We should talk about our methodological failures

Claudia Sterbini articulates why medical humanities scholars should critically reflect upon methodological challenges to encourage collaboration

I started my PhD in September 2022. Suddenly, from my comfortable position as an MA student looking at religious references in Victorian novels, I was transformed into a researcher in the medical humanities. I spent months researching medical humanities methods, shaping my project, and reading the medical and literary material that interested me. However, when September came, I still felt like I couldn’t fully grasp what medical humanities was for me.

To understand the state of the field and how to structure my own research, I went to several workshops. These helped me to realise that my research is important because, in the words of Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, the ‘entanglements’ of the medical and the humanities make this field ‘an exemplary […] site through which to explore and challenge the dominant topologies, abstractions and utopian endpoints that govern the terrain of interdisciplinarity’ (Fitzgerald & Callard, 2016, p. 37). They also revealed to me how the medical humanities demonstrate the provisionality of medical categories and question how dominant scientific culture become naturalised (Millard, 2021). Finally, events organized by Birmingham’s Mental Health Humanities Network informed me about how incredibly hard it will be to get funding in the future, as fully interdisciplinary research like mine is difficult to pitch at the postdoctoral level.

What they didn’t tell me, however, was how to deal with my own failures. This became an urgent concern because I continued to struggle with visualising my own methodology in practice. Talks by other medical humanities researchers introduced me to new, fully-formed methodologies – but hearing about this work only revealed how different my own research appeared from theirs. Each ‘entanglement’ of different disciplines is constructed in new, transformative ways, and my work appeared differently entangled.

Man leading through a book in an archive
Tams Pritchard, photographer, John Bell, Engravings explaining the Anatomy, E.B 6117. Bel.

This is why, in July 2023, I developed a Methodologies Exchange workshop in association with the Edinburgh Health and Medical Humanities Network. The aim of this workshop was to help PhD students and ECRs to share our failures and mishaps within the medical humanities. We considered our own methodological dead ends and the ways in which we either overcame – or might overcome – those problems. I wanted participants to engage in dialogue with other researchers facing similar challenges and for the event to lead to reflections on their own approaches.

The workshop’s ethos was shared and supported by my supervisor and workshop moderator Katherine Inglis, who provoked essential and important questions regarding methodology that are rarely asked at workshop level: What kind of challenges have you previously faced? What kind of challenges are you facing now, and how are you dealing with your problems? And what have you learned from your methodological dead ends?

We thus discussed what medical humanities might accomplish as an interdisciplinary approach to research, and we usefully located differences and similarities in our previous experiences. We were also given the space to share our frustrations with the state of the field, and how its current formulation might not reflect our interests. We complained about the difficulty of finding employment within the medical humanities and the lack of funding to develop workshops like the one I have organized, which we agreed has led to the impoverishment of creative thinking, methods and practice(s) within academic research. In exchanging methods and paths to both success and failure, participants from subjects as disparate as literature, history, bioethics and creative writing explored their relationship with the medical humanities and the profound impact this field might have when given the appropriate resources.

We heard about participants struggling to gain access to medical archives and issues with gatekeeping of such resources, as they were asked why humanities students would need to consult scientific archives. Other researchers shared their concerns regarding the possibility that their medical humanities methods might dilute the ‘more proper’ literary analysis. I discussed my own issue with situating myself within the fields of medical humanities and sexuality studies, as I attempt to correct and work against common mis-readings of Victorian sexology.

Participants admitted having found spending time discussing methodological failures to be liberating and helpful in understanding they’re not alone in facing those challenges. This brings me to my main argument: we need to discuss our failures.

The medical humanities is now an accepted and established field of research. As Kate Errington writes in The Polyphony: ‘Today the medical humanities may no longer be considered niche: you can study it at university (like me), there’s a vibrant research community, multiple journals and conferences, all devoted to its study and development’ (2022, n.p.). Yet the medical humanities still needs attention and acclaim in order to generate greater access to resources and funding. It is essential to comprehend the ways in which medicine has impacted and continues to impact individuals personally, culturally and linguistically, and as we explored in the workshop, one way to deepen this understanding is through critical reflection upon methodological failures (and growth). It is important now to move on from aggrandising the medical humanities or, to use Adams and Reisman’s vocabulary, from discussing the field as ‘Sparking Joy’ (2019, p. 1404). In other words, ‘focusing on conventional concepts’ – and specifically, normative framings of the utility of the medical humanities – not only ‘will limit the trajectory and evolution of medical humanities programs’ (1404), but it also isolates researchers navigating ideas of interdisciplinarity, making them feel alone in their struggles. I am arguing that we must attend to these struggles and failures.

Anatomical museum entrance in black and white
Tams Pritchard, photographer, Anatomical Museum Edinburgh.

Engaging in workshops that emphasise how medical humanities research can be a steep learning curve will, I suggest, liberate conversations about the use-value of the medical humanities and create more formative relationships, practices and exhanges amongst academic researchers. We should focus not only on celebrating the success of brilliant and innovative medical humanities research but also on the struggle that those same researchers went through in developing fully formed methods.

The medical humanities, like most interdisciplinary research, is a field in continuous flux, in which no two projects use quite the same methods and approach. While this can be beautiful, it can also be complicated, because individual researchers take different approaches to interdisciplinarity. No one is doing quite what you’re doing methodologically – and this might lead to frustration or differing pathways to understanding. However, while our routes to success might be different, this workshop has demonstrated that our paths through research failure are similar.

It is essential, I suggest, to acknowledge these lived stories and not let researchers approaching this field for the first time feel alone in their struggles. I advocate for workshops modelled on the one I organized to be implemented frequently for medical humanities students. More open and honest discussions of our methodological failures will help us recognise not only the final and innovative results of medical humanities research, but also the ongoing epistemological struggles researchers face more broadly in academia.

About the Author

Claudia Sterbini is a PhD student at Edinburgh University. Her project, funded by AHRC through SGSAH, explores the construction of pathological asexuality in Victorian fiction. As Medical Humanities Project Assistant, she is has helped revive the Edinburgh Health and Medical Humanities Network. She is the editor-in-chief of the academic publication FORUM, a board member on the academic journal Romance, Revolution and Reform and on the referee panel of The Wellsian. She has published on sexology, asexuality, and the medical humanities and has presented widely on these topics, both to UK and international audiences.

References

Adams, Zoe, and Reisman, Anna. 2019. Beyond Sparking Joy: A Call for a Critical Medical Humanities. Academic Medicine 94(10): 1404.

Errington, Kate. 2022. The Long History of the Medical Humanities. The Polyphony. Blog post. 7 July.

Fitzgerald, Des, and Callard, Felicity. 2016. “Entangling the Medical Humanities,” in: Whitehead and Woods (eds.) The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, 35-49. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Millard, Chris. 2021. Conversations about Arts, Humanities and Health. Season 1, Event 3. Podcast. 26 May. Produced by Ian Sabroe and Dieter Declercq.

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