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July 2016

Student Research, Study Abroad, Undergraduate English

From Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: A Research Trip of a Lifetime!

KensingtonGarden

Kensington Gardens

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning and the Potter-to-Potter class has finally landed at Heathrow Airport. We clear customs, grab our luggage, and make our way to the hotel. After checking our bags, we wait for our three o’clock check in time by taking on London. We started by exploring the area around our hotel. High Street Kensington Tube Station was a two-minute walk from the front door. Kensington Gardens, a quiet space inside the bustling city, was within walking distance. After exhausting the exploration of our new neighborhood, we split up to find different ways to stay awake for the rest of the afternoon. This is where we began our adventures in London.

In the weeks leading up to our adventure, the thirteen of us sat in OEC and read through an extensive list of British children’s literature, from Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter and so much more. We discussed what a book needed to have to be considered children’s literature, and how children’s literature in Britain is different from that in America. The focal point of the class would be our archival research project, where the research was to be done in London! Determining what my project would be required brainstorming early on. Dr. Bouwman assigned the projects as anything broadly related to British children’s literature. We could examine a specific author, or a specific setting, or we could try to answer questions about British children’s literature as a field. I am researching how the expectations of children’s authors have changed since the early 1900s. Other students are looking at how different manuscripts evolved into the books we know today, or how authors depicted different settings from our novels. By the time we were leaving for London, we were ready and excited to tackle the research.

Beatles

The Beatles

On our first full day in London we explored the British Library, where we would eventually get our own reader’s cards and have access to their archives. We looked at the Library’s Treasures Gallery where we were able to see historical artifacts such as the Magna Carta, a suffragette’s notebook, Da Vinci’s notebook, and even some handwritten Beatles lyrics! It was so unbelievable to be standing in a single room that contained so much history from so many fields. This was a great introduction to the history of London that prepared us for the experiences we were about to have.

The next day, we met with two children’s editors from Tamarind Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This was definitely one of my favorite experiences. I plan to be an editor in the future, and seeing the offices at Tamarind was an incredible introduction to the publishing world. When we had lunch with them, I was able to find out what expectations they face as publishers of children’s literature, which helped with my research project. We learned a lot about what kind of power book publishers have, and also what their limitations are when it comes to promoting change. It was especially inspiring to hear both editors say that the most important end goal for them was publishing an authentic story. Later in our trip, we would be meeting with three different children’s authors, and we would keep this impressive goal of authenticity in mind.

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit

During our first week, we also had a chance to visit the Victoria and Albert archives, where the majority of Beatrix Potter’s work is kept. We were able to see Potter’s original artwork and some of her correspondence with publishers regarding what they referred to as the “Bunny Book.”

Over the weekend, we made our way by train to Oxford, where we would be staying at St. Edmund’s Hall. Our first stop was the Bodleian Library, where we were able to see some of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s work. As a writer, it was fascinating to see the difference between Tolkien and Lewis’s writing processes. Lewis appears to have done most of the editing in his head before writing out a nearly final copy of his work. Based on what we saw, Tolkien was more meticulous about editing, and would only write his work in pen once it felt complete. We could see the erased and rewritten words in pencil in early manuscripts of the Lord of the Rings! I was not only fascinated by the different writing styles, but also inspired. So often, after reading a great book it feels as though the words come directly from the writer’s mind with no work in between. To see that writing, even for the greats, is a process of writing and rewriting and editing takes some pressure off any first draft. This same lesson was reaffirmed after meeting with a few authors.

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

On our first day back from Oxford, we took a day trip to Great Missenden. There, we met with Lucy Coats, the author of Cleo, which was one of the contemporary books we read for class. I really enjoyed this meeting because Lucy was so passionate about her topic. Cleo is a fictionalized story of the early life of Cleopatra. Lucy was so excited to discuss her love of Cleopatra and the mythology she studied. The next day we got to meet another author, Kate Saunders, who wrote Five Children on the Western Front. This book was a continuation of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It. Saunders was incredibly enthusiastic about telling her story and the inspiration she had after reading Nesbit’s book. It was so exciting to see that the passion for each author’s project was authentic, and they were both thrilled to share their experiences with us.

While in Great Missenden, we were also able to look at the Roald Dahl archives. We flipped through pages and pages of legal paper that contained Dahl’s process of writing Matilda. We found that in Dahl’s earliest drafts, Matilda was actually a nightmare of a child, and Ms. Honey had a gambling problem! This is, of course, much different from the poor and innocent Matilda we read today accompanied by a loving and caring Ms. Honey.

Harry Potter World

Howarts Castle model, Wizarding World of Harry Potter

A trip to England focused on children’s literature would not have been complete without a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I am one of about four students on this trip who had not read all of the Harry Potter books growing up. We read the first book of the series in class, and based on class discussions, I learned that a large part of the success of the franchise was reading it as a series while you grow up with the books. Although I was a bit of an outsider in this world, the movie- making and world-building shown at this attraction were incredible.

