Interdisciplinary humanities course fuses English studies and medicine

Michigan News

Medicine and literature seem like fields that couldn’t juxtapose each other more. One is a science, systematically transforming testable hypotheses about the human body into diagnoses, into clinical practice, into treatments; whereas the other is an art, expressing experiences and feelings through the written word. Yet, literature and medicine are two sides to the same coin: both try to make sense of the human condition.

Then, what is more perfect than a class that intertwines both?

English 317 Literature of Medicine is a humanities course co-taught by Professor Michael Schoenfeldt and Dr. Howard Markel. This course is one of few at the University to be taught by two professors at the same time.

“I was really interested by the theme of this class,” Nicole Feldman, LSA senior in English, said, “and the fact that it was co-taught by a doctor and an English professor seemed really interesting and different.”

Students discuss medical topics such as illness, epidemics, addiction, AIDs, along with reflecting on stories of medical students and doctors. The class reads everything from a narrative on the community experience of an epidemic in Albert Camus’ The Plague; to a one-act play Wit, by Margaret Edson, a story involving one woman’s reflections during her last hours in a hospital dying of ovarian cancer; to social commentary on medical schooling and practices in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith.

For the classroom discussions, each professor contributes different lenses to approach the text, Markel providing the historical context and the medical perspective while Schoenfeldt contributes literary critical analysis.

“My favorite part of the class is definitely listening in on the discussions and debates between the professors,” said Sebastian Lyos, LSA senior in `anthropology and biomolecular science. “It’s quite a bit like listening to an NPR show hosting two specialists.”

This mix of insights produces unique classroom discussions, especially on stories like Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a novel about an overworked, unappreciated traveling salesman who wakes up one morning transformed into a monstrous insect.

“I remember the first time we did Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Dr. Markel comes in and says ‘so what’s this guy suffering from?,’ ” Schoenfeldt said, “Meanwhile, I’m thinking, well this [text] is an analysis of the way capitalist exploitation dehumanizes human beings — a much more metaphorical, much more cultural reading — yet the two readings were not mutually exclusive at all. They were really supportive of each other, and I think it’s good for students to see the two different lenses.”

The class was born out of an initiative by Markel after he came by to U-M in 1993 as an assistant professor of pediatrics, and started a literature of medicine club with a medical student. Quickly after, Markel started teaching senior medical students a literature of medicine course, but soon became interested in teaching the material to undergraduates.

After teaching the undergraduate course solo for several years, Markel invited Schoenfeldt, a long-time colleague and friend, to co-teach the course with him. Since then, the class has become, described by Markel, a combined “labor of love.”

“I think literature and medicine are such good partners because everybody gets sick, they all probably see a doctor — it’s the great equalizer,” Markel said. “For those artists that can convey it in a literary fashion, they are making art out of regular life.”

Students have found value in the course’s interdisciplinarity in the context of their own studies.

“The course touches on not just a patient’s perspective, but the doctor, and the family of a patient,” Anna Mogill, LSA junior in psychology, said. “I’m currently applying to graduate school to get a Master’s in Social Work, and […] I’m considering focusing on social work within a medical setting. Since this course addresses illness and the difficulties one faces from multiple lenses, I felt that this would be an important course to take since it would likely give me a better understanding of all people within a medical setting.”

“I hope to gain a bit of insight into popular views of medicine and disease over time […] and how life moves on beyond and around illness,” Lyos said, “Illness narrative is very important in my studies in medical anthropology.”

The course invites students from a variety of disciplines, but the overarching goal is the same: to encourage students to think more critically and through a different perspective how they analyze experiences of illness, healthcare, and health careers.

“I want [students] to become more engaged, sympathetic readers and listeners of others’ narratives of suffering,” Schoenfield said.

Both Schoenfeldt and Markel hope students come out of the course with a strengthened curiosity to learn and to have agency in their own education.

“We are both very curious people, and our curiosity has fed our love of what we do,” Markel said. “And if we can impart just a little bit of curiosity to our students, to look things up, to go read a book, to think about narratives in a way that they never would have thought about before, then we’ve done our job.”

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