Fostering anthropological thought through Facebook

Recently on a rainy Wellington morning I sat down with Lorena Gibson and Catherine Trundle to discuss the Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington Facebook page they run. Below I share a slightly edited transcript of our interview.

HARRIET LANE-TOBIN: So, tell me how you got started?

LORENA GIBSON: I set up our Facebook page half way through last year (2015). I was inspired by another page I am a member of, Va’aomanā Pasifika on Facebook, which is set up as a public and community page. I noticed that Teresia Teaiwa and April Henderson [lecturers in Pacific Studies at Victoria University of Wellington] were using it in a really effective way to engage their students. They post regularly about relevant events around the city, comment on films, and make links between news articles and things they speak about in class. They had an active level of engagement from past and current students and there were some really good discussions. So for me it was a teaching tool, a way of extending information beyond the classroom into a popular realm, and Facebook seemed a good way to do that. So I set up our Facebook page as a public group rather than a College and University-style page, which is how our Faculty [of Humanities and Social Sciences] is set up.

CATHERINE TRUNDLE: Yes, the Faculty page is a tool of representation and promotion to talk about events that are occurring, and to officially represent the Faculty from the University’s perspective.

LORENA GIBSON: So the Faculty Facebook page is set up in a way that means the only people who can post on the main page are the page administrators. People from the general public can post to the page too, but their comments are tucked away down the side. You have to really look to find visitor’s posts. It’s not really set up as a place for discussion, but rather as a way to promote and advertise the Faculty.

CATHERINE TRUNDLE: Our page is about interaction.

HARRIET LANE-TOBIN: So would you say because of the way you set it up people are engaging with the discipline more intently then just if they are attending the classes?

LORENA GIBSON: I think it helps them see what anthropology can be beyond the classroom.

CATHERINE TRUNDLE: It is very good at connecting what we teach in the classroom to what is happening out in the world, particularly in the media and online media. Linking a contemporary event, argument or debate, or trend that’s being discussed on an online website or news site to class content.

We also stimulate discussion and post stories about learning, asking for input from students on their own perspectives of learning. We had a very active discussion about the use of laptops and devices in classrooms where I was pleased to see discussion and disagreement. Students felt comfortable enough to disagree with an article or even comments lecturers had made and it stayed very civil, supportive and inclusive. Somehow we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where students feel they have a say.

LORENA GIBSON: And that we listen to it and respect it.

CATHERINE TRUNDLE: So when they do post comments, and Lorena is particularly good at this, we work to respond and facilitate that ongoing dialogue. I’ve started linking it back into my classes too. If there was a story many of them were commenting on, I recap it in class for those who haven’t read it.

LORENA GIBSON We haven’t had to do much moderating, I think I’ve only had to remove two or three posts. Catherine removed one advertising essay writing services. I removed one which was some sort of spam. There have only been a couple removed so it’s been really good. Anyone can request to join, anyone can add members.

HARRIET LANE-TOBIN: What I have noticed is that there is a large level of engagement that goes across different levels. It is not just the postgraduate students uploading things. First years and second years are putting up links and their input as well. So it’s a supportive group across the levels from what I have observed, which I think is quite nice.

CATHERINE TRUNDLE: It does break down the hierarchy of something like a seminar series where there is pressure for undergraduates to speak up publicly, doing so in front of their senior peers and staff. So it’s a levelling tool, which is really nice.

LORENA GIBSON: And you have time to think about a response on Facebook, which our group seems to do. Conversations can go over three or four days.

CATHERINE TRUNDLE: Sometimes people return to it week later when they have something to add or have thought about it. Sometimes the posts are quite long so it does not conform to the stereotypes of social media, that it’s quick, short sound bites. Rather they are deeply considered reflections and it’s often the students who do the longer posts and replies. Comments can be quite extensive.

HARRIET LANE-TOBIN: Are there any other key things about the page?

CATHERINE TRUNDLE: We have quite a lot of our alumni who have graduated into working lives and continue to stay connected to anthropology through the site. They can find it a nice way to foster the identity they spent many years building up at university and aren’t quite so keen to let go of. So it becomes a space to engage with students’ post-study life.

LORENA GIBSON: I also think it’s nice for first year students coming in because it gives a really good idea about how anthropologists think about the world.

CATHERINE TRUNDLE: It will be interesting to see if it scales up, if and how it changes. It also helps students see the relevance of anthropology to New Zealand and contemporary events in New Zealand. Very often the case studies we give in classes are necessarily broadly comparative and cross many different ethnographic settings. However, the sorts of discussions that have been had on the page around issues of homelessness in New Zealand, issues of everyday racism, have been really a good way to apply the ideas they are learning in class to issues that aren’t just relevant to New Zealand but are actually relevant to the students’ own thoughts about how they live their lives, their own sort of ethics to the world.

HARRIET LANE-TOBIN: I feel for me, when I was in undergrad this page would have been helpful as it encourages you to be more critical. As you are in a forum where there are also postgraduates and lecturers you need to really think about what you say before you say it, giving proper analysis and reasoning.

CATHERINE TRUNDLE: In a weird way it fosters the movement toward slow academia. A movement internationally to slow down the pace of academic life. Again this flies in the face of the stereotypes of social media, but Facebook does allow us – more so than a lecture – more time to engage with a topic. So I think in that respect this is really positive.

HARRIET LANE-TOBIN: I agree. Thank you both so much for your time.