[part of a submission for a teaching assessment, November 2004]


Thirty years of teaching at the University of Cambridge: 1975-2004

Alan Macfarlane, F.B.A.

Professor of Anthropological Science,

Department of Social Anthropology,

University of Cambridge

      The University of Cambridge is one of the greatest teaching institutions in history and I have been privileged to spend thirty years of my life teaching for it. Teaching is interpreted at Cambridge in a holistic way; it is closely linked to research, writing and  administering. The following account covers the period from when I started as a University Lecturer in January 1975, through a University Readership from 1981 to 1991, and then as Professor of Anthropological Science since then.

Lectures and seminars

       Formally my contract implies that I do a certain number of lectures a year, the norm is around forty. For thirty years I have enjoyed doing so and have only missed half a dozen lectures through illness and my father’s death. In these thirty years I have given over one thousand one-hour lectures, each of which requires considerable preparation.

      I have used a wide variety of visual and other aids; films, slides, overheads, hand-outs of various kinds. I have learnt a set of presentational techniques (speed, putting up plans of the lectures, giving the students a break in the middle etc.) which the students have constantly commented on as useful. I have tried to introduce work from current research, books I am writing at the time, visits to many parts of the world which I am undertaking as I teach, to make the lectures feel fresh and relevant.

      The diversity of the lectures can be seen from the following list of the major lecture series I have given.

First year level.   (the number of lectures in a course, approximate dates)

Introduction to kinship and marriage. 8 lectures. 1975-1985 (Filmed and on web-site)

Introduction to Social Anthropology. 4 lectures (video course, filmed). 1986-1989.

Strategies of survival (war, famine, disease). 3 lectures. 2000 - onwards

Social transformations (long term change; partly based on films). 4 lectures. 2001,4

Economic anthropology, 4 lectures 2004

Second and third year level.

Classical theories in the social sciences. 8 lectures. 2000 - onwards

Conceptualizing the state. 2 lectures. 1990's

Technology and transformation. 8 lectures. 1990's, 2000's

Property and corporation. 4 lectures 2000 - onwards

Visual anthropology. 4 lectures. 1990's on.

Feudalism to capitalism. 4 lectures. 1982-4

Comparative study of law. 4 lectures . 1980's, 1995-6,2004

Community and association. 4 lectures. 1975-7

Urban anthropology. 4 lectures , c. 1978-1980

Inequality. 4 lectures. 1990's

Population growth. 4 lectures. 1970's and 1980's

History of the western family. 8 lectures. 1970's, 1980's

War and violence. 4 lectures. 1980's, 1990's

Sexual behaviour. 4 lectures. c.1985

Quasi kinship. 2 lectures. c. 1984

Cosmologies of capitalism: changing paradigms in social sciences. 8 lectures. 1980's

Research methods (networks, biography, filming), 3 lectures, 2000 onwards

The quality of lectures

    It is difficult to convey the quality of these lectures, but as far as I can see they have been received as clear, helpful and stimulating by generations of students, from audiences of 8 to 180. I will just give two short samples from courses I have taught in the last three years.

2nd year: Property and corporation, Lent, 2002

This is potentially a dry subject. It covers some of the basics in relation to economics and kinship which a number of students may already know, or do not find as exciting as other parts of the syllabus. It can also be confusing, since kinship is the most difficult of topics in anthropology. So I find it a particular challenge, in four lectures, to give the students a really involving and clear course.

At the end of the course, the students anonymously fill in questionnaires. Here is the result for that year (which is much in line with the year before and after).

The numerical system works as 1 = poor, 2 = reasonable, 3 = good, 4 = excellent.

The students are asked to answer numerically for the following questions, and gave the following responses:

Has the course been useful?       Good -  7 people, Excellent – 15 people

Has the material been interesting?  Good – 2 people, Excellent – 20 people

They are also asked to comment on clarity and interest, and any other strong and weak points in the lectures. Here are one third of the written responses.

Student one: Really clear: lecture outline v. helpful. Very interesting because of the way they’ve been presented. More like listening to an interesting story than hearing dry theory. This series of lectures has been excellent. Really fun to go, and worthwhile because the quality and content of them has been guaranteed. I wish we could have more!

Student two: Very clear and well paced; maintained interest despite the fact, I suspect, that the material itself is not really interesting. I have really enjoyed these lectures especially because they are well paced and do not feel under pressure. Continue to stop at 40 minutes for a break and continue to bring little props to entertain! 

