Medical Humanities International Research Colloquium
St Chad’s College, Durham
16-19 September 2011
Medical humanities’ development as a field of enquiry has – quite rightly – been fairly organic and spontaneous, reflecting what its scholars have found interesting and important. Such diversity is splendid, but it does have a practical downside in that (with a few conspicuous exceptions) the field’s most energetic research hasn’t always matched the priorities of research funding bodies. At least in terms of humanities funding, medical humanities work hasn’t – we think – so far managed to attract an appropriately large share of what’s available. So, how to do better?
At Durham we’ve been very fortunate to receive generous support from the Wellcome Trust, and we thought it would be an appropriate use of some of that support if we could facilitate a gathering of a number of MH scholars to get together for a few days with the simplest and most open agenda possible: to survey current and future research opportunities, to share thoughts on identifying some major research questions for medical humanities in the next five years, and – if possible – to ignite new collaborations among participants, with a view to their subsequently working-up some compelling new funding applications. What was needed was a brief and intense period of face-to-face discussions with distinguished colleagues from a variety of institutions and disciplines, as it were ‘telescoping’ the alternative processes of correspondence and journal publication.
To achieve this necessarily required a fairly small-scale meeting, at least to start with, and so it was never going to be possible to include more than a minority of those with an excellent claim to be present. We began with some of the scholars best-known to us, and the invitation must have been found attractive, since the full complement of places was filled almost immediately! (though we were all aware of prominent absentees, and we hope that this first meeting will be an exploratory one that can be followed-up by repeats in the future, putting right the omissions this time). About twenty people from Ireland, the United States, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom accordingly gathered in St Chad’s College, Durham University, on the evening of Friday 16th September for the start of what was to prove a remarkably successful extended weekend of intense, freewheeling discussion.
The modus operandi was to sustain the kind of conversational opportunities found in what most people like best about big set-piece international conferences – that is, the chance meetings in the coffee-breaks rather than, perhaps, the formal sessions; a three-day coffee-break thus ensued, but one that was gently and expertly facilitated by our own Mary Robson. With a very light agenda and very limited formal presentations, we were able to spend most time in structured conversations, coalescing around themes and topics that emerged early on.
Building on expressions of research interest that had been shared amongst participants prior to arrival, we began with a survey of medical humanities research that we had individually found interesting in the previous year, and used this to reflect on and review our prior interests – from which a number of more structured and sustained conversations emerged over the subsequent two days. These conversations soon diverged quite markedly, among them addressing topics such as the idea of ‘cultural pathology;’ a reconsideration of the role of narrative in illness; challenges to assumptions underlying public health planning; the generation and measurement of notions such as empathy; and the relation between neuroscience and humanities in understanding embodied experience.
From these conversations there emerged in turn a number of clear potential collaborations to work up research proposals and associated funding applications. We had made it clear from the outset that we in Durham would regard the meeting as having been worthwhile if even one such collaboration emerged, so it was a matter of relief as well as satisfaction that the outcome was in fact anything up to six commitments to on-going discussion, with a view to generating fundable research applications in due course.
Now it was certainly not a question of ‘all work and no play’. Indeed, encounters like these are, I think, nothing if not built on recognising and celebrating the inter-personal; and so as well as the ‘fellowship of the table’ – sharing good food and wine – which so potentiates intellectual comradeship (and is indeed one of the foundations of life at St Chad’s and indeed any of the Colleges at a collegiate university such as Durham) we were fortunate to share the experience of a splendid theatre visit (appropriately enough, Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George III at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, preceded by a fine supper at the theatre’s own Pasqualinos restaurant). In a different way we were equally fortunate to face, collectively, some intense challenges to academic reserve and personal inhibition – improbably, through learning to draw each other’s portraits with our eyes closed! Yes, it sounds rather high-risk; but in fact it was a joyful instance of how to consolidate cordial academic give-and-take, albeit among consenting adults with a measure of privacy…
Alas, all good things come to an end, and after lunch on Monday 19th September we dispersed – regretful, perhaps, that after a seventy-two hour coffee break it was time to go back to the office! – but equally buoyed up by the thoughts of the on-going collaborations that lie ahead.