It was the year 2003 when the performance of ritual first became the style of my classes on shamanism and healing. I had developed this style, even earlier, from Victor Turner’s old lecture classes between 1964 to 1968 on symbol, myth and ritual. Then, the performance of ritual took place in classes. The class, moreover, was patterned on the “rite of passage.” That is, the students gave their own presentations, followed by a liminal break outside when anything could be said. Finally, the reaggregation of the class took place with its own conclusions.

As we know, Victor Turner’s work on rites of passage was actually an introduction to connectedness itself.  Such moments have been called liminal time, or, the time that is no time, the place that is no place, a crack in the mirror. They evoke a release, the sense of the person without the structural trappings and without clock time. Turner himself often referred to Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” to give a sense of one’s unmediated relationship; or, in other terms, the power that flows in “communitas.” From here, we began to recognize that communitas as more than a good feeling but as positive threads of connectedness joining everybody at the time. In the classroom, an awareness of communitas allowed for an awareness of that vitality: the entry of real spirits.

So it was evident in 2003 that the students no longer needed cold description (eg, rote lecture) but the eager spirit itself. Anthropology had changed so much that this was possible. The students were going to rule themselves. They were to choose.

It was in this manner that the course Shamanism and Healing came into being. The academic work itself was and continues to be less a series of lectures by the teacher with a syllabus and more the selection made by the students from a number of books from which they may take turns to teach the rest of the class. This adds democracy and responsibility. Each one of them has their time at the forefront of the class. As for the organization of the meetings, some students help to chair the meetings or exchange chairs in the middle. The primary designated teacher is there to be no more than the “tree stem” around which the whole thing rises.

There is an accelerating effect in these classes. The more they learn from each other the more they want to teach each other. The students also have some of the soundest books in anthropology, Robert Desjarlais, Larry Peters, Paul Stoller, Vivieros de Castro, Stephen Friedson, George Mentore, Barbara Babcock, Carl Jung, Michael Harner, and Roy Wagner, for example. They discover the faculty of which we are all are aware but don’t think about very much.

Even more, students are given the chance to experience the shamanic spirit journey for themselves or enact other rituals they develop an interest in. They can lie on the floor to the sound of a drum. They will invite the coming of a power helper from above, or an animal helper from below, whichever is easier. Or the student may attempt to use healing hands to extract harmful intrusions from a class-mate in the manner of some people. Or they may find and replace the lost spirit of a sick or depressed or criticized person.

“We students can’t express how thankful we are,” a student said of this different kind of course.  Another added, “I want to say… this has historic potential. There is so much alienation in this whole mess. This kind of anthropology in hundreds of small ways has an influence that will make a better world. It is a sympathetic and compassionate anthropology.” The students remember such courses. They learn differently. A student concluded: “My eyes have been opened to a whole new world that I had not realized was there. I will forever cherish all that I have experienced.”

Kristen Ghodsee (kghodsee@bowdoin.edu) and Rose Wellman (rew3p@virginia.edu) are the contributing editors for SHA’s column.

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