Term II 2010
Health Studies Program
Health Studies 4J03:
Narratives of Illness
(Provisional course outline)
Dr. David L. Clark
Office: CNH 210, Ext. 23737
Hugh Steers, Two Men and a Woman (1992) (Visual AIDS) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Class time: Tuesday 8:30 am-12:20 am
Office Hours: Tuesday 4-5 pm
This is a seminar about the many different ways in which major illness is experienced and described, whether by those who are ill or by others (including family members and caregivers). Rather than viewing illness through a biomedical lens–as important as that lens is–we are going to consider the kinds of “stories” that individuals create around illness and out of illness. (In this course, the term “stories” does not mean pretense but refers instead to the structures that shape and quicken accounts of illness, and that are a chief source of their significance both to the person who is ill and to those to whom the narratives are told.) Why is illness experienced and described in the particular ways that it is? What social and psychological forces are at work shaping how it is that an individual or a group feels and thinks about being “sick”? What sorts of stories do patients and care-givers tell about illness? Why those stories and not others? How do these narratives give meaning or significance to the experience of illness? For the purposes of this course, a “narrative of illness” names the particular form by which illness is experienced and described. Special emphasis will therefore be placed on the patterns or structures shaping narratives of illness, and on the kinds of “languages” (visual or verbal, autobiographical or documentary, to name a few) that are used in those narratives.
Narratives of illness come in many different forms: from autobiographical accounts to journalistic essays, and from fictionalized accounts to filmed documentaries. We will look at a broad range of materials, the basic assumption being that much can be learned about the nature and experience of illness by listening rigorously and capaciously to how that illness is being narrated. In what ways is an ill person a new kind of person? In what ways is a person more than their illness? Each of the narratives that we consider is challenging in its own way, and may well unsettle you, testing some of your basic assumptions about life, death, illness, and identity. More: I am a Humanities researcher and teacher offering a course primarily to social science and science students, and one of my goals is to explore and to affirm what happens when these different academic worlds make contact around the specific question of health, illness, embodiment, and the politics of health care. What can I learn from you, given your own education in social science, science, and health studies? What can you learn from me and from the distinct humanities perspective that I bring to this course?
After considering the work of two prominent thinkers about the narratives of illness (Frank and Sontag), neither one of which, to be sure, have the last word on the subject, we will turn to the narratives themselves: narratives of HIV/AIDS (Brown, Joslin), cancer (Broyard, Rogers, Woodman), and bipolar disorder (Perry). The course will include a class devoted to a frank discussion with a person living with HIV who regularly gives seminars at McMaster University.
1) Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics
2) Woodman, Marion. Bone: Dying into Life
3) Broyard, Anatole. Intoxicated By My Illness
4) Brown, Rebecca. Gifts of the Body
5) Clark, David L. and Anna G. Joong. “Speaking of HIV/AIDS: Reflections on the Local Faces of the Epidemic” (in 5 pdf files, i.e., all files in the section entitled Literature, Arts, and Medicine, found in the McMaster Medical School Journal 5.1 (Spring 2008). See: www.mumj.org and click “Past Issues,” then “Volume 5, Issue 1, Spring 2008".
6) Schnell, Lisa. “Learning How To Tell.” Literature and Medicine
23.2 (Fall 2004): 265-279. See:
7) Raeburn, Daniel. “Vessels (Stillbirth).” New Yorker
82.11 (May 1, 2006), 48.
1) My Left Breast
, dir. Gerry Rogers
2) Silverlake Life: The View From Here
, dir. Tom Joplin, Mark Massi, Peter Friedman
3) Boy Interrupted
, dir. Hart and Dana Perry.
(Additional readings may be provided and suggested along the way. Students are encouraged to recommend supplemental readings for class discussion.)
Work and Mark Distribution
Seminar Participation: 10%
Seminar Presentation: 30%
Response Papers: 20% (2 X 10%)
Research Essay: 40%
Seminar Participation (10%)
Members of the class will be encouraged and expected to create
, on an ongoing basis, a lively under-graduate seminar
an inquisitive and informed space of critical discussion and debate. All students will therefore be expected to contribute consistently and meaningfully to the intellectual life of the seminar, developing and volunteering questions and arguments as well as responding mindfully to queries and challenges that are put to them by their classmates and by their instructor. Students must be willing and able to:
–read and engage all assigned materials.
–attend all classes and participate in all classes.
–explore and absorb as much related critical material as possible, both seeking this material out independently and in consultation with their classmates and instructor.
–develop questions and arguments that are directly relevant to the materials at hand, and actively to introduce these points into the class discussion on a consistent basis.
–listen and respond thoughtfully to the issues raised in class, engaging the issues in ways that complicate and advance the intellectual life of the seminar.
–foster a developing scene of pedagogy, bearing in mind that a central part of our task is to teach others and to be taught.
