It’s strange to think that I attended and presented at my first conference two years ago to date; I have fond memories of that WMU Medical Humanities Conference as being one of my best presentations yet. This year, I was excited to return to talk about my illness narrative class, Grand Rounds: Exploring the Literary Symptoms of Illness through Narrative, and to discuss the role of illness narratives in pre-health education.
I love medical school, don’t get me wrong, but I miss this. It was so refreshing to have a conversation with humanities enthusiasts about the great educational impact of illness narratives, both from literary and medical perspectives and when considered at various stages in one’s career. It’s been a while since I’ve been so immersed in dialogue about illness narratives, so I enjoyed delving back into it and reflecting on how they’ve got me to where I am today.
It was nice to see some familiar faces in the crowd and to have a diverse group of people, most from humanities backgrounds but everyone with some interest in illness narratives and/or medical education. I decided to structure the session as an interactive discussion since I had more time, which was a bit unconventional at this lecture-based conference. But I think that as a group, we were able to further develop many of our personal thoughts and ideas regarding illness narratives as well as engage and interact with each other more, which I know that I found to be a rewarding and illuminating experience.
WMU lesson plan-Introducing Illness Narratives in Pre-Health Education
WMU Medical Humanities- Grand Rounds
Round two in Iowa City has already been a blast!
I enjoyed stepping outside of the medical school world and back into my literature/medicine enthusiast role at The Examined Life conference, where I led a discussion forum about “Introducing Illness Narratives in Pre-Health Education.” I shared some background about the undergraduate class that I taught, Grand Rounds: Exploring the Literary Symptoms through Narrative, and led a discussion about the broader implications of such a course in pre-health education.
It was exciting and less anxiety-provoking than I anticipated to lead the session. The room was less than ideal, for it was more of a lecture setting that a discussion room, but we made the most of it by moving towards the center of the room and engaging in both small and large group discussions.
One comment in my session particularly stood out to me when someone challenged the very label “illness narratives”; instead, he suggested that if health really is a spectrum, they should be called “health narratives.” I found this to be an especially powerful point that questions how our own terminology may impact and “other” our perception of these narratives and people. If only changing such labels were as simple.
As always, I was struck by the diverse range of people that this conference attracts and the many personal experiences that have led people here. Special thanks to all who participated in my discussion, and I’m looking forward to taking a step back and enjoying the rest of the conference!
Grand Rounds: Course Overview
TEL-Grand Rounds overview final
“There is art to medicine as well as science.” -Hippocratic Oath
I find myself thinking about this quote a lot throughout medical school. It reminds me of what initially fascinated me about medicine. While following the pre-medical track lends itself to a scientific foundation for medicine, my non-traditional experiences illuminated the art of medicine to me.
Last year, I found my place at The Examined Life: Writing, Humanities, and the Art of Medicine conference. I was excited to be surrounded by so many other people interested and actively working at the intersections of literature and medicine. These are people who are passionate about all things related to healing and medicine, reading and writing, learning and educating. And I am thrilled to have the opportunity to attend this conference once again, one week from today.
Last year, around this time, I was teaching a mini-course called Grand Rounds: Exploring the Literary Symptoms of Illness through Narrative. This year, I will be leading a discussion forum about this course and about what implications it may have for the use of illness narratives in pre-health education. As I’ve been preparing for our session and sifting through course materials and relevant scholarship, I’m reminded of how much I miss teaching. It won’t be quite the same as leading one of my discussion classes, but I’m really looking forward to the conversations to come.
As a flashback to last year’s presentation: I will also have hard copies of Chronicling Childhood Cancer: A Collection of Personal Stories by Children and Teens with Cancer available for sale this year!
Since our class was at 4pm on Thursdays, we decided to meet at a coffee shop for our last discussion. Courtesy of the LSA Honors Program, I was able to treat my students to coffee and snacks as we discussed children’s literature about the topic of death.
For the first part of our class though, I wanted to share with my students the research that I’ve been doing for my Honors English thesis, especially since it was so informed by my own individual study of illness narratives. I gave them the typical shpeel about my project, then encouraged them to participate in a discussion about the ethics of my methodology and my research.
As always, I was impressed by the questions my students asked and their keen perception about the ethical complications to my research. It was also encouraging to see how much our discussions had evolved over the course of the semester as they asked about how to optimize the agency of children with cancer and questioned some of the conclusions I drew in my own analysis. Even as I was on the brink of submitting my thesis, it was amazing to realize that there was so much more left to think about.
When we turned to the children’s literature (Leo Buscaglio’s The Fall of Freddie the Leaf and Laurie and Marc Brown’s When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death), I was proud to see that many students had concerns with these works. One student challenged my title for the week, questioning whether death should actually be considered as an ultimate illness. They criticized how When Dinosaurs Die portrayed death in an almost comical view that may not have been productive, such as by glossing over suicide. They wondered whether books such as these would be the best way to communicate in situations where death may be approaching.
This topic about death in children’s literature was one that is of particular interest to me, and we had an engaging discussion that brought us full circle to some of earlier conversations in the course about the purpose and function of literature and medicine.
