‘Rites of Passage’ Class Takes on a Healing Role

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Amid a pandemic, the course explores the anthropology, psychology of life’s milestones.

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Associate Professor Sienna Craig and Assistant Professor Manish Mishra teach a course on rites of passage.
Associate Professor Sienna Craig and Assistant Professor Manish Mishra teach a course on rites of passage.
6/04/2020
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“Rites of Passage: The Biology, Psychology, and Culture of Life’s Transitions,” co-taught by Sienna Craig, associate professor of anthropology, and Manish Mishra, MED ’05, Geisel ’08, an assistant professor at the Geisel School of Medicine, became its own rite of passage as faculty and students grappled with the disruption of the global pandemic and the sudden shift to remote learning.

The anthropology class, supported through the dean of the faculty’s Innovative Course Fund, was designed to explore rites of passage—weddings, funerals, coming of age ceremonies, graduations—with a focus on the interplay between anthropology and psychology. In addition to coursework and discussions on how life’s transitions are marked in cultures around the world, teams of two students were to be connected with senior community partners from the Upper Valley to learn, through in-person meetings and ethnographic interviews, about the milestone moments in their lives.

Then COVID-19 necessitated the move to remote learning, the meetings with senior partners shifted to one-on-one Zoom conversations, and many personal rites of passage for Dartmouth students, most notably a commencement ceremony on the Green this year, were canceled.

With many students from the Class of 2020 in the course, the theme of graduation became a touchstone in class discussions. “One of the things we continued to circle back to was graduation and what happens when an anticipated rite can’t occur, or occurs in a different way,” Craig says. “How does that change the experience? How does that make you think about the value of the experience, and why we, as human beings, create these ritual moments in our lives?”

Craig and Mishra saw an opportunity to both illustrate the significance of rites of passage and allow students a chance to talk about how the disruption brought on by COVID-19 affected them.

“We realigned the course structure to allow individual students and their senior community partners to spend a lot of time with each other. We tried to leverage the transition to Zoom into an advantage,” Mishra says.

In addition to weekly meetings with seniors, students were also clustered into reading circles that met in small break-out rooms though Zoom once a week, where they talked about the readings and shared what they were going though, and later journaled about their thoughts in a document they shared with their professors.

“A lot of this links to what’s occurring now in real time,” Mishra says. “This COVID response challenged what we assumed to be true, and what we carried in terms of expectations. So they actually processed quite a bit amongst themselves.”

Connecting With Upper Valley Seniors

Having to connect remotely for weekly conversations with senior community partners also fostered many meaningful bonds, Craig and Mishra say.

“With this loss of being able to share a space together comes opportunity,” Mishra says. “We thought, we have a chance to connect seniors who are feeling isolated in the Upper Valley with students, who were asked to leave the Upper Valley and are missing it.”

Claire Dougherty ’20 and her community partner, Judy Carmasin, agree that, although they have never met in person, the connection they’ve made during their weekly Zoom conversations has provided support and solace during a stressful time.

Dougherty, a geography major with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic, was quarantined when her classmates were leaving campus at the start of the COVID crisis. She did not contract the virus, but could not travel home, so she is social distancing in her off-campus apartment.

Dougherty says talking with Carmasin, who has lived a long and eventful life, from protesting the Vietnam war to owning a Vermont bed and breakfast to working at the Hanover Inn, has given her perspective.

“It’s difficult to be in Hanover and to have the College not be what it once was for us—to lose commencement but also to lose all of your senior spring and all of those goodbyes,” Dougherty says. “But it was so refreshing to talk to Judy and see how much longer life is than it feels right now in this moment.”

Carmasin says helping Claire put the present loss in perspective was uplifting for her, as well. Carmasin recalled, for example, that she didn’t care about commencement when she graduated from Boston University, but she agreed to walk in the ceremony because it meant a lot to her parents, both Holocaust survivors who left everything behind to come to America.

Isolated at home and unable to return to work as a host at Pine Restaurant because of the virus, Carmasin says Dougherty also helped her cope with stress and fear. 

“I think talking to Claire gave me a kind of escape in trying to see it more through her eyes than through mine. She’s accepting and disappointed at the same time, and I think what we both came to celebrate how resourceful people have been. We’re not out of this yet, but there’s hope. If her generation is similar to Claire, I feel very positive about the future.”

Surviving and Thriving Remotely

That the students and senior community partners found the class therapeutic is no accident, says Craig. “The underlying framework for the class is to help students understand what we call a bio-psycho-social model of human experience. We’re drawing on the elements of our human biology, but also the ways that psychology, culture, and the social frameworks in which we live shape who we are, what rights are important, and why.”

This bio-psycho-social model is also an important way of thinking about medicine, says Craig, whose research focuses, in part, on healing across cultures. Both instructors say they were gratified to see that this academic mission was not only maintained, despite the sudden shift to remote learning, but in some ways enhanced.

“Thinking about rites of passage from the individual-focused perspectives offered by psychology and the cultural, political, and socioeconomic perspectives of anthropology, and having that interplay manifest in the context of remote learning in the Zoomiverse, has been very meaningful for our students and senior community partners,” Manish says. “It’s been a joy to see that unfold organically.”

For the latest information on Dartmouth’s response to the pandemic, visit the COVID-19 website.

William Platt can be reached at william.c.platt@dartmouth.edu.