Faculty Develop Interdisciplinary Minor In Medical Humanities

Medical Humanities, Health, and Culture (MHHC) may soon be joining the list of interdisciplinary minors at Boston College.

Professor Amy Boesky of the English department said that an array of faculty members, while conversing about their respective courses, realized that in some cases there was significant overlap in subject matter. The group realized that courses on topics such as the representation of the body and the history of illness in narrative could potentially fit into an interdisciplinary program in the medical humanities.

Last spring, Boesky, who has an interest in narrative medicine, applied to the Institute for the Liberal Arts (ILA) at BC for a grant to fund a series of development lunches in the fall of 2012. Her proposal was approved, and a group of about 16 faculty members from a wide array of academic fields-multiple departments from the College of Arts and Sciences, the Connell School of Nursing (CSON), and BC Law School were all represented-met monthly at the ILA. “We have been holding a series of workshops in which we talked about how could we come together from different disciplines to think about interdisciplinary approaches to health and health-care,” Boesky said. “What would it mean to approach these questions through different disciplines?”

The group considered these “big questions” about health and medicine through multiple lenses-sociological, historical, theological, and through the natural sciences-to see how a medical humanities minor might take shape. According to Boesky, the group discovered that a significant selection of courses already offered at BC would fall under the umbrella of medical humanities. She mentioned courses on HIV/AIDS in both CSON and theology, along with courses on end of life decisions in sociology and psychology, as examples of subject overlap that already existed across disciplines.

“We have talked with people in the pre-med office,” Boesky said. “We are working across disciplines and schools, with faculty from the professional schools as well as A&S-faculty from nursing, and also Dean Hashimoto from the Law School, who works on healthcare law-in order to bring together many different kinds of perspectives, and different kinds of students.” Boesky said that while students in the pre-med track and in CSON would be expected to express interest in the minor, the group was also considering students in the liberal arts-those who might be interested in different aspects of health, such as healthcare advocacy, scientific journalism, and the economics of healthcare and global health. “We’ve really been trying to imagine, across the University, what kinds of constituents can best be served by this kind of program, by thinking about the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the liberal arts together, in conversation with the professional schools,” she said.

At the group’s second meeting, Sarah van den Berg, a professor at Saint Louis University (SLU) who has been working in the fields of medical humanities and disability studies for over 20 years, spoke to the group. Van den Berg helped to launch a medical humanities minor at SLU, and shared her experience with structuring that program. “[Sarah van den Berg’s talk] was enriching for us, because it enabled us to come back together afterwards to think about how we might imagine a program at Boston College, drawing on our strengths and the mission of BC-and the larger ethical issues that matter to us as a community,” Boesky said.

Boesky stressed that the minor is still in the very early stages of development. The group hopes to present their proposal to the Education Policy Council (EPC)-a 12-member council in the Lynch School of Education that helps to plan, develop, coordinate and supervise changes to curriculum and courses-for approval this spring. Should the proposal gain approval, the group plans to launch a small pilot minor with a limited group of students. The pilot phase would be an opportunity to reach out to the student population, in order to ascertain their needs and interests. “It’s our sense that students are looking for interdisciplinary models for thinking about difficult but relevant questions-about healthcare, about the range of approaches to ideas about health and illness across many cultures,” Boesky said.

She went on to address possible reasons for recent interest in a more interdisciplinary approach to health science. “Medical humanities began back in the ’70s and ’80s, but has been importantly revived in in the last five to 10 years,” Boesky said. “There’s been very strong interest in this approach that has been coming from different programs and different parts of the country, and the world.” She discussed the changes to the MCAT that will take effect in 2015 as a driving force behind this revival in the medical humanities, saying that the exam’s new components reflect medical schools’ desire for a more well-rounded approach to the study of medicine. Boesky also stated that, while formulating an outline for the program, the group looked at similar movements that she’d noticed at Vanderbilt University, SLU, and the University of Oregon, as well as programs in human biology at Brown University and Stanford University. They also considered programs within medical schools, such as Columbia University’s program in narrative medicine and the overall emphasis on humanities courses within medical schools.
Boesky also briefly addressed the upcoming revisions to the University core, and how the new minor might dovetail with those changes. “One thing that’s exciting about the direction of the core discussions is the potential for interdisciplinary connections,” Boesky said. “A number of Core courses could potentially fall into this new minor, and linking courses would be interesting. I feel like this is where the energy and excitement about undergraduate education is-in relevance, and in engagement with the big, important questions.”

While the exact timeline of the minor was not yet known, Boesky said that there is a significant amount of enthusiasm among faculty members, and she expects enthusiasm from students as well as the minor develops. “We’re eager to hear what students are most interested in,” Boesky said. “We’re clearly interested in tying interdisciplinary study into existing programs, whether they’re local, domestic, or even overseas programs. We’re really interested in forming bridges of different kinds-bridges among departments and schools, bridges between the University and the wider Boston community, as well as bigger bridges out to the world. These are critical issues, and they’re really engaging to us as faculty.”

About Eleanor Hildebrandt 92 Articles
Eleanor Hildebrandt was the 2014 Editor-in-Chief of The Heights. She liked puns then and it's a safe bet that she likes them now. Follow her on Twitter at @ehhilde.