I just finished my third year of my doctoral program at Ohio State. There’s so much to write about, like teaching online during a whole year of quarantining, studying for candidacy exams, and moving into the phase of dissertation writing and the academic job market search. I’ve also been meaning to write about my academic focus on my blog for a long time now. Medical Humanities is a really interesting study, but I’ve always felt like I can’t just “write” about it, as if I’m describing what I had for lunch. I want people to feel what it’s like to study this field. For that, I’ve decided to write about my experience with all of this in a three-part series of blog posts. I hope this series gives my readers a sense of how my program is going, and I’m happy to chat about it if you have any questions. This is Part 1 of 3
After finishing coursework last year, I moved into the candidacy exam phase of my program. I complied a list of over 150 books that reflect my major and minor fields. (Major: Medical Humanities; Minor: Post-1945 American Literature, with an emphasis on graphic narratives) This sounds treacherous to some, but for me, this was one part of my program I was really looking forward to. Ever since I became a full-time student (by “full-time student”, I don’t mean starting my program at OSU; I mean back to when I decided to quit my job to pursue a career in writing, and taking Intro to Literature classes at my community college), I’ve always felt like I was years behind my colleagues when it came to being familiar with the literary canon. It feels like not that long ago, I didn’t know who William Faulkner was, or even what the word “canon” meant. Every summer, I would spend hours on hours at libraries or parks, sitting at a bench, reading the classics and other books that I felt I should be familiar with. I actually really enjoyed it! It felt like I was enriching my knowledge, climbing to the top of the shoulders of giants I’m supposed to be standing on. Now, I get to gain the specialization I’ve always wanted through doing just that. I am now posed to apply my strengths while in my program.
…or, I was supposed to, except for the awfulness that is the COVID-19 pandemic. All campus libraries were closed or practicing social distancing measures, which meant I’m stuck at home. This was a big challenge for me, as adapting to stay-at-home orders was not going well. A lot of the books on my list are ones that I chose and wanted to read. But with the library closed and my reading routine being upended, it felt like I had arm chopped off or something. How the hell do I get through my readings when the one resource that made focusing on my studies possible is gone now? I reached out to my committee, and they gave me the direction I needed to hear: yes, this is difficult, and we want to work with you…but you have to finish. On top of teaching, working for a magazine, and trying to survive a pandemic, I had to figure out how to get through my workload. I didn’t know how I was going to do it; all I knew is that I had to do it.
A lot of grad students like to think of reading for exams as “eating your vegetables”, where you have a list of books you have to read, in contrast to the ones you want to read. With feeling strained and helpless as I looked at the stacks of books I needed to get through, my first strategy was to start with dessert. I started reading books I looked forward to reading the most, in hopes of gaining reading momentum. I then set up a routine that got work done during the day, leaving reading to nights. It’s way easier for me to read at night, when the streets are quiet, and the temperature is cool. Leaving reading to the evening allowed me to dive into my books, getting lost in the pages of really elegant prose. That’s what it was like during my community college days, reading Faulkner, Dickens, the Brontë’s, or just about any book of poetry on a park bench, a kind of experience Romantic authors envisioned for their readers. Reading during quarantine, with a silence that went from eerie to deafening, and constantly wondering about the safety and well-being of friends and family, was not the Romantic experience it sounds like. (although I’m pretty sure some of those Romantic authors were also trying to avoid the occasional plague) This strategy was starting to work, but even with a routine and trying to replicate my previous space for reading, with ambient library sounds and dim lights over my book, it was still difficult to focus like I used to.
One of the first books I read was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. The book read like a case study on Lia Lee, a young Hmong girl suffering from epilepsy. This book was a prime example of why I enjoy studying this field so much. The narrative opens with Fadiman discussing Lia’s mother’s history and how her cultural background clashes with Western medicine, launching a series of questions and examinations of the US medical industry as it fails to acknowledge the needs of marginalized communities. Fadiman effectively and respectively depicts what Hmong populations deal with, emphasizing the challenges when it comes to sharing with medical professionals how important it is to observe their religious beliefs as they are being treated. Fadiman also does not hold back when it comes to the details of Lia’s condition, dedicating several chapters to describing Lia’s seizures. In the edition I read, it even included an afterword, discussing the book’s reception, including how she recognized how problematic it was for a non-Hmong writer to write a book that attempted to speak for the American Hmong population. It was a challenge reading a book dedicated to showcasing what it was like for a child to suffer such a terrible neurological disorder, and her parents struggling so much to make sure she gets the health care she needs, while trying desperately to hold on to their Hmong identity. There were so many times where I wanted to shout at the doctors, or reach out to Lia. You leave reading this book as if you witnessed first-hand everything that happened to her, including [no spoilers!], and a glimpse of the internal workings of a brain suffering from epilepsy, along with a history lesson of Hmong/US relations. I love books that can do that.
