People experience the world through all of their senses, and Dr. Natalie Bourdon helped her students understand that through unique sensory experiences this spring.
ANT 350: Cultural Anthropology, a required course for anthropology majors and minors at Mercer, familiarizes students with the methods and theories essential to the study of culture and society. Ten students from a variety of backgrounds and years were enrolled in the most recent course, said Dr. Bourdon, an associate professor of anthropology and women’s and gender studies.
Through reading and discussing ethnographies, students explored themes of belief, violence, consumption, work, class, identity, gender roles, and language. They also curated an exhibit housed at the Tarver Library for three weeks called “Mercerians Speak About Race and Racism,” which featured stories from students in Dr. Bourdon’s fall introductory anthropology course.
In addition to books on homelessness and police brutality in Chicago, the class also read “The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Living in Capitalist Ruins” by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and participated in a workshop sensory related to it.
“It’s just a really eclectic and interesting anthropological book about matsutake mushrooms and how they circulate in the global economy,” Dr. Boudon said. “The book talks a lot about immigration, capitalism and how we navigate and find freedom in these little pockets of the capitalist economy.”
Dr. Bourdon invited students to her home for a lab where they described, sampled, and discovered five different types of fungi. She roasted the mushrooms with salt and olive oil and also made a gourmet mushroom dish with vegan ricotta. The students experienced the full life course of a mushroom, from soil to table.
Dr. Bourdon is doing a lot of sensory anthropology these days, especially through research on yoga and empowerment in the United States and Kenya. She has also taught trauma-informed yoga on two Mercer On Mission trips to Tanzania. Through the workshop in her home, she was able to provide a sensory experience that would broaden her students’ understanding of cultural anthropology.
Sophomore Divine Madubike, a double major in international business and finance and a minor in anthropology, said the sensory lab allowed her to experience material through a different lens. This required him to use all of his senses, which provided additional context to learn about history, cultural connections, and societal significance. For Madubike, visiting a teacher was a new experience that created a more relaxed and enjoyable environment.
“It was a different way to connect with students in a more informal environment,” Dr. Bourdon said. “Sharing food is a very universal human experience, so doing this with my students was a great way to break down barriers. I think it was very valuable.
Tsing’s book also inspired Dr. Bourdon to incorporate another non-traditional activity at the end of the semester: a group oral final.
“(Tsing) says that our encounters with others and with differences actually benefit us in enormous ways,” Dr. Bourdon said. “The students really got hooked on that. I could tell that the students were learning from each other and challenging each other.
Dr. Bourdon gave the students a list of potential test questions ahead of time, and they spent time alone studying and practicing in groups. On the day of the exam, Dr. Bourdon calls on a student to answer the question, but he can get help from other students if necessary.
“The exam was fantastic. It was exactly the kind of learning I wanted the students to have in the classroom. It was like having a conversation,” Dr. Bourdon said.
Jada Moss, a rising double major in global health studies and anthropology, said the course as a whole was a great foundation for how she should look at the world and its differences in her future studies and career. Outside of class, she did anthropological research with Dr. Bourdon on the parallels between Black Pentecostalism and Hoodoo, a set of spiritual practices and traditions, particularly among African Americans in the southern United States.
“My favorite thing about anthropology as a field is how it cleans the lenses of your eyes so you can clearly see the landscapes of the world we live in,” Moss said. “Then it adjusts the lenses, so you can zoom in on the importance of your own role and the role of others in the world.”
Madubike said he will apply what he learned in this course to his upcoming international business and finance courses and use it as a reference in his life as many concepts are universal in society.
“Cultural anthropology is something that can be applied to every major and every part of us as human beings,” he said. “Dr. Bourdon has really broadened my view of the world and been a beacon in my life.
Currently, Mercer offers a minor in anthropology as well as an individualized major, through which faculty work with students to create an academic path that meets their interests. Dr. Bourdon said the goal is to eventually expand the program to create a standard major in anthropology.