I’m an “expert” at overhauling syllabi. At least, I should be. I’ve taught a medical anthropology course almost every term for the past ten years, and no matter what promises I’ve made to myself, I can’t stop making changes when it’s time to teach again. All new assignments, new books, switching from articles to books and vice versa — I’ve tried it all. Even when I found no differences in student learning or student evaluations after assessing different iterations of the same course, I remain captivated by an illusion of optimizing course content. It’s like an always-receding pedagogical horizon in which some inspired combination of readings, films, activities, and assignments clicks together perfectly.
Like many instructors, I enjoy the process of exploring new readings and films and puzzling out whether they’d work well for the students who take my courses. I value course materials that students can digest on their own without much unpacking, background lecturing, or theoretical exposition. I want students to feel empowered to immerse themselves in ethnographic research, to find it enthralling, and to see its explanatory and transformative potential without too much instructor mediation. I aim for ethnographic materials to prompt students to critical comparative analysis: How does this case illuminate other societies’ beliefs and practices? In my experience, students are more likely to critique and compare when they feel confident about their own understanding of the ethnographic material. I want my teaching to inspire students to continue using ethnography to understand and critique their worlds after the term ends, which they’re more likely to do if they’ve successfully enjoyed ethnographic writing with minimal unpacking/mediation.
For these reasons, I compiled a list of ethnographic books by medical anthropologists that instructors told me have worked well (or would work well) for teaching undergraduate students. It started as a scribbled-down list of friends’ and colleagues’ recommendations when I overhauled my Medical Anthropology course in Spring 2020 from an article-based course to one in which we read full-length ethnographies. I later formalized the list to become something shareable. After seeking more recommendations from medical anthropology instructors via social media, I have a list of 50 ethnographic books endorsed for teaching at the undergraduate level. Many have been recommended by more than one person; many are award-winning books; all have been published since 2010. The list is available here: Ethnographic books for teaching and learning about medical anthropology.
I think of this as a starting point for identifying teachable books in the field. I included every recommendation received for books that were ethnographic, written by a medical anthropologist, and published in the last ten years. The list is limited by the methods I used to collect recommendations (Academic Twitter was the main source for suggestions) and longstanding biases that influence instructors’ choices of book assignments. These include biases regarding publisher prestige/popularity, blind spots in medical anthropology research foci, and authors’ renown/employment status. In response to critiques that medical anthropology systemically ignores racialization in its analyses, I highlighted books on this list that explicitly theorize racialization. Indeed, only 6 books on this list address race in depth (and one of them is by a sociologist). Please consider the list a work in progres. I welcome suggestions for ways to make it more useful for the field.
Amy Cooper is a sociocultural and medical anthropologist and the author of State of Health: Pleasure and Politics in Venezuelan Health Care under Chávez. She is an assistant professor at Saint Louis University.