Another book I read was neither a novel, nor a memoir, or even an actual narrative. I read The Firefly Project: Conversations About What it Means To Be Alive. This book consisted of exchanges between medical students and patients with various stages of cancer. You read actual letters between real people as they discuss what life is like living with cancer, with soon-to-be doctors, in hopes of not losing sight of the people they will treat, trying to fight the impulse of becoming jaded professionals that treat people like data. It’s so enriching to see someone share something so honest, especially when the dichotomy between the two individuals is so apparent. You don’t care that some letters aren’t written by experienced authors. (as someone who has read so many classic novels, it’s slightly refreshing learning how much people actually like using exclamations) Where reading gets heavy is in the breaks between letters, where you see how they responded to each other, listening to the advice they share, and admiring each other’s stories. Bonds form, friendships grow, a rhythm between the exchanges develops. That is, until it stops, for various reasons. Some writers just stop responding, or voluntarily end the conversation; other times, the conversation get cut short because one of them passed away. In what I’ve read about studying oncology, which isn’t much, one lesson is present: you’re working with people who may not be around much longer. When you’re reminded of that, reading these letters becomes almost visceral, as if you’re reading someone’s most truest words, almost voyeuristically. At the end of each exchange, you wonder if they got a chance to share what they thought, or said something just to make the reader happy. A lot of the letters are more heartwarming than anything, as they all have a quality behind them that reminds you why the project started in the first place: to connect people in a way that transcends the status they have been granted. Sometimes, you want to step away; other times, you root for both of them. It’s a gripping book to read, leaving you with a feeling of familiarity, almost privileged to witness this exchange.
These are just two of the books I read. Medical Humanities is a like an umbrella, where all kinds of critical approaches and genres fall under it. Its goal is to wed the humanities with the study of medicine in an effort to make the practice of medicine itself more humanistic. When you read texts that fall under this umbrella, a lot of them are first-hand accounts of living with an illness, or their experience with the medical industry, highlighting what and where things need to change. This, along with a its sub-section, narrative medicine, you study the value of the rhetoric people use to tell their stories, and, possibly, as a result, learn to get better at listening to others. (“narrative competence enhances medical competence”) One part about it I really enjoy is how interdisciplinary it is. It branches into sociology, disability studies, economics, public health, history, and several others really smart people are writing about. My experience studying this at first felt almost schizophrenic (Christ, I need a better analogy). I really enjoy using what my studies in literature taught me to help others share their own narratives, but I’m not a med student. It feels like there’s a whole body of knowledge I don’t have. But after studying this further, I learned that I’m not expected to know that body of knowledge; I’m learning how to use my training in studying literature to help others share what they wish to, lifting voices that are historically ignored, or even minimized. It’s a pretty cool field.
In the last year, I’ve read novels, memoirs, poetry, graphic novels, books on medical humanities and narrative studies as a critical approach, and web comics. I’ve read stories that highlight health disparities down racial and economic lines (Pearson’s No Apparent Distress); stories whose sole motive for existing was to have their stories heard (Green’s Lighter than My Shadow); stories about the brutalization of sexual assault, before and after legal and medical institutions get involved (Miller’s Know My Name). The prose some of these narratives have are purposely crafted to make you feel like the author is right next to you as they share their story. Some are victims of an oppressive system, or advocates, yelling at a gigantic machine, or just now telling readers how they feel after decades of silence. It’s a body of texts filled with stories that make you want to reach out to the hands of those who put these sentences together. The best way to describe what it feels like after reading a list of books like this: My soul feels changed afterwards, and for the better…but it didn’t come cheap.
