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“Care Is Not a Solitary Activity”

Atlas CareMaps featured heavily in Anthro 108 “Medical Anthropology” taught by my friend Professor Jan English-Lueck at San Jose State University this fall. As described in the syllabus, “this course is a comprehensive examination of culture, sickness and healing in a cross-cultural perspective, emphasizing ecological/evolutionary bases of disease and healing and cultural dimensions of health in the modern world.” Students were expected to understand the subject not just from reading and discussing academic publications, but to examine their own lives, and so several classes and assignments were focused around CareMaps.

Jan invited me to lead two classes to show the work of Atlas of Caregiving and to teach the students how to draw Atlas CareMaps. I also led them in self-reflection. Additionally, students read the works of Annemarie Mol, a Dutch anthropologist who has broadened and deepened scholars’ understanding of care. Mol describes how care workers include health practitioners, but they also include farmers, chefs, and designers. They also read Jan’s Being and Wellbeing: Health and the Working Bodies of Silicon Valley, and discussed the case studies in that book.

Some weeks after my guest lectures, Jan had the students work in pairs to share their CareMaps with each other so that they could learn about each other’s lives. Jan also asked each student to interview one person in their CareMap, to get that person’s perspective on the situation. Finally, she asked them to draw “CareMap v2”, a revised version based on what they had learned and observed through these activities.

For their final exam, the sixteen students had to give a five-minute presentation showing their CareMaps and talking about what they had learned about their lives and their thoughts for their future.

As I sat and listened to them, I was struck by the diversity of their lives, their willingness to be so open and vulnerable with their classmates, and by the importance, to them personally, of what they had learned.

Here are some highlights from their presentations:

  • Anna* described a very large extended family, with many similarly-aged cousins, who had drifted apart as they grew older. She wondered whether the same would happen with her own sisters. They are very close today, but as they have their own families will they also drift apart?
  • Steve described the traumatic impact on his family when a grandmother, who had been the emotional heart of the family, passed away. Without her to keep everyone together, there was much less care going on, though Steve realized his father had tried to take on more responsibility.
  • Linda included restaurants in her second CareMap, having become aware that that is where she has the richest conversations with her family and friends.
  • Both Maria and Walt spoke about the tremendous impact of the care provided by their “Big Sis” and “Big Bro” (in their sorority and fraternity respectively), the most important relationships in their lives.
  • Jennifer told a story about how care shows up in the mundane acts we do for those we love.
  • Sam had initially drawn a brother as being on the periphery, not central to her life, but circumstances caused her to see how much she cared about him, and that she needed to step up as his big sister. She captured this with the phrase “relationships in the periphery … reimagined”.
  • John leads a D&D group (the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons), and described how two members of this group, a mother and daughter, don’t get along otherwise but are able to enjoy the shared experience of playing D&D. Playing D&D together is a way for them to care for each other.

*All names have been changed.

Waiting in the hallway before the start of class, I overheard one of the students say that this was “the easiest final. All you have to do is talk about your family.” The hard work had come earlier; looking carefully at one’s life isn’t always easy.

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