Monica O’Brien reflects on using medical history to develop students’ critical thinking and argumentation
In the Summer of 2020, I had an idea: Coffee! Being wholly honest, ‘Coffee!’ is one of the first thoughts in my head most mornings, but on this particular day I was brainstorming for ideas for a course that my colleague Dr Andrew Struan and I were developing for first- and second-year undergraduate students. We were in the process of selecting topics and materials for the brand-new History of Argument, offered through the Learning Enhancement and Academic Development Service (LEADS) at the University of Glasgow. LEADS’s goal is to ‘support and enhance student success’ across the university and one core focus is helping students to develop their academic skills, from analytical reading to researching to essay writing and beyond. This support is provided in various forms, such as through courses and individual appointments with LEADS advisors. History of Argument was one of the many new short courses that we developed during the pandemic to continue our mission of helping students to enhance their skills, and to provide a place of community and discussion in the challenging circumstances.
But where, apart from providing essential fuel, does coffee fit with argumentation and student development? As a historian of medicine, I was keen to bring something from my area into the course. While researching my master’s thesis, I had encountered a work by a highly reputed eighteenth-century Scottish-French physician, Daniel Duncan. His book, Wholesome Advice Against the Abuse of Hot Liquors (first published in French in 1705 and in English in 1706), played a crucial role in developing my understanding of medicine and thinking on diet in this period. The text was published at a time when tea and coffee were becoming normal parts of Western Europeans’ daily diets as trade with regions in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Americas continued to increase. This led to a proliferation of medical texts analysing these drinks, their potential impact on human health, and advice on how to consume them safely. Duncan’s book provides a fascinating insight into early modern ideas about diet and these drinks that are now ingrained in many of our daily routines.
Significantly, Wholesome Advice aimed to be useful for a wide slice of society, from medical professionals to social elites to bank clerks. Consequently, the book was, and remains, accessible to a wide readership, providing an ideal text for a first encounter with a source on eighteenth-century medicine. In contrast to some more technical works from the period, Duncan carefully explains his thinking, never assuming much, if any, prior knowledge of medicine, tea, coffee, chocolate, or the human body. Moreover, the book slots perfectly into History of Argument because in Chapter Two, ‘The Cause of the Different Effects of Coffee, Chocolate and Tea’, Duncan analyses his contemporaries’ arguments for and against these beverages, before developing his own case for moderate consumption.
Wholesome Advice, then, seemed to be an ideal fit for History of Argument and, as we further developed the course, I learned more about the work and its value for student learning. Andrew developed the course’s classes and resources on classical and modern structures of argumentation, bringing new perspectives to the text. I also co-taught the class on Wholesome Advice with my colleague Amber Hinde, a Carnegie Trust PhD scholar working on the rhetoric of health and wellness. Thanks to Andrew’s and Amber’s expertise in argument and rhetoric, along with our discussion-based classes with the students, I gained new insights into the craftsmanship of Duncan’s writing. Wholesome Advice exemplifies many of the core elements and structures of classical argument, for example in Duncan’s formation of his claims and argumentation (Propositio and Partitio). However, the text also hints toward some of the changes that would arise with more recent models, like the Toulmin method, and the clear style of writing that we encourage all academic authors toward today. Therefore, Duncan’s work provided an ideal piece for analysis and also a wonderful conversation-starter about academic writing today. In particular, it helped students to recognise the value of clear definitions and explanation (which Duncan does well). It also led them to argue for the significance of modern referencing systems (like Chicago and MHRA, which Duncan certainly did not use) in demonstrating that our evidence, and therefore our argument, is truly reliable.
Wholesome Advice also provided many students’ first experience with medical history and medical humanities, showing them the importance and potential of these fields. In Chapter Two, Duncan warns about forming perspectives without adequate evidence, and taking extreme positions regarding medical treatments (as tea and coffee had medical uses) and diet because of personal biases rather than logical analysis of facts and reliable evidence. This engages students with fundamental elements of critical thinking, core to any degree, as well as reflections on the long history of debates surrounding medicine and how we can assess what constitutes good, reliable, and ethical practice in this field. In the context of the Covid pandemic, it gave students the opportunity to consider how academics, the media, government, and each of us as individuals seek and analyse medical understanding within a wider historical context.
Significantly, Wholesome Advice, which is covered in History of Argument’s second class, also provides an important bad example. The book contains racist and Islamophobic statements that Duncan deployed with the aim of supporting his argument, demonstrating the depth of prejudice and structural racism in eighteenth-century Europe. This introduces students to two of the course’s main thematic strands, argumentation regarding human rights and prejudice, which develop in the following weeks as we look at the American Declaration of Independence, the Indians of All Tribes’ Alcatraz Proclamation, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and recent work on political speeches. Reflecting on Duncan’s text, the points where it is convincing and evidence-filled and contrasting these with his efforts to build an argument on prejudice, students evaluated that any form of prejudice is never a foundation for a strong or enduring argument.
Daniel Duncan wrote Wholesome Advice Against the Abuse of Hot Liquors to encourage his readers to consume tea, coffee, and other warm beverages in a healthy way. While times and medicine have changed (though ‘moderation’ remains generally good advice), for students on History of Argument this text provides an excellent place to develop their critical analysis. As we continue to recognise the vast potential of medical humanities, I argue that medical history and its sources can be a vital tool in developing students’ critical thinking about medicine, writing, and what makes a truly convincing argument.
Monica O’Brien is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel (Germany). Her current research explores the emotional histories of syphilis in Germany from 1495 to today. Twitter: @monaob1