My family was never in such need for a story than in August 2014. That month, my mother was diagnosed with a rare sarcoma—i.e. a disease with relatively little research, little funding and little press. Our instinctive coping method was intense inquiry: Googling any blog, support group page, research website and Facebook group that may have some or any words to lessen our uncertainty.
Five years later we still have surplus of uncertainty; not the shocking sort it was in those early years, but a kind of numbing acceptance. The acceptance that what is “normal” for body and mind is inherently off-center. The acceptance of the persistent chemo and scans, the inability to be away from a hospital for more than a week, the daily precautions and fear and depression and the punctuated epiphany when one remembers “Wow, this has been life for five years.”
But within those five years, I’ve been able to apply my social sciences and humanities education in the classroom, The James and my home. Sophomore year, I took English courses titled The Disability Experience in the Contemporary World and Narrative and Medicine. These classes allowed me to better understand the different participants interacting with and representing disability and medical perspectives. A year later I was able to apply this understanding to my Health Economics course, where I learned the unique and complex role storytelling—with its uncertainty of information—plays in healthcare markets.
Obviously, Ohio State, specifically the Department of English, figured out what critical role narrative plays within medicine well before I did. And being one of the earliest institutions to embrace the humanities and social sciences as part of comprehensive medical research and care, the university has gained national recognition for spearheading this interdisciplinary collaboration. So much that in the May 2019 issue of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America, featured the Ohio State Department of English and our unique approach to medical humanities.
PMLA Editor Wai Chee Dimock, Professor of English at Yale University, praises the breadth of offerings and collaboration Ohio State has for students interested in medical humanities, social sciences and disability studies.
“The founding insight [at Ohio State] is that ‘the patient is more than just a list of symptoms and test results.’ At OSU, that insight leads to three linked initiatives operating through three institutional entities,” says Dimock as she quotes University Distinguished Professor James Phelan, one of the leading scholars in Ohio State’s interdisciplinary humanities approach to medicine.
“Ohio State is distinctive in its approach to the medical humanities because it has high-quality faculty across the disciplines, and it attracts students from all over the university. In that way, it is a truly interdisciplinary program that provides multiple valuable lenses on health, wellness and medicine.”
These entities that Dimock describes include the minor in Medical Humanities and the MA in Medical Humanities and Social Sciences, both housed in the Department of English, as well as the elective Literature for Physicians: From the Page to the Bedside offered by Ohio State’s College of Medicine and co-taught by Phelan and medical doctor Erin McConnell.
For undergraduates, the department offers the minor in Medical Humanities: a 15-credit hour interdisciplinary minor that ties together the scientific knowledge of the body and illness with social and cultural perspectives. Undergraduates from a variety of majors who pursue this minor can take courses in anthropology, classics, health and rehab science and public health, among other disciplines, to hone their skills of listening, storytelling and analyzing so to apply those skills in medical contexts.
Narrative and Medicine, taught by Phelan and Professor Jared Gardner, is one of the core courses for the minor as well as a General Education elective, therefore garnering an even more diverse group of majors. Phelan says that since their start, Narrative Medicine and the medical humanities minor have appealed to students wanting to see how a humanities perspective applies to what we typically think of as scientific matters, such as what happens with the body of mind when it breaks down, and how should medical practitioners respond?
“One bedrock principle of the course is that illness and treatment are always mediated through storytelling, and one of our mantras is 'narrative competence enhances medical competence,'” says Phelan.
Graduate students can dissect this mantra even further through the MA in Medical Humanities and Social Sciences. Like the minor in Medical Humanities, the MA brings multiple disciplines together for students to study how a humanistic perspective allows for a more comprehensive study and practice of medicine.
The core class for the MA program is Introduction to Graduate Study in Medical Humanities and Social Science. This graduate course investigates the nature of medical inquiry as something beyond a science—it is a cultural practice as well.
“Ohio State is distinctive in its approach to the medical humanities because it has high-quality faculty across the disciplines, and it attracts students from all over the university. In that way, it is a truly interdisciplinary program that provides multiple valuable lenses on health, wellness and medicine,” says Phelan.
Additionally, the editor’s column discusses how Ohio State’s medical humanities initiatives have a strong partnership between its medical humanities and Disability Studies Program, most notably through the 2017 conference Medicine, Narrative, Disability, Rhetoric ColLABoratory. This event fostered discussions among scholars, researchers, practitioners and activists across disciplines and aimed to inspire future collaborations founded in medicine, narrative, disability and rhetoric.
Since this pivotal collaboration event, the Department of English has continued to lead the nation in improving health services through humanities-centered approaches. One of the major initiatives in this area is the Building Healthcare Collectives (BHC) project. Led by research teams at Ohio State and Michigan State University, BHC unites interdisciplinary research teams concentrated on “shared decision-making, preventative care and a focus on health disparities due to social, economic and environmental factors” (Building Healthcare Collectives). BHC is supported by a three-year $140,000 grant from Humanities Without Walls, enabling cross-institutional collaboration between Ohio State and 14 other research universities throughout the Midwest and beyond.
In a 2018 article announcing that Associate Professors Christa Teston, Margaret Price and John Jones had received the HWW grant for the project, Price praised the English department for its unique and constant support that allows for groundbreaking collaboration and research across the humanities and sciences.
“The Ohio State’s Department of English is unusual in that it houses several scholars in medical rhetoric, disability rhetoric and narrative medicine,” says Price. “We are thrilled that this grant will enable us to continue capitalizing on that strength, especially in mentoring students and creating interdisciplinary opportunities for leading-edge scholarship and activism.”
Beyond this accolade of being nationally-recognized as a leading institution for collaborative humanities health initiatives, Ohio State's medical humanities and disability studies programs have an important local impact. I remember sitting in my Disability Experience in the Contemporary World and Narrative and Medicine classes, listening to fellow students share their own stories of health uncertainty. For some, these classes are scholarly outlets for their personal pain. For others, the classes offer philosophical discussion about life and mortality—subjects often too overwhelming or unsatisfying to be left alone thinking about. And for many, they reassure students that language—that theoretical and abstract thing that drives emotions and relationships—has a pivotal practicality that help us understand what's inexplicable for the body.