Unit 3: Writing in the Health Humanities
For our third unit, we explore how notions of health and medicine are harnessed and explored artistically and philosophically. We also examine how the tactics and methods employed within the Humanities (close reading; original interpretations; embracing subjectivity, uncertainty, and contradiction) can be employed to create a more humane and effective form of health care known as Narrative Medicine, a specific subset of the Health Humanities. In this unit, students will conduct and synthesize secondary research and primary research to create an ethical, respectful, insightful illness narrative that explores the story of one person’s experience living with a specific illness or medical condition.
Rita Charon is often cited as coining the term “narrative medicine.” She defines the term as “medicine practiced with these narrative skills of recognizing, absorbing, interpreting, and being moved by the stories of illness. As a new frame for health care, narrative medicine offers the hope that our health care system, now broken in many ways, can become more effective than it has been in treating disease by recognizing and respecting those afflicted with it and in nourishing those who care for the sick.”
Meanwhile, Arthur Frank, another significant scholar of the Health Humanities, explains the vital relationship between illness and stories: “Becoming seriously ill is a call for stories in at least two senses…. Stories have to repair the damage that illness has done to the ill person’s sense of where she is in life, and where she may be going…. The second and complementary call for stories is literal and immediate: the phone rings and people want to know what is happening to the ill person…. Whether ill people want to tell stories or not, illness calls for stories.”
Doctors and other health care workers should fill this need for stories by engaging with illness narratives. The scholar Arthur Kleinman argues that “the study of the experience of illness has something fundamental to teach each of us about the human condition, with its universal suffering and death…. Indeed, the interpretation of narratives of illness experience, I will argue, is a core task in the work of doctoring, although the skill has atrophied in biomedical training.”
With this assignment, students have the opportunity to put these ideas into action. Students conduct primary research through the role of interviewer and active listener as another person tells them their story. Absorbing what they say, and drawing on a variety of resources, the student in turn becomes a storyteller: interpreting and sharing the interviewee’s experiences by writing an illness narrative of at least 1,200 words. This involves interviewing someone with a disease, illness, injury, or other health condition and then writing a narrative of the person’s lived experience, incorporating secondary research and the student’s own reflections on what such an experience reveals about larger concepts related to health and medicine.
And of course, be sure to explore the students’ completed illness narratives. In the drop-down menu for “Categories,” choose “Health Humanities: Illness Narratives,” or you can just click here.
 Rita Charon, Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. Oxford UP, 2006, p. 4.
 Arthur Frank, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013, pp. 53-54.
 Arthur Kleinman, The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing & the Human Condition. New York: Basic Books, 1988, p. xiii.