Show & Tell: Using Sensorial Art to Teach Environmental Anthropology

When I first started teaching an environmental anthropology class several years ago, I wanted students to develop group projects that could potentially address some local environmental problem or issue. But I found that the projects asked a lot of students and I really didn’t have the time (or resources) to launch successful experiential or service-learning projects. So instead, I started thinking more about how to get students to reflect on their personal relationships to the environment and how they might conceive of those relationships. I started with a short “Show & Tell” classroom presentation (assignment #1). I’d been thinking a lot about this Object Lessons series and I’d been reading a little philosophical work on Object Oriented Ontology. Simply put, I wanted students to bring in objects that they felt embodied their personal connection to their environs or even objects that they thought were helpful for reflecting on human-environment relations. As part of the assignment, I asked them to develop a “take-home” message. Really, I was asking them to build some kind of theory out of their personal insights and reflections.

From there, I had them draft an essay (assignment #2) in which they refined their reflections. Generally, I asked them for more idiosyncratic “ethnographic” details while I also tried to push them further on their final take-home message.

In the second half of the class, we read about phenomenological approaches to understanding human-environment relationships and we talked about sensory ethnography as well as embodied and experiential knowledge. D4dj_-SWkAMhkXn.jpgAfter that, I asked them to develop an artistic model that captured some distinctive feature(s) of their Show & Tell object that could be represented in a way that appealed to one of the five senses (assignment #3). This semester was the first time I’d asked them to do that. To lead by example, I made sauerkraut with them in class and used the experience as way for them to think a bit more expansively about what their art piece might be.

After I gave them feedback on their preliminary models, I provided them with more details on the final art exhibition (assignment #4). As part of the final art piece, they also developed short artist statements that drew from their essay drafts but also offered reflections on their choices of materials and the intentions behind their pieces. For the actual exhibition, we were lucky enough to be able to use an open study space in our department and we did a real slap-dash installation right before the start of class. In retrospect I think it would’ve helped if I had asked for the projects a day or two ahead of time to think more through the layout and distribution of the pieces in the room. But, despite it being a little chaotic and crowded, they seemed to enjoy it. With the exhibition installed, I gave them a worksheet (assignment #5) that prompted everyone to engage with different pieces in the room. We also had bagels and coffee so people took breaks and rotated in and out of the exhibition space. At the end, we had some final reflections as a group and every individual had a chance to talk and reflect. We even sampled the sauerkraut that we had made together in class the week prior. 

For the final assignment, I had them write one final version of their Show & Tell essay (assignment #6). I’m not sure if that’s overkill or not. Still, I’m hoping to tweak this further for future use. Along with the zine assignment that I’ve used in my History of Anthropological Theory course, this is most fun I have had with a course project.

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