“Live the questions now” 2019/20

In their fourth year, students at Exeter Medical School undertake a Medical Humanities Longitudinal Special Studies Unit. Since 2018/19 I have been one of a number of SSU Providers, each of us with 4-6 students. Through our different Humanities disciplines – from poetry to philosophy, composition to conceptual art, life drawing to Lego serious play – we aim to encourage and help our students to reflect on their training and practice.

This year I ran contact sessions during three weeks in October, December and March, providing additional guidance where required. Usually I would also support their SSU conference in June, but this year it was replaced by electronic submission of presentations. It is one of the most life-giving things I do during the year, and a great privilege.

About the Medical Humanities unit: from the Handbook

“…the humanities in undergraduate medical education may enhance empathy and perspective as well as an openness to ‘otherness’, at the same time stimulating reflection on self, others and the world”

Jones, E. K., Kumagai, A. K. and Kittendorf, A. L. (2019) ‘Through another lens: the humanities and social science in the making of physicians’, Medical Education, 53(4), pp. 328–330. doi: 10.1111/medu.13817

“The University of Exeter Medical School regards the consideration of the Humanities in all its many forms, as vital to the development of skills that are central to the effective delivery of medicine. The well- equipped medic requires the acquisition of scientific knowledge to be demonstrated and applied as an art form. In order to achieve this mix of disciplines, there needs to be the opportunity to share and discover art – to be challenged to think and approach problems from a different starting point: to awaken the powers of observation, communication, and the subtleties and sub-text of perception, so that conclusions can be questioned and considered from a truly human perspective. Perhaps of greatest significance, is the realisation that sometimes the physical manifestation of a problem is concealing a set of circumstances that may indeed point towards a dual diagnosis.

“The Medical Humanities Longitudinal (MHL) SSU gives you an opportunity to investigate humane, creative and contested aspects of medicine using the arts and humanities as media for ‘thinking otherwise’. Medical humanities, unlike biomedical sciences, are not about ‘right answers’. Rather, they are about interpretation, points of view, argument, critique and representation. The arts and humanities help to demonstrate the intrinsic beauty and qualities of science, especially in complex science. The medical humanities both complement and critique biomedical approaches to health, illness and the human body. They bring you closer to understanding why health is influenced by social conditions, culture and personality. They help you to ask interesting questions like ‘What is empathy?’, ‘What can literature tell us about patients’ stories?’ and ‘What purpose do medical films or soap operas serve?’ Humanities help us to understand what a human being is, and why they matter.”

“Live the questions now: control, connectedness and making conceptual art”

Description of my unit

Art is involved in addressing the big questions of meaning, value, and purpose: “what is the good life? a healthy life?”

Human beings are not separate and surrounded by ‘the environment’, but are intimately connected with the rest of nature. Our physical and mental health are affected (winter mortality, green space), and our activities affect nature in turn (climate change). So who is in control? We have to accept uncertainty, and rethink what we thought we knew about ourselves and our place in the world. What parallels are there with the doctor-patient relationship?

This SSU will give an introduction to conceptual and environmental art, using my recent data-driven environmental art and others’ work as examples. We will look at meaning-making, how we turn ideas into art, and then we will make art.

Participants will be expected to be prepared to question everything, and make artwork that will provoke thought!

Aims of the SSU:

  1. Ask questions about who we are, the world we live in, and how we live in it, and learn to see the world in a different way.
  2. Gain a deeper appreciation of nature, and humans in our natural context.
  3. Create thought-provoking art.

Examples of the content of the contact sessions:

  1. Intro to some concepts: conceptual art; environment and health; ‘tell it slant’ approaches to data visualisation; living with uncertainty.
    Exercises in ideas generation.
    Briefing on the project process, outputs and assessment.
  2. Share progress on the process and early work produced.
    Brainstorming any questions and problems raised.
  3. Share the practically completed work and the process of making it; respond to and critique others’ work.
    Plan presentation at the April conference.

What the students produced

As in 2018/19, I was really impressed with the students’ engagement throughout the unit and the art work that they produced. I encouraged them to share their processes, from an initial bouncing around of ideas to mock-ups to the almost final work, and feed back on each others’ work.

Usually I would have included an exhibition/exam in the March week, but this coincided with the beginning of lockdown, and everything changed. Instead we had a ‘private viewing’ on Slack. Instead of presenting the work at a conference in June, the students submitted Powerpoint presentations and had the opportunity to publish their work on the padlet embedded below. One of my students shared her piece “Nature vs Nurture: What really makes us sick”. Please do explore it.

The other pieces took in the Amazon rainforest, burning a painting, and reflections on loss; the different faces of mental health; and an exploration of ‘Satisfactory’ performance through the medium of reproducing anatomical diagrams.

Made with Padlet

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