I’m barely scratching the surface with my list, and I have another hundred books to go. Routine or not, these readings are really piling up. I need to move through this list, but how can I when I’m so torn from the previous one? I’m reading about so many injustices happening, but what will reading about them do? We’re trying to fix access to health care, racial inequality, climate change, and I’m worried about my friends who are now all over the country, and COVID is getting worse when is a vaccine coming I need tofinishgradingI’mworryingaboutmyfamilywhatisCNNsayingthistimeineedtomakesureimregistedtovotedeathtollsrisingsealevelsrisingdididomytaxesgaaaaasp
I wake up one morning during this pandemic, and realize eight months have passed since I started reading. My list is not getting shorter anytime soon, and I have no clue how to make up for this time. A part of me begins to admit defeat, planning on what career options I have with a half-completed doctoral degree. I dig through old emails looking for tips and advice about how to get through my program, in hopes of unearthing some secret that will make my problems go away. No luck. Then, I come across the one from my committee, telling me that “I have to finish”. I know I have to do it, and I’m gonna figure it out. It’s just really hard. I have a list of books that feels like a mountain I somehow have to climb, while stuck indoors, trying to hold on to some order.
During the pandemic, my friends and I regularly checked in with each other via Zoom, texting, or phone calls. After a night of not sleeping from the stress of exams, I reach out to a Groupchat thread. A friend on the thread, also reading for exams, tells me about her routine, giving herself periodic breaks with old sitcoms. The idea sounds appealing, but at this point in the pandemic, it feels like I’ve already consumed half of the entire Netflix catalogue. She told me she goes back and forth between old episodes of Community and The Office. I never consistently watched The Office (I know it’s brilliant, but it never felt like it was “for me”), and I’ve never watched Community. I actually prefer hour-long, serious dramas, like Breaking Bad, or The Leftovers. Sitcoms are just not my thing. I looked up Community and it had a lot of seasons, and each season had a lot of episodes. Also, I heard John Oliver was on the show for a while, and I’m a huge John Oliver fan (I’m a grad student and love terrible jokes- obvi), so that helped. With nothing else working, I watch the first episode.
The reason why I enjoy such dark dramas is because I always thought that it was the only genre capable of making such insightful and powerful statements about life and the human condition. This show does not do that; instead, it tells you that expecting that from a TV show is not only ludicrous, but also that setting a bar for TV viewing that high is bound to disappoint you. The books I’ve been reading for the last few months demand undivided attention, and a level of respect towards the subject. To watch a show that gives you license to laugh at was a kind of relief. There are a lot of sitcoms that are objectively funny and easy to consume. Community is not just funny; it’s aware of what it is: a sitcom using a television-age-old archetype to generate weeknight ratings, signaling to the audience that it wants to laugh just as much as you do. There are so many inside jokes, so much metafiction, that once you are aware of that, you want to laugh just as much as its creators do.
(my favorite clip from one of my favorite episodes of Community)
I began the process of setting up a routine, working for an hour, taking a break with an episode of Community, then continuing my readings. I set up this routine, stuck with it, and soon, I found myself completing the impossible. I was reading books, crossing off one book on my list after another, finishing at a rate almost close enough to make up for lost time. When I started this process, my initial impression was that its success is due to having a wall between what I study and what I’m watching during breaks, reading texts with serious subjects, then watching something purposely silly. Soon, though, as different as these two things were, my passion for the two began to equalize. I read up on the background of the show, its history, the controversy behind the scenes, the “gas leak year”. As someone who is a product of the community college model, and who has taught at a community college, my laughter began sprouting from further depths. I remember the study groups, figuring out which classes to take, the jokes about how long it takes students to transfer, the terrible food. All that. (Fun fact: the school in Community is called “Greendale Community College”. I taught at Glendale Community College. My school was the inspiration for the fictional campus, where Dan Harmon, creator of the show, went during his community college days. Here’s a really interesting article about it) I also find it hilarious, but slightly disturbing, how much I identify with Jeff, the protagonist, a guy in his 30’s in college on a new educational pursuit after a crash in his earlier career, who walks around not taking anything seriously and quipping with remarks no one asked for. I was laughing the whole time, and it felt good to laugh.
