Conference Report: Inaugural Congress of the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research

By Sarah Spence, University of Glasgow

Inaugural Congress of the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research, Durham University, 14th-15th September 2017

Since it was established in 2013, the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research (NNMHR) has held a number of workshops throughout the UK. Its first research congress, hosted at the beautiful Durham University, brought together medical humanities researchers as well as practitioners and artists for two days of interdisciplinary discussion.

Ericka Johnson and Kristin Zeiler (Linköping University, Sweden) delivered the keynote presentation, titled ‘Embodiment, Materiality and Normativity in Medical Humanities’. Although travel disruption due to bad weather prevented the speakers from attending in person, this was handled well by the organisers and largely unobtrusive. The keynote was delivered remotely via a webcam stream that allowed real-time discussion with the audience. By comparing US and Swedish reactions to a pedagogical pelvis simulator, Johnson highlighted that such objects do not simply recreate the body; instead, they reflect and reproduce particular forms of knowledge and medical practices. Zeiler explored the phenomenology of medicine through sister-to-sister egg donation and the complex emotional bonds of kinship in this bodily exchange. The keynote concluded with a discussion of the Andro chair. This critical design object critiques the patient experience of gynaecological exams: it highlights the patient’s psychological discomfort by replicating this in the context of male prostrate exams.

Johnson and Zeiler set up several key issues which resonated throughout the Congress. Firstly, they highlighted that global or interdisciplinary perspectives are key to revealing how knowledges about the body are produced and contested. Secondly, in their focus on technology and the body, they foregrounded posthumanist approaches within the critical medical humanities. Lastly, by emphasising the phenomenology of medicine, Johnson and Zeiler positioned the medical humanities as a tool to critique and enhance medical practice.

These topics were explored throughout the first day in both the nine panel sessions and the Marketplace — an engaging twist on the poster session, with objects and interactive displays showcasing current projects. Panels such as ‘Historicising Bodies and Mind’ and ‘Environmental Factors and Affordances’ explicitly dealt with comparisons across time or place. However, the mix of perspectives was rich throughout, with literary critics, historians, geographers and anthropologists presenting alongside lawyers, artists, sociologists and clinicians.

The posthumanist turn was represented most memorably by MiRo, a friendly, inquisitive care robot from the ‘Augmented Selves: Posthuman Futures of Health’ project (Universities of Leeds, Sheffield, Warwick and Exeter). MiRo’s animal-inspired design was an intriguing counterpoint to Amelia DeFalco’s (University of Leeds) presentation ‘Imagining Posthuman Care’ which explored fictionalised anxieties about care robots with humanoid designs.

The Marketplace performances of the Box of Tricks team (University of Manchester) were an engaging and challenging example of the critical medical humanities in practice. In one performance, the team used drama to explore the relationship between carer and patient. The audience was invited to consider how these interactions could be improved and to ask the characters questions about their experience.

The Open Space sessions of the second day encouraged interdisciplinary dialogue on these themes and many more. Volunteers proposed topics for discussion, with participants choosing which conversations to join. This let small groups explore areas of shared interest in free range discussion. The topics were varied and stimulating, ranging from critical toxicology, palliative care and monstrous bodies, to questions about teaching, the role of technology, and how to bridge the gap between medical practice and the medical humanities. Despite the unconventional format, these sessions were one of the most productive and enjoyable parts of the Congress. Notes from each group were shared online via Dropbox to continue these conversations beyond the close of the conference.

Indeed, the Congress’s biggest success was opening conversation across disciplines, particularly between the critical medical humanities and medical practitioners. Following these debates, a workshop has been arranged to discuss how to teach and promote the medical humanities in medical schools (Sheffield, 24 January 2018). The Congress also developed connections geographically, drawing participants from across, but also well beyond, the Northern Network. Participants from Europe, Canada and South Africa were testament to the Network’s reach and relevance. The NNMHR also aims to develop postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers in the field. The Congress was particularly inclusive in this regard, with PhD students and early career researchers presenting alongside and freely interacting with senior academics. The lively #NNMHR17 Twitter feed continued conversations and developed connections online.

Stuart Murray (University of Leeds) used the term ‘generosity’ to describe the spirit of enthusiastic knowledge sharing over the two days. This generous scholarship at the Inaugural Congress sets an encouraging tone for the future of the medical humanities, in the Northern Network and beyond.