Let’s Talk About Health: Community and Careers in the Virtual Classroom

Published in the May 2021 Teaching & Learning Collaboration Newsletter

Madeleine Mant
Department of Anthropology

The Anthropology of Health stream in the Department of Anthropology introduces students to the wide-ranging biological, socioeconomic, and cultural factors that influence health outcomes in human groups. ANT220: Introduction to the Anthropology of Health surveys approaches used to examine the conditions of human health and illness, bridging biological and medical anthropology. The course explores international ethnomedical approaches and traces the historical development of the Western biomedical definition of health. Students are exposed to contemporary approaches to research on human fertility and reproductive health, healthy aging, mental health and culture-bound syndromes, and infectious disease. The course culminates in a discussion of the profoundly influential roles of social inequality and stress on the production and reproduction of health patterns observed in historical and contemporary populations.
As instructor of record for ANT220 I was struck by students’ enthusiasm for the topics discussed, but also by their desire for concrete applications of their learning. A common refrain in my office hours was “I want to work in health, I want to help people, but I’m not sure exactly what I want to do.” These conversations resonated with those I frequently have in my Career Counselling hours; students have immense enthusiasm for learning about health but crave direction. I recognized that my experience (i.e., graduate school and university-level teaching and research) was just one path to integrating health studies into one’s career and thus started welcoming guests into Career Counselling hours via Zoom to connect with these students.
I was awarded a UTM Teaching Development and Innovation Grant in summer 2020 to develop a 10-part “interview with an expert” video series called Let’s Talk About Health. This series introduced students to health-related careers with a focus upon the course objectives for ANT220. Since ANT220 is a prerequisite class for both ANT341 (Anthropology of Infectious Disease) and ANT437 (Advanced Seminar in the Anthropology of Health), it is the ideal foundation to expose students to potential applied health careers as they progress through to the upper-level classes. I reached out to 10 individuals who work with varied concepts of health to ask if they would be willing to share their expertise. I was lucky enough that all ten agreed:
Sarah Granger, Standardized Patient for Medical and Pharmacy Student exams (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oMnVGGdPvQ)
Alison Sawyer, Pelvic Health Physiotherapist, Clinical Specialist MSK, Ashford and St. Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kc1fjbVCiOw)
Danielle Bourque-Bearskin, Public Health Nurse (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WCs12x36uE)
Shirley Walsh, Registered Dietician, College of Dietitians of Ontario (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVVYOwc48Q4)
Dr. Justin Peddle, Pharmacist, Eastern Health, St. John’s, Newfoundland (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnU9i5R65gE)
Dr. Paul Hackett, Medical Geographer, Indigenous Health, University of Saskatchewan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuX10zTwICQ)
Dr. Mindy Pitre, Palaeoepidemiologist, St. Lawrence University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYg90N0l38M)
Lauren Tignanelli, Registered Midwife (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt3jv6vwGzY)
Dr. Travis Chi Wing Lau, Assistant Professor of English, Disability Studies, Kenyon College (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2Aez-ShL_w)
Cat Criger, UTM Indigenous Advisor (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PW5T5iF6rPM)
The interviewees were all asked the following key questions: (1) What is your job and what was your path to your current career? (2) How do you understand, define, and use the words “health”, “illness”, and “wellness” in your work? (3) What is the key piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to do what you do?
The conversations based upon these three queries were wide-ranging, welcoming exploration and laughter. I am thankful to the experts, who generously shared their personal experiences and how they intertwine with their professional lives. Students learned the differences between a dietician and a nutritionist, a midwife and a doula, considered the role of a standardized patient in medical education, and thought about bodies through time and space, drawing upon the expertise of a health geographer. We learned about disability and crip studies, and how examining the effects of health through time affects our understandings of contemporary health. Health is fascinating because, depending upon the context, it can be personal and impersonal, private and public, intimate and exposed. Health is kaleidoscopic.
I built assessment of the series into the course’s term tests, asking students to explore the varied definitions of health and wellness provided by the experts, and to reflect upon how their personal definitions compared. Adding these conversations into the course curriculum increased and diversified the voices available to the class. Speaking to each interviewee reminded me that despite physical distancing, we could remain socially and professionally connected, an important lesson as I prepared for the all-online fall semester. Students expressed their appreciation for the accessibility of the experts, and several contacted the interviewees to follow up with further questions. This was a heartening reaction, as I had been worried about effectively building trust and relationships in the virtual classroom.
The series remains available on YouTube and I plan to undertake a Season 2, as the ANT220 students identified more experts from whom they want to learn. Get ready for more conversations with occupational therapists, medical historians, psychologists, registered massage therapists and more in the future! As we continue to navigate this socially distanced space of learning, it is more important than ever to show students the multitude of possibilities available to them post-graduation and, especially, to expand our definitions of health and wellness in the (post)pandemic world.