using Anthropological Tools to Analyze and Respond to COVID-19

  • Anne Fausto-Sterling suggests that academics moving their courses online teach the virus.Anthropological analyses can play an important role in understanding the complex issues revealed by COVID-19 and in identifying ways to respond to them. Teaching COVID-19: An Anthropological Syllabus Project offers a growing list of scholarly and news articles related to coronavirus and topics like structural vulnerability, gender, race, work, education, disability, and media.
  • Brainstorm connections between course topics and COVID-19. For example, Daniel Ginsberg teaches an Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology course, and has identified ways COVID-19 is related to political and media discourse, discursive construction of authority, epistemic communities, and Derridean "iterables" such as "out of an abundance of caution."
  • Ask students to analyze the pandemic using tools from the class. For example, Jonah Rubin asked students in a Medical Anthropology course to embody one of the authors in the course and speak about how they would understand and respond to COVID-19. Tara Robins asked students in a Parasites in Human Evolution course to apply knowledge of evolutionary theory and biocultural anthropology to a research paper discussing the origins, spread, and response to COVID-19.
  • Encourage students to examine their own experiences. Guide students through autoethnographic analysis of their own experiences with social distancing. Lynda Barry’s “6 minute diary” (described by Lindsay Bell here) offers a quick but powerful way to encourage daily reflection.
  • Ask students to contribute to the conversation. Dada Docot asked students to produce and share media (short films, infographics, public service announcements, etc.) on a topic related to COVID-19.
  • Encourage students to take action. In a Disease, Health, and Inequality class, Angela Jenks assigns a group project in which students develop a concrete action plan to positively address health related inequities. This Spring, students will be encouraged to identify inequities related to COVID-19 and develop individual, community, national, and international actions that can combat them.
  • Remember: Offer non-COVID-related options, too. Some students may find it helpful and empowering to apply an anthropological analysis to the pandemic we are all experiencing. Others may need space to think about anything else.  

Final Reminders

  • Less is more.
  • Simplicity creates space for reflection, contemplation, and spontaneous depth.