Humanities Institute

HI Announces Dr. Phillip Barrish as the New Associate Director

Wed, September 13, 2017
HI Announces Dr. Phillip Barrish as the New Associate Director
Dr. Phillip Barrish

The Humanities Institute is delighted to announce that Dr. Phillip Barrish, Tony Hilfer Professor of American and British Literature, is joining us as our Associate Director as of fall 2017. As Associate Director of the Humanities Institute, Dr. Barrish will focus on establishing collaborative and interdisciplinary projects in the medical and health humanities across campus, including further collaboration with the faculty and staff at Dell Medical School.

Dr. Barrish’s work in the medical humanities includes articles in Literature and MedicineThe Journal of the Medical HumanitiesAmerican Literature. He is working on a book entitled “The Web of Life: Health Care Systems in American Literature.” This project “explores literary engagements with U.S. health care as a complex web of relations comprising a range of institutions, practices, personnel, and interests.”

Dr. Barrish’s interest in the medical humanities developed as he was learning, through caring for a sick family member, about how the health care and Medicare/Medicaid systems work in the U.S. At the same time that he was navigating the American health care system and the Affordable Care Act was being implemented, Dr. Barrish was also reading works of literature from the early 20th century that contended with early versions of the U.S. health care system. His decision to pursue research and teaching in this field resulted from both his reading and his personal experiences with illness amidst the national renegotiation of health care.  

With the scheduled opening of the Dell Medical School this year, the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies, housed in the Department of English, devoted its programming to the medical humanities. The Humanities Institute similarly initiated a two-year inquiry into “Health, Well-Being-Healing.” TILTS and HI co-sponsored a number of distinguished visiting lectures in the medical humanities in 2016-17, as well as the Cline Visiting Professorship, held by Dr. Rita Charon. This past spring, Dr. Barrish was also a Faculty Fellow in the Humanities Institute. As a Fellow, he had the opportunity to share his research in the medical humanities with faculty from a variety of departments who were also participating in the HI Faculty Fellows Seminar

Through the Humanities Institute, Dr. Barrish taught an informal class, Medical Humanities: Close-Reading, Expressive Writing,” that brought together Dell Medical students interested in adopting more humanistic approaches to medicine. Drawing on principles and practices of narrative medicine developed by Dr. Charon, Dr. Barrish led first-year medical students in working closely with small selections from works of literature and responding to these selections through expressive writing exercises. The aim of this class was to help students to build empathy and cultivate tolerance for ambiguity and interpretive complexity, sensibilities that medical providers need in order to more fully respond to and interpret the complicated discourses and texts that patients present to them in their practice. Such patient “texts” include, for example, comments by family members of patients, lab results and medical charts, and communications with other care providers. The Humanities Institute hopes to sponsor another  informal class for Dell medical students in close reading and expressive writing class in Spring 2018.

This academic year, Dr. Barrish is also teaching two courses in the medical humanities through the Department of English. His fall 2017 graduate class, “Health, Medicine, and American Literature since the Civil War,” will orient graduate students toward professionalization opportunities in the medical humanities, including publishing, conferences, and employment of humanities PhDs, in both humanities departments and in health and medical institutions. In spring 2018, Dr. Barrish will teach an undergraduate course on “Literature and Medicine,” which will be cross-listed with the Health and Society major in the College of Liberal Arts.

Dr. Barrish finds that the medical humanities present many challenges but even more opportunities. He describes a vibrant, collegial cross-disciplinary group of scholars and practitioners committed to thinking about how medical humanities research can improve people’s lives and experiences related to health and health care. The HI Faculty Fellows Seminar, he says, which involves scholars from traditional humanities disciplines, such as English, history and anthropology, as well as scholars in law, molecular biology, social work, and communications, for example, is an excellent model for the interdisciplinary that underlies medical humanities research. In this setting, scholars who are not bound by the same presumptions of a single discipline are able to share different modes of thought, expertise, and ways of conceiving of research and asking research questions.

Dr. Barrish says that he “looks forward to collaborating with HI Director Pauline Strong and the HI team to sustain and further develop the current programs as well as to develop new initiatives and programs.”  

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