Madeleine Mant //

Tell me what the measurement is.

Tell me why the measurement is important.

Ask if it’s okay with me that you take this measurement.

I teach Laboratory Methods in Biological Anthropology, an undergraduate course divided into three units: dietary recall and analysis, anthropometry (measurements and proportions of the human body), and accelerometry (physical activity assessment). The class is designed to build upon the theoretical knowledge about human diversity gained in earlier anthropology courses and to use non-invasive field techniques to assess the impact of genetic, environmental, and cultural factors on human biology and health. This class demonstrates the critical importance of participant consent and confidentiality. Each year I reapply for ethics approval from the university and all students, teaching assistants, and I sign confidentiality wavers. We discuss the immense privilege associated with health research and complete a series of written reflections on the tools, the limitations, and the possibilities of such work.

In the anthropometry unit, students learn the practical skills of how to take weight and height, waist and upper arm circumference, and trifold skin thickness measures in accordance with best practices from the Centers for Disease Control (2007). These applied activities encourage deeper engagement than just how to negotiate someone’s head gently into the Frankfurt plane and how to determine landmarks for consistent measurements; students learn how to ensure informed consent has been confirmed. We practice what to do if a participant refuses a certain measure or if the equipment fails. We think through why someone might not consent and brainstorm how to make an anthropometric experience safe for all participants. Being near one another, making eye contact, asking permission to touch one another – this unit is inextricably wrapped up with themes of contact, touch, and clinical intimacy.

In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered classrooms worldwide, Laboratory Methods was interrupted by the university’s closure. I distinctly recall thanking my lucky stars that we had wrapped up the anthropometry unit just before the lockdown. I could conceive of how to operate a dietary recall interview via Zoom and knew that students could handle their own physical activity diaries. But what about the bodies?

In the in-person lab experience the teaching assistants and I peek over the shoulders of the students, helping them find landmarks, check alignments, and ultimately observe their observations. We assess their research set up, how they obtain informed consent for each measure, and their skill in taking consistent measurements. This year the students filmed their anthropometrics, balancing cell phones on furniture, swooping in to show landmarks with cinematographic gusto, and involving parents, siblings, and housemates as participants. While I had feared that the filming and physical distance between the students and the teaching team would make this exercise too difficult to assess, the necessity of making things clear for the camera in fact brought home the importance of consent in a new way.

Not only were the students explaining the measurements to their participants but making them clear to the teaching team as well, stating again and again what they were doing and why to ensure they fulfilled all aspects of the skills marking guide. Students scored just as high, if not higher, on this year’s skills test, I believe due to their awareness of making the consent clear to the distanced assessors. Watching the earnest videos created by my stalwart class, involving such repetition and clarity made me think more broadly about the course objectives themselves.

As an anthropologist of health, my research and teaching are situated at the intersection of biological and medical anthropological theory and methods. This nexus yields rewarding research questions and discussions in classes centering around the main focus: bodies through time. Physical bodies, political bodies, social bodies, private and public bodies – accessing and amplifying stories about the experiences of these bodies is the driving force in my academic life. This distanced experience emphasized how informed consent can and should be woven throughout learning exercises beyond these specific laboratory skills.

Foregrounding and revealing the pedagogical framework for students helps them scaffold their learning. Clearly explaining to the students what you plan to do and why it is important empowers them as partners in education. Checking in to ensure everyone understands a concept before moving on slows the pace and allows the group to catch their collective breath. Enabling the Zoom chat box and keeping an ongoing conversation with my students has yielded positive results; more students speak up in the chat than were willing to throw up their hands to ask a question in person. While for the moment we continue to maintain our physical distance, the relationships built in these virtual spaces can bridge the social and emotional gap. These ongoing conversations have encouraged me to check and check again, reminding me that teaching itself is a dialogue grounded in trust and consent.

Explain what we’re going to learn.

Help me understand why this is important.

Explain how you will support my learning.


US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (US CDC). 2007. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) Anthropometry Procedures Manual.


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