Super Seminar: When science and the humanities collide

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By Katelyn Billings

Each spring term, a different super seminar is offered. This spring’s super seminar explores the connections between the medical field and the humanities, weaving elements such as theater and ceramics into medical professions.

Students that take the course are lucky enough to have multiple professors, each teaching for a week in this team-taught course.

The class is very interactive, often pushing each student’s personal boundaries and comfort zones to the brink. That is when they see the connection between their medical field major and something from arts and humanities.

As the pre-med director at Union for twenty years, Professor Weisse already sees the difference in her students as a result of the change in environment provided by the seminar.

Weisse recognized that arts majors used very different tools in the classroom and can now understand the valuable link between the two fields.

Weisse said, “As a medical psychologist, I provide the science portion of the course. My section was on the healing qualities of different art forms.

“I had the students research articles that presented empirical evidence on the nature of the relationship between art and healing. We explored the connection between journaling and poetry and healing the ill, and how art can be used therapeutically,” continued Weisse.

Professor Weisse further explained one week that left an impression on her.

The week’s theme was on the power of touch, something that future surgeons and doctors have to be fluent in. Weisse described the process by which the students traipsed out to the ceramics studio to create their own ceramic masks.

The students first worked with the clay while blindfolded and then without a blindfold. The comparison between being able to see versus working blindly really emphasized the power of touch.

Professor Weisse explained that this process was quite integral to preparing for the medical field.

It is especially important for future surgeons and doctors, as they need to learn to be gentle with their touch when looking for tumors, giving checkups and performing other examinations.

“My motivation to be involved here [in the class] is being able to see perfectionists afraid to make mistakes. With these disciplines, there isn’t an exact formula or a black-and-white answer, and for health care it is important because you aren’t perfect, you will make mistakes,” said Weisse.

The students just finished their unit on Dream Theater, taught by Professor Patricia Culbert. In this unit, the students read poems, dreams and short stories and acted them out, bringing the words to life.

“Reading something aloud makes for such a different experience,” Weisse commented.

The class read a short story written by a Union alum who was a physics major as well as a freelance writer, which was an ideal combination to feature in the course.

His short story was about a man who died in a car crash and whose heart was donated to another man. The crash-victim’s widow spends the story relentlessly tracking down the transplant patient. When she finds the transplant patient, she asks to listen to her deceased husband’s heart.

“This allowed our students to contemplate the boundaries of transplants and the concept of bioethics, which is a prominent issue in all medical fields,” said Weisse.

While watching Professor Culbert guide the students in the unfamiliar territory of Dream Theater, she encouraged them to “live truthfully.” Living truthfully would be when they would truly learn and express themselves earnestly.

The purpose of the theater portion is to engage the students’ minds as well as their physical bodies. This dual engagement is something that ordinary lectures typically fail to do.

This week, Dr. Danielle Ofri will visit the class and present her work on narrative medicine. Ofri’s work delves into the conscious mind and morals of a doctor when faced with difficult situations.

“By writing about these issues, you can better process them. It’s quite important for these students because they will be faced with the deaths of patients, many mistakes and just the fact that someone’s life rests in your hands is going to be a significant challenge, and Ofri’s work offers personal insight,” explained Weisse.

Leadership in Medicine student Jakub Kaczmarzyk ’16 is especially intrigued by these subjects. He took a seminar last term that focused on connections among all fields of study. He enjoyed that seminar so much that he decided to take this super seminar.

“The professors of the seminar never tell me that poetry, acting, ceramics and music heal people — they show me. With each session, I feel a sense of ease and equilibrium,” said Kaczmarzyk.

He continued, “I now appreciate parts of my past that I had never given much thought to, and I have come to know some of my classmates better than I know some of my long-time friends. The super seminar is proving to be one of my most valued experiences at Union.”

Clearly, the super seminar is having a profound effect on the students as well as the instructors. A class like this only comes once in a lifetime. With the information the students garner from each session, they are better prepared to venture into their fields and the rest of their lives.

Weisse and her teammates are certain that this super seminar provides necessary understandings of the bridge between the humanities and the medical field.

Weisse hopes that with the course’s popularity, it might become a staple in Union’s register, and we hope so too! Many Union students could benefit from the unique style and teachings of this super seminar.

 

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