When college students reinvent the world

Kansas State University professor Michael Wesch’s ‘World Sim’ course – aka Anthropology 204 – helps students create new ‘cultures’ to get beyond the multiple choices to understanding the ‘why’ of global affairs.

Courtesy of Erinn Barcomb-Peterson/Kansas State University
Peek-a-boo nation: Student Chelsea Friederich is part of the Peek-a-boo nation of colonizers who ended up killing off two other cultures to achieve their goals in the World Sim anthropology class at Kansas State University.

Manhattan, Kan.
The people of Mekka’ kneel in the dirt, sorting pastel cereal loops for their colonizer, the Peek-a-boo nation. “Put each color into [its] own little baggy as quick as possible, and then we will feed you,” orders a Peek-a-boo boss clad in a pink Kansas State sweat shirt. Later, Peek-a-boo declares it is killing off the rebellious populations of two other colonies – Bagheera and Phanat Nikhom. “We’ve been genocided,” a dejected victim says as her group leaves its spot in Kansas State University’s giant rodeo arena – serving as a mini Planet Earth.

With moments like that, the World Simulation – aka Anthropology 204 – burrows into the hearts and minds of students who otherwise would be choosing A, B, or C on a multiple-choice exam. Cultural anthropology professor Michael Wesch came up with “World Sim” to push students to stop asking, “What’s going to be on the test?” and to contemplate bigger questions: Why are some people poor and some rich? How does the world work?

This young professor teaches in ways that reach far beyond the drab, leaky auditorium where hundreds gather for the introductory course. The goal, he says, is to create an environment where students can expand their capacity for empathizing with and loving those who are different from them.

His innovative methods – from the World Sim to researching the YouTube culture with students in a smaller course – recently earned him a US Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

For weeks, 400 World Sim students work in groups of 20 to invent cultures – whose often-silly names belie serious values outlined in everything from government structures to gender relations. Then they come together in a giant space – like the cold and pungent rodeo arena – to discover what happens to their societies when confronted with trade systems, war, and depletion of natural resources.

Professor Wesch sets up the simulation by giving each culture a certain amount of power in the beginning – symbolized by playing cards. Then, based on a complex set of rules the class has devised together, students go through each round of the game – striking alliances, trading cards, and sometimes starting “wars” over resources.

The cereal bits represent diamonds, for instance, that have sparked deadly conflict in Africa and are often sent to India to be cut by child laborers. Because nonrenewables such as fossil fuels are often in areas sacred to indigenous peoples, the teaching assistants hide paper symbols for these resources within the special stuffed animal that represents each group. At one point, a member of the Detinu culture hugs the group’s camel tight in a futile effort to protect it from the invading Evanaves (named after teaching assistant Evan Nave). They capture it all on video and then watch and discuss Wesch’s edited version – the years 1450 to 2100 condensed into 20 minutes, complete with dramatic soundtrack.

Nowhere is it clearer how personally some people take the game than when the “genocided” Bagheera and Phanat Nikhom have to spread out to remote parts of the arena to represent the death of their cultures. The video shows in slow motion the looks of shock and despair on their faces.

“They genuinely felt mad, depressed, and sad.... It wasn’t acting anymore,” says Frankie Morales, the teaching assistant for Phanat Nikhom. Later, he says, they discussed how the experience prompted them to care more deeply about real genocide than a Holocaust movie ever could.

“When you learn by doing – like in the World Sim – you can come across these profound discoveries that you just couldn’t get in a lecture,” says Nick Timmons, another teaching assistant.

The Evanaves planned to be peaceful colonizers, but they killed someone who refused to work for them. “When it was declared that we killed someone, we were just laughing,” says Vishrut Patel a student who arrived in the US from India in the fall. “It gives you a sense of how the colonizers feel,” he says of his group’s cavalier attitude.
A number of his Midwestern classmates say the course has given them an understanding of cultural differences and globalization – insights they expect to carry into career fields such as healthcare, engineering, and social work.

• • •

Wesch caught the spirit of anthropology before he knew the word. As a kid in Nebraska, he heard a news piece about a dangerous neighborhood, and a relative commented, “Why would anybody live there?” “I had this revelation that everywhere there’s joy and sadness,” Wesch recalls, “and from that moment I had this desire to go experience the richness of life in all its different forms.”

A scholarship slung him to Los Angeles, where he studied for two years at the University of Southern California and, in his free time, rollerbladed “into the middle of places you’re not supposed to go” to listen to people’s stories. He boomeranged back in 1995 to finish at Kansas State, intending to become a high school teacher – until his first day in a course on anthropology (a word he looked up in the dictionary just before class).
Wesch became a teaching assistant for Harald Prins, now coordinator of the anthropology program. “He was really unusual, unorthodox, and very, very good,” Professor Prins says. Wesch would bring in samples of music from all over the world and take a few minutes to teach a ritual dance.

What Kansas State lacks in resources that are more plentiful at private universities, it makes up for by creating an “intellectual incubation space for people who are self-motivated, enterprising, and hardworking,” Prins adds. Wesch returned to teach here in 2004, after studying the impact of written language on a remote culture in Papua New Guinea for his PhD. He’s returned to the island nation several times, and his desire to help students strive for a more equitable global village was strengthened one day when he met a boy there whose only piece of clothing was a tattered University of Nebraska sweat shirt. The boy lived in a coffee-producing village, but Wesch realized he’d probably never be able to drink the coffee, which would wind up on store shelves in places like Nebraska.

When Wesch heard about a cross-cultural Peace Corps training game called Pandya-Chispa, the seed for his world simulation took root. But it didn’t sprout until midterm exams in his first semester as a professor. He saw students pouring energy into memorizing bits of information that he knew they’d later forget. So he structured the rest of the syllabus around creating the simulation. Now he gets rid of about 40 percent of the rules of the game each semester so that students have to come up with new rules to determine how the interactions will play out. “The most learning happens there,” he says.

World Sim materials go up on a class “wiki,” a collection of Web pages that professor and students edit. Building new-media literacy is one of Wesch’s goals. Very few students arrive at his class knowing how to use digital tools such as wikis. Wesch has “really managed to integrate that work on the Web with the traditional tasks of teaching in a most creative way,” says Mary Taylor Huber, a senior scholar at The Carnegie Foundation and a judge for the recent award. When one of Wesch’s students told her parents about the class, her excitement was so palpable that “they started following the course materials online as well.... You just don’t hear that too often,” Ms. Huber says.

• • •

Fun. Personal. Compassionate. Humble. Inspiring. That’s how students describe the man at the front of the lecture hall. They like how he plays music or videos as they shuffle in sleepily for the 8:30 a.m. class. They’re put at ease by his stories about his baby or his travels in Papua New Guinea – and his drumming and dancing. These might come off as goofy stunts by anyone else, says student Matthew Johnson, but it’s clear that Wesch “is only satisfied when every person he teaches gets something from his class.”

“There’s nothing more important than loving your students,” Wesch says, his office full of props from the simulation. “Before I lecture I start getting nervous ... so I meditate on this idea of ‘Love your students.’
“It completely displaces all of that anxiety, because you recognize, it’s not about me, it’s about them.”

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