Honors faculty Angela Jenks

If you look inside the classroom today at UCI, you may see a very different type of learning going on than when you were a student. While many of us grew up with academic disciplines—we took courses in biology, history, or anthropology, for example, the Campuswide Honors Collegium’s Sustainable Societies track crosses these boundaries. This six-quarter course takes students on a journey where they examine the topic of sustainability writ large—from health-related research to urban planning—using the tools of many different disciplines.

Professor Angela Jenks, Associate Professor of Teaching and Director of Undergraduate Studies in UCI’s Department of Anthropology, co-teaches the first quarter of the course, and is a scholar in the interdisciplinary field of medical anthropology. She is particularly interested in pedagogy, and was recently recognized by UCI’s Academic Senate with a 2019-20 Early-Career Faculty Award for Teaching. She is also editor for the online open access journal “Teaching and Learning Anthropology.”

We chatted with her about medical anthropology and the Sustainable Societies course.

I would suspect that many of our readers are not familiar with medical anthropology. Can you tell us a little bit about the field and your research?

Professor Jenks: Medical anthropologists study disease, health, and healing from a sociocultural perspective. This may include cross-cultural studies of illness experiences, examinations of biomedicine and other medical systems, or a focus on the political and economic inequalities that affect the distribution of disease.

My research is especially focused on how biomedicine (the dominant health system in the US) is responding to health disparities by trying to improve the “cultural competence” of US health care. I’ve spent time observing activities at medical schools, managed care organizations, and hospitals to understand how physicians and others understand the significance of culture and race among patients.

Sustainable Societies uses case studies as one way to explore scientific inquiry. Why are case studies a good way for students to learn things like the scientific method and research design?

Professor Jenks: Scientific inquiry is often taught from a theoretical perspective that’s isolated from everyday practice, and case studies are a great way to bridge that divide. Professor Holton (my co-instructor) and I use case studies to illustrate how the scientific method we all learn about in school is much more complicated than it seems. We often think of science as an objective process, but it’s fundamentally a human endeavor, and it will always be affected by human biases, relationships, and power dynamics.

Is there a case study that in your experience students find particularly interesting?

Professor Jenks: I think students are especially interested in the case studies that are immediately relevant in their lives. For example, one case focused on antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are often taken for granted today, and we forget how much of modern medicine relies on them–antibiotics are critical to cancer treatment, organ transplants, major surgery, safe childbirth, and so much more. In class, we talked about how antibiotics work, how resistance develops, and barriers to developing new antibiotics (some of which are biological and some of which are political or economic). Students spent time brainstorming changes to our medical and food systems that could slow the development of resistance, and then discussed how we might actually advocate for those changes.

How do you hope that students will use their experience in Sustainable Societies in the future?

Professor Jenks: Many of the challenges that are discussed in Sustainable Societies are very complicated and can seem overwhelming. What can I, as just one person, do about growing antibiotic resistance, or global food insecurity, or climate change? I hope that when students leave Sustainable Societies, they’re able to see themselves as part of the solutions to major global problems.

What do you enjoy most about teaching an honors class? What sets honors students apart?

Teaching in the Campuswide Honors Collegium has been a wonderful experience, and I’ve enjoyed having a chance to work with students from so many different majors across the university. I learn so much from the diverse perspectives they bring to class. I also really appreciate the strong community the honors students have developed. They’re not just focused on individual success, they’re focused on supporting each other. That collective effort is necessary to address many of the challenges that are examined in the Sustainable Societies track.

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