“We’re not brains on sticks!” Educating Anthropology with the Senses

“We’re not brains on sticks!” Educating Anthropology with the Senses

On this put up, Jess Auerbach talks about motivating college students through the use of the 5 senses and bringing them “out of their brains and into their our bodies.” “We’re not brains on sticks,” a gaggle of 11 African Research college students advised me in 2018. I used to be instructing at a ‘begin

On this put up, Jess Auerbach talks about motivating college students through the use of the 5 senses and bringing them “out of their brains and into their our bodies.”


“We’re not brains on sticks,” a gaggle of 11 African Research college students advised me in 2018. I used to be instructing at a ‘begin up’ college in Mauritius and dealing on a manuscript for a instructing ethnography aimed toward explaining the strategies of anthropology and likewise exploring modern Angola.

I took my college students’ options very critically, drafting a chapter each three weeks and instructing it in a seminar, making an attempt to keep in mind that they weren’t “brains on sticks.” By means of my engagement with them, the framework emerged of every chapter being constructed by one sensorial entry level: contact, style, scent, sight, and listening to – complemented by the marginally extra esoteric ‘senses’ of motion and curiosity.

I couldn’t have imagined what it will be like to show the completed ebook in a pandemic. In 2021, I had the chance to current it to a gaggle of 300 first-year social science college students at North-West College – a big and really various class at one among South Africa’s largest and most attention-grabbing establishments.

Educating and studying on Zoom was difficult in a nationwide context of maximum inequality. A few of my college students had been in homes, some in informally constructed shacks. Many had laptops, however the majority had been calling into class from their cell telephones as a result of they didn’t have entry to their very own computer systems. Many college students struggled to afford the ‘mobile phone information’ that’s required to hook up with the web from a phone in locations the place there isn’t a wifi – one thing lots of my colleagues in rich international locations battle to even think about. On the time, South Africa was struggling to entry vaccines, and struggling much more from the uneven affect of the pandemic, which decimated weaker economies resembling ours.

In a context of such disparity and quotidian problem, what would inspire my college students to deeply care about Angola or be taught the strategies required of anthropology? (Angola is a rustic as alien to most South Africans as it’s to these dwelling as far-off as Canada or the US.) It seems that truly, meals was a good way in. Alongside studying the chapter on ‘style’ we explored not solely meals in Angola and the cultural significance of various meals there, but in addition of meals in our personal nationwide context – the way it brings individuals collectively and generally drives them aside.

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

Diners at an unique restaurant in Luanda get pleasure from cocktails and recent shrimp (From Water to Wine, p. 106)

I requested my college students to replicate on what meal they’d select in the event that they needed to impress a date, and the chat exploded right into a flurry of options while the ‘elevate hand’ perform reached new highs of engagement. “Tripe!” “Sushi!” “Steak!” The scholars prompt. In unpacking the responses, we had been capable of gently enter the advanced terrain of sophistication, entry, cultural traditions, and societal change that may be fraught in South Africa, as it may be elsewhere.

As college students realised the bounds of their very own nationwide publicity, I inspired them to fulfill up within the geographical pods we had already established and cook dinner for each other in secure settings. Many did so, sharing photos within the class Telegram group of socially distanced feasts. Solely when studying the Zoom chat later did I see what number of college students had truly requested one another out on dates (in school!) to strive what they deemed to be spectacular meals. Our session lasted far past its allotted time that day, and it was placing due to the straightforward aspect of enjoyable. College students’ homework was to contribute a recipe that captured one thing of familial or cultural significance, and I believe the ensuing recipe ebook will likely be used far longer than the course supplies.

Whereas meals actually helped the scholars study Angola, it was scent that helped me as an teacher study them. One of many chapters in From Water to Wine relies on fragrance and the best way fragrance is used to point class and social standing in Angola. An early writing mission within the course required college students to put in writing 500 phrases about the best way their very own houses smelled – each descriptive and analytic, private and conscious of the place of the person inside broader techniques.

College students had the choice of sharing their work publicly or privately, however as instructors we learn all of them, and we realized concerning the challenges confronted by this cohort in ways in which hang-out my very own creativeness. Interested by learn how to educate properly in unequal techniques, I’ll carry with me the scent of fogeys taken by Covid-19, meals cooking, sewage, and industrial effluents that form the air of South Africa’s harsh casual settlements from which many college students nonetheless succeed. I consider the impartial non-smell of suburban South Africa that had tripped me up in my preparation for Angola within the first place. (Spoiler: I had no thought how vital it will be for me to put on fragrance.)

In instructing From Water to Wine, I obtained assurance that although the ebook launched in a world pandemic, it appears to do what I had hoped. That’s, deliver college students and their instructors out of their brains and into their our bodies, pondering with the world – each as it’s and because it might change into. I’ve now spoken with college students within the US, Brazil, Angola (it’s freely available in Portuguese), and different international locations, and it appears it’s simpler to essentially care when we aren’t solely pondering with our minds. Within the wake of a pandemic like Covid-19, it appears caring is the one factor that anthropology can most powerfully educate.


Jess Auerbach is an Affiliate Professor of Anthropology at North-West College in South Africa. Her progressive ethnography, From Water to Wine: Becoming Middle Class in Angola, is a multimedia exploration of the expertise of change in Angola as skilled by the 5 senses.

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