Environmental Anthropology and Interdisciplinary Teaching

Gerda Kuiper and Hauke-Peter Vehrs, University of Cologne

On 12 December 2019, we gave a “Pecha Kucha”-talk at the Inaugural Meeting of the EASA Environment and Anthropology Network (Enviroant) in Cologne. We here summarize our talk, as food for thought for lecturers and students of interdisciplinary courses related to environmental anthropology.

We wish to underscore the great potential of such classes for making environmental anthropology more visible and relevant, and furthermore create some awareness of potential opportunities and pitfalls that come along with interdisciplinary teaching.

We both taught courses in an anthropology module that is shared between two different international and interdisciplinary master programs, the M.A. Culture and Environment in Africa and the International Master of Environmental Sciences, an M.Sc.-program. The courses focused on human-environment relations and on hazards, vulnerability, resilience and risk.

Students in such interdisciplinary programs have various disciplinary backgrounds and come from different university systems, forming a highly diverse group. This diversity offers great opportunities, but also poses some challenges. The students can on the one hand be more knowledgeable on specific topics than the lecturer (in our case for instance with regard to environmental law and international treaties), but they on the other hand sometimes know less than the lecturer would expect on the basis of disciplinary conventions (in this case conventions in social and cultural anthropology).

One example is the ability to read anthropological texts. Reading is self-evident in our discipline but not in some of the disciplines that our students came from. One student for instance wrote on the evaluation form: “The theoretical readings were rather complex for me as a student with a natural science background.”

Another example is paper writing: the lecturer needs to dedicate part of the class to teaching methodology and academic writing, something that students in a disciplinary master are expected to know already. We unfortunately experienced several times that students – especially those coming from the natural sciences – dropped out of class because they did not know how to go about the paper.

We would not assume that this was because of students lacking motivation, but rather because they felt unable to reach the requirements to pass the course. This experience therefore also points to a particular problem for the lecturers, namely the assignment of exercises and the evaluation of this study work.

The diversity of the students’ knowledge and their different ways of working cannot be addressed with rigid forms of examination, yet uniformity is required by universities’ examination regulations.

Interdisciplinary courses create a space for new ways of thinking

However, interdisciplinary teaching also provides opportunities. From the lecturer’s point of view, we think that there are more possibilities for a shared learning process between lecturer and students than in disciplinary courses. Furthermore, the different disciplinary backgrounds in the student’s group also offer possibilities for peer learning, if guided by the lecturer and supported by transparent learning structures.

An advantage for both lecturers and students is that interdisciplinary courses create a space for new ways of thinking. Another quote from an evaluation form can illustrate this advantage: “While the topics were not difficult in terms of definition, I learned rather about their application in the real world. (…) They made me think!”

Finally, for many students interdisciplinary courses can open up new perspectives on topics or concepts they were already familiar with, especially when they are obliged to actively make use of these concepts themselves in class exercises and paper writing. One student stated the course provided a new vocabulary. Another wrote: “(…) understanding the concepts from an anthropological perspective is a crucial step to understanding many interdisciplinary problems facing the world.”

For students, the interdisciplinary setting of the courses in combination with the disciplinary focus in anthropology was often challenging. To deal with both, the realisation and awareness of interdisciplinarity, and at the same time the empathy for the disciplinary particularities, is far from easy. On the other hand, moving away from generalizations and abstraction towards these particularities, was also perceived to be one of the great strengths of the courses. The anthropological approach can make students attentive to local processes, diverting them from their typical focus on global problems and solutions.

It was very rewarding for us as lecturers to teach these courses. From our point of view, it was highly beneficial to deal with global challenges and abstract perspectives rather than with our own local research contexts. Furthermore, we got the impression that teaching interdisciplinary courses also makes the work of anthropologists more visible and perhaps also more credible within and beyond the wider academic community.

Many of the students we taught have moved on to become environmental practitioners and development workers and we therefore think teaching in an interdisciplinary setting is an important way for environmental anthropologists to contribute to more openness to a variety of worldviews and contradicting concepts in policy practices. We also think that the peer learning processes, the awareness of one’s own limited knowledge, and the fruitful engagement with other disciplines might help students to deal critically and constructively with the problems they will encounter in their working lives and make them recognize the advantages of good teamwork.

Gerda Kuiper is an engaged and enthusiastic cultural anthropologist with a strong interest in East-Africa, experience with interdisciplinary collaborations and expertise in the fields of economic anthropology (including the topic of globalization), migration studies and gender studies. 

Hauke-Peter VEHRS | Postdoctoral Researcher | Mag.rer.soc.oec. | University  of Cologne, Köln | UOC | Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology

Hauke-Peter Vehrs is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cologne, in the DFG-funded Collaborative Research Centre 228: Future Rural Africa. He is interested in human-environment relations, pastoral livelihoods, imaginations of the future, sensual anthropology, multispecies ethnography, and cognitive methods.

Photograph by Nick Fithen via Unsplash.