This class was an eye-opening experience of children’s literature as not only something nostalgic, but also something well-worth studying in an academic field. Seeing original drafts and artwork from authors we read was a great opportunity to understand how the writing process works and how a book goes from a writer’s mind to the copies we have in our homes. After our great adventure in London, we were ready to write our research papers.

Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith is a junior at St. Thomas. She is an English Major, Business Administration Minor, and American Culture and Difference Minor. In the future, Rachel plans to become an editor. 

Student Research, Study Abroad, Undergraduate English

Recognizing the Value of Every Body’s Story

Walking through the doors of Columbia University Medical Center: Hammer Health Sciences Teaching and Learning Center, I fear that I may be grossly underqualified to be here. Everyone looks so official, bustling by in scrubs, varying lengths of white coats, and other official attire that speaks “I’ve worked hard to earn a place here.” I tread slowly and methodically, and my fingers fumble as I check in and am handed my identification card that allows me to walk freely through the doors of the CUMC campus, becoming my life preserver for saying that I, too, belong here.

I’m in New York City; CUMCSign550specifically, at Columbia University’s Summer Institute in Narrative Medicine. Narrative medicine is an interdisciplinary approach that recognizes the value of a patient’s story and, in so doing, exposes Western medicine’s narrow focus on the physical, tangible biological factors of health and disease that often overshadow the patient’s humanity. Narrative medicine relies on the core principles to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved to action by stories of illness. In doing so, it also recognizes the complexity of each individual and highlights the many stories we all bring to an experience.

During the past year, I have become a strong proponent in the work of narrative medicine, surrounding myself with literature on the topic and exploring narrative practice in my own literary work. During the spring semester, I worked with the support of Dr. Emily James on a research project called Mid-Century Narrative Medicine: Sylvia Plath’s Confessional Practice, where I sought to bridge the gap between several disciplines – including medicine, psychology, and literature – within the framework of poet Sylvia Plath. Coming from my solid foundation in studying psychology, this research worked to address a class of more “invisible” diseases: mental illness.

The structure at the institute was designed in a way that maximized every effort in fostering deep, intellectual discussions on the complex topics narrative medicine grapples with. Each topic began with some form of a lecture given by one of the “pros,” ranging from Dr. Rita Charon, MD, world-renowned for her ground-breaking research in narrative medicine, to Craig Irvine, Ph.D., author and Director of Education of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Following the lectures, we broke off into small groups consisting of about 6 people, where we were first given an open-ended prompt followed by exactly five minutes to write a response. We were always given the same guidance: begin writing immediately, keep your pen moving across the paper the entire time, and if you draw a blank and don’t know what to write next, continue writing “I’m stuck” until the next thing comes to mind. (It may sound silly, but that actually works!)CUMCWriting750

When we read our work aloud afterward there was one catch: no prefacing your writing by saying things like “Well, I didn’t really know what to write, so it probably won’t make sense…” or other ways of trying to explain yourself beforehand. This was a challenge. You mean we’re supposed to read without explaining it beforehand? Nobody’s going to understand the tangled mess of words I have written down. What I came to learn through this intentional structure so lovingly encouraged on us was the ability to trust the power of my own writing. I learned that by attempting to preface my work with a rushed explanation of what I’d been thinking when I was writing or how I want my listener to understand it, I am essentially minimizing my own work and stripping my writing from the innate power it dares to hold.

One evening, we attended an event called Intima CUMCIntima550Presents Life-Writing: An Evening of Readings about Bodies, Illness and Care. Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine is an online literary journal focusing on healthcare, medical stories, hospitals, and caregivers. This event we attended featured some of the published authors who had come to read excerpts of their published works and share their varied and diverse experiences surrounding healthcare.

Before the institute began we were told about this event and encouraged to bring along any of our own pieces we’ve worked on to share as well. In the weeks leading up to it, I had assumed there was absolutely no way that I would get up in front of a room full of people to read anything I’ve written. However, at the last minute as I was packing my bags, I threw in a copy of a narrative essay I had written called “Returning Home,” which talked about my experience as a nurse’s aide working in the field of senior home healthcare. In this particular piece, I detail the pain – yet honor – I had of being by the side of one of my beloved seniors as he passed away peacefully. I had written it as part of a final project for the ENGL 202 class called Medical Narratives, taught by Dr. James, which was in essence my first attempt at narrative medicine. I figured it didn’t hurt to throw it in, just in the unlikely event that I had a moment of gumption and courage to speak.