Student three: Clarity – really appreciate the breaks, they allow information to sink in. Very clear and well explained. Thank you for reminding me why I’m doing this subject! I think the lecture plans are a great idea, as are the picture of the various characters you speak about.

Student four: Very clear, one of the best set of lectures yet. Very good speed also. Because of clarity and presentation, what could potentially have been quite tedious was in fact v. interesting. As a medic with little prior knowledge of soc anth/social theory, this years lectures have been fairly hard to follow so far. However, both sets of lectures by Alan Macfarlane this term have been the best yet. Very clear, well presented, and with an appropriate balance of humour and seriousness. I’ve really enjoyed them and the website is a really useful resource. Thank you!

Student five: Very easy to follow, and enjoyable to listen to. Very interesting. Material comes to life. Definitely most well-given set of lectures (along with S.B.), funny intelligent. Interesting, animated and easy to follow: nice to be asked what we think during lecture, e.g. speed, room temperature.

Student six: Clarity – excellent, interest – excellent. Very clear lecture presentation. Concise, well explained and going at a pace that allowed you to understand and note any relevant material without getting bored or flustered. Nice 5 min break as well.

Student seven: Clarity – ace, interest – ace. Very thoughtfully prepared and with interesting visual aids. Complex and useful ideas presented in a coherent, logical, manner, although I found the last lecture a bit harder to understand, though I think that was just me! But really good stuff you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

2nd year: Classical theories in the social sciences, Lent 2002

This is an eight lecture course covering the grand theorists. Again it can be both dry and confusing, a catalogue of DWEMs (Dead White European Males). But I enjoy giving the lectures, and the course is directly linked to two of my books, The Riddle of the Modern World and The Making of the Modern World

Has the course been useful: Good - 5 people, Excellent - 21 people

Has the course been interesting: Good - 3 people, Excellent - 23 people

Three  of the responses give the flavour.

Student one: Very clear, you clearly know and love these thinkers; very good use of visual aids; thank you for a very stimulating set of lectures. They have come at just the right time and help tie many thoughts together whilst also provoking new questions. The handouts and your enthusiasm make it a pleasure to study.

Student two: fantastic lectures; really carefully thought through and presented; considerate; funny and easy to understand; feel guilty if miss them as so enjoyable!

Student three: Very clear, aided by handouts, clear structure; excellent interest, loved visual aids, handwriting samples, OHPs etc. Excellent as ever – handouts really make a difference, but what is most evident is the personal interest and enthusiasm for a subject so potentially mind-numbing. Fantastic. Also, loved the website.

        As well as the formal lectures, we are expected to run seminars at all levels of the course, from first year to M.Phil. and Ph.D.  Seminar running is an art and over the years my methods have improved, I hope, after running some two hundred or more at every level. The art, of course, is both to encourage, bring out, arbitrate, without intervening too much. A good seminar is a really exciting event and I have enjoyed both the ones with undergraduates, postgraduates, and the many dozens I have run with colleagues both in Britain and abroad.

Undergraduate supervision

     Cambridge, like Oxford, is famous for its intensive supervision system. This involves setting an essay, reading it, discussing it one to one or one to two for an hour. Usually each student or pair of students is given four to six supervisions per paper. I have supervised for most Cambridge Colleges, particularly my own, King’s College, in every year since I was appointed. The supervisions are energy and thought demanding, but many of my best ideas have been worked out with students and they are a constant stimulus.

      During these thirty years I have supervised well over two hundred undergraduates by personal supervision. I have done so in almost every field of social anthropology, from politics to religion, from theory to method, from first to third years. Apart from a number of very encouraging letters from former students, or at the end of their supervisions, and remarks they have made, I have little evidence of the degree of my success. But I have never had any negative feed-back, none of the students I have supervised has dropped out of their courses, and many of them have obtained excellent degrees.

           My major techniques are to treat the students as adults, not to be too confrontational, while challenging, always show interest in their work, praise them for what can be praised, try to encourage them as much as possible. I try to put them at their ease by having lots of interesting objects in my room to discuss, by cups of green tea, by showing an interest in them as persons as well as students, by revealing something of my own private life to make me into a rounded human being. The response has uniformly been good. I have indeed been privileged to be teaching some of the brightest students in the world on one of the most exciting subjects in this direct and intensive way.

