Course Descriptions

Health and the Humanities
Over the last few decades, “medical humanities” and “health humanities” programs have been popping up in health professional schools across the country. In these courses, students study works of art, literature, history, and philosophy in the hopes that these endeavors will help them become better healthcare providers. But what exactly are “the humanities”? How do they differ from “the arts” or “humanity” itself? And how does a humanistic education benefit both healthcare providers and their patients? In this seminar, we will consider health through the lens of three humanities disciplines: visual studies, literary studies, and history. Throughout the semester, we will carefully examine and write about works of visual art, narratives, and archival documents in order to ask questions about authority, autonomy, and access in clinician-patient relationships. We will pay particular attention to how these are inflected by race, gender, ability, and class.
The Politics of Self-Care
We all know the quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” But what exactly did the Black feminist writer Audre Lorde mean when she wrote this now famous sentence while living with cancer in 1988? Self-care is, as Lorde suggests, a mode of critique – an insistence that existing infrastructures aren’t meeting one’s needs. But it also can and has been adopted to far less radical ends. In this course, we’ll interrogate the relationships between self-care; politics; and physical, mental, and spiritual health by turning to three distinct moments in the history of American self-care. We’ll begin by examining nineteenth-century “self-reliance” as articulated by transcendentalist writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who sought to distance themselves from dominant religious institutions and economic structures. From there, we’ll consider Lorde’s historical moment – the late-twentieth-century, when activist groups including the Black Panther Party, the Boston Women’s Health Collective, and ACT UP created community forms of healthcare as alternatives to discriminatory medical systems. Finally, we’ll examine how these histories have shaped our contemporary understandings of self-care, including self-improvement discourses such as wellness and the experiences of people with chronic illnesses.
Feminism Before Suffrage
Long before they secured the right to vote, women in the United States were actively engaged in an array of political and social debates from abolition and labor reform to marriage and Indigenous sovereignty. In this course we’ll explore this history of American feminist expression by tracing the ways in which women writers from 1776-1920 contested and asserted ideas about sex, race, class, and citizenship. Our readings will range widely from letters, speeches, and essays to autobiography, fiction, and drama. Questions of intersectionality will be central to our analysis throughout the semester as we examine how a diverse set of women used their writing to challenge national narratives and transform the American body politic. Along the way, we’ll reflect on the experience of reading these texts in our own historical moment. What insights and energies do these works impart for later writers and activists? What injuries and exclusions do they enact? How might we define the category of “feminist writing”? Where might we place our readings within its history?
Literature and Public Health
In this course, we’ll examine creative works that respond to outbreaks of infectious disease in the twentieth- and twenty-first-century United States. From HIV/AIDS and polio to H1N1 and COVID-19, American public health crises have been shaped by and exacerbated existing inequities, given rise to communities and networks of care and support, and been periods of reflection and reckoning. Over the course of the semester, we’ll ask how writers employ narrative and poetic forms to make meaning of infection, inoculation, quarantine, transmission, treatment, survival, and loss as both collective and individual experiences.
A Disability History of the U.S.
In this course, we will examine the history of disability in the United States in order to better understand the policies, practices, and attitudes that impact disabled people in our own time. Working from Kim Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, students in this course will study the cultural significance of disability across a range of contexts. From early Indigenous understandings of bodily difference to late-twentieth-century disability activism, disability has had a range of meanings for various groups. Throughout the semester, we will consider an assortment of disabilities, including physical, cognitive, and sensory impairments; and we will bring an intersectional lens to our topic by asking how the experiences of disabled people have been shaped by ideas about race, ethnicity, gender, and class. We will then build on what we’ve learned about the history of disability to identify related contemporary social problems. Drawing such connections between past and present through a variety of genres, students in this course will use writing to interrogate the ongoing politics of disability, justice, and inclusion. 
Accessibility and Activism
How are you reading this course description? What tools are you using? Are you reading alone? Collaboratively? Is your reading process visual, auditory, or tactile? Is it a combination of all three? There are countless ways to access a text, and this idea will be central to our concerns in this class. Throughout the semester, we will read and write about disabled activists’ experiences of and insights about accessibility. We’ll consider the various ways readers make their way into texts of all kinds as well as into physical and social environments. We’ll also think about audience in our own compositions and strive to make our work maximally accessible. In doing so, we will explore the possibilities and limitations posed by different modalities (visual, auditory, etc.) and develop a set of best practices that will inform our approach to writing.