Instructor: João Biehl
Description of Course Goals and CurriculumMedical Anthropology explores the relationship between medicine and how it manifests itself in terms of human interaction, social structures, and cultural values. Some of the main ideas that are discussed include the ways in which the normal and abnormal are constructed through medical technologies and values, and how medical practice is impacted by these ideals, how people narrate the diverse experiences of illness and medical treatment, how social and structural dynamics impact disease and healthcare, and how these questions can highlight the grey areas surrounding healthcare in all of its many forms. While some of these concepts are presented in a hierarchical manner, such as beginning with definitions of concepts such as “illness” or “ethnography” and later building up to cross-cultural medicine and structural violence, many of the topics are interconnected in complicated ways. In this course, that interconnectedness is the focus of the studies overall, and understanding any given concept will inform the overall understanding of the course. The course structure is primarily based on reading and discussing the content in a large, seminar-style lecture, and an emphasis is placed on the perspectives and emotional reactions of students across both discussions and written assignments. Prior experience in anthropology or the humanities is not expected nor required, but basic understanding of constructing narratives and short, critical responses is assumed.
Learning From Classroom InstructionThe course consists of readings where concepts and narratives are introduced, and then required lectures that explain, explore, and supplement the readings through discussion and implementation of additional materials. The best way to prepare for lectures is to read through the primary readings and skim the secondary ones for key words and definitions, taking notes of main points or points of individual interest/reflection. This will allow for students to participate in lecture discussions, demonstrating both their grasp of the theoretical concepts while also reflecting on the case studies and their broader implications. Taking note of the emphasized points of lecture can allow for reference during the writing process for assignments, where students will be asked to connect essay topics to course themes. In all, students should leave lecture with a thorough understanding of all of the reading materials, along with the themes and ideas that they represent, in a manner that can then be applied to the student’s own personal or outside examples.
Learning For and From AssignmentsThe majority of assignments in this course require students to go beyond demonstrating comprehension of material or completion of reading, but application and connection across themes and ideas. Due to this, keeping notes on key definitions and ideas presented by each reading will allow for better reference when writing each paper. Points will be lost for giving summary of readings, even if for contextual purposes, so students should use readings solely for citations and connections, e.g “The idea of people living in the margins also reflect Kleinman’s work in ____ ways, while also showing ___.” Assume that the reader understands and has read all of the course materials well enough to know exactly what is in reference, without any contextual summarizing. This is primarily due to the fact that the reader in question is a member of the teaching staff, and does indeed know all of the course materials thoroughly. This course emphasizes reflection on one’s own life, experiences, and ideas, and so a starting point for many papers is finding something that is of interest to the student, whether that be inspiring, frustrating, or distressing. Feedback is readily provided, but is at times difficult to understand and thus should be supplemented with office hours, where students can receive one-on-one feedback and workshopping of paper ideas and projects. The final project encourages students to be creative in working with different local organizations to create programming or conduct research to meet a need of the organization, and thus requires teamwork and organization of deadlines to ensure that the partner receives their deliverable on time. Establishing effective communication between teammates, the member of teaching staff overseeing the work, and the community partners will be essential for this work, but it is important to note that students will be guided through every step of the process with instruction and time dedicated to the work.
External ResourcesDue to the unique and specific nature of the writing assignments in this course, both in the content and the grading, it is recommended to attend office hours and discuss ideas for the midterm and final project, and also to review feedback on short reading responses to improve future scores. Many of the readings can be extremely dense, but students are not expected to have the deepest understanding at the first encounter, so communicating with the teaching staff and discussing any aspects that are challenging is a strong method for getting the most out of the course materials. Finally, some of the content discussed throughout the course can be sensitive, including discussions around the AIDS pandemic and socio economic violence, but instruction is conducted in a graceful and understanding manner, prioritizing student wellbeing first and foremost. That being said, if any of the content is difficult, students can always reach out to the teaching staff and discuss alternative methods for understanding the material.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course SelectionThis course is extremely rewarding in the ways that it deepens students’ appreciation for the field of medical anthropology, encourages students to question and consider meaning-making of norms and culture surrounding medicine in the United States and globally, and allows for personal reflection on the materials in a way that cannot be found in traditional theoretical courses. The readings and lectures overlap considerably in content focus, and some readings are considerably long under short time spans. For example, being assigned 400-page ethnographies to be read over a week, but this only happens a few times throughout the course and can be planned for ahead of time. The content of this course is meaningful in the ways that it manages to touch on facets of every human being’s experiences navigating illness and disease, and truly equips students to think of medical systems and care in many different and exciting ways.