       The fact that I have played a very active part in other parts of the organization of teaching has also had an input into my supervisions. I have been a Director of Studies, organizing the teaching across the syllabus. I have been Chairman of the Part I committee of the Faculty, which organizes teaching between Archaeology, Biological Anthropology and Social Anthropology. I have been the Senior Examiner of the Part I of the Tripos, the Part II in Social Anthropology (at least a dozen years), and the M.Phil. in Social Anthropology. All this, alongside being co-ordinator of numerous papers and deeply involved in changing the undergraduate Tripos completely on three occasions, has given me a wide overview of the system.

Graduate supervision

Taught masters

      Our Department has run an active one-year taught course in anthropology throughout the time I have been in Cambridge. I helped to organize the change from the earlier Certificate to the one-year M.Phil. in Social Anthropology. Each year I have taken on one or two taught master’s students, many of whom have gone on with me to do a Ph.D. under my supervision. They have come from all over the world, and each one requires a dozen supervisions, and direction on their thesis. There have been over sixty of these, and they are extremely rewarding to teach, many of them later going on to run institutes and departments in various parts of the world.

      One example of their reaction to my teaching may turn quantities into qualities. This was written in 2004 by Professor Jose Wendell Capilli, who later became a Professor and Dean at the University of Manila and one of the foremost creative writers in the Philippines. 

‘Alan Macfarlane is a major influence in my growth as a scholar and creative writer.

The most important legacy he had given me can be summarized in one word: ANALYSIS. He taught me to always go for the path breaking, to see a particular model in an unusual way, problematize a design before summing it into parts by situating it within a particular context and nature.

His classes at Cambridge are always cheerful. His teaching methodology varies from session to session---never predictable and content-wise, always updated. Oftentimes, students find everyday applications of Alan’s lectures to their respective personal lives.

I arrived in Cambridge rather immature, both intellectually and emotionally. The mid 1990s had been pretty stressful for me. It was Alan who empowered me to rise above harrowing experiences with academic politics before arriving in Cambridge. With Alan’s guidance as my supervisor I was able to discover my limitations and somehow became skilled at working within and beyond these. Alan has always been a brilliant supervisor and a dear teacher to me and many of my friends at Cambridge. I wasn’t a particularly gifted student but Alan was always patient and encouraging.’

Doctoral students

      Even more demanding, and rewarding, are Ph.D. students. I have supervised over forty Ph.D. students in my time in Cambridge, supervising on average 6-10 at any one time. They have worked on almost every imaginable topic in almost all parts of the world. Here are a few examples: ‘broadband’ in China, whitening of the face in Japan, family structures in Singapore, religion in Sarawak, social change in Vietnam, identity in Malaysia, shamanism in Nepal, hunter-gatherers in India, development in South America, tourism in Greece, politics in Spain, nationalism in Germany, manufacturing in France, kinship in England, farming in Ireland.

      Of those I supervised throughout their doctorate (almost all of the forty), none have left me to be supervised by another and I have always supervised them while on sabbatical leave, none have failed to submit, and only one failed to obtain a Ph.D. (receiving an M.Litt. instead).

     I have many warm testimonials from these students, thanking me and praising me for my help. They seem to have appreciated an approach which tries to maintain a high level of interest in what they are doing, speedy responses to any theoretical or practical problems, an ethic of sharing an approach to the writing, constant encouragement in the lonely task of writing.

     One very recent example. I taught Dr.Sofka Zinovieff throughout her undergraduate career and supervised her Ph.D. during the 1980’s. Her book Euridyce Street was launched to acclaim in June 2004. After the launch she wrote ‘It was really so special for me that you came to the London launch the other day, and seeing you and Sarah brought back a million memories of so many wonderful times at Cambridge. I hope you realise what an important person you have been for me, and how much of an inspiration you were for me. I’m sure I wouldn’t have become so absorbed in anthropology as an undergraduate if you hadn’t been my teacher, and then later, you always supported me generously throughout my PhD.’

      The fact that I have been without intermission (except sabbatical leave) on the Degree Committee of the Faculty (Chairman of both the Degree Committee and Faculty Board several times); that I have taught a number of the fieldwork training courses that they undergo on ethics, filming and other matters; that I have done a great deal of Ph.D. examining (both for Cambridge and as external at many other universities);  run the ‘writing up’ seminars for returned fieldworkers on many occasions, as well as the staff-student seminars at which some of them present their work at the end of their time; been on the Ph.D. admissions committee of the Department for many years, all these  have given me the experience and the contacts to help them. The fact that I hold doctorates in two different disciplines (history and anthropology) in two different Universities (Oxford and London) has also broadened my horizon.

