Teaching biology, the body ‘through art’

Professor Hayes-Conroy teaches a geography and urban studies course about the human body.

When her geography and urban studies course started up this semester, Emily Lynch, along with many of her classmates, didn’t know what to expect.

“None of us had known exactly what was going to emerge,” said Lynch, a second-year geography and urban studies Ph.D. student. “We’re all like, ‘What’s this class about?’”

“It’s an experiment.”

Lynch is enrolled in “Bodies in Geography” and “Bodies Studio” I and II this semester, taught by Allison Hayes-Conroy, an assistant professor of geography and urban studies.The class helps students find new ways to think about the human body—more specifically, how the body is viewed through social and biological sciences.

“You can literally bring your physical body into an intellectual exercise,” Lynch said.

“One of the things I strive to do is to provide students with tools for questioning the framework that they’ve been taught to think with,” Hayes-Conroy said. “That could be interesting for anyone, because everyone has a body.”

The class merges two previously independent courses at Temple, the undergraduate course “Bodies in Geography” and the graduate courses “Bodies Studio” I and II. It’s open to both undergraduate and graduate students.

“‘Bodies in Geography’ has a bit more of a gear toward the question of, ‘What does social sciences have to offer?’” Hayes-Conroy said.  In the graduate course, “students will learn how to integrate life sciences and social sciences to understand the body.”

Because the class is about the body, the bodily experience of the class is really essential, Hayes-Conroy said. One of the challenges she faces is not having the right space to offer students.

“We all sit in chairs for two-and-a-half hours,” Hayes-Conroy said. “It doesn’t really teach us to pay attention to bodily needs and the knowledge of our own physical being.”

Hayes-Conroy requested movable chairs for her class, and she encourages students to sit on the floor.

“Every human body has different capacities and parameters,” Lynch said. “It drives me crazy that our learning environment isn’t supportive of all types of learning.”

The course also incorporates art as a way to think about the body.

“The focus is on intellectual brainwork, so we tend to move out of the brain and into art,” Lynch said.

For a guest speaker, Hayes-Conroy frequently brings in Caryn Babaian, an artistic consultant and professor at Bucks County Community College with a passion for studying bodies.

Earlier in the semester, Babaian asked the students to draw their own bodies using only one straight line—a challenging task for most of the students.

“She was playing with different ideas about the boundaries of body, and where the body begins and ends,” Hayes-Conroy said. “Think about it from a biosocial perspective, it becomes fuzzy very quickly. The environment is constantly entering and exiting in our bodies.”

“That was really fascinating, but really hard,” Lynch said.

Babaian also had the students draw the body deconstructed to inspire students to think about connectedness and disconnectedness as it relates to the human body.

“It’s teaching biology through art,” Hayes-Conroy said. “It’s a very unique approach.”

As part of the class, students will come up with exhibits that will be shown at the Franklin Institute. They can be anything from a poster to an interactive video, and they will aim to help viewers come away with a greater understanding of the unknown as it pertains to the body.

“Students are searching for those fuzzy moments between the biological and the social, and picking a very particular small piece of the puzzle,” Hayes-Conroy said.

In the next few years, Hayes-Conroy hopes to continue offering interesting opportunities for students in this class.

“We might get a colleague of mine who is trained in dance to come in and teach us some things about our own bodies and the way that they move in ways we don’t think about,” she said.

Lynch loves the class so much she said one of her main challenges is to get the most  out of the class before it’s over.

“If you’re dissatisfied with definitions and rigid answers that don’t encompass broader social questions, this is the class where you’re free to talk out loud about how things are connected,” Lynch added. “The structure of the class is an experiment to shift the form of education to enable and encourage a different kind of functionality for students.”

“We all have bodies,” Hayes-Conroy said. “They’re interesting.”

Tsipora Hacker can be reached at tsipora.hacker@temple.edu.

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