In late April, the 2018 International Health Humanities Consortium Conference happened in the palm-treed glamour of the Stanford Medical School. It was my first major medical/health humanities conference, and I was really encouraged to see how much is happening in this field in the US.
There were panel sessions introducing a range of undergrad and graduate programmes on offer nationwide (as part of both medical and humanities courses). There were papers and posters showcasing lots of collaborations across the healthcare–humanities divide, like a medical student and a first-year PhD in communication studies reporting on a practical intervention to tackle weight stigma, or a school counsellor and a librarian reporting on analysis of what Disney teaches kids about mental illness and poverty (spoiler: it’s not great). There were also a (to me) surprising, and pleasing, number of medics and clinicians of one kind or another enthusiastically taking part.
The range of creative workshops and break-out sessions was impressive too. I chose:
- an hour with an anaesthesiologist and his simulation mannequin exploring what it means to make a ‘monster’ (including the different ways medical students engage, or refuse to engage, with the dummy);
- a workshop on constructing narratives about patients with a creative writer and a public health researcher (it was quite embarrassing, and then quite sobering, when my partner and I found ourselves creating almost identical versions of ‘an HIV+ person who doesn’t take the prescribed medicine regularly’, even when prompted to think beyond the demographic obvious); and
- a tutorial with a psychotherapist on how to incorporate arts and movement into healthcare settings (from gesture mirroring to drawing a picture of yourself and imagining how it moves and what it needs)
All were excellent, and it felt nice that these weren’t pushed to the edges of the programme, either, but felt like central ingredients. For my taste, the plenary talks felt a little too much in the mould of the traditional interpretive humanities, rather than kicking off the mornings with something more methodologically daring. But overall, the dialogue felt real and open and like it was leading to genuinely beneficial programmes and interventions.
At the end I was left with some questions that aren’t by any means novel, but may bear repeating. In fact, maybe most of them reduce down in one way or another to the question I wrote down during the ‘closing circle’. We all sat in a big circle filled with nothing but carpet and were asked to write down a question that hadn’t been answered during the conference. I assumed they were all going to be put in a hat and some would be pulled out for discussion without the politics of knowing who’d asked the question, which seemed like a great idea for a finale. But then we were given a different task: say something we’d be taking away with us and something we’d like to leave behind. This was properly embarrassing for the Brits among us, and took so long that there was no time left for question-answering.
But since I have this platform – mine was: ‘Is it too easy to find ourselves confusing the benefits of the arts with the value of the humanities?’ A lot of the justifications for the health humanities voiced and demonstrated at this event seemed to come down to the common idea that the arts make us nicer (especially more empathic) people, but the way this happens in practice often makes it unclear whether we really need the complex analytic practices of the humanities, or just a willingness to engage directly with art (spend time in an art gallery, read a poem a week, whatever). Sure, we can imagine that knowing a little about how to look, or read, might make the looking and reading more likely to happen, and quicker to yield their pay-offs, but an evening course may be just as good at offering these benefits as a PhD and a professorship. (The next question I always want to ask is: since humans can’t help interpreting and often over-interpreting everything from football results to cloud patterns to Franz Kafka, should the humanities really just be about doing more of that, or should we be challenging ourselves to do the actually difficult thing, which is to analyse how and why and to what effect we analyse art – ask the meta-question rather than just keep scratching the same old pleasurable itch.)
The second question I came away with (and no, I’m not telling you what cheesy things I came up with to take away and leave behind, except that one was a crowd-pleaser and the other was not) is about a different kind of value: not of the arts or the humanities, but of health and illness. So the easy old wisdom was: health is good, illness is bad. How simple we once were! I completely understand why the automatic devaluing of illness relative to health needed challenging, and it has been (at least in these rarefied circles we walk in). But if illness is always as good and valid as health, what’s the point of healthcare?
During this conference I realised that I probably come at this from a rather particular angle, because the focus of most of my writing and research is eating disorders, especially anorexia. Eating disorders sit in an uncertain territory somewhere between illness and addiction, and one of their characteristics is a tendency of sufferers (and yes, I like that word) to defend them as valid lifestyle choices. This defence is best understood as one of the symptoms, coexisting with and perpetuating unhappiness, and so the most fitting response to it is not to take it at face value.
At one point in this conference a speaker said (not quite directly, but clearly enough) that it’s wrong to put money into dementia research rather than into dementia care, because research is somehow less humane. She actually equated research with a ‘search for a quick fix’. This is 1) bizarre and 2) raises the question of where illness shades into disability; where temporary and curable or treatable illness becomes permanent condition; and so where we are best to respond (whether the illness is our own or not) with acceptance of difference rather than with determination to change. More and more, eating disorders and other mental illnesses seem to be getting categorised as disabilities, but I wonder, especially with eating disorders, whether this is self-defeating and whether some kind of value judgement at some point is not just appropriate, but life-saving. Relativism has to stop somewhere. I guess the trick is to work out where.
Anyway, if you want to find out more take a look at the website, including the abstracts, and details of the plenaries and the break-out sessions here. I gather the event might be in Chicago next year, and I’d recommend checking it out. A few of the organising committee specifically told me they were trying to make themselves more genuinely ‘international’ (it was all pretty US-centric this year), so I’m sure they’d be glad to have more European participation. You can join their health humanities mailing list here .
Research Associate, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), University of Oxford