So we have come to the end of the first University Semester for 2017. For a third year medical student this means a welcome break from lectures, tests and cold flats. But this semester wasn’t only filled with facts to be learned and diseases to be understood.
In the first semester each third year med student chooses a Humanities selective. For six weeks we put down Robins Basic Pathology and pick up philosophy, the Book of Job or, in my case, a selection of poetry. The Poetry selective was taken by Dr Tom McLean from the Department of English and Linguistics, who helped us to analyse various forms of poetry, starting with sonnets and ending in a visit from “real life poet” Lynley Edmeades.
We learned and recited a sonnet, and at the end of the module we presented two poems – each in a different style – to the class. It was a welcome change for me at least to spend my afternoons dissecting Shakespeare rather than cadavers and it made me realize how little I knew about poetry as a whole. It also surprised me to see all these medical science students thinking in different ways, discussing big concepts and although I can’t pretend to be a natural born poet, I think I learned a lot from the course.
I can’t speak for the medical faculty in their intentions in delivering the Humanities Selective but the main change that I saw from this course, other than learning in a new area, was that it initiated conversation about big topics. One of the main ones that I seemed to be having was ‘Why do we study the Humanities?’ which, especially in light of the recent cuts to the Department seems like a very good question.
So what is the Humanities Division about, and why is poetry important within it? From the perspective of a medical student, I’ve always considered both medicine and poetry to be things of wonder. Medicine and Science allow us to test and examine in order to explain a human’s condition and improve health in remarkable ways. On the other side, poetry seems to be a tool to explain or express the human condition. For me it’s the difference between how and why. Medicine sees the body as a sort of machine, with bits that malfunction or need to be replaced, where poetry and the rest of the humanities allow the expression of fears, joys and questions. Poetry allows people to empathise or to understand another person more deeply. This ability to communicate, to feel so deeply that we are compelled to express it, and to ask questions that are far bigger than we are, is a big part of my understanding of what it is to be human, far greater than our anatomical make up.
Medicine allows us to fix people, and poetry allows us to be people. This may be a bit of an extreme statement but it underpins what I learned from this Selective and what I found myself discussing with people from other topics.
So I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to study poetry, and I’m very grateful to Dr McLean for putting up with a group of medical students with varying degrees of knowledge about the subject he studies. I’m also thankful to Lynley Edmeades for coming in and sharing her work. I know it was a privilege for all of us.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, by Walt Whitman. (Listen to this poem here.)
Christina Grove is a third year medical student at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.