In our narrative medicine course we have moved into group presentations. On the first day of the quarter I had students sign up to be in one of eight groups to work on group projects and to do a group in-class presentation. I picked eight topics, using the list of topics (keywords) from NYU’s Literature, Arts, and Medicine
database as a guide. The eight topics I chose this summer were: Aging, cancer, death/dying, disability, drug addiction, infectious disease, mental illness, and racism. The group assignment was to research and expand upon the topic resources listed in the NYU database—to approach this as if they were doing an in-service training on the topic at their work site. I asked them to produce a one-page (front and back) handout of their favorite resources, along with two to four possible in-class writing prompts and reflective questions. Each group was given 45 minutes to present on their topic and to lead the class in discussion and reflective writing. (Note: our class sessions are four hours long, although we don’t typically go quite that long).
This past week the first two groups did their presentations (on aging and cancer) and both did an excellent job. The groups used an interactive PPT presentation, weaving in poetry, prose, artwork, comic books, YouTube videos, and movie clips. I was impressed by the range and depth of their presentations and class discussions, as well as their application of the close read drill adapted from Dr. Rita Charon’s work. Group members also shared some of their personal stories related to their health topic and did this in a moving but professional way.
When I was planning this narrative medicine summer course, I was resistant to the idea of building in group projects. As a student I always preferred to have individual assignments since I could then control the time commitment and the outcome. I knew that the majority of my students in this course would be busy with their nursing jobs and families as well as with school. But a colleague convinced me to use group projects, saying the students were used to them and that what they came up with was typically of high quality. I have purposefully allowed time at the end of each class session for students to meet in their groups for planning purposes and I stay around to answer any questions that may arise. Some groups have also set up online discussion boards on our course website to facilitate their group planning. (In my mind, this is the only really useful function of online discussion boards.) That seems to have worked well for them so they don’t have to meet in person outside of class.
Two things particularly struck me from the in-class presentations and discussions. One was the number of students who had personal experience with either a close friend or family member or a patient who was given a diagnosis of a serious cancer over the phone or in a voicemail message. We talked about how insensitive that is and what nurses can do to influence physicians, nurse practitioners, and other healthcare providers to think through how to give bad news in a more supportive way. The other thing that stood out to me in the class discussion was a comment a student made that this narrative medicine class is “A place to stop and to process these things we don’t get to process.” Other students said they agreed with what she said and talked about how nurses are so much into the care giving role, not only at work but also in their personal lives, that having a time and space to stop and reflect on how it is affecting them is a powerful thing.
Ah yes. There were really three things that struck me during last week’s class session. The third was that this is all heavy stuff to process and write about and how much environmental context matters—as in the actual physical classroom setting. We have a nice smallish amphitheater classroom with excellent acoustics, state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment that is easy to use, reasonably comfortable chairs and tables, and a full bank of windows looking out over a grassy marsh full of birds. I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to teach in a classroom with windows. It also helps that it is one of the loveliest summers in Seattle’s history. Teaching this narrative medicine course in a windowless classroom in the middle of a Seattle winter would have a much different feel.