Lesson Plan Week 8
This week, we had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Janet R. Gilsdorf to join our class discussion. Dr. Gilsdorf is a pediatric infectious disease doctor at the University of Michigan. She is a breast cancer survivor. She is a writer, an author of two books: Inside/Outside: A Physician’s Journey with Breast Cancer (Conversations in Medicine and Society) and Ten Days. And she took the time to speak with the students in my class.
Having a guest speaker created a different dynamic for our class discussion, one that I think made some of the concepts we had discussed more real. Conversation ranged from Dr. Gilsdorf’s experiences and role in medicine to her time as a patient to her passion for reading and writing. It was a privilege for us to have the opportunity to speak with her.
Lesson Plan Week 7
With a day full of rain, hail, and even thunder-snow, we elected to spend classtime watching the film adaptation of Margaret Edson’s play W;t. We decided to save our discussion of Audre Lorde, Angelina Jolie, and breast cancer for the following week, where guest speaker Dr. Janet Gilsdorf was coming in to speak about her experiences as a physician and as a breast cancer patient. I had been worried about how to show excerpts of W;t and do the film justice (I think it’s an incredibly powerful work), so I was happy to be able to show it to them in its entirety.
Lesson Plan Week 6
Learning about autism in an English class was one of my early experiences with the intersection of literature and medicine. This week, it was especially challenging to condense a semester’s worth of studying autism and disability studies into a 1.5 hour class period. Nevertheless, I do think that it was one of the most enlightening class discussions thus far.
There seemed to be something different about our discussion this week. Autism seemed much more relatable, and more students evoked personal experiences with autistic relatives and friends. A number of students expressed feeling that there was much more to explore about autism, and they have decided to delve deeper into autism for their final projects (which I will discuss more in a future post).
This week, I was also observed by an advisor from the Honors College. I told my students that my goal was to get her to participate in our discussion, and I’m happy to say that we were successful! The class was very engaged; there were a number of moments where multiple students had their hands up, eager to participate.
When class was over, I left the room with a refreshed appreciation for this teaching opportunity. Each of the students (and my advisor) left with a new perspective on autism. In a world where everyone is touched by disability and/or illness in some way, I continue to believe that this kind of awareness is absolutely essential.
Lesson Plan Week 5
To mark the halfway point of my mini-course, I gave the students the opportunity to provide feedback. In particular, I was curious about what they were enjoying in the course and what changes they would like to see made in the time we had remaining. Were the readings too long or too short? Did they find class discussions to be productive and thought-provoking? Was the class meeting their hopes and expectations and, if not, were there constructive ways that it could be improved?
I was pleasantly surprised to receive overwhelmingly positive feedback. Students seemed to be content with the structure of the course- the readings were manageable, blog post assignments straightforward, class discussions stimulating. Many found the blog posts to be a great way to kickstart our class discussions and to get them thinking about the readings. A number of students expressed their appreciation for the multiple media we explored and particularly enjoyed watching film and video clips in class.
The only concern that was voiced by one or two students was that there was unequal participation in class discussions. As with any discussion class, I’ve observed that some individuals participate more than others, but I have also been content with the fact that each individual contributes to each class session. To some extent, disparity in engagement may be inevitable, but I’m hoping to incorporate even more small group activities and more consciously make an effort to get everyone talking.
Lesson Plan Week 4
As our discussion about Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and mental illness more broadly was beginning to wrap up, I asked the class if anyone had any last ideas or thoughts that they wanted to discuss pertaining to the novel. One student raised her hand and said that she just wanted to share a favorite line from the novel. We turned to the page and talked about it, and then I realized that there were a number of places in the text that these students just wanted to share. Our discussion continued as we marveled at Plath’s grasp of language.
Sometimes, I think, discussions can work better when they escape the confinements of preparation.
Lesson Plan Week 3
Powerpoint: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar- Background
It’s one thing to be sitting in a classroom discussion as a student– its something entirely different to be leading the discussion as an instructor. I’ve enjoyed teaching scientific facts and promoting inquiry-based learning in science, but it’s a new experience for me to be leading discussions rooted in my literary interests.
It really makes a difference to have an enthusiastic group of students and a classroom where we can sit in a circle. I taught about the history of illness narratives, which I’m simultaneously writing about for my thesis. It was a strange experience to be crafting leading questions by voice that I have also been trying to ask in my writing.
I think one of my teaching goals for the semester is to get better at tackling silences. There’s an art to teaching in silence, to allowing quiet to linger for just long enough for thought generation, without letting this surpass into daydreams and uncomfortable, awkward silences. I’m working on it.
It was a thought-provoking first discussion class, and I’m looking forward to keeping the conversations going. Up next: excerpts from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and her poems Lady Lazarus and Tulips.
Lesson Plan Week 2: Diagnosing Illness Narratives
Presentation: Illness Narratives — A Brief History
Worksheet: Diagnosing Illness Narrative with Frank’s Illness Narrative Types