Health Careers for Humanities Scholars
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a good doctorate in the humanities must be in want of a job.
The so-called crisis in the humanities and the dearth of tenure-track academic positions have created considerable debate about preparing doctoral students for alt-ac and post-ac employment.
One avenue of professional careers for humanities scholars runs through the health professions. I am not suggesting that Ph.D.s in English seek to become RNs. Although I’m appointed to the faculty of a school of nursing, I am too squeamish and too anxious to become responsible for nurses’ life and death decisions. Instead, I’m proposing that humanities scholars have skills that can support health educators and researchers. Beyond providing service skills, we can become valued colleagues and collaborators. I’ve found an academic home putting those skills to good use.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects double-digit percentage growth in several health care fields with a concomitant double-digit growth in post-secondary health professions educators. Health specialties and nursing faculty projected growth is the highest (36 percent and 35 percent, respectively, between 2012 and 2022) of any post-secondary instructional field.
Where there are faculty teaching, there are scholars needing to fund research and to publish articles, as well as program heads needing to seek grant support. And that means some jobs for people trained not in biology but in writing. The writing support that I provide in the University of Connecticut’s Center for Nursing Scholarship includes a full portfolio: workshops for faculty and doctoral students, individual coaching, copy editing, copy writing. I have also taught two general-education writing-intensive courses: a nursing research course (in which I supervise writing sections as a kind of advanced composition course) and a nursing course in end of life issues from a multicultural and interdisciplinary perspective.
In addition, in 2008 I created NursingWriting.com, a website that supports clinical and academic nurse writers by providing calls for proposals and submissions, tips for effective writing and communication, and a robust set of links to external sites. In the past year we have welcomed about 500 visitors each month from a total of 96 countries.
People with doctorates in the humanities possess transferable skills that are needed in other work domains, like health professions and education. Recently spending a day in a workshop on effective grant writing that was sponsored by our vice president for research, I found myself frequently jotting in the margins of the printed PowerPoint slides that were provided to us: Rhetorical situation. Audience. Purpose. Ethos. Logos. Pathos. The fundamental principles of the Western rhetorical tradition are the underlying forms of discovery, invention, exposition, and persuasion required in technical and scientific grants and journal articles.
By training and disposition humanities scholars should also be able to conduct the ethnography, culture studies, and translation needed to compensate for their lack of technical knowledge. For example, I became the lead author in a book chapter on signature pedagogies in nursing. I have organized a special session on translation and health at an annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in which the presenters were a physician, a nursing dean, and a nurse researcher. “Translation” in this context is multivalent: Linguistic translation (to help patients and health care providers understand each other), figurative translation (in which science lab discoveries are applied to clinical improvements, so-called “translational medicine”), and genetic translation and transcription (in which a trope for bio-molecular processes is borrowed from linguistics).
In recent years, humanities scholars have examined the cultural and ideological inflections of the body: health, illness, health professions, (dis)ability. Much of this groundwork began among feminist scholars in the 1970s and AIDS activists and cultural critics in the 1980s and 90s, who interrogated the discourses of the supposedly objective and beneficent health professions. The growth in scholarly literature devoted to these themes has prompted the Modern Language Association to propose a new division to organize its members who publish and teach in this area.
For several decades many medical schools have sustained medical humanities programs. While some of these are designed to refine health care practitioners’ bioethics judgments, others have broader remits. Literature faculty, historians, and artists provide med students with opportunities to explore affective domains not just the cognitive in their pre-professional learning.
The growth of a subspecialty in narrative medicine has provided both a pedagogical medium and a research analysis tool. Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness by Rita Charon, reminds us of the ways in which we represent our embodied experiences. The academic center with which she is associated at Columbia University, as well as those at New York University, Northwestern University and elsewhere, suggests the institutional vitality of these academic homes outside of traditional humanities departments. Narrative methods also feature among the qualitative research toolbox. For example, my colleague Cheryl Beck, an internationally renowned researcher in inter-partum trauma and post-partum depression, has used rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s pentad in an analysis of women’s narratives.
Humanities and health scholars can find a niche in publishing. There are several journals devoted to our scholarship, including Medical Humanities, Journal of Medical Humanities and Literature and Medicine. In addition, there are medical and nursing journals that may be in need of editorial staff for which humanities scholars’ skills are handy. The Medical Library Association (the other MLA), for example, lists over 200 nursing journals on its 2012 “selected list.”
How does one pursue this avenue of professional employment? If my experience is typical it requires elements of serendipity nurtured by initiative. When I was first a teaching assistant in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I was asked to teach freshman composition as a technical writing course to engineering students. Later when I worked on my doctoral dissertation I focused on HIV/AIDS and apocalyptic rhetoric, a topic that was more an act of mourning for friends I’d lost than a strategic career decision. My first full-time academic teaching position at a community college enabled me to teach technical writing and to develop a professional writing certificate program. However, it took my seeing myself as possessing a portfolio of transferable skills that would bring value added to an organization, rather than assembling a curriculum vitae with credentials and specializations, that enabled me to secure my current appointment.
Today’s humanities doctoral students need to be entrepreneurial and to imagine a variety career paths that will engage their talents and reward them. One clear but not yet well-worn path brings us to support and collaborate with health educators, scholars and researchers.
Thomas Lawrence Long, associate professor in residence in the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing and its Center for Nursing Scholarship, is the author of AIDS and American Apocalypticism: The Cultural Semiotics of an Epidemic and editor of NursingWriting.com.
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