Small Moments of Change: Medical Humanities

By Katherine Miller, CHASS Dean’s Office Student Intern

October 30, 2015

Soldier's Facial WoundWith the introduction of consistent and effective medical practices in the 1900s patients lived longer, healthier lives. But with the onset of WWI, medical staff encountered a new challenge: patients who survived the trauma of face mutilation but were unable to look at themselves in a mirror. Doctor and academy trained artist Henry Tonks found a solution in using watercolors to paint new representations of his patients. Through his art he was able to create beautiful, touching renditions of their disfigurements, and his patients were able to look at themselves for the first time.

Dr. Jeanette Kohl uses this historic example to show how the humanities can foster human connection. Professor Kohl—Chair of the Art History Department at UCR, and passionate art historian with an interest in the history of the body as well as Renaissance portraiture and sculpture—supports creating more inclusive programs linking the humanities and sciences. Last December she organized “Vesalius and His Worlds: Medical Illustrations during the Renaissances” at The Huntington. She explains how this conference brought together people who were interested in the subject from a collecting point of view, a visual point of view, and an academic point of view. “It was an interdisciplinary venture,” she says. From her work, Kohl recognizes that the human experience is a mix of the humanities and sciences. And, as someone who understands the interdisciplinary nature of the Renaissance, she believes that “in times where there are massive attempts to restructure undergraduate studies, the Renaissance is a paradigm. It did not have boundaries between arts and sciences.” She presents the collaboration between art and science as a more “holistic view of man.”

By viewing the human experience as equal parts humanities and science, the movement toward offering an academic setting that supports cross-discipline ventures certainly acknowledges said holistic view. This approach can also provide students with academic diversity. “Ideally,” Kohl says, “this[shift] is for undergraduate students to have a diverse array of memorable teaching experiences that go far beyond traditional.” Furthermore, she thinks conventional methods may be outdated and incorporating cross-discipline programs can “diversify students’ interests at a very early stage in their career.”

Kohl believes that for the humanities to successfully collaborate with the sciences, it falls on the people who teach to “make it come to life.” This is where Assistant Professor Goldberry Long enters the conversation. A celebrated professor in UCR’s Creative Writing Department, Long is part of the on-campus project spearheading Medical Humanities. Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project—titled “Narrative in Tandem: Creating New Medical and Health Humanities Programs”—was created parallel to the new School of Medicine at UCR.

The first new public medical school to open in California in forty years, UCR’s School of Medicine presents a perfect platform to introduce new methods of collaborative teaching. Professor Long is taking an interdisciplinary approach. She admits to taking crash courses in medical jargon to better acquaint herself with the new field in which she is working. “It is a challenge for me as a teacher to figure out how to speak their language in a way that feels relevant to them.” Long is indeed developing methods of translation. While she admits the process can be difficult, she is discovering ways of merging her understanding of story with a more scientific narrative.

Professor Long believes that narrative is just as present in the medical sciences as it is in the humanities, and borrowing processes from the humanities can build stronger human connections in the field of medicine. “The humanities,” says Long, “can help students be better at hearing the stories that their patients are telling them, and can help medical students consider the stories that they are telling themselves about their patients.” To help her students understand this process, she asks them to work on metacognition. She wants her students to understand that thinking about the way they think can help them recognize cognitive error. While she believes in her project, she is also aware of the difficult demands placed on medical students. The incredibly structured schedule of medical school leaves little time for additional work such as reflective writing. Knowing this, she sees change happening on an incremental level. Medical Humanities is an innovative approach to redefining how medical programs function and, Goldberry believes, will happen in “small moments of change.”

To understand that story and human connection do not end with the humanities, Professor Goldberry Long and Dr. Jeanette Kohl are working hard to recognize the importance of the narratives we create. The stories of who we are extend to all aspects of life—including the sciences, within and beyond academia.




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