Health humanities: The U of T expert behind the multidisciplinary program

Photo of Andrea Charise
Andrea Charise: "What attracts me to health humanities is how it asks researchers and educators to think about the relationship between the creative imagination of health and illness" (photo by Jennifer Rowsom)

University of Toronto's Andrea Charise is the lead developer of Canada’s first undergraduate program in health humanities, which looks at the impact of the humanities and critical social sciences on health.

Charise, assistant professor, English and Interdisciplinary Centre for Health & Society at University of Toronto Scarborough, is also the founding director of SCOPE: The Health Humanities Learning Lab, an arts- and humanities-based research and education initiative. 

“Health humanities or medical humanities, as it’s also sometimes called, can take a few different forms,” Charise says. “One approach involves more theoretical considerations of health, illness, disability and embodiment, as well as the aesthetics of representing illnesses like AIDS, cancer, dementia or depression in various creative media. But the field also encompasses more applied, hands-on practices: the use of arts-based health interventions such as art therapy, 'narrative medicine,' universal design, and health-care architecture, to name just a few.”

Health humanities has a broader and, arguably, more inclusive purview – than medical humanities, she says. “Because my own research involves investigating matters of health and illness as they exist outside of exclusively medical spaces – for example, in my work with allied health professionals (like nurses) or non-health-professional 'laypeople' – I prefer to use the language of health humanities,” she says. “But the politics of naming this field is an important issue that anyone interested in this field should be familiar with.”

She spoke to the department of English's Wajiha Rasul.

What shaped your interest in the relationship between the humanities, health and medicine?

What attracts me to health humanities is how it asks researchers and educators to think about the relationship between the creative imagination of health and illness, and how those ideas get put to work in the real world.

It’s common to hear criticisms of the arts and humanities as somehow disengaged from the urgency of contemporary life; and of course it’s essential to protect the creative arts from reductive assessments of their “use.” That said, health humanities offers us a powerful, concrete opportunity to argue for the value of the arts and humanities in the 21st century – especially for people, disciplines or communities that aren’t used to thinking about the arts as something other than a nice hobby.

My own interest in the relationship between the humanities, health and medicine began when I was in grade school. My two favourite subjects were English and biology, but for much of my undergraduate and graduate career, my interest in the connection between arts and health felt a bit inchoate – a sense that was often reflected back at me by family members, teachers, advisers or other well-meaning people who would say things like, “well, you're either a science or an arts person,” or “that’s nice, but you’re going to have to choose one someday!” Even while I was doing my master’s degree, I got strong messages that my interests in arts and health were eccentric and that I’d have to come around if I wanted to be employable.

A turning point came – intellectually and professionally – when I was hired as a research associate in geriatric medicine at Parkwood Hospital in London, Ont. Much of the research I did at Parkwood focused on how to improve elder care curriculum in undergraduate medical education. One intervention involved an intergenerational dance initiative, which we discovered had the effect of improving medical students’ attitudes toward working with older people. For me, this project highlighted the potential for community-based arts interventions to improve health outcomes, medical education, and health delivery more generally, especially concerning older people. 

How does literature facilitate what you want to understand about health?

 Paying attention to the texture of creative representations of health and illness help us understand how thoroughly steeped in metaphor, symbol and narrative our accounts of the body are – and have been for a very long time. For example, in the book that I’m completing now, entitled Aging, Population, and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, I examine how literary portraits of aging were entangled with increasingly medicalized ideas about what it meant to grow old.

Nineteenth-century Britain and Europe became increasingly attracted toward aging as a medical issue, but even as methods of understanding the body became more recognizably empirical, they still relied on deeply imaginative, even speculative, ideas of why bodies grew old. For example, immortality science was so closely connected with the political radicalism of the French Revolution, that a range of physicians, philosophers, and literary writers (like William Godwin, father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley) believed that by manipulating thought and language we might avoid growing old entirely.

This sounds pretty far out, until you see how researchers in our own time have made similar claims about the life-shortening effects of ageist language, policies and beliefs. What literature helps me realize is how thoroughly our understanding of the body – even in the ostensibly neutral or objective realm of medicine and research – depends upon deeply symbolic patterns and aesthetic concerns.

What potential careers can health humanities offer to its graduates?

Bioethics, health law, health communication, disability studies, medical illustration, art-based therapy, and health design are just a few potential career pathways; Health humanities is also part of the curriculum of a growing number of health professions including medicine, nursing, and rehabilitation sciences.

Working with my graduate and undergraduate researchers (Katherine Shwetz, Mehdia Hassan, and Mariam Rashid), we’ve compiled a Health Humanities Postgraduate Education and Career Pathways resource that outlines a wide range of potential careers – with a focus on Canadian opportunities. 

The good news is that health and allied health professions are increasingly open to collaborating with folks who have the special skills traditionally emphasized by humanities disciplines – including critical reading and thinking, close reading, oral and written communication, visual literacy, and narrative analysis.

If you’re an undergraduate or graduate student interested in pursuing this interdisciplinary field as a career, check out resources like SCOPE: The Health Humanities Learning Lab for more information on how to get involved.

Tell us about your own research in health humanities?

As a literary scholar with more than 15 years’ experience as a medical researcher (primarily in geriatrics), it’s clear to me that growing old is far more than just a physiological or biological phenomenon. What my interdisciplinary research aims to do is highlight the fascinating texture of aging, which is far more complex than the usual platitudes regarding decline or so-called “successful” aging.

My research and teaching are committed to demonstrating how the arts and humanities are especially valuable materials for exploring the many different meanings and expressions of aging – so I’m especially glad to have been chosen as the first recipient of the Digital Scholars Fellowship, co-sponsored by the Jackman Humanities Institute and University of Toronto Scarborough, to explore the special affordances of a digital approach to age studies and health humanities more generally.

What is the future of health humanities?

An interdisciplinary field like health humanities has many possible futures, but one important thread to follow will be how the relationship between arts, humanities, and health – how this intersection is taught, researched, and funded – plays out in different national contexts. The fact that North America, for example, is home to multiple public and private health-care systems means that our understanding of how the arts can – or should – be brought to bear on matters of health and illness is dependent upon these contexts.

The amplification of voices, experiences, and communities that have been historically marginalized or exploited in the name of health care, research, and policy is another necessary future for this field. If you’re interested, I’ve just recently written about these issues in an article for the Journal of Medical Humanities.  


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