Using Gamer Culture to Teach Anthropology & Helping First-Gens at St. Mary’s

Dr. Dana R. Herrera, an Associate Professor in the Anthropolog y department at St. Mary's in California, has known St. Mary's from both sides--as an accomplished scholar and educator and as an undergraduate student.

After earning her doctorate in Anthropolog y from U. C. Davis, Herrera was offered a fellowship at St. Mary’s and then a job the very next year. The educators that had served as her mentors years before became her valued colleaguesSt. Mary’s is focused on one-on-one interactions and small group work, with an emphasis on relationships and community. In building the relationship with her own students, Herrera always starts the same way: “I was once sitting in the same place you are sitting right now.” For Herrera and others at St. Mary’s, the idea of community is not “just lip service,” she explains; instead, there is a “circle of life metaphor” at play that she finds both interesting and significant.

She also enjoys the moments when she can talk to a student about another class and say, “Oh, yes, I had that professor too.” Her colleagues are equally delighted to have her return, though not opposed to a bit of teasing; for instance, a colleague in the Math department ran across one of Herrera’s Pre-Cal grades from her time as a first-year and sent it to her through inter-office mail. Herrera’s reply: “This is why I went into Anthropology.”

Helping First-Generation College Students Succeed (Long Before They Start College) When Herrera returned to St. Mary’s, one of her new colleagues—Dr. Phyllis Martinelli—remembered a project Herrera had worked on years before and suggested they combine their interests to develop a system to study and assist First Generation college students. They wanted to know more about the difficulties of the transition and explore what helped the more successful First-Gen college students persist in their studies. They also wanted to know how to give those students a vocabulary for explaining to their family members why it was important to read Shakespeare or understand Dante’s Inferno—or why writing a paper was a two-week task. Their research was also focused on finding those students who needed to learn ways to adjust, or more easily adjust, to the demands of college.

Herrera and Martinelli have been reaching out to students as young as 3rd and 4th grade in an effort to start the discussions about college early; they want young children to have the language to express how important college is for their future plans and goals. In high schools, Herrera and her colleagues start a dialogue with students about planning which courses or AP classes would be a good fit for the students’ next steps in planning their futures. Though their service work in these local schools is a positive for recruitment, their visits are not about benefiting St. Mary’s. While Herrera and other visitors mention they are from St. Mary’s, their goal is to include information about several colleges, including public institutions that might be a better fit for some students.

Herrera believes the “sooner we get students to talk about these choices,” the more likely they are to feel comfortable about that often-difficult transition to college. Dr. Frances Sweeney, a Professor of Modern Languages at SMC and the current Director of the Center for First Generation to College Studies, explains that Herrera is a longtime advocate for first-generation college students, who not only helps the students but has been able to “deepen the conversation for the entire campus community.” Sweeney notes that Herrera’s research with Martinelli has “contributed to national conversations on the challenges these students and their families face, as well as the strategies for helping them succeed, and the unique strengths they contribute to their academic communities.”

Dr. Cynthia Van Gilder, a professor in the Anthropology department, adds that most of the research centered on First-Gen college students “treats them as a single class of individuals,” and anthropology offers a tool to break apart “these preconceived notions of sameness.” Van Gilder explains that Herrera’s methodology allows for deconstructions of these standard methodologies—such as traditional statistical approaches—that are “precisely designed to generate generalities and erase uniqueness.”

A former St. Mary’s student who is now teaching high school Science, Ali Gonzales, was inspired by Herrera in part because “she’s young, Filipino, and a woman,” but more so for the material that she taught, which Herrera made both interesting and relatable. She recalls Herrera using an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to explore linguistic anthropology. However, Gonzales shares that it was the “First Generation to College” course that offered the most insight. In fact, Gonzalez continued working with the Center for First Gen students after graduating, organizing outings to share experiences with other students—reminding her that the core of Anthropology focuses on the “shared events that make for this special culture on campus.” Now in her own classroom, Gonzalez uses what Herrera taught to engage her own students in aspects of culture, identity, and race.

Teaching Anthropology in the “Traditional” Sense
Caitlin Spangler-Bickell took her first Introduction to Anthropology course and later her senior capstone on Anthropological Methods with Herrera.

Spangler-Bickell praises Herrera’s “pioneering vision of anthropology” and commends Herrera’s “way of seeing everything anthropologically—including pastimes about which she is passionate.” Spangler- Bickell explains that first-year students were instantly able to recognize that the world they believed was fairly straightforward was never quite as simple as it seemed.

Similary, Lizabeth Trobitz had her first and last course with Herrera. Trobitz shares, “I remember sitting in her Intro to Social/Cultural class class the first day, not having any idea what college, let alone Anthropology, was going to be like. Dr. Herrera wasted no time outlining the expectations for her class, making it very clear she expected participation and it should be productive participation. In Intro to Social/Cultural, if it were ever silent for a while after Dr. Herrera asked a question, she would look straight at the class and say quite frankly, ‘Come on people! Participate!’” Though Trobitz acknowledges that approach might sound like “scare tactics,” she explains this challenging and persistent questioning was the “initiation of a high level of respect, a respect that was mutual.”

Trobitz explains that Anthropology became more than a body of theories and instead grew to an “applicable body of knowledge from which to draw upon and apply in my every day experiences,” something she is still drawing from in her graduate studies about museums and communities. She believes that Herrera’s specialty is “her ability to make Anthropology a living, breathing subject beyond all the complex theories, challenging her students to take those theories and make them decide why and how they’re relevant in daily life.” Trobitz also notes that Herrera’s push to always answer the “So what?” question is why her students have the “confidence and desire to ask those critical questions and be brave enough to apply the knowledge learned in her classroom to the world around us.”

