Reimagining the Possibilities: Mellon Mini-Course on Health and Humanities

By Jallicia Jolly, PhD Candidate in American Culture

Purposeful intellectual work meets publicly engaged humanities in “Health and Humanities” taught by Professor Alexandra Stern. The week-long intensive workshop in critical methods and social engagement invited graduate students to explore how we can use tools from the humanities and qualitative social science to mobilize our work. Importantly, the workshop asked: how does health humanities fit into your life?

As I expected, health humanities fits in everywhere!

I walked away out of “Health and Humanities” workshop feeling wildly inspired. Before the workshop, I was anxious about diving into the quicksand of isolation that is doctoral exams. A rising third year, I was prepared to become a hermit as I prepared to jump through another hoop that would eventually lead to the ultimate slam dunk: a PhinisheD dissertation! #Freedom?

Jallicia Jolly, PhD Candidate in American Culture

As an American Culture PhD student, I apply the concept of intersectionality to public health in the exciting area of health humanities in order to study the multidimensional experience of illness among HIV-positive Black women. In my doctoral work, theoretical bodies meet actual bodies through my exploration of how illness shapes the daily lives of young mothers living with HIV/AIDS.  As a young scholar interested in doing publicly engaged work, I am constantly grappling with how to incorporate health activism and social engagement into their scholarly projects.

I participated in the workshop for three primary reasons: 1) to learn how to effectively articulate my interdisciplinary approach; 2) to understand ways to connect my research to meaningful praxis that addresses health inequalities in under-resourced communities of color; 3) to cultivate community with other students who share my interests in applying health humanities research to today’s complex social problems.

“Health and Humanities” exceeded my expectations! I enjoyed participating in communal conversations with colleagues about groundbreaking literary, historical, anthropological, geographical, and medial research that engaged holistic understandings of health, illness, and the body. Additionally, exposure to different approaches to studying, analyzing, and producing knowledge about health provided me with helpful models for producing innovative scholarship on health. I appreciated conducting informational interviews with professionals from a variety of careers and devoting time to workshopping document that related to our distinct disciplinary approach. This was a helpful way to put to work the humanities frameworks that can prepare us for positions in community service, advocacy, and public interest organizations with health and social justice goals.

Several light bulbs went off during my experience! A few glow vividly:

  1. The importance of learning how to highlight broader competencies and transferable skills beyond our area of expertise.
  2. Practice self-care in ways that destroys the cycle of relentless sacrifices, mental degradation, and physical deterioration that accompany the myth of ‘effortless’ professional success in academia.
  3. Get feedback frequently (even before your work is completed!).
  4. Surround yourself with people with a wide range of skills.
  5. Develop and build relationships that not only advance you, but that also sustain and nourish you.

I gained and polished important skills applicable to an array of careers: facilitation, oral communication, editing, interpretation, active listening, data gathering, setting goals, meeting deadlines, presentation, creative imagination, developing relationships!

Professor Stern’s expertise in using historical research and analysis to understand and navigate contemporary dilemmas in health offered useful insight for students, like myself, considering how to apply their innovative scholarship on health to health humanities research to today’s complex social and political challenges.  For inspiration about the possibilities of what we can produce from putting health and humanities in conversation, I often turn to Stern’s work with the Eugenic Rubicon – a virtual collection of archival and interpretive materials related to the long history of eugenics in California.

I recommend “Health and Humanities” for anyone interested in exploring concrete models for how to apply graduate training to a wide array of career opportunities. For my colleagues who want to know how to critically evaluate their skills and aspirations to inform their creative reimagination of their ideal paths. And my peers who are considering paths that allow them to live wholesome lives and have fulfilling careers.

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