Andrea Charise On the Health Humanities Frontier

Authored on:

Feb 21, 2014

Symposium Offers Paradigm-Shifting Moment 

Using music to manage chronic pain. Training the eye to see emotional as well as physical symptoms of suffering in a gallery of portraits. Absorbing a sense of well-being through encounters with the written word. Bringing together the arts, humanities, and health sciences offers incalculable benefits.

This April, the Obermann Center will offer a working symposium, Health Humanities:  Building the Future of Research and Teaching. With two new anthologies being published in the health humanities this year and new courses in this field emerging at the University of Iowa, the event will be a timely opportunity to appraise the current state of this emerging subfield. Another goal is for instructors, scholars, artists, and researchers across the University who focus on health, illness, and the body to share the challenges of working at the crossroads of seemingly disparate fields.

Mentoring by Physicians Opens Career Paths

It’s a position Andrea Charise knows well. As an Obermann Post-Doctoral Fellow this year, Charise is one of the key organizers of the symposium, along with Teresa Mangum, Director of the Obermann Center. While Charise ultimately pursued a Ph.D. in English at the University of Toronto, she often thought of pursuing a career in medicine or research.

As an undergraduate, she worked in an epidemiology research center. It was, she says, “an essential introduction to how medical research was conducted and disseminated.” After hitting a financially dry spot while pursuing her Master’s degree, she decided to use the skills she’d honed and took a job as a medical researcher in the Department of Geriatrics at the University of Western Ontario.

She originally anticipated a straightforward position as a data cruncher, but she quickly found herself being mentored by a team of exciting and dedicated physicians. “To my surprise, it was one of the most incredible work environments I had ever encountered. This experience also made me realize how much of my life had been spent working around and living with older people, from playing music in a high school band for the local veterans club, to living with my grandmother in the summer during my years as an undergraduate student.”

Geriatrics Often Given Short Shrift in Medical School 

Although Charise had taken the job without much thought about the field, she found herself passionately drawn to geriatrics and soon discovered the need for advocacy. “I was astonished to learn not only how inadequately the health of older people is addressed in health policy,” she recalls, “but the real paucity of medical education about geriatrics prior to a medical student choosing a specialty. Often, geriatrics is covered in a single afternoon over a four-year curriculum.”

Charise took a one-year research appointment to study how geriatrics is covered (or not) in medical education before diving into her Ph.D. and a dissertation focused on aging in Victorian literature. In retrospect, it was another opportunity to link her medical and humanistic understandings of older age. “The chair of the geriatrics department had commented to me that if I didn’t think medical research treated older people very well, he doubted literature did a much a better job. As I thought about it, I realized he was right—and that’s how I got started on my dissertation project.”

Dissertation Marries Two Passions

Charise’s doctoral dissertation allowed her marry her two passions through an analysis of representations of older age in nineteenth-century British novels. Her dissertation, “’Time’s feeble children’: Old Age and the Nineteenth-Century Longevity Narratives, 1793-1901,” focuses on how literary engagements with older age—the language, metaphors, portrayals—can be placed in conversation with similar strategies from medical discourses. Reading novels by George Eliot, William Godwin, and Mary Shelley next to nineteenth-century British medical textbooks, political tracts, and economic essays, she sought to better understand the evolving definitions and concerns about older people.

“Essentially, you find the beginning of geriatrics as a field during this era,” she says. Similar strategies were appearing in many discourses for how to approach the aging body as an object of study. “The aging body presented a real opportunity for what we would now call an ‘interdisciplinary’ conceptualization of human life.”

Now at work on a book that builds on these findings, Charise is investigating how the early nineteenth-century “invention” of population impacts broader cultural conceptualizations of older age—not only over the course of the nineteenth century but in our own age-averse historical moment as well.

Bringing Subfield Leaders to UI

Her scholarly work is perfectly in step with one of the roles she’s played this year at the Obermann Center as symposium organizer. Health Humanities: Building the Future of Research and Teaching will bring together a group of scholars who, like Charise, have walked the line between the humanities and health-related fields, and who now find themselves as leaders in a burgeoning area.  The six keynote speakers include the editors of the two forthcoming health humanities anthologies, Paul Crawford and Tess Jones, as well as the editor of a graphic medicine series, an artist who pioneered an arts-based training program for medical students, a founder of the best known narrative medicine program, and the co-director of a center for literature and medicine.

Obermann Center Director Teresa Mangum believes the symposium will have a significant impact on campus. “Thanks to Andrea’s ground-breaking interdisciplinary scholarship and connections with leading scholars and researchers in the health humanities, this promises to be a paradigm-shifting moment for the University of Iowa, and a leap forward in the larger field of the health humanities. This stunning international group of artists, humanists, and health care professionals from our campus and from three countries has the potential to inspire new cross-campus research collaborations as well as course proposals for the undergraduate health humanities track under discussion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.”

Charise and Mangum both hope that the symposium is an opportunity to build bridges that strengthen connections among the humanities, arts, and health campuses at the University of Iowa. Already there have been a series of spirited and well-attended planning sessions with people from across the University. It is also an opportunity to contribute to “the sedimentation,” as Charise puts it, of the subfield. In planning speakers and panels, she has been especially keen to emphasize the breadth of health humanities, which can include American studies, anthropology, the visual and performing arts, English, ethnic studies, history, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, sociology, public health, nursing, physical rehabilitation, and many other disciplines, as opposed to the medical humanities which are often narrower in scope and designed solely for medical students.

Growing Number of Health Humanities Programs

“We are really announcing a commitment to this expansive and, above all, rigorously imaginative vision of the field at the University of Iowa,” she says. “It is a commitment in line with the new minor in health humanities and courses at other post-secondary institutions,” including one at the University of Toronto-Scarborough that Charise is launching in Fall 2014, when she assumes her new role as an Assistant Professor of Health Studies. “I’m honored and excited to be given this chance to develop and lead the instruction of a brand new undergraduate course-cluster in health humanities,” the first of its kind in Canada and one of a growing number of such programs in North America.

The health humanities have an opportunity to forge new directions for undergraduate and graduate education, she believes. The field offers students a multitude of career and educational options, as opposed to the traditional but relatively singular option of medical school. “If there had been health humanities when I was starting college,” she muses, “I think I would have had clearer choices. My hope is to make those opportunities clearer for my students, who can now think seriously about building careers in this area. But I’m also committed to modeling—and advocating for—the opportunities presented by health humanities for colleagues and university administrators interested in expanding the role of the humanities in our society.”