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Teaching is the Greatest Act of Optimism

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
Heather's favorite class of the year. 50 WIU freshman taking yoga. 12 years and counting.

I keep a quote from Mark Van Doren pinned to a bulletin board in my office.  It reads: "The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery."  At this point in the semester, up to my neck with papers to grade, I look at this often to remind myself why I assign so much work.  

As an educator and anthropologist, I feel obligated to give my students the tools they need to succeed in life. The skills associated with fieldwork are on the top of my list, because one of the unanticipated lessons of fieldwork is learning how to note the patterns around you and “proceed with confidence” into what may seem like chaos.

I love doing fieldwork. I chalk this up to my first fieldwork experience in the 1980s, as an exchange student in West Germany. During that year, I mastered a new language, learned how to navigate a different culture, and failed spectacularly at harvesting cucumbers alongside migrant laborers from Poland and Turkey—all while figuring out how the payphone and Ubahn system worked. Each day I had no idea what was going to happen next.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

While for some the sense of not knowing what is around the corner is disconcerting, I found these liminal experiences have benefited my ability to gracefully deal with the chaos of everyday life. Looking back on the journals I kept that year, I see an untrained anthropologist seeking explanations for the differences between my life in rural southern Ohio and northern Germany. More importantly, the skills of observation and pattern recognition I acquired have shaped the way in which I see and move in the world today.

Many of my students are first generation college students. For them, coming to college is as foreign as moving to another country. In order to succeed, it is essential that they learn how to adapt quickly and effectively to their new environment.

And while it is a bit unorthodox to take students to the field without the standard theory and methods prerequisites, I expose my students to fieldwork whenever possible. One way I do this it to take all of the first-year students I teach in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology classes to the field.  

I used to literally take my students to the farm fields surrounding WIU.  However, shrinking budgets, and my own selfish desire to expose students to the benefits of an ancient practice that brings together mind and body, led me to take my students to a different type of field for the last eight years—the yoga studio. During one 75-minute session, students immerse themselves in a yoga class at the WIU Rec Center.

For many, this experience is just as alien as visiting a farm.  As with any fieldwork, students take notes. I provide them with a set of three questions about themselves as the anthropological observer, to answer both before and after the practice. I am honest and tell them that I would love for them to experience the benefits of yoga, but remind them that as scientists their job is to record the data. If they are unable to observe any positive changes, then their task as anthropologists is to write with all honesty what they observe.

The excursion to the yoga studio is part of a larger component on medical anthropology that I cover during the semester. Their observations are incorporated into the very research papers I am grading right now, comparing and contrasting Western medical remedies to yogic healing methods for specific ailments.

While grading papers can be tedious, these essays never cease to amaze me, as students demonstrate time and time again their ability to note patterns and make remarkable observations about health. Perhaps more importantly, the following quote confirms fieldwork as a path to self-discovery and reflective inquiry as students’ grow into themselves:

“In my personal experience with yoga, in class at the recreation center and otherwise, I have come to believe that it can be immensely beneficial to both physical and mental/emotional health. Going into class on Thursday I was thoroughly exhausted, anxious, depressed, irritated and overwhelmed in general. Following class, I continued to feel tired, but I felt much less physically tense than I had felt going into class. My anxiety, depression, and sense of overwhelmedness did not magically disappear, but they did seem to decrease a tangible amount….I believe that yoga can be incredibly beneficial to all aspects of health when practiced correctly. One of the most important things yoga teaches its students is to listen to your body, only do what is comfortable for you...If you are not paying attention to what your body is telling you, there is no way you are fulfilling all of your personal health needs.”

What students gain from fieldwork, whether it is in the corn field or the yoga studio, is the ability to recognize and identify patterns in their own lives, from the choices they make about what to eat, to how they treat what ails them. They learn to be more mindful and aware of the world around them. Fieldwork of any kind provides student with the tools needed and enables them to “proceed with confidence” into the chaos, that is everyday life.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.