Description of Course Goals and CurriculumThis course focuses on two components of medical anthropology: illness as a social ailment and the evolution of medical technology. There is very little technical medical knowledge involved; the class frames medicine in a social context. Medical anthropology is the interaction of social environment, medicine, illness and culture. Professor Biehl challenges students to think of medicine in a historical, political and economic frame. The course’s reading content includes contemporary ethnographies, medical journals, media reports and films related to topics from historical medical anthropology to medicine’s modern transformation in the laboratory. Each lecture is set up as an open seminar. Laptops cannot be used and phones have to be turned off. Professor Biehl invites open conversation about the readings and expects a weekly one-page response based on the week’s topic and readings. Half of the lecture includes Professor Biehl teaching and the other half is discussion. Even though it is a lecture course with around 60-70 students, it felt like an intimate seminar class. To incorporate the anthropological aspects of this course, two very unique term papers are required. The class is not focused on memorization or testing, so only two short quizzes are given during the semester. The course introduces students to research using methods of medical anthropologists. The first paper is an illness narrative, which consists of interviewing and studying individual subjects and their situation. This assignment allows students to see topics discussed in lecture highlighted in real life situations. The second written assignment challenges students to examine medical technology (from plastic surgery to the AIDS vaccine) and its role in society. The research paper is an opportunity for students to see how political and economic elements factor into a community’s perspective on medicine and illness.
Learning From Classroom InstructionProfessor Biehl is really great about leading students through the content during lecture, so listen to him when he emphasizes a concept and write it in your notes. The presentations usually get posted on Blackboard, but because a lot of the lecture content is discussion based, a lot of listening and note taking has got to take place during lecture. It can be difficult to stay engaged during a longer class period, but it helps to be part of the discussion. Also, portions of lecture include short films and clips. During lectures, make sure to bring a copy of the reading because important passages and terms will be presented and it would be helpful to physically mark those down. In addition, the two quizzes Professor Biehl gives are based off the passages and key terms he points out from the reading, so if you choose to mark your reading during class, you’ve essentially completed a large part of your study guide for the quizzes. Bringing your reading to class also gives you a chance to discuss more effectively. You are more likely to speak in class if you have the content. If you have marked passages before lecture and written short notes, you have prepared yourself for the participation aspect of lecture. In general, to do well in this class it is important to stay organized and engaged. Manage your time wisely and stay focused in lecture. If you can stay on top of the reading and participate in lecture, the rest of the assignments make more sense and become much more manageable.
Learning For and From AssignmentsThe amount of reading required for this course is very demanding. The heavy reading load can be overwhelming at first because there can be a lot of different terms and concepts within a single reading assignment. The reading can also be dense and lengthy, which makes it difficult to follow along concepts. It is helpful to take concise notes and to mark the readings for important passages. Students are not expected to memorize the material for this class, but rather recognize the key terms or concepts in real life situations. Professor Biehl wants you to be able to explain quantitative health trends using social, political and economic factors. Even though this sounds straightforward, expect the two writing assignments to be challenging. The illness narrative is very different than most written work because Professor Biehl does not expect nor want a traditional paper. One of the most difficult aspects of the class was writing a paper with no clear thesis or central argument. It can be hard to adopt the “organic” style of writing expected in papers. Something I tried to do when I was having trouble writing papers for this class was turn to my readings as a model. Anthropologists write differently from what I had done in previous courses. Even though the reading is heavy, it is filled with prime examples of the kind of writing expected for the class. Read the guiding questions the professor emails the students prior to beginning the reading. The questions are a great start to leading you in the right direction in terms of understanding the concepts and finding content to write in your weekly response. Do not be overwhelmed by the amount of reading, but know that you should not procrastinate. Most classes you can get away with not reading the assignments, but it makes lecture difficult to follow, your weekly response poorer and retracts from your ability to participate in the open discussions during lecture (which is part of your final grade!). Professor Biehl selects pieces of writing that are engaging and interesting. For example, one of the first reading assignments was a 350-page book. I had until the next week to finish it, so I had to make sure I allotted time each day to reading the book. Before I knew it, I was finishing up the last chapter a day early because at times I couldn’t put down the book! If there comes a week where you absolutely cannot do all the reading, then I would recommend at least reading 2/3 of the assignment and having it down pat and skimming the rest. The reading is integral to the entire course so plan ahead and stay organized.
External ResourcesProfessor Biehl expects a lot from his students, especially at the beginning of the course. Do not be discouraged or overwhelmed. Take advantage office hours and meet with the TAs and professor regularly. Every other week at least I would try and meet with a TA and sit down with my weekly assignment and see what I could improve. This sounds like a huge time commitment, but the meetings never lasted more than 10 minutes, and they were usually right after class. Adopting these strategies earlier on will help your approach to the two writing projects. Professor Biehl hands out the paper assignments at least a month before the due date, so take advantage of all the time you get. Because the expected writing style is so different than most classes, it can be very beneficial to meet with a TA to discuss your topic and structure of your paper. The professor and TA will not read drafts of your paper, but if you present to them with excerpts or thoughts about how you will write your paper, it will make the actual process so much more manageable.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course SelectionThis was one of my most rewarding classes. As a pre-med, this is a great non-natural science course that makes you think about all the implications involved in being a doctor that you may have never considered. Even if you are not a pre-med student, this is still a great class to take. It is an extremely well-taught course that is filled with so much relevant and interesting content. It also fulfills the EM distribution, which can be really helpful for students who are not very interested in any philosophy class. Do not be intimidated that it is a 300-level course. I had not taken a single anthropology course before taking Medical Anthropology, and the content was still very manageable. This course also made me realize that I wanted to apply to be part of the Global Health and Health Policy program. If you have any interest in pursuing a GHP certificate, this is a great pre-cursor to GHP 350. The courses have very similar assignments, lecture structure, and reading assignments. I looked forward to researching for my papers and writing them, which are rare for me since I do not enjoy writing. The papers were so interesting to me because the process involved things beyond just writing. For example, the illness narrative required interviewing an individual, and the research paper could be partnered with a CBLI project. The approach to writing assignments in this class was practical, hand-on and unlike most writing assignments rewarding for the student.