Cassie Fennell

This professor has earned a CULPA silver nugget

Jan 2021

Cassie is such a wonderful professor and person. The older reviews are totally right–she does not want her classes to be a point of stress for her students. That means flexible deadlines, conversations about workload, and helpfulness during office hours. This class was a new one in CSER, and it was so enjoyable! We read very foundational texts to studying whiteness, which are only a few decades old. Each student picks an 'object' of observation to study for the whole semester. The essays connect the readings and the object, in whatever way the student sees fit. This is a wonderful way to run the class, because it allows the students to develop a true vested interest in their work, since their object was of their own choosing. Cassie does a great job of fostering a community in the class, even in remote settings. She gives very helpful feedback, and grades based on progress and improvement. My only complaint about this class is that we didn't get any letter grades on any assignment the whole semester. While I appreciate the sentiment about de-emphasizing grades, it did make for a relatively stressful finals period, as I had no real idea where I stood in the class.

May 2015

I've taken three classes with Cassie (1 lecture and 2 seminars) and she is definitely on my top 3 list of favorite professors at Columbia. She is extremely dedicated, understanding, challenging, and accessible. One of the things that I really appreciate about Cassie is that she always urges us and pushes us to articulate our ideas and thoughts with more simplicity and clarity (while at the same time pushing us to make our preliminary thoughts more complete), as opposed to enshrouding them in academic jargon. She considers this a really important skill to have considering that many of us want to climb down the ivy tower that Columbia students often get stuck in, for the sake of helping people. Cassie is also a very positive and encouraging professor and always makes it a point to mark your abilities and groundbreaking thoughts when they present itself. She always takes a minute after class to tell you about how well you did on the individual presentation, which is really sweet. She is not traditional in her teaching style, often allowing students to explore different venues of expression in the final project for her seminars, whether it is an essay, video, podcast, etc. Also, Cassie is not the type of professor to force you to participate all the time or call on you. I always felt comfortable as someone who tends to listen more in class than speak, which is not always the case for some of my other classes. Her presence as a white professor in the ethnicity & race studies department can be somewhat questionable for a department that is primarily intended to comprise faculty of color for students of color, but her openness has put me (and hopefully others with the same concern) at ease. She is not pretentious or self-righteous in the least and is always open to discussing ideas that might challenge which she has to say.

Jan 2013

This class was pretty good, but was disappointing to me in that it did not bring Anthropology to life for me as I was deciding whether or not to major in it. Every class is spent by Professor Fennel beating into the students the argument of each reading for the day (which is light and very reasonable, by the way) with little room for interpretation or expansion into other interesting areas not covered into the readings. I found it to be monotonous and not an engaging approach to anthropology - I didn't just want to learn every facet of the author's argument with little expansion on that as she sternly, yet considerately, as she really wanted us to learn, articulates what the author meant. That being said, she is clearly a wonderful person and very committed to teaching. If she fits into your schedule and you want to take this class, it's not a bad choice given the sincerity of the teaching and very reasonable workload.

Apr 2012

Fennell is such a good lecturer - all of these bad reviews are clearly outdated. She is full of energy, her lectures are extremely engaging, she thoroughly goes over the readings (many many many times...), telling you what points to understand, what is important etc. For concepts she even does demonstrations in class - uses students and TA's to demonstrate cultural differences and things of that sort. She seems to be strict on the first day or two, but it doesn't take long to realize she really wants everyone to do well and to understand the material. Take this class with her! the class itself was amazing too - the concepts are very interesting, and the readings (though dry) are made very interesting when Fennell goes over them in class.

Jan 2012

Fennell is a very good professor. Do take this class with her, it's far easier than this class with the other profs. she is good at lecturing, though she talks a bit fast and can be repetitive. i think this is a good thing though, cuz you really get to know what's important. You don't need to do the readings since she summarizes them in class and they are also gone over in section. but they are all very interesting, so i recommend you read them. Fennell is intelligent and nice, she is thoroughly engaging too. take this class!

Jan 2012

Before taking the class, I had read some negative reviews and was prepared for a bad lecturer. However, I found Professor Fennell an interesting and engaging professor who really cared about her students. She made sure to learn all of our names (there were about 80 of us) and by the second week, could remember who we were and where we usually sat. Her lectures are a must. This class is not really about interpreting culture like I thought it was going to be. Instead, it is a survey of the most important anthropologists in the field (anthropology is only about 100 years old). There is a lot of reading involved and a lot of it, especially in the beginning and a few near the end, is very dense. Going to the lectures means she will tell you exactly what was said in the readings and what was meant by the author. That does not mean you do not have to read yourself because midterms and finals call for quotes from the readings (besides, not reading beforehand will just confuse you when she talks about these readings because they are not easy to understand). If you choose a good TA, going to discussion sections are important too because TA's go over the readings again and for the really dense writers, this is important. It also is a chance to talk and discuss since in a full class, there isn't really a chance to share your opinions about the readings.