       Furthermore, the fact that I myself have been constantly alongside them in that I have during that period been writing an average of a book every two or three years, each resembling the problems of a Ph.D. has I believe helped to improve my supervision of this very important, but time consuming, part of the teaching load of a Cambridge academic.

New forms of teaching: visual media, the web and other forms of teaching.

     Ever since I started to teach at Cambridge I have been interested in ways to broaden the range of teaching. Two of the technologies which have interested me most are film and computers. I have used these in numerous ways throughout my teaching careers.

     For instance, in relation to film, I have made a number of films for the Part I course to introduce anthropology. I have filmed my lectures and put some of them on the web. I have run ‘virtual reality’ days, where M.Phil. and Ph.D. students can spend a day experiencing what fieldwork in the Himalayas is like. I have run the visual anthropology component of our courses over the years, and shown some of the 150 hours of film I have made in Nepal, Japan, China and elsewhere in lectures.

 We made the first anthropological videodisc (on the Nagas of Assam), and this was used in a reconstructed Naga longhouse in an exhibition in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to introduce the general public to what life in a forest tribal society is like.

     I have worked on a number of projects to make computers more useful for research and teaching, developing new databases, screen editors, and recently, the potentials of the web.

     The value of the web for teaching both within Cambridge and to a wider audience is obvious to all. So I have built up a very extensive teaching web-site (see the rest of the website) which contains many items which my students, and people from elsewhere are finding useful. Among these are introductory lectures on kinship and marriage, on law, on how to do fieldwork, how to film and other matters. There is a big section on how television is made, and another with fifty interviews with leading practitioners in the social sciences talking about their work. Our work is currently the most extensive visual set of data on the Digital Space (Dspace) project which has just been set up in Cambridge.

     There are also more conventional texts. There is a glossary of technical terms in my subject, an overview of paradigm shifts in the social sciences, numerous published and unpublished works of mine which students can download as reading for their essays.

     I have already had many positive comments about the website from current students at Cambridge and from further afield. One of these, which I received very recently, gives a flavour of how the site is being used.

‘Hello,  I’m a journalist on the Herald up in Scotland. I’ll be staring a part-time postgrad in anthropology next year (a conversion from philosophy background) and am trying to absorb as much as possible before I start. I just discovered your website and thought I’d let you know I think it’s fantastic. I particularly enjoy how you trace your career alongside your personal life. It’s giving me a very broad, human introduction to the subject and inspiring me to read more. Thanks! Beth P.’

Synthesis and new directions

     It not easy to summarize on paper the quality of teaching, which is very much a matter of presence, presentation, preparation, enthusiasm. You will find that my web site, both under lectures and global history has many examples of my lecturing and talking style, and chairing of a seminar lasting two days, as well as interviewing colleagues and others. This will give evidence of my presentational approach. I have deployed this in the thousands of hours of lecturing, supervising and administering described above.

     I cannot imagine a better place to teach, a better subject, or a more appreciative and intelligent audience than I have had. I would like to end by thanking all of them as well as my colleagues in the Department and University who have been constantly supportive and inspiring, including three superb William Wyse Professors under whom I have had the privilege of working, Professors Jack Goody, Ernest Gellner and Marilyn Strathern. Likewise many of my colleagues in King’s College have provided that friendship and support without which teaching can turn into a grind and frustration. The wonderful libraries, buildings, traditions and students mean that the teaching ambience is unrivalled. Although it can be tiring, anxiety inducing and challenging, without the teaching component of my life I would have missed a great deal.

     I am now acting as a consultant to a number of universities in Japan, where I taught at Tokyo University and Hokkaido Universities. I am also working in China, where I am collaborating with academics at Shanghai Jiaotong University, Wuhan, Nanjing, Sechuan, Yunnan, Tsinghua and Peking Universities to help them develop teaching in the social sciences. What I have learnt about the great traditions of Cambridge is worth spreading in the great surge of education in East Asia. I hope that the experiences recounted above will have a wider effect. This is already occurring   through my web-site, my increasing visits to many parts of the world and my books, a number of which are being translated into Japanese and Chinese, among other languages.