Former student Carter DuVal adds that Herrera’s ability to relate the principles of Anthropology to students’ cultural experience, or their own interests and work, was the most memorable aspect of her teaching. He explains that in one of his courses with Herrera each student was expected to conduct an individualized field study, so topics were often far-reaching and disparate. He was amazed that Herrera found ways to connect “the deeper issues of these experiences” in order to relate those experiences th to their own work and backgrounds; he also adds that Herrera would spend hours working with students oneon- one, guiding them through complicated projects.

Spangler-Bickell shares her favorite memory of Herrera: “What embodies her the most in my mind is her smug little smile that appeared whenever any of us happened to say something intelligent or insightful, or occasionally ridiculous. It was as if all her suspicions about how each and every one of us is full of potentially earth-shaking wisdom and brilliance were just confirmed, as she’d known they would be.”

She adds that it is Herrera’s confidence in her students’ abilities to “do great things and be great people” that was “incarnated into a satisfied smile when that ability surfaced.” Explaining that Herrera knows “the depths each of her students possesses,” she concludes, “Dana Herrera knows she is part of a world that can become better than it is now–and it will, because of her.

World of Warcraft for Teaching Principles of Anthropology and Economics
Herrera shares that one common misconception about female gamers is that they fall into this world in other to please a boyfriend or partner. Though her husband—Dr. András Margitay-Becht—is also a gaming enthusiast, she notes, “I was the gamer girl long before I married my husband.” She has also long made the connections between cultural anthropology and her interest in gaming.

Additionally, it’s not difficult to find students who are fascinated with the pedagogical connections Herrera can make to gaming. “Look, this is just cool,” she adds. Because Margitay-Becht teaches in Economics at St. Mary’s, they were able to design an intensive Jan Term course on Economics and Anthropology in World of Warcraft, a hugely popular, multi-player online role-playing game. The course is designed to teach social sciences in a virtual world.

Herrera notes, first, the benefit to the educators— explaining that people who are “passionate about the classroom tools” are likely to be better teachers. Additionally, instead of expending a lot of time and energy to get past the “who cares?” attitude that can be the result of any first-year students taking an introductory course in the principles of Economics or Anthropology, students arrive already interested because the medium being used to teach these concepts is innovative and exciting.

Margitay-Becht explains that they have attended several global educational conferences, and what he and Herrera continue to find as a common denominator of many nations is that “students are less and less motivated.” Noting that some institutions feel pressure to lower standards, he and his partner find this counterproductive as unchallenged students will spend even less time on academics. Their solution is the opposite: “increase the workload, but at the same time change the way we teach to keep students more engaged.”

Jose Alvarez, one Jan Term student, explains, “They helped me see that games that I thought I was playing for fun actually had some real-life applications. I used the knowledge from the class to make a significant amount of money in the game, for example, by applying basic economics such as supply and demand by acquiring rare or powerful items in the game and then selling them. I also learned not only how to post my auctions but, most importantly, when to post them so that I could maximize my profit.”

Both Clay Chagas and his sister were in the class as well. Chagas says, “I had an interest in Anthropology, but my ignorance of the subject was pretty large. I did have a love of historical studying as a side hobby, so when I had heard there was a Jan Term based off Anthro and World of Warcraft, my sister and I decided to take the class.” Chagas explains that it was one of his best experiences at St. Mary’s: “I do not know if it was the eagerness for the subject material combined with Dr. Becht’s and Dr. Herrera’s teaching style, but I had a blast and came away with enough knowledge and a final paper that got to be presented at a small Anthropology conference.”

Dr. Van Gilder shares that she and Herrera participated in a pedagogy symposium for the American Anthropological Association a few years ago, and Herrera and Margitay-Becht explored ways virtual words can serve as laboratories for students “seeking to understand ‘real world’ cultural and economic phenomena.” Van Gilder notes how this approach is a clever way to “take class to the field” without the expense and time of studying a non-virtual community.

Spangler-Bickell adds that Herrera shows through example that students don’t have to let go of what they enjoy to impose some stuffy “academic/scientific/ research-oriented framework over our lives.” Instead, Herrera demonstrates that a study of something in “a deeper and more critical way” just allows scholars, both current and future, to experience the subject more fully by “approaching it in an active and thoughtful manner.” From co-teaching the Jan Term course, Herrera saw how students were “infusing themselves in the game,” the students demonstrated an increased ability to retain the concepts being taught and were able to build a “bridge between what they were learning and what they were doing.”

Though gamers were automatically interested in the class, non-gamers were also intrigued. When juggling the logistics of gamers and non-gamers in the class, Herrera noticed that gamers were quick to adopt the non-gamers and provide tutorials. “When students are passionate about a topic,” Herrera states, “they can and will assist in real, peer-to-peer teaching and learning.”

In the World of Warcraft class, there’s no doubt that they are building a “cooperative community,” Herrera explains, and that “cliché of team building can happen and does.” It’s not the platform that’s the magic, Herrera is quick to add. It doesn’t matter if the professor wants to engage a game or some other creative technological tool. It’s about professors having a renewed excitement in a course and about students finding a way to become agents of their own learning.

Harnessing the Pedagogical Power—Not Fetishizing the Technology
Though World of Warcraft was the medium for enga