On Becoming an Undergraduate Teacher
I arrived at NYU in fall 2001 with very little undergraduate teaching experience. Designing a large lecture course in medical anthropology entailed a lot of learning on my part.
I learned to leaven lectures with films, articles from the daily press, and eventually to use a blog. Blogging was a genre that made cultural sense to my students, and I soon learned to assign substantial writing in this format. Students responded with inspiring readings of any article or book I threw at them. Among others, we read classic ethnographies about Hmong refugees stranded in the Imperial Valley of California, engaged in a fierce stand-off between explanations of their toddler’s soul-loss and neurologists’ label of epileptic seizures. With such assignments and blogging conversations, I labored to turn them into anthropologists in spirit, if not in career trajectory.
I also designed research papers to challenge and instill their understandings of anthropological field work. Their assignments involved learning to produce an “illness narrative” for which they interviewed friends and family members to explore the space between biomedical diagnosis and lived experience. They learned to track and evaluate the web as an expansive, liberating, confusing health tool from the point of view of a newly diagnosed patient or family member. Such exercises were both methodologically complex and open-ended, producing insights about illness, mortality, healing and hope. That heady, messy mix of field-based knowledge and insight characterizes much of the anthropological practice, and I wanted them to experience it for themselves.
More than half the students who enroll in Medical Anthropology are pre-health majors. As tomorrow’s doctors, nurses, biomedical researchers, and public health program designers, their engagement with globalization and its complex relation to “real world” health practices, resources, and impediments is crucial. My goal is to lure them through “the ethnographer’s magic” to engage critically with texts and ideas. I want them to understand that the people they will encounter along their future career paths cannot be dismissed as “non-compliant patients”: they, too, have complex resources that make for resiliency and not just for barriers.
To provide students with a window into the ‘real’ world, I invite guest speakers into my classroom: often former students who are now conducting health-oriented fieldwork. Talks by these younger action-oriented participants are designed to build bridges between current undergraduate aspirations, and the growing accomplishments of people who sat in their classroom seats not too long ago.
Learning to teach is a life-long process. I never know when I step into my classroom in Silver exactly who I will encounter, so I am always pleased when I received an unanticipated gift: usually a letter that starts, “You may not remember me, I was that student who was always late to class, or who sat in the back of the classroom and didn’t say much. I’m writing now to tell you how medical anthropology changed my life”. Time and again, students teach me that medical anthropology provides a wonderful bridge across the dilemmas of the contemporary world where I have the privilege of sharing the energy, curiosity, and open, malleable futures of our undergraduate students. Their presence in my intellectual and pedagogical life is the best gift of all: spontaneously given and unpredictable in its specificity, it’s a core element in the reciprocity of university life.