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Teaching through the body (c.f. Mauss)

12 October, 2009

My little brother just started medical school (golly!  I still remember changing his diaper!) and he has been telling me about some of his most exciting lectures.  I asked him to tell me more about what he thought made for a great lecture, because I’m always trying to figure out how to improve my own lecturing skills, and here’s a little anecdote he told me:

[One teacher] gave us a great series of lectures on the pelvis.  He got a round of applause for his demonstration of the female perineum.  He had one student squat down on the ground, representing the bladder.  Another student stood just behind him in a ski-jumper position, representing the uterus with his bent over body body and the ovaries with his backwards-protruding and slightly drooping hands.  The teacher then stood behind both of them and thrust his hands up into the air exclaiming: “I am the rectum!”  I will never forget the relative position of the female pelvic organs.

A couple of things strike me about this.  First of all, it demonstrates the wisdom of some advice I once got from a great teaching mentor, Larry Rosen, which is that you direct your humor against yourself, not students.  This teacher didn’t make a student be the rectum; he took that role on himself.

Second, it’s amazing how memorable you can make something by teaching through embodied experiences.  I try to do this in my own classes by getting the students physically involved in lecture concepts — for a lecture on the placebo effect, for example, I do a blind wine tasting of red and white wines at room temperature to make the point that our sensory experiences are heavily influenced by our expectations.

However, I’m not sure whether the reason this bodily demonstration of the female pelvic organs was so memorable just because it entailed bodily movement or if it’s because it was so unexpected, unusual, and humorous.  I mean, if medical lecturers regularly demonstrated the positions of organs in the body by having students contort themselves, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so memorable.  Maybe it’s the novelty and the humorous unexpectedness of your lecturer shouting “I am the rectum!” that is the real trick to this effective demonstration.

It never occurred to me to use physical demonstrations like this to illustrate physiological processes, but I’m going to have to try this next year in Drugs Across Cultures after the lecture on brain neurology and addiction.  So many students get confused about how neurotransmitters work, and I don’t think it helps much that I find it confusing, too, despite the heroic efforts of our psychologist guest lecturer to explain this with pretty colored diagrams.  Next year I think I’ll get her to direct a bunch of students to play the roles of drug molecules and neurons and neurotransmitters and act it out.  “I am cocaine!”

–L.L. Wynn

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Piper permalink
    12 October, 2009 10:41 pm

    You may be interested in Calvin Trillin’s essay “The Red and the White”, on the myths surrounding the possibility of distinguishing red wine from white. It was published in the 19 August 2002 issue of The New Yorker, and was reprinted in his collection “Feeding a Yen.”

    Trillin’s own little experiments suggest that an experienced wine drinker can in fact distinguish reds from white 70% of the time — and can do better or worse with specific whites and reds.

  2. Angela J. permalink
    13 October, 2009 2:10 am

    I had surprisingly good success earlier this semester by having students come up and act out protein synthesis (in a Biological Anthro class). I assigned each of them a base, and they lined up as DNA, mRNA, and tRNA.

    I hadn’t planned it and was just improvising when they were confused, but it helped them make sense of the process so well that I’m going to definitely include a more structured version next semester.

  3. 13 October, 2009 6:31 am

    Hi Barbara, thanks! It’s actually Trillin’s essay that inspired this taste-test experiment in class, and I used his article to figure out which white and red to use to make it harder to distinguish the two.

  4. jonathan tanis permalink
    13 October, 2009 2:22 pm

    In 2007 there was a study where researchers hooked subjects up to an fMRI machine and gave them blind taste-tests. All the wine was the same, but they were told varying amounts for the supposed price of the bottle they were drinking from. Not only did subjective reports of how good the wine tasted correlate with the false prices, but so did activity in the pleasure centers of the brain.

    Just more proof about expectations determining sensory experience, but its nice to get confirmation from the neuroscience end.

  5. Barbara Piper permalink
    13 October, 2009 8:21 pm

    Jonathan: that’s a great reference, and should be read in conjunction with work such as Joe Dumit’s “Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity.” Interpreting what MRIs “mean” or what various portions of the brain actually signal, can be as subjective as the taste of the wine, it seems. Even the authors of the study you cite acknowledge that all their MRI might be showing is that people like ‘spending’ more money (e.g. by drinking what they believe is a more expensive wine), not necessarily that their brains liked the expensive wine better. The subjective report of greater “flavor pleasantness” strikes me as significant, however, and is something that we can all duplicate in classes. Assuming, here in the States, that all of the students are at least 21…. And sign a waiver. And we have permission from the college Alcohol Board to serve it. And… oh, never mind.

  6. 3 February, 2010 11:02 pm

    I had a first year biology lecturer who used his belly to pretend he was an Amoeba eating a pencil off his desk — it’s amazing how malleable the skin of a large man’s belly can be. We all especially liked the part where the pencil disappeared somewhere deep into the cell of the Amoeba…

    I have some great embodied lecturing scenarios for the Action Potential, axon terminal and neurotransmitters by the way…

  7. L.L. Wynn permalink
    9 February, 2010 9:55 am

    Paul, the amoeba belly thing is hilarious. I often entertain my children by making my belly engulf parts of their hands. It’s amazing how malleable the skin of someone who has had 2 children can be…

    Tell me about your neurotransmitter embodied learning scenarios!


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