Transforming Students into Researchers: The Department of Anthropology wins the 2016 Northrop Frye Award

March 1, 2016 by Janet Rowe

The Department of Anthropology in the Faculty of Arts & Science is the 2016 recipient of the Northrop Frye Award. By integrating original fieldwork into undergraduate courses, the department has introduced students to research and roused their enthusiasm. Both are key criteria for the prestigious award.

First-year students stroll down Philosopher’s Walk — once the stream bed of Taddle Creek —before heading over to the U of T Archives to dig up more information about the lost waterway. When they finish their project, they will submit it to a national digital archive launched by their community group partner, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.

Also on the banks of former Taddle Creek, just a little downstream and behind the Gerstein Library, third- and fourth-year students learn archaeological field methods by excavating traces of the celebrations at the 1870 opening of the Fenian Raid monument, which honours University of Toronto students who died at the Battle of Limeridge in 1866. They piece together smoking pipes, police buttons, china and other artifacts to complement archival information about the event and changes to the monument itself.

Just a few more blocks away, fourth-year students interview Kensington Market residents as part of an original ethnographic study of the district’s unique culture. Later, they will share their findings in a community presentation and incorporate the feedback.

Car with garden growing out of it
The Kensington Market Research Project aims to produce an unprecedented body of rich and detailed knowledge about Toronto’s most celebrated multicultural heritage district. Photo: Blaise Calaycay.

And across the city, more fourth-year students mine the Toronto Archives as they research the “biography” of a historic Toronto artifact, address, or a person for a course in historical archaeology.

These anthropology students are doing much more than completing their coursework — they are learning the true nature of research and their field.

“There’s a huge gain in seeing the process of inquiry,” says Professor Tania Li, a faculty member in the department and director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs. “When they read the polished prose of the textbooks, it’s not that apparent to them how this knowledge was actually generated — the nitty-gritty of the research process. It’s a huge advance in their understanding to learn how you go from raw data to the beginnings of an argument, an analysis.”

The department integrates original research into the undergraduate experience at all levels. In a series of third-year offerings, students have worked on archaeological digs from British Columbia, Nunavut , South Africa, Jordan, Peru, Israel and Greece to mention a few. In a fourth-year lab course, students analyze real collected bone fragments and prepare their original findings for academic publication.

The department also offers dozens of volunteer opportunities each year, including microscopic analysis of archaeological sediments in U of T’s Wadi Ziqlab Project Laboratory, mapping prehistoric landscapes, and travel to India and Indonesia to conduct ethnographic interviews and observation. These aren’t just outstanding experiences — students return home excited to undertake lab work analysis of the artifacts they have found or even commit to anthropology as a career, say the faculty members who lead the projects.

Nothing like hands-on experience

There is nothing like hands-on experiences to make academic concepts come alive, say students. Some enthuse about their research leading to opportunities such as conference presentations while still undergraduates. Those who go on to graduate school feel they have been granted a running start at how to come up with research questions and prepare journal articles.

And of course, the very real skills students develop in archaeology, lab analysis, surveying, observation and more prepare them for a range of careers. “Those kinds of skills really can only be learned by doing,” says Li. “So generating an opportunity for the students to practice these skills and get to feel like competent practitioners is really a step ahead for them on the job market.”

Above all, she says, students graduate feeling like real anthropologists. “You listen to them talk when they come back from one of these trips,” she says. “They talk about their work, their research, their knowledge, their writing. They own this. They’ve done something impressive and real. There is a remarkable shift, and I see they really feel a confidence and a competence. They’ve got something behind them.”

The Northrop Frye Awards, one for an individual faculty member and one for a department or division, are presented each year under the banner of the Awards of Excellence, a program recognizing the outstanding members of the University of Toronto community who have made rich and meaningful contributions to the University, their communities and to the world.

Alumni Relations within the Division of University Advancement is the steward of the Awards of Excellenceprogram on behalf of the University of Toronto Alumni Association, and co-ordinates the vital contributions of other university stakeholder groups toward this prestigious award program.

The Department of Anthropology and the other 2016 Awards of Excellence recipients will be honoured at a recognition event on May 4.