My Reserach and the Health Humanities

I took a somewhat experimental health humanities (HH) research course this semester, and before my brain goes to mush from studying for my comprehensive exams, I want to reflect on my developing sense of what the health humanities is and how it might contribute to my current and future projects. I found the scholarship in HH to be limited by its somewhat paradoxical claims vs. published realities, so I am thinking through my ideas based on some of these contradictions. Of course, I understand that HH is a rapidly expanding field, so perhaps it is unfair to be so critical of some of the research topics frequently studied, goals for research, etc. And yet some of it made me cranky, so it’s hard to resist…

I am also trying to hold myself accountable for my writing process. As the pressure to produce smart, cohesive, somewhat stylish writing mounts, the less I’m able to focus. I’ve recently started reading about the process of dissertation writing, and it sounds like the thing that people have the most trouble with is sitting down and DOING some writing. In general, I tend to be pretty good at the sitting down part when I’m feeling well. I often find myself frustrated on days when I seem to be unusually distracted (i.e. in low to medium level whole body pain). My skin feels sharp and staticky, my bones ache, my scalp is tender from having my hair in a ponytail for too long. I eat snacks, look out the window, wish I was doing something else. If I’m dressed like a human (which is usually not the case), I might leave my house for a while and browse sale items at Steinmart or buy four items at Whole Foods. But I’m usually sitting in my bathrobe at my kitchen table, one knee up against the table, head throbbing from squeezing and overextending my jaw, attempting to sip tea that has long turned cold and over-brewed. Also, I typically only allow myself to leave my house (or shower…working on that) if I’ve met my somewhat arbitrary daily writing goals. (That is, when I’m spending an entire day working from home). It’s funny to think that I used to write for pleasure. Now, it’s part of my job, and if I can’t do it–for whatever reason(s)–I can’t really join this profession. So I’m at a critical juncture in which I need to figure this out. I have been writing while feeling terrible for years now, so it’s annoying that I haven’t gotten used to it, found better techniques for producing better work, etc. Like everyone else, I probably have unrealistic expectations for myself about how much I should be writing and how “good” the writing should be. Ugh. In any case, I’ve been able to produce a lot of words and work out some ideas by writing these blog entries, so I’m going to consider it part of my writing process and move forward, hopefully moving past the obstacles I’m allowing to get in my way.

For me, a “good” research and writing day means that I produce writing that actually moves my ideas/arguments/frameworks/theories forward. This usually means that I produce a lot of writing (often on this blog) that is relatively informal but very clear…or as clear as I can make it. As critical as I am of people who believe that their interdisciplinary work will immediately impact the scholarship of multiple fields, it is helpful for me to do writing in a space where there is a theoretical, thoughtful, and somewhat broad audience. I try to write in ways that non-academic people like my parents can understand. I usually don’t achieve this goal, but my attempt to think and speak simply helps me figure out my key questions: What am I really trying to say? Why is it important? As I reread this section, I’m chuckling at the word “important.” In the scheme of things, my reflection on my course in HH is not “important” for most people. It probably never will be. I guess I’m always hoping that, in some small way, I can contribute to solving some greater social problem or helping meet a need of living, breathing people. Many scholars talk about fulfilling this kind of civic duty via their teaching, but I’d also like to do it through my research. Anyway, I’m going to stop this philosophical meandering and get to the health humanities stuff. After all, I have a short critical reflection to write for the class, and I stared at a blank word document for an hour this morning without any “luck,” so it’s time to get started.

[Nail cutting and filing break. Why do I feel a desperate need to groom myself whenever I start writing something?! Sometimes I also get an urge to clean. I was reading about a study that reported that obsessive grooming behaviors, like skin picking and nail biting, can be related to perfectionist tendencies. I haven’t bitten my nails for more than three months (!!) so can’t I chalk this up to not wanting to start to bite them as I’m thinking/writing? #phdproblems].

What HH claims it does vs. what it actually does (based on what I learned and observed during the course):

#1. Bridging the clinical medicine/humanities divide to better educate healthcare providers and solve large-scale health problems. (Is clinical medicine a real thing, or did I just make it up?) It seems like the medical  humanities (yes, a slightly different field) might have made some progress with bridging the medical/humanistic gap, but in my opinion, this has been most effective when clinicians bridge this gap and then teach other clinicians about it. For instance, Rita Charon’s work on narrative medicine is well respected in many fields, and one reason for this is because, as a medical doctor, she has a trustworthy ethos. Charon is able to rely on her experiences in clinical settings, working with diverse patients, etc. to advocate for the worthiness of humanistic ways of thinking in health and medicine.