May 2011

Interpretation of Culture on its own is not a bad class, but I would advise against taking it with Cassie Fennell. The material (via the readings) and the assignments (with the exception of the midterm — more on that later) were generally interesting and engaging and I learned a lot from them. In fact, those were the ONLY ways through which I learned anything from this class — I learned absolutely nothing from Cassie herself. Let me say that she is enthusiastic and clearly harbors aspirations of enriching young minds with the wisdom of the ethnographic method or whatever. I understand that she has good intentions. However, all of this is canceled out by her disorganization and sloppy lecturing. Cassie told us that our section, spring of 2011, was the first time she had taught Interpretation of Culture, and it definitely showed. First and foremost, Cassie is not a good lecturer. I would have stopped coming to class altogether if she hadn't told us at the beginning of the semester that she would take attendance and require a doctor's note if we were sick. I don't think anyone ever did give her a doctor's note and the lecture hall was very obviously less than full on any given day, but it seems absurd to me that she would have these expectations. But I wouldn't have minded so much being absolutely required to be in lecture if it weren't for the fact that, a month or two into the semester, I realized that playing Angry Birds on my phone was a better use of time than listening to her. Cassie's lectures were disorganized and meandering and did very little to actually explicate the text we were reading. Half the time this is because she tries to "engage the class"; now, even aspiring to get 70+ people to feel like they are participating in a lecture is admirable, but Cassie's attempts were poorly executed. For instance, when we were reading Mauss' essay about the societal regulation of bodies, Cassie made about ten people stand at the front of the lecture hall, close their eyes, and then sit on the floor at the count of three; then she made them each explain why they had chosen to sit in the position they had, and tried to use this as an example of how we all learn to sit properly in kindergarten and it sticks with us for the rest of our lives. That in itself is not a terribly difficult point to grasp, and she didn't need to waste twenty minutes of class having people explain why they sat cross-legged instead of another way. Another example of this was when we were reading Mintz' article about the sugar trade, and she started off her lecture by asking the class at large, "What is the difference between me and a box of sugar?" The idea she was trying to get at was that both the labor she performs and the sugar can be traded in markets, but we spent about ten minutes having people yell out stupid things like "you have agency and the sugar doesn't!" It was a useless exercise. Another point I'd like to make about Cassie's lectures was that they were riddled with little inaccuracies. Not inaccuracies about the material itself, but inaccuracies in her speech. I don’t mean to be petty here, but when Cassie wants to talk about synecdoche but can’t spell it properly on the board and doesn't know how to pronounce it, I become exasperated. I don’t want to accuse her of being of inferior learnedness or intelligence, but when she inexplicably pronounces “seafaring argonauts” as “see-far-ing air-oh-nots”… one wonders. And now, onto the infamous midterm. Cassie told us that she decided to make it a take-home midterm so it would be "less stressful" than having to take an in-class one, but this ended up having the opposite effect. The midterm was posted online at 9AM on a Tuesday and we were to hand it in by 5PM on Wednesday, the next day. It consisted of four 500-word essay questions; she told us beforehand that it would take us about five hours. 32 hours to complete a five-hour midterm is a RIDICULOUSLY short amount of time. Not only that, but each of the questions had so many embedded questions within them that they each could have easily been the topic of a 2000-word paper, so cramming an answer into 500 words was a daunting task. Overall, I spent about TEN HOURS finishing the midterm. Ten out of 32 hours to do a midterm is far, far too long. HOWEVER, though the bad things about Interpretation of Culture with Cassie were numerous, as explained above, there were things that made the class as a whole not a complete disaster. For instance, though our final exam was originally supposed to have a format similar to the midterm, Cassie changed it so that we had a week and a half to complete it instead of 32 hours, presumably after hearing back from students — and the final was manageable and doable. Our assignments, besides the midterm, consisted of a short response to a documentary, a five- to six-page “thick description” observational fieldwork assignment, and a three- to four-page essay on kinship diagrams, all of which were quite interesting as Cassie gave us a lot of freedom with them. It was mysterious to me why Cassie could come up with such interesting assignments but then torture us with bad midterms and lectures. IN CONCLUSION: Cassie Fennell is a nice person. However, though I knew that this semester was the first time she’d taught Interpretation of Culture, I was surprised when I found out that she’s been teaching at Columbia for a few years now because she has the air and competence of a completely inexperienced professor. Everything I learned in this class I learned from the readings becuase lectures were useless, and though that worked out fine in terms of getting a good grade, it would have been nicer to have a professor who actually taught me things.

Apr 2011

Cassie Fennell is a great professor and I really liked taking The Interpretation of Culture with her. You will definitely learn a lot if you take this class, and it is especially helpful if you are interested in studying the humanities. Professor Fennell took the time to learn more of our names (there are around 70 people in the class), which is a first I have seen for any professor with a class that size.

Jun 2010

Cassie is sweet as pie when you meet her, which is veeeeery deceiving because she assigns an insane and unrealistic amount of reading, even for a 4-unit course, grades very subjectively and unfairly. There are 5 response papers that are 1 single-spaced page each, which is reasonable. The midterm was in-class and it was all essay format. She gives you feedback on your midterm to help you better understand the concepts and fill in the gaps between your response and what she was looking for. There are also in-class presentations; she gives everyone the syllabus and tells everyone to pick which week they want to present the material and facilitate class discussion which is excellent in allowing you to practice presenting and facilitating discussion. It's also very helpful in engaging the material. The final is take home and like the midterm, is deceivingly simple. You take away a great deal of knowledge from the course, but be warned that it is veeeeeery difficult to get an A in this class.