In this occasional series, we ask Arts & Sciences instructors to discuss how they engage students in the great questions of our time.
Monsters, Magical Creatures, and other Nonempirical Beings
Q. How would you describe this course?
A. This course introduces students to some key concepts in cultural anthropology and specific subfields, including medical anthropology, psychological anthropology, and the anthropology of religion, through an exploration of nonempirical beings and phenomena cross-culturally.
I use the word nonempirical to refer to something that cannot be verified scientifically but that people nonetheless experience or observe in some way. We also discuss how nonempirical creatures and phenomena are understood and interpreted with specific cultural and historical contexts and post-colonial settings.
Q. What makes this course appealing to students?
A. The concept of monsters and other spirit beings is particularly appealing to students. I think they are often surprised to learn how meaningful belief in the nonempirical is to so many people in terms of how they interact with the world on a daily basis.
In the course, we also highlight the ways in which nonempirical beings and phenomena are part of our everyday discourse and how they permeate popular culture.
Q. What kinds of assignments do students complete in this course?
A. I invite students to share beliefs and experiences from their own backgrounds and cultures. I ask them to write narrative essays of nonempirical experiences. When the stigma associated with discussing these types of experiences (for example, discussing dreams or premonitions or spirit encounters) is lifted, students are open to sharing fascinating stories and often write essays that exceed the assigned length because they have so much to say.
In the past, students have completed projects that involve original interviews and participant observation on a variety of topics that they can choose. Some examples include research with religious specialists, spiritual healers and spirit mediums/psychics and with followers of different belief systems.
Q. How can students apply what they learn in this course into the workforce?
A. Some of the skills the students gain in this course are increasingly sought after on the job market, from qualitative and ethnographic research skills to cultural and global competency.
The readings included for the course include research that is important for people entering many different fields, including psychology and public health. We have readings, for example, on how schizophrenia and sleep paralysis are experienced differently around the world and how this translates to different health outcomes.
The ability to understand how nonempirical beliefs and phenomena affect decision-making and behavior is also useful in education, city planning, conservation and much more.
— Interview by Horace Holloman