A Critical Eye Toward the Medical Humanities

Inaugural Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab interrogates race and medicine

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By Laura Meader
August 26, 2021

This fall marks the launch of an important new multidisciplinary research initiative at Colby that draws on the strength of the humanities to confront questions and problems of crucial civic importance.

The Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab, or PHIL, initiative creates space and resources for a three-year faculty research collaborative that works across disciplines. Members of a PHIL interrogate traditional narratives, forge unexpected connections, and imagine new forms of outward-facing humanistic inquiry.

The lab is the result of a two-year planning effort by Colby’s Humanities Division to elevate the humanities and the cross-disciplinary research of faculty in the humanities, said Adrianna Paliyenko, chair of the Humanities Division who led the effort. “The PHIL is an opportunity to demonstrate the way in which humanistic inquiry remains central to the core of a liberal arts education,” said Pailyenko, Colby’s Arnold Bernhard Professor in Arts and Humanities.

Primary funding for the PHIL comes from the Margaret T. McFadden Fund for Humanistic Inquiry, made possible through a $1-million gift from Trustee Emerita Anne Clarke Wolff ’87 and Benjamin “Ted” E. Wolff III ’86. The endowed fund is named in honor of Provost and Dean of Faculty and Professor of American Studies Margaret McFadden, an accomplished and respected academic leader at the College.

The inaugural PHIL, “Critical Medical Humanities: Perspectives on the Intersection of Race and Medicine,” will be led by Tanya Sheehan, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art, and Jay Sibara, assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Across her career, Sheehan has worked at the intersection of American art history and medical humanities, with a focus on the study of race and representation. Sibara’s scholarship brings together the fields of critical race and critical disability studies, literature, and the environmental humanities.

“The PHIL will create opportunities for Colby faculty to publicly lead in the field of medical humanities and support their efforts to promote both scientific advancement and racial justice through their research and teaching.”

Tanya Sheehan, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art

With the participation of 12 faculty across the College, the 2021-24 PHIL aims to stimulate campus-wide interest in critical medical humanities, which relies on interdisciplinary analytical tools to interrogate the power structures that have defined medical practices and to reveal the socially constructed, intersectional, and embodied experiences of health and illness. Among its principal activities will be sharing faculty research through the Medical Humanities Colloquium, collaborating with leading scholars around the world, organizing publications, and hosting conferences and other public events.

According to Principal Investigator Sheehan, “the inaugural PHIL represents a unique opportunity for Colby faculty to share the critical questions they are asking about the relationship between medicine and race, to engage in collaborative research at Colby, and to participate in innovative international partnerships.” So far, Sheehan has been developing partnerships with Princeton University, the Australasian Health & Medical Humanities Network, the digital project Visualizing the Virus, and others. She envisions the PHIL will “create opportunities for Colby faculty to publicly lead in the field of medical humanities and support their efforts to promote both scientific advancement and racial justice through their research and teaching.”

While medical professions have recognized that racial and health inequities are closely linked, the humanities and social sciences point to structural racism’s impact on health outcomes across time and place and offer new ways of thinking about medicine in racialized societies.

“I’m excited to be a part of an initiative that will bring together and support faculty from across many fields engaging in research at the nexus of medicine and race,” said Associate PI Sibara. “For example, by examining the systems of inequity that have historically associated racial difference with disease and linked whiteness to perceptions of physical and social fitness, and by examining the ways in which visual, literary, and performing artists have responded to these inequities, the PHIL’s participants will collectively offer alternative frameworks for understanding the meaning of health, illness, care, and medicine in racialized societies.”

“The PHIL is an opportunity to demonstrate the way in which humanistic inquiry remains central to the core of a liberal arts education.”

Adrianna Paliyenko, Arnold Bernhard Professor in Arts and Humanities

By engaging students in faculty-led research, the PHIL also hopes to prepare the broader Colby community to reflect on race in health experiences and professions. This work will be accomplished through an expansion of Colby’s medical humanities curriculum and the organization of local events. In addition to sponsoring two CARA (Colby Academic Research Assistants) students in 2021-22, Sheehan and Sibara have also begun conversations with Jessica Matzko, who directs pre-health advising through DavisConnects, about developing workshops for Colby students and the Waterville community that address aspects of healthcare and race. Student internships with the PHIL’s international partners are also in the works.

“As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to devastate communities of color, and as more Americans confront racial injustice,” Sheehan explained, “now is the time for Colby faculty to lead conversations about race and medicine.”


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