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Teaching Across Disciplinary and Experiential Borders

Megan Graham, PhD
2022 CATE Instructor Recipient

As anthropologists, we are accustomed to immersing ourselves in intellectually and experientially rich milieus for our ethnographic research. I am a musician-ethnographer. My research situates me in the textures of voices, sounds, and all that is experiential, and I recognize the importance of experiential pedagogy in learning. Not only does using the body open new avenues of perception and learning, it also opens new ways of seeking and knowing.[i] I believe that students are experiential learners who thrive when material resonates with them and is transformative. My courses attract students from anthropology, sociology, health sciences, and many other disciplines. My goals for these students include learning to think critically across disciplinary borders, developing an appreciation for ethnography, and becoming engaged in the material and the learning environment with their peers.

Before the pandemic, my Advanced Studies in Anthropological Theory and Methods class focused on arts-based and sensory anthropology. Having done my fieldwork on the performance of veteranhood through the creative arts in long-term care, where performing music with residents was an integral part of my research, I wanted to share the applied experience with students. I arranged for the class to have a drumming workshop facilitated by a colleague from Carleton University to complement the class ethnography about the politics and aesthetics of the South African dance, ngoma. We met at our usual classroom and walked together to the Loeb building and rode the elevator to the music department on the 9th floor. Inside the studio, we sat in a circle, and we were given different drums to play, arranged into small sections of 2-3 players. Sitting side-by-side, each of us feeling a bit nervous in the face of performance, we laughed and joked about our relative comfort with music-making. Nevertheless, we were there to experience something together. Before the class, I asked students to pay attention to their experience while immersing themselves as one would in the ethnographic field. We were led through several different pieces and songs, moving each of us out of habitual desk-based learning mode to something entirely new.

After the drumming workshop, students wrote autoethnographic reflections about their experience and related these to the ethnography we were reading in class. It was an incredible experience. In addition to giving students a glimpse of fieldwork, it also strengthened our learning community and gave students an appreciation for how anthropologists use the embodied nature of fieldwork. I found it fascinating that, in addition to enjoying the drumming, a student reflected that they felt excited to “go somewhere together” as a class, even though it was a quick trip through campus.

The above experience was a highlight for me as a teacher because during the pandemic, as for many anthropology instructors and professors, it has been a challenge to bring subjects to life through the screen. I have brought experiential learning to my students since the pivot to virtual learning by bringing in guest speakers and investing time in creating an online learning community. While we cannot be with a guest speaker physically, there is still power in hearing another voice bring to life the topics we have read in class. I invite speakers from both the academic and activist communities. For example, in my Health and Globalization course, I invited a migrant farmworker and rights activist working in Southern Ontario to speak with the class via Zoom. This was early in the pandemic, and the injustices suffered by migrant workers in Canada and the United States were making headlines. The students were moved by his story of coming to Canada as a transnational laborer, which gave a human voice to what might otherwise have remained textbook concepts and theories.

Experiential learning can also come from within the class when we create a reflexive learning community. A collegial environment begins with how the instructor establishes and nurtures the learning environment, especially the attention given to student support and mentorship, and how the instructor encourages positive peer discussion among students. In the context of online teaching, the instructor’s time invested in creating a sense of community is of the utmost importance.[ii] In many ways this translates to making sure students know that they matter and ensuring there is “intentional engagement in care-focused teaching.”[iii] As an instructor, I create authentic, compassionate connections with my students, modeling the collegial role of researcher, teacher, and mentor, which I hope they will follow with one another. I have found that discussion forums and break-out rooms give students an opportunity to become critical, collaborative thinkers as they share ideas with one another and connect weekly in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. Students begin the term with some hesitation as they take risks sharing their ideas with their peers. However, by the midpoint of the course, students are actively drawing upon conversations with peers in the forum and building on them in real time, speaking to each other by name, and supporting and encouraging one another’s ideas. It is a happy moment when the learning community emerges.

I would like thank CASCA for honouring me with this award. I am grateful to my professors and colleagues whose examples have each left an indelible impression on me. They continue to inspire my work as a teacher, researcher, and mentor.


[i] Perry, M., & Medina, C. (2011). Embodiment and performance in pedagogy research: Investigating the possibility of the body in curriculum experience. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 27(3), 62-75.

[ii] Dalton, M. H. (2018). Online programs in higher education: Strategies for developing quality courses. FOCUS on Colleges, Universities & Schools, 12(1), 1-8.

[iii] Burke, K., & Larmar, S. (2021). Acknowledging another face in the virtual crowd: Reimagining the online experience in higher education through an online pedagogy of care. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45(5), 601-615.

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