Unfortunately, I find it less compelling (and, frankly, kind of annoying) when humanists try to do the same thing. I am not convinced that teaching and discussing Frankenstein or any other specific texts with medical students will or should impart wisdom about empathy, power relations in medical spaces, the value of human life, etc. I do think that these texts include interesting commentaries about health and medicine, but in my sort-of educated opinion, there is not enough statistical evidence to support this kind of HH education for medical students. In our HH class, we read many different literary analyses of fiction, poetry, etc. by canonical authors and explanations about how these texts can help doctors do their jobs better by teaching them empathy, compassion, and more. Sometimes, the close readings were strong and theoretically demonstrative of what doctors and other healthcare providers (a key feature of the HH) could learn from reading the texts. And yet I remain deeply skeptical of both demanding this kind of education/change and the idea that literature can make this change. Perhaps I am just a pessimist. It’s not that I don’t think that some healthcare providers need additional training about these things, and it’s not that I don’t think that medical school is structured in a militaristic way that breaks down people and rewards them for quick (albeit sometimes inaccurate) diagnoses, memorization of body parts instead of holistic analyses of individual people’s bodies, etc. I do. But I’m still looking for some social science-based and/or other scientifically-based research that supports this. I don’t believe that science is objective or always true or anything like that, but I think there is something to be said to testing out different research methods for answering a research question. If nothing else, maintaining a critical perspective when discussing this issue will help us more effectively evaluate all future research about it from both scientific and humanistic perspectives.

[Time to search the kitchen for snacks even though I’m not hungry. I guess I’ll chew another piece of gum and try not to distract myself by looking out the window at my neighbor’s adorably lazy cat].

#2. Reach a broad interdisciplinary audience ranging from clinicians to English professors. It is hard to imagine medical students and practicing clinicians reading our HH anthologies or some of the humanities-interdisciplinary HH articles that we discussed in class. I sense that these professionals don’t care about nor do they have time to read humanities journals, materials, or perspectives. Of course, there is the occasional converted doctor (so to speak) who publishes in both medical and humanities journals, but I can confidently say that it is unclear and/or unlikely that their medical colleagues read their humanities publications. Humanities and some social science scholars actually seem to be the people reading HH scholarship–though many of these scholars do not identify themselves as HH scholars even if their work could be classified at HH scholarship. It’s not that this is a bad thing. It seems like HH has exposed humanities scholars to different research topics, questions, and methods that can expand the range of humanistic work. However, based on our reading this semester, it does not seem to have such a broad reach.

#3. The area of “health humanities” is recognizable to many audiences across disciplines and is significantly different from “medical humanities.” Like any other emerging field, HH is struggling to literally create a name for themselves. According to our two main course texts (HH anthologies/readers), HH is different from medical humanities because it makes more of an effort to study and consider the perspectives of non-physicians and extend beyond medicine as the main issue in question. However, based on all of the readings included in these texts, this is not necessarily the HH reality. Most of the texts still prioritized the doctor-patient relationship and, though some mentioned other health professionals, these individuals were not the main focus. In general, ill people themselves were also not the main focus. The most emphasis was placed on medical education/training and re-training/educating current medical providers. This, I suppose, is one kind of “talking back” to the greater spheres of biomedicine, healthcare broadly defined, western values and perceptions, etc., but I found the lack of focus (and writing) by ill people about illness, by other healthcare providers about other kinds of health and wellness, etc. disconcerting and disappointing.

In any case, I worry about identifying  myself as a HH scholar for all of the reasons listed above. Who will take my work seriously if I am not fully committing myself to more than one well-respected research methodology at a time? (My sense is that the recently published HH scholarship highlights interdisciplinary but still adheres to a single-discipline research method. Rhetorical analysis might be the exception, though they don’t usually call it that in the sciences). I am still much more comfortable trying to join more deeply established intellectual conversations in the rhetoric of health and medicine, disability studies, feminist rhetorical theory and practice, visual studies, ethnography, and more. Despite all of this, I DO think that the HH has great potential. (Though I’m going to hedge and say that I believe this potential is based on the determination of a more focused audience, establishment of more widely respected publications, and new key texts). Here are a few examples:

  • Ill individuals and health seekers gather together to record, revise, and distribute their stories collectively (versus in individual self-help-like manuals or illness narratives). One recent example is Allie Cashel’s Suffering the Silence: Chronic Lyme Disease in an Age of Denial. As part of a senior thesis project at Bard College, Cashel interviewed a bunch of individuals living with chronic Lyme Disease and wove together her experiences, their experiences, and a cultural analysis about the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme Disease.
  • “Cultural competence” training for clinicians becomes more sophisticated by blending in some health humanities perspectives, leading medical students to take a more intersectional approach to identifying and treating health seekers. I probably don’t know enough about this to make this claim, but it seems like a nice fantasy.
  • Insurance companies, the U.S. government (including NIH and the like), and/or other people with a lot of money and power find the HH to have a strong value-added benefit and incorporate it into their plans, policies, and funded research projects.

In all, I think it was very useful to take a HH course and to explore HH perspectives and how they might relate to my projects. In terms of my dissertation project, I will probably not situate myself as a HH scholar and instead focus my attention on audiences in rhetoric: rhetoric of health and medicine, visual rhetoric, and feminist rhetoric in particular. I hope that my writing and research will be meaningful and easily translatable to other audiences, such as disability studies, ethnography (maybe), medical and linguistic anthropology (maybe), etc. In general, though, I think that I should try to make my writing more palatable for everyone who might read it, so perhaps I will be able to invite in a large audience if I can make this shift. But for now…it’s time to ramp up my exam studying and add to my understanding of HH, since it is my “minor”!




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