Cultural Anthropology Week 3: Always Have a Plan B

February 25th, 2015

Welcome back to my weekly recap of my cultural anthropology class! Last Friday, after a week off, came out with mixed results. There were two sources of issues that I had: how the break threw my preparation out of sync with the class sessions, and the implementation of the activity I came up with did not go as planned.

While the class skipped a session, I kept the same preparation schedule. By the time the break was over, I had the next lecture ready, and the one after that as well. While I thought it would be helpful to be so far ahead, as I got ready for the class, I was confused about what I would be presenting. The two lectures got jumbled up in my head! It didn’t help that the topics, subsistence and social organization, were very similar.

Leading up to the class, I designed an activity that aimed to show the students how different subsistence strategies worked. For different items of subsistence, I thought frilly toothpicks would be a cheap but effective item.


Red toothpicks represented animal resources, green ones were plants, and blue came into play with some strategies as animal feed. Since there were four broad types of subsistence (foraging, horticulture, pastoralism, and agriculture), I had each of the four teams volunteer perform each one. For each strategy, I had a three-act scenario in which the team had to survive to the next act by finding ways to come up with enough toothpick resources. For example, the foraging team just had to go around and find the necessary number of toothpicks, moving around the classroom as nearby toothpicks became scarce. Horticulturalist and pastoralist teams had control of one type of toothpick, but had to move to find the other types. Agriculturalists could control all types of toothpicks, and they did not have to/could not move, but they had to perform physical labor to maintain their lifestyle. I was excited about seeing this activity play out, but I ran into issues actually making it happen.

I arrived at the campus early Friday morning to get set up. The classroom opens up into a nice quad area with some hilly lawn. When I started planting frilly toothpicks there, I came to a frightening realization: the toothpicks are nearly invisible in the grass! While having the resources be hard to find to a degree would be fine, but complete camoflage would have made the activity too time-consuming. Also, they could be a hazard for anyone with thin footwear. With fifteen minutes before class started, I needed a new plan, fast.

I ended up moving the activity inside the classroom, leaving frilly toothpicks on certain desks. To be honest, it looked messy and haphazardly done, which it was, but any other new plan would’ve taken too much time to prepare. With the game area moved indoors to a more confined area, I also adjusted how many toothpicks are needed each round for the team to survive: I cut the numbers by half.

The activity was going to be in the second half of the session, though, so after the preparation, I started with the lecture. With two lectures in my head, and the one I’m presenting on the backburner, I felt that I could’ve done a better job. I also caught myself bringing up information that was in the next lecture. Still, I think everyone was suitably interested in learning how people from different cultures made a living. Reflecting on the week 2 lecture, I added a break earlier in this lecture: after talking about two of the four subsistence strategies, which came out to be at the half-hour mark or so. The earlier break took the students by surprise, as I saw in a few physical reactions (a little jerk-back of the head in shock). Just calling a break with a slide that just says “break” may be too sudden. In my next lecture I will have a little question to discuss in lieu of a full break. This will put a stop to my lecturing so that students would be less likely to get hypnotized, but it won’t put all learning on hold so soon.

The lecture concluded well, if not a bit underwhelmingly. I was impressed with the students who asked questions or threw in observations as the lecture progressed. Things they said sparked some deep corners of my own anthropological knowledge. For example, until the lecture, I had forgotten that I had read about an Andean ritual when herders got their llamas and alpacas drunk on maize beer and decorated the animals with ribbons. After class, I did some online searching and found the practice described in the classic ethnography The Hold Life Has (Allen, 2002). I also found a video of the decorating part of the festivities (nomdecrayon, 2010):

After the second break, after the lecture portion was done, I had the students form their teams for the activity. Problem: one team only had one student in class that day. Two students from another team offered to join the solo team, which was a good solution, but caused some confusion with the other students in the other team. When the activity got started, it went pretty well. I read from a sheet of instructions I had typed before that told the brief story of how the team got to the region and what subsistence strategy they used. I gave them their subsistence goal (e.g., five green toothpicks and five red toothpicks) and watched them figure it out based on how their subsistence strategy worked. The foragers duly went around nearby desks finding toothpicks for one act, and moved their home to a part of the room with more toothpicks in the next acts. The horticulturalists ‘planted’ their green toothpicks on a desk, but had to move to a new desk for each new act in the story. Pastoralists had to take their home and red toothpicks to where blue (animal feed) toothpicks were located. I gave some gentle nudging for the horticulturalists and pastoralist teams to trade goods to make up for the type they do not control (as they do in the Andes and other regions), but they wouldn’t have it, citing irreconcilable cultural differences. That’s a perfectly realistic outcome in the real world too!

By the time we got to the agriculturalists, interest in the activity was waning as the teams who already played their roles were sitting in their make-believe settlements around the classroom. The agriculturalists’ task was attention-getting, though, so that helped bring the students back in. Above, I mentioned that the agriculturalists had to perform physical labor to produce their toothpicks, but how could I express that in this game? I settled on exercise: each toothpick would need some form of exercise to ‘produce.’ When the activity was supposed to be outside, I thought pushups against nearby benches would work. Inside, I could open up the possibilities to accommodate what the students were comfortable with doing: pushups, sit-ups, crunches, squats, and jumping jacks, for example. In an example of how authority works in social groups, the students had no problem meeting my unusual demand. The team did crunches, squats, and pushups for frilly toothpicks! By act two, the team was tired but they had to do more exercises. Unprompted, the team did what I hoped would happen: the most athletic student offered to do all of the exercises, instead of having each person do a few. Specialization! The student even purposely worked for a surplus of toothpicks. Food storage! I happily explained the anthropological analogues of what the agriculture team was doing.

The activity completed, we had around twenty more minutes. I showed the end-of-class question, which was a team question about the the sociopolitical implications of each subsistence strategy. I was going to leave the question officially unanswered, but with a few more minutes left on the clock, I went ahead and had a little discussion before letting them out.

Overall, the class was a mixed success. I will go back to the preparation schedule of making the lecture in the week before I have to give it, so everything is fresh in my mind. I would like to do the activity again in future classes, but the frilly toothpicks have to go. Easter eggs may be a good choice. Other people may pick them up, but the setup should be mostly intact. If I plant to have the activity indoors from the start, a student had the great idea of using Jolly Ranchers.

Next week is the sibling lecture to subsistence strategies: social organization. The second half of the session will be review for the exam, which is the session after next. While I don’t have a T.A. for students to beat, I get to test out student ownership of their exam.



Allen, C. J. (2002). The hold life has: Coca and cultural identity in an andean community. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

nomdecrayon [Username]. (2010). Herranza in/en Viñac, Yauyos, Perú [Video]. Retrieved from

2 Responses to “Cultural Anthropology Week 3: Always Have a Plan B”

  1. […] this week’s post because I ran into very similar issues (and still do, actually). Read his current post first, then check back […]

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