Workshopping the Medical Humanities

Maria Vaccarella writes about putting the “work” back into “workshop” in the medical humanities. 

During the summer, I coordinated two medical humanities workshops: “Texts as Symptoms” (part of my project Illness as Fiction: Textual Afflictions in Print and Online) and, together with Giovanni Biglino, “Towards a Narrative Cardiology”. The term “workshop” was carefully chosen: anticipating participants coming from humanistic and medical backgrounds, I wanted both meetings to be inclusive and interactive, I wanted to “do some work” with them, rather than relying exclusively on the well-established formula of presentations and Q&A. In fact, activities with varying degrees of audience participation are not incompatible: “We actually had time to discuss!” I was told by an elated participant after the morning presentations at ‘Texts as Symptoms’, which were followed by a 30 minutes roundtable debate that involved everyone present.

Part of an exercise at Texts as Symptoms

This may sound like reinventing the wheel of academic events, but I’m afraid it’s more a sign of the wheel having been previously bent so badly that it wouldn’t function properly anymore. From the feedback I gathered at both events, I am not the only academic who doesn’t enjoy sitting through endless presentations with little to no time for discussion, maybe at so-called workshops, which end up being just another conventional conference – and not of the most stimulating kind.

I definitely wanted to put back the work in workshop with ‘Texts as Symptoms’: fake illness memoirs, the overarching theme of the project, is a new area for me and being outside of my comfort zone provided extra-motivation to make the day as productive as possible. Inviting experts, such as Sue Vice and Katrina Longhurst, to share their recent research on the topic and its ramifications was a first step in this direction: they provided a much-needed introduction to the complexities of health-related autofiction to all participants in the room. But the afternoon session gave everyone a chance to try their hands at exploring the blurry line between autobiographical and fictional illness narratives in a dynamic, even playful, way, by competing in a fact or fiction quiz or by devising new titles to remarket memoirs as novels and vice versa.

Image credit: Abby Ashley

The need for interaction and experimentation was even stronger in “Towards a Narrative Cardiology”, where Giovanni and I wished to lay down some initial specialty-specific features of a training programme in narrative medicine for professionals working in cardiac care. Expert presentations from a variety of backgrounds (Havi Carel, Brian Hurwitz, Jo Wray, and Sofie Layton) were framed by patients’ testimonials of congenital heart disease, as for example British Heart Foundation Ambassador Jonathan Stretton-Downes, who presented his campaign “Six Times Open”. Three rotating training stations in the afternoon offered participants the opportunity to reflect on both verbal and visual heart imagery by analysing poems or by embossing heart-related figures on aluminium plates. The underpinning objective was to better understand how patients and healthcare professionals describe and make sense of the heart and its features with a view of developing more and more effective communication strategies for clinical encounters.

Working across disciplines poses many challenges, such as finding a common methodology or conveying ideas to different audiences successfully. But, as anyone working in the medical humanities will know, these challenges can be reframed as opportunities for being more inventive in our approaches to research and dissemination. In the words of Fritz Breithaupt, founder of the Experimental Humanities Lab at Indiana University, this is what the humanities have always done: “Ask questions, observe, question our world, and, yes, experiment and gather data”. It is refreshing to realize that often the best strategy is there, right before our humanities-trained eyes.

For collections of tweets from the days see: Texts as Symptoms and Towards a Narrative Cardiology.


Maria Vaccarella is a Lecturer in Medical Humanities at the University of Bristol. She is currently working on the British Academy-Leverhulme funded project ‘Illness as Fiction: Textual Afflictions in Print and Online’, and on the monograph Doctoring Stories: Biomedicine in Contemporary Western Literature. She is on Twitter @drmarvac


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