With the first several days of the institute under my belt, I had surprised myself by actually beginning to ponder over my “definitely no” decision about choosing to present my work that I had previously made prior to arriving. Armed with the practice the last few days had given me with sharing my work, I had actually begun to think that maybe, just maybe, this was something I could do. I was absolutely terrified, but had been encouraged by the other people at the institute – students and “the pros” alike – to go for it. I think deep down, I knew that if I let fear make the decision for me, I would later come to regret it. So, despite the trepidation of exposing my work to the room, I did it anyway. To those not as familiar with narrative medicine, it’s important to remember that autobiographical accounts in the scope of narrative medicine are deeply personal in nature because they deal with illnesses, often leaving the patient immensely vulnerable and helpless. Although my piece I chose to share came from my perspective as the provider, the vulnerability still remained because despite being the provider, we are still greatly moved by the patients we encounter.

I did it. CUMCReading550Remembering the “rule” about not prefacing my work or minimizing it in any way, I began to speak. I told the story of my first experience having one of my own patients die, which was magnified by the fact that I was with him when it happened and came far sooner than we had imagined. It was a very emotional experience to write about and gave me confidence in sharing my work as well as the conviction to allow my voice to be heard. As I finished reading aloud, I looked up at the audience and remember seeing several members wipe tears from their eyes, a clear example of the power narrative medicine has in humanizing us all in a world that seeks to remove all emotion from the medical field.

That experience really set the stage for what I would learn on the last day during my favorite lecture, “The Failure of Witnessing in Medicine” by Kristen Slesar, LCSW, MS. In addition to teaching at Columbia University, Kristen is a trauma psychotherapist and former Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner with many years of experience testifying in the most abhorrent criminal cases of sexual violence. I could write a book on all the insight I learned from her lecture alone, but the most important thing she emphasized is probably the best example of the purpose of narrative medicine. She emphasized time and time again how any line of work we do involving people and professional care impacts both the patient and the provider. We often think of the professionals as being a stone wall, never showing any emotion – both publicly and privately – for the work that they do. Yes, there’s a time and a place for that; if you’re an emergency surgeon, breaking down sobbing in the middle of operating on a child gunshot victim probably isn’t the best time for emotions. But that doesn’t mean it’s never to be discussed. When we talk about our line of work, we usually talk about the horror of the case, because everything is seen as putting the patient first. We don’t allow providers to talk about how they themselves are impacted. Because we are all human beings, we are going to be impacted by the people we serve, and that is okay.

Across America, medical schools and other graduate programs are implementing programs in narrative medicine to complement the preparation of our future providers for the kind of work they will encounter. In fact, research shows that those who tell their story fare better in the work that they do. This means less “burning-out,” which ultimately means fewer medical errors, as well as the patients’ experience being enhanced by feeling that they are more than just a disease to be treated. Narrative writing allows you access to something you may not have been able to access before because you can talk about the experience from your perspective and the way you tell that story, patient and provider alike. Narrative medicine is about writing from the patient’s experience, yet also includes bearing witness to our own experience as providers.

My experience at Columbia’s Institute in Narrative Medicine was truly life-changing. My earlier fear of “not belonging here” was laid to rest within the first morning of the institute, and I was thoroughly engaged throughout its entirety. Not only did I get to learn more about the topic of narrative medicine, but I was also given the opportunity to connect with the world leaders in this subject and work one-on-one with them, sitting down together and collaborating on the work I have done and getting encouragement on where to dive deeper into my study. I met others who share a similar desire to make narrative medicine an everyday part of clinical practice, and left with an even stronger desire to continue in this field. My goals of becoming a counseling psychologist were further strengthened with the knowledge that narrative medicine will unequivocally be a part of my practice. CUMCGroup750

I extend my most sincere appreciation and gratitude to the St. Thomas community that has supported and encouraged me in forging my way through this unique, interdisciplinary study. I am immensely grateful to Dr. Emily James, whose support and collaboration have gotten me to where I am and who continues to inspire and encourage me to seek out the paths less traveled. I am also very grateful to the Grants and Research Office for funding my spring research through the Collaborative Inquiry Grant, as well as the English department and Dr. Amy Muse for the funding and support that allowed me to travel to Columbia University.

Finally, I want to encourage all of my fellow peers at St. Thomas who have a passionate interest but are unsure the precise area of study it falls under: seek out those professors and other students who share a similar interest, and utilize their knowledge and expertise in further exploring those topics. Find those who challenge you to dive deeper into those interests and encourage you to walk those uncharted paths. I started this interest as a student majoring in Psychology, with a great interest in health and an underlying love for literature. Now, I am additionally getting a minor in English and regularly use the support and expertise from both departments as a way to study what I am most passionate about. The support I have experienced has blown me away and allowed me to find the precise area of study I am interested in and has shaped the career path I intend to follow.

CUMCBio300
Megan Vaughan is a senior at St. Thomas with a major in Psychology and a minor in English. Megan has a great interest in the interdisciplinary field of narrative medicine and plans to use this interest in becoming a counseling psychologist.