“We are not brains on sticks!” Teaching Anthropology with the Senses

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  • posted byJohn Barker
  • dateFebruary 17, 2022
  • commentsComments Off on “We are not brains on sticks!” Teaching Anthropology with the Senses

In this post, Jess Auerbach talks about motivating students by using the five senses and bringing them “out of their brains and into their bodies.”

“We are not brains on sticks,” a group of 11 African Studies students told me in 2018. I was teaching at a ‘start up’ university in Mauritius and working on a manuscript for a teaching ethnography aimed at explaining the methods of anthropology and also exploring contemporary Angola.

I took my students’ suggestions very seriously, drafting a chapter every three weeks and teaching it in a seminar, trying to remember that they were not “brains on sticks.” Through my engagement with them, the framework emerged of each chapter being constructed through one sensorial entry point: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing – complemented by the slightly more esoteric ‘senses’ of movement and curiosity.

I could not have imagined what it would be like to teach the finished book in a pandemic. In 2021, I had the opportunity to present it to a group of 300 first-year social science students at North-West University – a large and very diverse class at one of South Africa’s largest and most interesting institutions.

Teaching and learning on Zoom was challenging in a national context of extreme inequality. Some of my students were in houses, some in informally constructed shacks. Many had laptops, but the majority were calling into class from their cell phones because they did not have access to their own computers. Many students struggled to afford the ‘cell phone data’ that is required to connect to the internet from a telephone in places where there is no wifi – something many of my colleagues in wealthy countries struggle to even imagine. At the time, South Africa was struggling to access vaccines, and struggling even more from the uneven impact of the pandemic, which decimated weaker economies such as ours.

In a context of such disparity and quotidian challenge, what would motivate my students to deeply care about Angola or learn the methods required of anthropology? (Angola is a country as alien to most South Africans as it is to those living as far away as Canada or the US.) It turns out that actually, food was a great way in. Alongside reading the chapter on ‘taste’ we explored not only food in Angola and the cultural significance of different meals there, but also of food in our own national context – how it brings people together and sometimes drives them apart.

An outdoor table with a plate of shrimp in sauce and a wine glass of sangria

Diners at an exclusive restaurant in Luanda enjoy cocktails and fresh shrimp (From Water to Wine, p. 106)

I asked my students to reflect on what meal they would choose if they wanted to impress a date, and the chat exploded into a flurry of suggestions whilst the ‘raise hand’ function reached new highs of engagement. “Tripe!” “Sushi!” “Steak!” The students suggested. In unpacking the responses, we were able to gently enter the complex terrain of class, access, cultural traditions, and societal change that can be fraught in South Africa, as it can be elsewhere.

As students realised the limits of their own national exposure, I encouraged them to meet up in the geographical pods we had already established and cook for one another in safe settings. Many did so, sharing images in the class Telegram group of socially distanced feasts. Only when reading the Zoom chat later did I see how many students had actually asked each other out on dates (in class!) to try what they deemed to be impressive food. Our session lasted far beyond its allotted time that day, and it was striking because of the simple element of fun. Students’ homework was to contribute a recipe that captured something of familial or cultural significance, and I suspect the resulting recipe book will be used far longer than the course materials.

While food really helped the students learn about Angola, it was smell that helped me as an instructor learn about them. One of the chapters in From Water to Wine is based on perfume and the way perfume is used to indicate class and social status in Angola. An early writing project in the course required students to write 500 words about the way their own homes smelled – both descriptive and analytic, personal and aware of the place of the individual within broader systems.

Students had the option of sharing their work publicly or privately, but as instructors we read them all, and we learned about the challenges faced by this cohort in ways that haunt my own imagination. Thinking about how to teach well in unequal systems, I will carry with me the scent of parents taken by Covid-19, food cooking, sewage, and industrial effluents that shape the air of South Africa’s harsh informal settlements from which many students nonetheless succeed. I think of the neutral non-smell of suburban South Africa that had tripped me up in my preparation for Angola in the first place. (Spoiler: I had no idea how important it would be for me to wear perfume.)

In teaching From Water to Wine, I received assurance that even though the book launched in a global pandemic, it seems to do what I had hoped. That is, bring students and their instructors out of their brains and into their bodies, thinking with the world – both as it is and as it could become. I’ve now spoken with students in the US, Brazil, Angola (it’s freely available in Portuguese), and other countries, and it seems it’s easier to really care when we are not only thinking with our minds. In the wake of a pandemic like Covid-19, it seems caring is the one thing that anthropology can most powerfully teach.

Jess Auerbach is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at North-West University in South Africa. Her innovative ethnography, From Water to Wine: Becoming Middle Class in Angola, is a multimedia exploration of the experience of change in Angola as experienced through the five senses.

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