Class Spotlight: Writing and Medicine

Dr. Jennifer Arch, Ph.D
Senior Lecturer in the Department of English

What courses do you teach? What is your teaching philosophy in general?

Since 2003, I have taught a variety of courses in the English Department and the Medical Humanities Minor, including History of the English Language, Writing and Medicine, Argumentation, Literature and Medicine, The Sentence in English, Prose Style in English: History and Craft, and Early Texts and Contexts. In the spring I will teach a new first-year seminar called A World Without Time: The Literature of Pandemic Disease. With such a range of courses, I necessarily assign readings in a variety of genres: poetry and prose, lyric and epic, essays and journalism, fiction and non-fiction, Middle English and Modern English. My general aim in all these courses, however, is the same: to show students the power of language to create meaning, to describe experience, and—in a society in which discussions of public policy still are conducted mostly in long-form writing—to influence the thinking of those who are working to improve the lives of individuals or to change the shape of our society in positive ways.

What is Writing and Medicine? Why did you create it?

I created Writing and Medicine back in 2011 to give students the opportunity to read and discuss excellent recent essays on the general theme of medicine. We study writings by patients, physicians, and journalists who use various rhetorical means to describe what it is like to be a patient or a physician in the modern American health care system. The course fulfills the WI requirement; I have tried to create assignments that allow students to do their own thoughtful writing on the topics of illness and medical care. Although many of the students who take the course are pre-medical and pre-dental, insofar as the subject of medicine is relevant to everyone, I’m happy to say that students with other professional aims also seem to have found value in it.

What do you hope students will learn in Writing and Medicine?

I hope students will learn from the course that good writing is essential for communication in any field related to medicine, whether in patient care, public conversation about policy, memoir, or any other kind of discussion. The texts I choose—by influential writers such as Susan Sontag, Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Michele Harper, Alice Trillin, Danielle Ofri, Terrence Holt, Nancy Mairs, Oliver Sacks, Audre Lorde, Laura Hillenbrand, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jerome Groopman, and Michael Specter—offer various models which students may choose to imitate in their own work. I also hope to impress upon students the value of reading longer-form works even if not directly related to their chosen fields, not only because reading itself is rewarding, but also because responsible citizenship requires being informed on matters of general interest. Reading is the best way to become so informed.

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