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  • Collaboration Across the Disciplines: An Experiment in Interdisciplinary Pedagogy

The two articles in this section of Literature and Medicine were written by members of an experiment in interdisciplinary pedagogy that gave advanaced Ph.D. students in English an opportunity to collaborate with faculty at Vanderbilt Medical School. The articles are not only excellent contributions to scholarship in their own right but also examples of an exciting new model for interdisciplinary training in the field of literature and medicine.

Faculty in medical schools have little practical incentive to collaborate with literary scholars. The study of novels or poems might be a valuable supplement to the education of medical students, but it is hard to see how it can contribute to the funded research of medical faculty. By contrast, investigations of the ethical, social, or cultural implications of medical research from a policy perspective often enhance a research proposal and are sometimes required as a condition of granting agencies. The policy sphere is a relatively new development in our society; it dates back to the mid-1960s, when the first Institutional Review Boards were mandated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and it has grown over the past four decades to affect every aspect of scientific and medical research.1 No study involving human subjects can go forward today without prior review of its social and ethical implications. Numerous investigators across the university collaborate with medical school faculty to examine how language, values, myth, and emotion affect the practice of medicine. To weigh cultural factors, sociologists assess survey data; anthropologists conduct focus groups; legal scholars interpret court cases; communications scholars study the image of science in journalism, advertising, television, and the web; religious scholars reflect on the impact of faith communities [End Page 127] and traditions. Criticism and interpretation of culture thus flourish in the policy arena—just not in the hands of literary critics.

Before the semester, we arranged for each English graduate student to join a research team in a laboratory in the medical school with the goal of identifying a literary work that explored the social or cultural implications raised by the lab’s investigations. In the process, the students learned something about how grants are developed in the sciences; how multi-disciplinary teamwork occurs in the medical world; and how to generate papers on social, ethical, and cultural issues raised by science and medicine. In the graduate seminar, students explored collaborative research techniques more common in scientific disciplines than in English studies. The guiding principle behind this experiment was that literary scholars have more to contribute to the realm of science policy than to the actual research of scientists or medical investigators.2

Vanderbilt Medical School investigators were open to the idea of taking an English graduate student onto their research teams to think about the cultural implications of their projects. They discovered that humanities scholars were more than qualified to understand the ethical and cultural implications of the research, even if the details of the science remained largely opaque. One of the barriers to the interdisciplinary aspirations of humanists in this area is the persistent assumption that our work ought to be targeted at doctors and scientists, who have no professional incentive to care about our insights. However, when addressed to an audience of policy experts who are already receptive to cultural analysis, our work intervenes in an established interdisciplinary conversation that has real consequences for medical research and practice. A slogan for this new approach might be: Don’t try to change the science, change the science policy.

The participants in this pedagogical experiment wrote papers on topics ranging from organ transplants to infectious diseases to in vitro fertilization to death and dying. They worked closely both with their literature and their medical school mentors. In several cases, the principle investigator (PI) in the medical school assigned another member of the research team to serve as the primary mentor. In every case, the literature professor was the person responsible for assessing the final research project. The two articles presented here display an unusually exact understanding of the medical issues at stake, while interpreting literary texts with sophistication. Their implications for policy questions...


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pp. 127-131
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