Visitors to Michael Wesch’s office pass beneath a painted mask hanging above the open door. Inside, potted plants share space with a jumble of books and artifacts, probably from far-off corners of the world.
On Nov. 20, Wesch, assistant professor of anthropology, received the prestigious National Teacher of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. The award, established by CASE in 1981, is the only national award for undergraduate teaching and is very competitive, said Mary Taylor Huber, senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation.
“Michael Wesch was selected for the very creative use he’s made of new media technology in the classroom,” Huber said.
He has made it possible for students in introductory anthropology classes to compile knowledge like real anthropologists, she said.
Huber said Wesch has created an “active learning environment in a large classroom.”
However, Wesch wasn’t always interested in education.
Wesch said during summers growing up in Fairbury, a small Nebraska town, he would latch onto a project and research it with enthusiasm. At the end of each summer, he felt he had learned more than he did in school. He said he perfected the art of “getting by” in the classroom.
However, during Wesch’s sophomore year at the University of Southern California, he enrolled in a class taught by Professor William McClure. The class changed his view of learning. McClure tied his high-level science classes to important issues.
“Everything was relevant,” Wesch said. “This stuff was changing the world.”
After transferring to K-State, Wesch graduated with a degree in anthropology. For 18 months he worked with the native people of Papua New Guinea, researching the effects of writing on their cultures, before earning his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Virginia.
Wesch said when he applied to teach at K-State he knew he would have to lead a class in a 50-minute lecture. He said he was nervous about holding students’ attention, remembering his early college years. His solution was deceptively simple.
“Love your audience and they will love you,” Wesch said.
He repeats it to himself during the first few minutes of every class.
“I’ve always loved the students,” he said. “I still see myself in so many of the students.”
Wesch’s students seem to reciprocate his feelings.
“Dr. Wesch is truly a man who cares,” said Aaron Kadavy, student in Wesch’s introductory cultural anthropology class and sophomore in agricultural communications. “He’ll draw you in, and you cling to his every word.”
Wesch said his teaching experiences the past four years at K-State have taught him to never underestimate a student.
“We’re all growing,” Wesch said. “My expectations have grown. I have high expectations.”
He encourages his students to ask questions they have never asked before — questions that show they are rethinking assumptions and engaging in their world.
“His teaching style allows you to look beyond the person across the street or beyond your own country and lets you develop a global knowledge,” Kadavy said. “It really does affect everyone else in the world.”
Wesch’s passion for helping students learn led him to create new — some might say crazy — learning methods. One of these is the World Simulation.
The World Simulation was a multi-stage idea born during Wesch’s first semester at K-State when he discovered the Pandya-Chispa game, in which two groups with different assigned values interact. It was designed to create cross-cultural discussion. Wesch considered expanding the idea and creating an economic factor, even a world.
A few weeks into the semester, Wesch said his teaching assistants told him students were acting detached in class. Wesch proposed to his students the idea of replacing the syllabus with the World Simulation. The students voted for it unanimously.
The World Simulation requires groups of students to create their own cultures, write ethnographies about them and then interact with each others’ cultures during one of the last class periods. It was first conducted in a large lecture hall.
“Students were literally climbing over chairs to visit other cultures,” Wesch said.
“I’ve been really lucky the administration has supported me,” he said, referring to his unorthodox methods. With a boyish grin, Wesch said, “Half the things I do could get me fired.”
Wesch continues to use technology to help students learn in new ways. He wants to create a worldwide, virtual World Simulation that would not require a coordinator and would allow a person to download a simple application to their phone and participate in the game every day. He also would like to use two-dimensional bar codes to give a clue or move a person to the next phase of the game.
Despite his awards and growing recognition, Wesch said he considers his most important contributions to be his 16-month-old son, Wilson, and the legacy of those who participated in his class.
“I see former students making a difference, and I know I had some part in that,” Wesch said.