By Heather Doherty
September 29, 2016
Sarah Cunningham came to Oregon State University in 2012 as an instructor in the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Anthropology. She began working with online students through Oregon State Ecampus in 2013, and also serves as the anthropology graduate program coordinator and the Food in Culture and Social Justice program coordinator. She previously worked as an anthropology instructor at Western Oregon University and was a founding coordinator of OSU’s campus food pantry. Sarah earned a B.A. and M.A. in Anthropology from Ball State University in Indiana and a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology from Oregon State.
Briefly describe your role as an anthropology Ecampus instructor.
“I like to think of myself as a facilitator of learning in both the classroom and beyond. In addition to guiding students through particular topics, I try to hold up a mirror with which they can also examine their own experiences, perspectives and culture.”
What made you decide to get into this field of study?
“I was fascinated by anthropology when I discovered it my first term in college. In particular, I was impressed with the breadth of potential topics of study and also drawn to the discipline’s potential for addressing real-world problems. It seemed then, and still seems now, like the perfect blend for a lifelong learner who wants to make a difference.”
Are you currently working on any research projects? If so, briefly describe.
“I am presently in the analysis phase of a study of OSU’s campus food pantry. Specifically, I am interested to learn how the pantry’s organizational culture has contributed to its growth and development since it was founded a few years ago.”
What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this field of study?
“The thing I find most fascinating in anthropology is the incredible flexibility of culture. Societies have so many different ways of thinking about and doing things, and these are always changing. There’s always something new to be learned.”
In 10 words or less, what do you like most about teaching anthropology online?
“Learning together with students from diverse backgrounds.”
What do you consider to be the main benefits of online learning?
“I think one of the greatest strengths of online learning is that is can be so multimodal. We all have our preferred ways of learning, but learning in lots of different ways is most beneficial for us all. Online classrooms can make use of a wide array of learning activities that engage not only our preferred learning styles, but also learning styles that are outside of our comfort zone and all the more impactful as a result.”
“In addition to guiding students through particular topics, I try to hold up a mirror with which they can also examine their own experiences, perspectives and culture.”
How do you build a genuine connection with students who, in many cases, you’ll never meet in person?
“I work hard to give thoughtful feedback on my students’ work, big assignments and low-stakes learning activities. I make use of a lot of questions in this feedback because my goal is not just to make sure students get ‘the right answer,’ but to help them think thoroughly and critically about the matters at hand. Hopefully, they read that feedback and are encouraged to apply the skills and lessons they learn in my classes as they make their way in the world.”
How have you evolved as an educator since you began teaching classes online with Ecampus?
“I wouldn’t call myself very tech-savvy, but I have become bolder in that regard since I began teaching online. As I got more training from OSU Ecampus, I was impressed with all the neat tools and techniques that are available to instructors, and eventually I got brave enough to try many of them out.”
What advice would you like to give to students?
“Make the most of the opportunities that college affords to learn outside of your field of specialization. Make it your goal to leave college prepared for your chosen career and to be a thoughtful citizen of the world.”
What are your favorite activities outside of work?
“I love reading fiction, though I sometimes find it hard to make time for it. I also enjoy puzzles of all sorts, cooking, scrapbooking and playing disc golf.”