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Crossing Disciplinary Borders in the Classroom

A team-teaching collaboration between a Dartmouth College anthropologist and a Geisel School of Medicine infectious-disease expert turned out to be an educational experience for both the students and the faculty.

In the spring of 2013, Sienna Craig, an associate professor of anthropology at the college, and Tim Lahey, an associate professor of medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine, worked together to teach an undergraduate class called HIV Through a Bio Social Lens: 30 Years of a Modern Plague. Geisel faculty have taught undergraduate classes individually, but the collaboration between Craig and Lahey was unusual, and the result of an informal process.

As a medical anthropologist, Craig’s work focuses on the ways in which cultures and societies understand what “health” means and how they address illness, including the use of traditional forms of healing and conventional Western medicine. Through work treating and studying HIV in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley and places such as Tanzania, Lahey has bumped up against communication and cultural boundaries.

Given their interests, the two seemed bound to cross paths. And, indeed, one night while talking at the house of a mutual friend, they came up with the idea of teaching a class on HIV together. “We thought it would be interesting and important for undergraduates who participate in research, clinical work, and education abroad to be sensitized to cultural differences,” Lahey says.

Because Dartmouth students participate in a variety of global health experiences, Craig and Lahey decided that examining the social, cultural, and medical influences of HIV from the divergent perspectives of anthropology and medicine would enrich the undergraduates’ experience.

“Tim is an extremely gifted teacher, but in his roles at Geisel and DHMC he doesn’t get to teach undergraduates, and that was appealing to him,” Craig says. “I could immediately imagine how interested Dartmouth College students would be in a team-taught approach to a global health issue.”

For each week of the course, they addressed a different topic. “I might cover how HIV transmission actually occurs—the biology of it,” Lahey explains. “Later in the week, Sienna might talk about how identity is influenced by HIV transmission. Then I’d cover the ways in which we treat HIV with drugs, and Sienna might cover medicalization and how a young person’s self-image might be affected by having to take all of these drugs.”

Team-teaching altered the familiar teacher-centered classroom. The interaction between Craig and Lahey created an environment that challenged students to reevaluate their assumptions about medicine and culture. It challenged Craig and Lahey, too.

“Thinking about the course material and diving in to the life cycle of the virus was, for me, not only a wonderful moment to push my knowledge base and to learn something new,” Craig says. “It was also a chance for me to be able to think about how scientific knowledge is produced and framed in different ways than how I think about it with my students in other anthropology courses.”

Working together, Craig says, she and Lahey developed a rapport with each other that enabled them to “maintain our senses of humor and senses of humility about what each of our perspectives and expertise could and could not answer within the complex set of issues that is HIV.”

The collaboration even led to some unexpected—and productive—disagreements. In one class, for example, Craig criticized physician behavior and talked about what she saw as shortcomings of the medical model of disease.

“I jumped into the conversation and gave an intentionally somewhat overblown defense of physicians,” Lahey says. “Honestly, I was feeling a bit defensive—although I didn’t think she was wrong. It was a nice moment for the students to see two professors arguing and I thought it helped set those viewpoints in nice opposition to each other. But you could tell that it was not what they were used to.”

For both Craig and Lahey, this type of classroom interaction is at the core of a liberal arts education. They both believe that deeply engaged discussion between faculty members with different points of view is a great way to open up boundaries between disciplines.

“It was very respectful, and I think it was really good for the undergraduates who are prehealth to see a physician like Tim who is a humanist as much as he is an infectious-disease doctor,” Craig says. “And for me, having students see an anthropologist taking a position not only of critique and social analysis, but of thinking practically about how anthropological theory and method could be used to improve health outcomes was unusual.”

Craig says that the students weren’t the only ones to benefit from the class. “Tim is awesome and it was great to work with him. I really loved it,” she says. “It was one of my most, if not the most, rewarding teaching experiences that I’ve had over the past eight years as part of the Dartmouth community.”

Lahey says that he learned a lot from the experience as well. “Sienna is a rock star, and I felt lucky to have shared a classroom with her,” he says.

Although both Craig and Lahey say that it is not easy to put such classes together, they will be teaching the class again in the spring of 2015. Craig says she would like to see barriers to interdisciplinary teaching dismantled to facilitate these kinds of collaborations.

Lahey agrees. “Our goal was to benefit the students from cross-disciplinary teaching, and I think we did,” he says. “What was unexpected and great was how much my practice and my teaching were influenced by working with Sienna. The more projects like this we have, the better.”