Instructional Highlights: Jerome Camal

‘Academic reading circles’ help anthropology students bond while tackling scholarly texts

Jerome Camal

Even under the best circumstances, Anthro 237 can be challenging for students, says Associate Professor Jerome Camal.

The course on music and race in the Caribbean attracts many non-music majors, who take it as an elective.

“Students come in with the expectation that it’s going to be a fun course, and then it ends up being pretty heavy because we talk about issues around race and racism and colonialism,” says Camal, an associate professor of anthropology.

A further challenge involves the reading material. The course relies heavily on scholarly articles, which can be dense, especially for non-specialists. This means Camal sometimes spends more class time lecturing than he’d like, a prospect that especially concerned him as he moved the course online.

“That was the problem I wanted to tackle last fall when I taught the class,” he says.

The solution he arrived at was to implement “academic reading circles.” The concept was developed by Tyson Seburn at the University of Toronto and introduced to Camal at UW–Madison by Daniel Pell, a strategic learning technology consultant in the Division of Instructional Technology. Camal also credits his colleague Falina Enriquez, an assistant professor of anthropology, with helping him implement the approach.

As explained by Seburn, the approach breaks a text into components, which allows students to dig more deeply into concepts. Since this is challenging to do alone, a reading circle alleviates some of the burden through collaboration. Each reading circle constitutes five roles, and those roles rotate among students throughout the semester.

For example, the “contextualizer” researches contextual references for helpful background, while the “visualizer” organizes key text concepts visually in ways that can further comprehension. There’s also a leader, a highlighter and a connector.

“An academic reading circle puts the students in charge of engaging with the texts and picking them apart, but with a clear method so that they don’t get overwhelmed,” Camal says. “They essentially ‘learn how to learn.’ By the end of the semester, they’ve experienced all of these different ways to approach and understand a scholarly text.”

Camal had students write a self-reflective piece on what they had learned from each text, as well as provide advice to the next student who would be undertaking the role they had just completed.

Camal says it was easy during class time to put students in breakout rooms and supervise their work.

“The remote modality was not an impediment at all,” he says. “Quite the opposite. Our time together became extremely productive.”

The high degree of small-group work helped the students develop a strong sense of community, which became crucial as current events came up in class discussions, Camal says.

“Our discussions would often veer from race and racism in the Caribbean to things going on here,” Camal says. “By working collaboratively so much, we learned to trust each other, which allowed us to have some pretty candid conversations. I was extremely happy with the community that emerged out of the class.”

More from the Instructional Highlights Series

UW–Madison instructors have been investing great thought and effort into making their virtual classrooms engaging, inclusive and supportive. We asked a cross-section of them to reflect on their remote classes and to share, in particular, how they’ve worked to build a strong sense of community among students. In many cases, instructors say they’re learning new approaches and techniques that will enrich their in-person teaching once campus fully returns.

We’ll add to the Instructional Highlights series throughout the spring semester, so please check back regularly. If you’d like to pass along an approach that’s worked for you or have a suggestion for an instructor we might want to reach out to, please contact us at  instructionalcontinuity@provost.wisc.edu.