On top of memoirs by people suffering from illness or combating institutional oppression, I’m also reading theoretical texts on applying humanities studies to medicine. Several prominent theorists argue that a practice in medicine that needs to end is separating yourself from your work, as if your job takes place on a different planet, and after arriving home, you can allow yourself to not worry about what’s happening on that other planet. The more I read while watching Community, the more that wall between what I was watching and what I was studying soon started crumble, making me enjoy it all for the better. Past its metafictional comedy, it’s a story about a group of friends that care about each other, getting closer to reaching their academic goals together. There are moments that reveal how important it is to have friends during a pivotal moment in your career. They look out for each other, and make sure everyone feel supported. Before the pandemic, my cohort worked really hard to stick together, setting up weekly Happy Hour sessions and checking with each others during Finals. After hours of studying in the library, it was always so pleasant walking down the halls and bumping into a friend I’ve made during my time in the program. I can easily see a group of us at a table in a study room, trying to study while segueing into a really inane story or joking about how long it will take to find jobs after graduating. Plus, while reading multiple narratives about suffering from cancer, this show somehow figured out how to make a joke about cancer. I didn’t think that was possible!
Community Cancer joke:
-Oh, good! Come on in. I thought it was Britta
(trust me- the context makes this really funny)
The show premiered in 2010. It definitely feels dated, and that’s only one of it’s problems. There are seasons that are the products of a shifting writing staff and cast; an episode was pulled from Netflix and Hulu due to its casual use of blackface; there was an accusation of harassment by the Showrunner, causing a hiatus. (a really good assessment of the show’s history can be found here) The more you seek what the show does well, the more you dive into its problematic past, making you question whether you should continue watching it. That’s kinda how it feels when studying for exams. This formula of reading a gigantic reading list in order to prove aptitude feels ancient. It’s even more difficult when you have to teach and take classes. You ultimately lead to deciding what books you need to read, versus which you can skim through. With every week that brings you closer to your exam date alongside every book you should be reading, it’s easier to feel defeated before the actual exam. At one point, I was reading a book, making notes in the margins, and caught myself asking, ‘What’s the point of notes, when it makes more sense to read through them as quickly as possible just so I can keep up with my reading schedule?’ It’s frustrating, daunting, and makes it really easy to just stop reading.
I know I need to finish and prepare, but when you feel like the whole system is against you and ask why, I need a better answer than “Because your program said so”. So then, why do this? How will this outdated model help you become a better scholar? Well…
(Winger Speech for the win!)
A young boy not long ago looked up at the stars and dared to ask, What makes them twinkle? And where do they go when the night sky leaves? That curiosity was the seed that helped spawn a lifetime of learning about humanity, kindness, and the fundamentals of being. Now, that young child is on a pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of mankind. That young child….was me. And with the education I’m getting from this vastness of knowledge, I hope to create a world where a person who needs help can knock on their neighbor’s door, and ask, Can I join you for dinner, to be met with a response that says, Come on in, friend. And I feel that Medical Humanities can do that. We learn about bioethics, ethical listening, narrative ethics, and a slew of other ethical practices that makes us better humans. By bridging a field focused on the body with a field focused on poetics, we can shape the discourse of life to better care for others. And I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty great.
It should not be difficult to see how vapid this speech is, but after three years of my doctoral studies and working my way through a list I curated, a small part of me actually believes this. Some of the books on my list are there because they have to be, but everyone now and then, I read one where, required or not, I really get something out of it. I came across the following passage when reading Ira Byock’s The Best Care Possible:
A few things happened since I began writing this: COVID infection rates started dropping due in large part to a vaccine; thanks to rates dropping, public spaces started opening up, including campus and the library; after gettting my own jab, (while also waiting the necessary two-week window) I returned to the library, continuing my hour-long stretches of reading. Once that happened, my pace for reading went up tenfold. (which is why it took me so long to write this- I actually started writing this in April!) My exam date looms, and it’s hard to describe how I feel. Some days, I feel like I know everything I need to know for the exam; others, I pretend the exam doesn’t exist so I don’t have to fear it so much. I’m currently reading, while prepping my notes, and drafting my prospectus. I have no idea when I will feel “absolutely done”, but from what I’ve heard from others, that’s not a realistic benchmark to aspire to; likewise, it’s not a good way to prepare for it. You read all that you can, study as much as possible, and do your best. That’s not wishful thinking- that’s what’s going to happen. As soon I hit publish for this post, I will resume my studies, and continue to study until I can’t. I have no idea how exams will go, but I will give it my best. At this point, that’s all I got.
(above is a brief slideshow of some of the books I’ve read for exams)
Epilogue: One thing that’s a little funny as I write this- I’ve read so many narratives about illness and health, but it feels a bit strange reading them when I don’t have my own illness narrative to share. I’m ready to shift my focus to my readings, until it hits me: actually…I kinda do.
(to read My Medical Narrative, check out Part 2 of this 3-part series! Thanks for reading 🙂 )