"American Idol" may seem like an unlikely source of wisdom for an anthropology professor who helps his students explore cultures from around the globe.
But a story that Michael Wesch's wife, Sarah, told him about one of the show's contestants helped the assistant professor overcome nervousness about teaching his first class at K-State five years ago. Wesch said he still takes to heart the contestant's advice about loving the audience.
"The moment you allow yourself to believe that and truly love your audience, it's not about you any more," Wesch said. "All that anxiety just melts away. All you care about is caring for these 400 people in front of you and giving them the best learning experience possible. And once you think about that, it's so easy."
The advice has proven worthy. Wesch is the 2008 Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year. The honor is awarded by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Wesch is the third K-State professor to win the award, making K-State the university with the most national winners among institutions its size.
Wesch said anthropology is one of the toughest subjects to teach because the classes are less about memorizing information than about transformation. One of the fundamental principals of anthropology, he said, is that people view the world through their own cultural biases, a concept that can be tough for students to accept.
"It's a really a transformational journey for students. It really shakes them to the core," Wesch said. "It becomes a challenge as a teacher to start them on that journey and help them along the way. When you're willing to step outside of your own values and beliefs for a moment to truly see and understand others, then you grow as a person -- and the whole world is better for it."
Although Wesch's students have diverse academic interests, he said what they learn in his anthropology classes serves them well, wherever they end up.
"They'll always encounter people who are different from them, even if they're in the same culture," he said. "That's true no matter what career they go into."
Wesch's research on human interactions in the face of new media also comes from an unlikely source. Through his field work in Papua, New Guinea, Wesch has watched a village transform in eight years from a group where less than a dozen people could read or write to a society that is organizing itself around the written word.
"It's not just important how they're using this new medium but how this medium is using them," Wesch said. "For instance, when they started using written law, the result was suddenly a focus away from relationships in which they'd solve their problems in a face-to-face way. Now they go to a courthouse where a judge is reading this law. This medium is actually shaping what they do."
That got Wesch thinking about how new media, such as social networking sites YouTube and Twitter, are shaping our culture. In trying to explain this to other anthropologists, Wesch created a short video, "Web 2.0: The Machine is Us/Using us."
He posted the video on YouTube in January 2007, and as of November 2008 it had been viewed more than 7 million times and put Wesch and his work in the international spotlight. The video can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gmP4nk0EOE
"It was really a user-generated force," Wesch said. "It was bigger than me. I think it's worked out amazingly well for the students."
Wesch's class assignments often call on the students to make their own videos. The fact that he doesn't give them step-by-step instructions on how to do this gets at the root of his teaching philosophy, which is to provide students opportunities to actually do what they're learning, not just hear about it.
"I'm not just teaching them anthropology -- I'm teaching them skills for navigating and harnessing this new media environment," Wesch said. "We need to expand what we mean by literacy, because literacy is also designing Web sites, making videos, knowing how you can create a social networking site to bring people together, and new forms of collaboration."
Wesch leads the Digital Ethnography Working Group, a team of undergraduates exploring human uses of digital technology, http://mediatedcultures.net/ksudigg/
He also has students in his introductory classes take part in a two-day World Simulation experiment in which they create new cultures from scratch, http://mediatedcultures.net/worldsim.htm
"On the surface, sometimes my classes will look like games -- really wild things that don't seem to pertain to critical thinking," Wesch said. "But the only way students will do that critical thinking is if they're inspired to do it."
Photo: When not shaping young minds in the classrooms of K-State, Michael Wesch spends quality time at home with his wife, Sarah, and son, Wilson. Above, Wilson hams it up during a recent family game of basketball.