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Teaching Medical Anthropology

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I am grateful to those who have shared their medical anthropology syllabi here and thought I would add mine to the mix. There is so much one could cover in a med anthro course! I am always concerned with overwhelming my students, especially those not only new to the subdiscipline but also to anthropology and even to social science (ah, the challenges of a undergraduate liberal arts institution). The more teaching I do, the greater my conviction that less is more.

Readings: I shape a course arc with a point of departure, a few contrasting perspectives, and then a closing attempt at synthesis or consolidation. I like books rather than articles, because a book allows us to linger on an argument and see it develop. A book also helps students to catch up if need be. Articles are wonderful for introducing students to key arguments and crucial contributions, but they take considerable class time to discuss effectively (the articles I assigned by Rose and Hacking, for example, were both pedagogical failures given our brief time to discuss them). Even with my preference for books over articles, I was surprised to count a total of 19 separate articles and book chapters in my syllabus.

I had the students read the Sullivan article before the semester began. I knew it would engage them, and I also wanted to disorient them if they thought medical anthropology would focus on exotica. Van der Kock’s book on trauma was more of an experiment: how would students engage with an argument on such an intimate topic that ranges over so many different domains and shifts in register? They were at once intrigued and yet wary of some of his claims. It also allowed us to ask how a practitioner’s account (van der Kock is a psychiatrist and a leader in the field of trauma research) might be different from that of a social scientist.

We next switched to a critique of the concept of health. Adelson’s ethnography is short and sharp, giving students a taste of anthropological methodology and analysis. It also introduces them to the complex politics of medical anthropology. The Metzl and Kirkland volume raises great questions about the culture of health and the concept’s primacy among the affluent “worried well.” It also pushes students to consider the perspective of gender studies and literature, ones of far less prestige than medicine. How is it, I challenge them, that such (seemingly) marginal viewpoints produce such a powerful critique?

Next, students encounter what they thought the course was going to be about, cross-cultural difference. Langford’s book depicts Ayurveda as more of a question than as a ready-made antithesis of biomedicine. Students consider how we moderns tend to enframe difference, and her arguments about Ayurveda have the effect of making biomedicine appear more elusive than they initially imagined. The students are left to ask how the desires they bring to a medical practitioner shape the healing process.

Finally, we end by considering the politics of medicine. I have often assigned a Paul Farmer book, but replaced that this time with brief readings by and about him. I also assigned an article by Redfield about MSF. Holmes’ book about migrant fruit pickers offers students a sharp, accessible glimpse of inequality and health, the “suffering subject” familiar in anthropology. In addition, this year I tried Malkki’s The Need to Help, and it proved to be a big success. It so happened that our institution had a series of major anti-racist protests this past spring, and reading Malkki’s book as those unfolded helped us to think about politics, the professions, and our engagement with each other. She’s a subtle thinker and writer, which was a valuable counter-rhythm when the campus was full of passionate energy. Students took the opportunity to think about their commitments and motivations, and appreciate what Malkki calls the “mere” of everyday activism. A plurality of students named it their favorite book of the course.

Assignments: The major assignment for the course, of course, was to come to class prepared to discuss the readings. In class I often presented a key concept for 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of the hour, but most of the time was spent in a mix of large and small group discussion. Conversation continued with the online forum connected to the class. Class sessions went well, though the online forums were mostly a disappointment. I could only occasionally get the students to engage with each other’s ideas rather than write self-contained posts that tended to impress more than respond.

Each unit had a culminating assignment. For the first unit, students created an annotated map of trauma. I purposely underexplained this because I wanted to be surprised by what the students did. Their maps were quite different and engaged effectively with van der Kock’s book. I was surprised though how many of them described trauma as something personal rather than social, which went against what we emphasized in class (no doubt attesting to the power of their preconceptions). I was also astonished that several students used the map assignment to reveal their experience with significant childhood trauma. I was concerned about how they might personally respond to the book and shared that worry multiple times in class. But I didn’t hear much until they turned in their assignments. I found it curious that they would take this mode to share with me intimate aspects of their histories.

For the second unit, students had to use the readings to construct a guide for the campus wellness center. Inspired by Adelson’s book (and the Metzl/Kirkland volume), their project had to address “being alive well at St. Olaf.” Most students either did a pamphlet or a website, while some got even more creative (or in a few cases, too creative!). Although I enjoyed their critique of the biopower cesspool they claim to inhabit at St. Olaf, the best assignments were also able to see how creativity, politics, and solidarity can be antidotes to obsessive healthiness and bodily dysfunction. Those guides offered their fellow students a critical diagnosis but also possible means of healing.

The third assignment was the most difficult one (I find that April is an appropriate time to be cruel). Each student was asked to write an essay describing Ayurveda. The challenge came from Langford’s critique, which questions whether Ayurveda is in fact a thing that can be represented. I enjoyed seeing the students puzzle over the assignment and figure out a way to depict an entity that appears to elude representation. In the process, our earlier work on maps and pamphlets and websites was called into question, as was our ability to understand the human body and to demark discrete healing modalities.

The final assignment was, as is appropriate in May, a straightforward one. Students had to compare the books by Holmes and Malkki and figure out what they show us about the politics of health and medicine. These came together well (I had them do so as an annotated list). Students were also schedule a “doctor’s appointment” with me to talk about their work in the course. This was an off-hand idea that I casually mentioned in class but students took quite seriously. As their interest grew I decided I was going to wear a labcoat and stethoscope for the meetings, but in the end elected to retain what dignity remained. In our conversations some students wanted to talk about their own health situation; others wanted to talk about the mechanics of the final assignment. Most wanted to discuss their general experience of the course. The topic is such an intimate one that it turned out to be appropriate and important to share one-on-one where it left us. That’s the wonderful thing about medical anthropology. Everyone has a body; everyone has the capacity to feel pain and the responsibility to care for others. What an honor to explore this domain with intriguing students.

Download the syllabus

Thomas A. Williamson is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at St. Olaf College, where he teaches courses on theory, Southeast Asia, medical anthropology, and globalization.  Much of his work is based on research done in Malaysia over the past 25 years.


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