Studies in English - Honors: Literature and Medicine

ENGL 2000H
William Kerwin
Course Description

        This course uses imaginative literature to complicate the question “What is medicine?” by exploring ways in which medical life is narrative life.  Clearly medicine involves the body, with all of its biological and chemical processes. This is sometimes called “evidence-based medicine.”   This model is a central starting point for good medical practice.  But we will consider the many ways that medical matters are also stories, what some theorists call “narrative-based medicine.”  So, studying the forms of fiction has a parallel with the narrative forms that make up medical life: telling, hearing and interpreting stories are skills that link medical and literary practice. 

We will be approaching this project in two major ways.

        First, we will consider how patients and doctors can better understand disease if they consider its narratives consciously as narratives—that is, through literary categories like frame, time, plot, and desire. We will have several units that consider the usefulness of narrative theory in imagining medical practice—in reading case histories, in engaging in diagnostic interchanges, in doing medical research.  Ultimately, patients and their healers only exist in narrative frameworks.  We will be drawing on “vignettes” (short case studies) and narrative theory from a recent collection, Literature and Medicine: A Practical and Pedagogical Guide, by the literary theorist Ronald Schliefer and the physician Jerry B. Vannatta.  

        Second, we will look at representations of disease, or things that are often labeled as a disease, with an eye towards how health or disease is always placed—how it always has cultural meanings. This focuses less on things happening inside of narratives and more on how one narrative often takes place inside of several others.   As Arthur Kleinmann explores, disease is a biological condition and illness is the fully lived experience of that condition.  Alcohol addictions, opioid addictions, epilepsy, AIDS, birth, depression, abortion, autism/neurodiversity, blindness, disability, dying—we will read short stories, novels, poems, and other narrative accounts that help us understand the experience of these and other often-medicalized conditions within personal and social history.  How do categories such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and varying ideas of the “normal” shape our experience of these issues?  Is it right to consider things like birth, disability, autism, or dying as medical categories?  Literature makes vivid how much medicine is a part of society, and how much both disease and healing have cultural as well as scientific aspects.  This is not an attempt to “un-medicalize” all of these matters, so much as to stretch our sense of what medicine includes, and how medical stories come into contact with non-medical stories. 

         The authors we will read include Arthur Kleinman, Grace Paley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Abraham Verghese, Mark Haddon, James Joyce, Raymond Carver, James Baldwin, Thomas DeQuincey, Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway, Gwendolyn Brooks, Salman Rushdie, Tillie Olsen, William Carlos Williams, David Feldshuh, H.G. Wells, Leo Tolstoy, and Paul Lyons.  You will write two papers and give a presentation.