Teaching Points: Culture, Medicine, & Society: Commentary on the Class

Editor’s Note: In the second part of our inaugural post to the “Teaching Points” series, Contributing Editor Joe Gabriel ruminates on teaching to both medical students and PhD candidates in the humanities.

Interventions in the Teaching of American Mediine

Yesterday I posted the syllabus to a class I taught for the history department here at Florida State. As I mentioned, I’m actually on faculty at the medical school and so I spend most of my time teaching medical students. If you haven’t done it, teaching medical students is incredibly rewarding – they are extremely hard working, very smart, and it’s gratifying to know that you might actually be helping them become better doctors. However, it’s also very nice for me to get the opportunity to interact with doctoral students in the humanities, as it allows for different types of conversations that just aren’t possible in the medical school.

As you’ll see from the syllabus, the course is an effort to provide a broad overview of the history of medicine in the United States. I tried to organize the class both chronologically and methodologically, with both earlier periods of history and more traditional approaches to the history of medicine being covered earlier in the course.  There are, I think, some problems with the syllabus.  For one thing, the number of articles and sheer number of pages assigned for some of the weeks was probably excessive, and that as a result the students sometimes showed up without really having absorbed all the arguments being offered. Some of the readings were also not chosen as well as they might have been – Feb. 12, on “the therapeutic revolution” didn’t really work, for example, and there are some texts I wouldn’t assign again, such as Nancy Ordover’s American Eugenics. So, in the future, I’ll assign less pages and fewer individual articles. For the most part, though, I think that the class went well and that the students benefited from it. I know I did.

I built two themes into the class that I think readers of this blog might find interesting. The first was how to incorporate biology – and microbes, and other material “stuff” – into our historical narratives. How we do so, or refrain from doing so, has numerous consequences for the types of stories we tell, and for anyone who has thought seriously about the history of addiction it should be obvious that the question of how to incorporate biology into our texts (or microbes, or parasites, or weather, or other non-human actors) isn’t an easy one to answer. The kinds of debates that historians of addiction sometimes have about this issue show up in other areas of medical history, and they provided a lot of grist for conversation in class.

Ancyclostoma, Scourge of the South

For example, we had a good discussion about Margret Humphrey’s essay “How Four Once Common Diseases Were Eradicated From the American South,” and her contention that “many southerners were, as stereotypes indicated, made stupid and lazy by these diseases” (i.e., yellow fever, malaria, hookworm, and pellagra, on p. 1742). What does it mean for a historian of medicine – and a prominent one at that, writing in a journal targeted toward policy makers – to make this type of claim, one that clearly has the potential to play into a long history of stereotypes about Southerners? What would it mean to not make it, and to leave the parasites that burrow into people’s feet, latch onto the walls of their small intestines, and consume their blood, out of the story of health in the South? After all, hookworm infestation is known to lead to impaired cognitive development and delayed growth. So… what do we do with this? Do we basically accept what has long been a pernicious stereotype, and one that continues to have political consequences, or do we leave the hookworm out of the story? Or do we try to write about the past in some other way?

We also spent a significant amount of time talking about professionalism and what it means to get your work done. I believe quite strongly that faculty members need to be honest with doctoral students about the stakes involved in the scholarly choices that they make, at least as far as we are able to, and that we need to encourage our students to take a practical approach to their work, prioritizing getting things done and de-prioritizing the type of existential angst that they often experience about their work. Part of this, I think, is to teach students that their scholarly choices matter in multiple ways, and that scholarship needs to be understood and judged in the context of an author’s goals.

Michel Foucault: the Scourge of Everybody Else

This isn’t an easy thing for graduate students to understand: It’s easy to dismiss Humphrey’s paper, for example, as not being “theoretically sophisticated,” or to dismiss Foucault’s History of Sexuality as being “not relevant” (or worse), without realizing that both texts are useful, and thus valuable, albeit in different ways.

The point that I tried to communicate is that our choices as scholars need to be judged in the context in which we make them, and that getting things done is the primary point of scholarship – whether we mean by that making an effective argument, getting an article published that we can be proud of, landing a job, making an intervention in a policy debate, or even simply writing something because it is fun and we enjoy it. Understanding this point, I think, helps students clarify their own goals as they confront the task of learning how to be scholars, and it helps them get out of the existential head-trips that so many students find debilitating. As a result, I hope, students will both produce better scholarship and be happier doing it. That’s the idea, at least.

I don’t want to make this post too long, so I think I’ll keep it at that. I’d love to hear your thoughts, either on the syllabus itself or on the two general issues I raised above. Thanks for reading.