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Understanding Illness: Ethnography, Narrative, and Graphic Medicine

Course enrollment will be available for this course once it is scheduled.

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Course Description

The course provides an anthropological and humanistic perspective on the illness experience through ethnography, narrative, and comics.

The course will use anthropological and humanistic perspectives to think about the experience of illness and suffering. Students will be required to read and engage with both theoretical texts and different narrative media, such as fictional, ethnographic, or autobiographic writing, and comics.
The course uses anthropological theorizations of illness and suffering to help student understand how illness and healing are conceived across cultural contexts, but also how illness experiences are shaped by structures of power and inequality. Students will read and critically think about models of care and healing, and how these can improve health and medicine. The course will be structured around understanding experiences of embodied suffering through cases such as chronic pain, disability, chronic illness, and mental health concerns. We will think about how researchers, doctors, and patients can write about suffering and illness. Analyzing different media of story telling (narrative, graphic/comics, ethnographic), we will evaluate their different characteristics and potentials.
The class highlights the importance of first-person narration as a tool to both communicate suffering and make sense of the illness experience. For this reason, the readings will comprise an array of patient-centered writing in both graphic and narrative medicine, and ethnography. However, we will also read texts written by doctors and healers – broadly understood – about their experiences of providing care and helping others through physical and emotional suffering.
The course has critical thinking, research, and creative components. Students will familiarize with the bases of life-history interviewing and autoethnography, which they will put in practice by conducting an ethnographic interview with a family member, friend, or classmate about their experience, or focus on their own stories. Students will then have an opportunity to experiment with different narrative media to translate these narratives into writing, drawing, or other creative media that they may want to engage with. Ultimately, the course develops critical reading, research skills, and creating writing skills that will be useful in a variety of college-level disciplines.

This course will build skills in critical thinking, ethnographic research, and creative narrative production. By the end of the course students will:
• have acquired a critical understanding of foundational anthropological and humanistic approaches to illness and health;
• have acquired a critical understanding of the importance and potentials of narrating suffering for both patients and professionals;
• have familiarity with different narrative media and writing techniques;
• gain an overview of basic ethnographic interviewing methods;
• produce a short piece based on interview or auto-ethnographic material in the preferred narrative format.

The course is open to all and does not require any prior knowledge or particular creative skills. Students who are drawn to the study of medicine and in particular to its humanistic aspects, who want to experiment with their creative skills, or are interested in the study of medical anthropology or the medical humanities will find the course of particular interest.

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