New APU English Courses Explore Intersection of Literature and Medicine

by Claire Holstead ’17

Imagine a hospital where every doctor is not only well-versed in examining patients, interpreting lab results, and dispensing medical guidance, but also able to bridge the science of medicine with the art of healing, answering patients’ most significant and daunting questions: Why is this happening to me? Will I get better?

Beginning this fall, Azusa Pacific students will have the opportunity to explore these kinds of questions through the lens of literature in two new English courses—Narrative Medicine, offered as a Writing II class for undergraduate students, and Literature and Medicine, a seminar for graduate students. The courses are the latest examples of APU’s continual effort to provide students learning opportunities that will benefit them both academically and spiritually. “These courses are relevant because they allow space for students to negotiate boundaries and challenge stereotypes about literature and medicine,” said Emily Griesinger, Ph.D., professor in the Department of English, whose research in the medical humanities sparked the courses’ development. “They also can inspire students to think outside the box of typical academic majors.”

The courses provide students a chance to investigate both literature and medicine while articulating APU’s ability to explore these subjects from a Christian perspective. “APU’s mission challenges us to ‘read’ all of life—including illness, suffering, grief, loss, and death—as part of a much larger story,” said Griesinger. “We cannot read such stories through the eyes of faith without the wisdom of God, grace of Christ, and powers of the Holy Spirit.”

Students from a variety of academic backgrounds may be drawn to these courses as a way to examine and mend the disconnect between empathy and suffering. “I believe literature revealing stories of suffering allows our students to grapple with these issues emotionally,” said Paul Shrier, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Practical Theology at Azusa Pacific Seminary. “We can think intellectually about these topics, but we work for change once we are emotionally engaged. Stories create empathy; they cause us to consider our own lives in a new light as we put ourselves in the place of the characters. These insights are motivating, and they challenge us to act.”

Sarah O’Dell ’15, M.A. ’17, came to APU seeking a multidisciplinary academic experience, a desire that grew out of her longtime fascination with the intersection of science and storytelling and her experience with grief after her grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s disease in 2015. O’Dell, a biology major who minored in English, went on to earn a Master of Arts in English at APU. “For as long as I can remember, I have loved science and stories,” she said. “My completion of a B.S. in Biology and an M.A. in English at APU was the natural product of this inclination, as is my desire to become a physician.” While enrolled in the master’s degree program, O’Dell began research on topics related to human suffering and empathetic care alongside Griesinger, her faculty mentor. The two worked together to cultivate the curriculum for the new English courses.

O’Dell’s enthusiasm for these distinctive topics has only grown from there. She will begin a dual degree program at the University of California, Irvine, this fall, working toward both a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and an MD while focusing on the medical humanities. “A life in medicine provides the privileged and unique opportunity to not only bear witness to the stories of others, but to serve as a catalyst of healing when such stories are disrupted by disease,” said O’Dell. “I think that both literature and narratives have the incredible power to enrich the ways in which we think about the field of health care and to transform the ways medicine is practiced.”

  • Claire Holstead ’17 is an editorial intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a communication studies major and leadership minor.

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