Life/Death | Health/Justice

Fall 2021

[Image description: Screen grab from the film Wit. The camera looks down from the ceiling of Dr. Bearing’s hospital room. She lies unconscious on her bed at the center of the shot. Her nurse Susie leans over her and holds her head gently in her hands.]

One thing that can be said for an eight-month course of cancer treatment: it is highly educational. I am learning to suffer.

                        —Prof. Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson’s Wit

In fact, the Hmong view of health care seemed to me to be precisely the opposite of the prevailing American one, in which the practice of medicine has fissioned into smaller and smaller subspecialties, with less and less truck between bailiwicks. The Hmong carried holism to its ultima Thule. As my web of cross-references grew more and more thickly interlaced, I concluded that the Hmong preoccupation with medical issues was nothing less than a preoccupation with life. (And death. And life after death.)

                        —Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

To me, disability is not a monolith, nor is it a clear-cut binary of disabled and nondisabled. Disability is mutable and ever-evolving. Disability is both apparent and nonapparent. Disability is pain, struggle, brilliance, abundance, and joy. Disability is sociopolitical, cultural, and biological. Being visible and claiming a disabled identity brings risks as much as it brings pride.

                        —Alice Wong, Disability Visibility

I conceive of care as the way someone comes to matter and the corresponding ethics of attending to the other who matters.

                        —Lisa Stevenson, Life Beside Itself

In this course, we will explore big questions about life and death and health and justice. We will investigate these questions through several case studies, moving from experiences of ill and disabled bodies in the world to the way global events and structures affect those experiences, and back again. Our first series of case studies will look at various relationships within the institution of medicine: between doctors and patients, patients and nurses, doctors and nurses, etc. As we analyze these relationships, we will consider the way knowledge, power, and choice gets expressed in and through these relationships. Our second series of case studies will expand out from specific relationships within medicine to larger global events and structures that affect the health of peoples throughout the world, historically and in the present. In the most general terms, we are interested in being, doing, and becoming in relation to illness and disability experiences and events, therapeutic thought and practices, and clinical and caring institutions and spaces. We will explore biopolitical issues, including the social determinants of health and structural violence, to address why some people are at greater risk for illness and premature death than others. We will also explore disability justice as a practice of care. Some of our organizing questions for the semester include: Why and how are illness and disability political? What factors impact health? What constitutes good care? How can we improve access and deliver better care? 

Life/Death | Health/Justice syllabus

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