Seminar Presentation (30%)
Each student will present a brief seminar presentation on one of the assigned texts or films. Seminars should be 15 to 20 minutes in length–at a maximum!–so you will need to prepare your remarks with care. Some seminar tips:
–Discuss your seminar with me during office hours at least one week before your presentation.
--Do not simply read from a prepared text, since this kind of delivery tends to “seal” you off from your listeners. Instead, prepare detailed notes, and address your classmates directly.
–Keep the focus on the specific question explored by this course: narratives of illness.
--Begin your seminar by briefly outlining what it is that you want to accomplish in your presentation.
–Organize your seminar around several distinct points. Link each of these points to specific materials drawn from the text at hand.
–Conclude by pointing to difficulties or unresolved questions you have about the materials under consideration, suggesting directions that the ensuing class discussion might take.
–Be prepared to help classmates discuss the materials at hand. In other words, don’t assume that once you have completed the formal presentation that your work in class is done.
–Be prepared to respond to queries or suggestions that I might make during or immediately after your seminar presentation.
Response Papers (2 x 10%=20%)
Each student will be responsible for two 750-word (3 pages) responses to the readings (other than the reading for which you are giving a seminar), each of which is worth 10% of your final grade, for a total of 20%. The response papers must be submitted at the start of the class in which the relevant reading is taken up. Response papers should provide a succinct summary of and engagement with some of the reading’s most pressing themes, arguments, and questions. Remember to keep the focus on the specific matter of narratives of illness. Organize your paper around several distinct points, linking these points to specific materials drawn from the text at hand. Point to difficulties or unresolved questions you have about the materials under consideration.
Response papers are assigned by lottery, according to which Group you fall into:
Group A: Sontag, Illness as Metaphor + Woodman, Bone: Dying into Life
Group B: Brown, Gifts of the Body + Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness
If your seminar presentation is on the same text as your assigned response paper
, then you must switch to the corresponding response paper in the other Group.
For example: You are assigned Group A, but happen also to be giving a seminar on Woodman’s Bone: Dying into Life. In this case, you are then assigned the corresponding response paper in Group B, which would be Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness.
Research Essay (40%)
10-15 page essay. Students are encouraged to write a research essay on a topic of their own choosing. You may write an essay based upon your seminar presentation
, but you are not bound to do this. With your permission, essays will be eventually be made available on my website. I am happy to discuss your research essay with you at every stage, but all students are expected to consult with me about their work at least once prior to submitting the essay. Essays are due in class Tuesday 30 March 2010
. Essays will be accepted up until Tuesday 6 April 2010
. Essays submitted after 13 March, though, will not receive a marking commentary.
If you are a smoker, please ensure that you print and submit a copy of your paper that is smoke-free.
The Faculty of Humanities has issued the following set of instructions to students: “It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff
, must originate from the student's own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student. Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.”
All e-mails must be written in full sentences (i.e. no point form, no text-messaging short form), and must contain a subject line that includes the course designation, i.e., "4AR3." Receipt of all e-mails from me must be acknowledged.
In the unlikely event of class cancellations, students will be notified on the Department of English and Cultural Studies website and on my website. It is your responsibility to check these sites regularly for any such announcements.
(Department of English and Cultural Studies)
Link: http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~dclark/ ( Dr. David L. Clark)
University Statement Regarding Academic Dishonesty:
Academic dishonesty consists of misrepresentation by deception or by other fraudulent means and can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: “Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty”), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.
It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various kinds of academic dishonesty see:
The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:
i) Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
ii) Improper collaboration in group work (Insert specific course information)
iii) Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.
All submitted work is subject to normal verification that standards of academic integrity have been upheld. See:
Statement from the Office of the Associate Dean
The instructor and university reserve the right to modify elements of the course during the term. The university may change the dates and deadlines for any or all courses in extreme circumstances. If either type of modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. It is the responsibility of the student to check their McMaster email and course websites weekly during the term and to note any changes.
Health Studies 4J03: Narratives of Illness
Provisional Seminar Schedule
(Term II 2010)
January 5 Introduction to the course and seminar assignments
12 Frank, The Wounded Storyteller
19 Schnell, “Learning How To Tell,” + Raeburn, “Vessels (Stillbirth)” [Group A]
26 Brown, Gifts of the Body
February 2 Silverlake Life: The View From Here
9 Silverlake Life: The View From Here
16 Reading Week
23 My Left Breast
March 2 My Left Breast
9 Discussion with Dr. S.M. Barber + Clark and Joong, “Speaking of HIV/AIDS: On the Local Faces of the Epidemic”
16 Woodman, Bone: Dying into Life
23 Broyard, Intoxicated By My Illness
30 Boy Interrupted
(film screening) [Research essay due]
April 6 Boy Interrupted