For students interested in forensic anthropology, I believe that early engagement in hands-on experiences in real-world settings, including fieldwork, laboratory analysis, and research are the best ways for students to identify their strengths and shape a path forward. To provide this to my students, I work to maintain a complementary system of teaching, research, and casework that is conducive to personal growth, memorable classroom experiences, and integrated relationships with local communities.
My experiences working with students from elementary school to retirees, researchers, law enforcement, medicolegal professionals and academics from around the world has shaped my approaches for effective teaching to difference audiences. Logistically, my role as an instructor is to select appropriate content, organize the information logically, present it in the broader context of the discipline and the world, and assess competency. In practicality, my most important roles are to inspire interest, make connections, challenge assumptions, and encourage the productive struggle that is required to integrate new knowledge. Beyond course content, I want my students to develop the cognitive framework and skills needed to continue learning and critically evaluating information after they leave my classroom. In a forensic context, I want my students to be aware of the array of careers where their skills are needed, communicate effectively with medicolegal professionals, academics, and the public, and understand the ethical considerations and challenges that they will face as forensic scientists.
The core of my teaching load consists of forensic anthropology courses, including human osteology, forensic anthropology, and skeletal analysis methods. In these courses, I use many case studies and examples from my own research to reinforce concepts from the readings and discuss the realities of working in the field and laboratory. Rather than focusing on memorization, I emphasize higher order skills, such as applying, analyzing, and evaluating, as ways to better remember and understand information. For example, when teaching how to search for human remains, I use an activity in which small groups of students develop realistic search plans based on a series of randomly assigned variables (e.g., focus of search, manpower, terrain, vegetation, search area size, available resources). The scenarios and search plan are presented to the class and discussed. This exercise generates increased engagement and more meaningful understanding of the material as compared to a lecture about the same material. Similar exercises involving real-world scenarios, teamwork, and group discussion work well for many levels of students and professionals.
In line with my focus on teaching critical evaluation skills and real-world application of concepts, my biological profile methods course emphasizes the underlying principles necessary to evaluate and select methods rather than simply providing a cookbook approach to skeletal analysis. As science and the discipline of forensic anthropology marches forward, an increasing volume of literature is produced every year. My students must be able to accurately apply the best methods available today, but also effectively utilize the better methods developed tomorrow. Teaching workshops and short courses, attending professional conferences, cultivating professional networks, reviewing articles, and conducting research allows me to constantly integrate new concepts and techniques into my courses.
I also believe that active forensic casework is critical for successful teaching. My students not only need to know the current research directions and best practices within the field, but also require opportunities to put that knowledge into practice. Involvement with local, state, and federal law enforcement and medicolegal personnel provides opportunities for experience and training in both the field and the laboratory. It also provides visibility for the department and the university, strengthens my teaching, and is a source for new research ideas. Moreover, recognition of outstanding research and casework within the discipline and the local communities that we serve attracts high-quality passionate students who will be able to be placed in jobs or graduate programs.
With this desire to offer forensic casework opportunities to my students, also comes a responsibility for training and professionalization. Forensic casework is interesting and fun, so it can be easy for students to forget that the quality of our work has real-world implications for families and suspects. It can provide closure to families and quite literally mean life or death to those accused. Because of this, I require my students to not only be students, but to train and act as professionals. I view this preparation and experience as the only way for them to know if this type of work is really what they wish to pursue and the best way for students to quickly transition into new academic or professional positions after graduation.