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The Health Humanities Working Seminar: Developing a Comprehensive Mission and Structure for Cross-Disciplinary Instruction at UNC-Chapel Hill

This Carolina Seminar will bring together influential faculty from across the University with the goal of issuing a Provost-level set of recommendations for supporting innovative cross-disciplinary curricula in health humanities at UNC-CH.


Mara Buchbinder (Social Medicine)

Kia Caldwell (African and African American Diaspora Studies)

Mimi Chapman (Social Work)

Susan Coppola (Occupational Science)

Sue Estroff (Social Medicine)

Jordynn Jack (English and Comparative Literature)

Tom Linden (Journalism)

Abigail Panter (Psychology)

Eliana Perrin (Pediatrics)

Rocio Quinonez (Pediatric Dentistry)

Peter Redfield (Anthropology)

Cherie Rosemond (Physical Therapy)

Michele Rivkin-Fish (Anthropology)

Barry Saunders (Social Medicine),

Beat Steiner (Family Medicine)

Ron Strauss (Dentistry)

Jane Thrailkill (English and Comparative Literature)

Rebecca Walker (Philosophy)

Amy Weil (Internal Medicine)

Meg Zomorodi (Nursing)

Ray Barfield (Medicine & Divinity, Duke University)


Note: Although the seminar itself is composed of a task force of roughly 20 faculty members working in areas associated with the health humanities, visitors are welcome to attend.

Fall 2015 Seminar Meetings

Friday, September 25 – 9:00am-10:30am

Friday, October 23 – 9:00am-10:30am

Friday, December 4 – 9:00am-10:30am


“Medical humanities” or “health humanities” is thriving at universities across the globe. Health humanities affirms that illness and disability, healing and healthcare, suffering and mortality must be understood not just in biomedical terms but in humanistic ones. When teams from the health professions and the humanities come together, the theory that humanism is central to health becomes practice. UNC has been groundbreaking in this regard. We have one of the oldest Social Medicine departments in the nation, which brings together physicians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, literary scholars, philosophers and historians to make sense of medicine in its contexts. Once controversial, in 2015 these areas of research and instruction are serving a felt need, on the part of students, faculty, clinicians, patients, administrators, policy makers, researchers, and community members. As one practitioner recently put it, “the humanities are a weapon in the fight for better healthcare.”[1]

UNC-Chapel Hill is poised to be an international leader in integrating knowledge from the humanities and liberal arts with research and practice in the health sciences. The elements are all in place: we have departments and divisions ranked among the top in the country,[2] already-established collaborations among a range of faculty on each side of campus,[3] and robust support from administrative leaders for interdisciplinary research and instruction.[4] Jordynn Jack and Jane Thrailkill in the College have just founded the HHIVE Lab (Health and Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Venue for Exploration), one of the first of its kind in the country.[5] Current efforts in the College and the medical campus to transform the way we conceptualize and teach health humanities exemplify the core principle of UNC’s 2011 Academic Plan: to “work as an integrated university to attract, challenge, and inspire students through transformative academic experiences.”[6]

Our goal is to create meaningful relationships with faculty who desire to break educational boundaries and provide a global view of the many efforts and initiatives in health humanities across the campus. For this reason, this Carolina Seminar brings together a working group of key representatives in health humanities from across the University, also reaching out to colleagues at Duke. The purpose is to assess what is already being done and create a framework for a comprehensive set of values and objectives: an overall sense of mission. We want to know what is going on, to determine what is missing, to share best practices, and to locate possibilities for collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Our ultimate purpose, then, is to produce a report, to present to the Provost, that

  1. Delineates what is already being done to bridge health and humanities at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels
  2. Creates a framework for a comprehensive set of objectives
  3. Prioritizes these objectives
  4. Drafts a mission and vision statement that unites these smaller efforts into a larger educational philosophy and conceptual framework
  5. Ultimately begins work on a comprehensive plan to meet the objectives

In sum, this seminar will develop a communicating community of scholars, find synergies across campus, and explore ground for truly innovative teaching at every level of the University. We aspire to create a campus-wide vision for collaboration among the humanities, social sciences, and the health professions. This vision will allow for budding scholars and clinicians from undergrads to postdocs to have experience in cross-disciplinary thinking and collaboration thus unleashing the power of the humanities onto a health care environment often criticized for its mechanistic and dehumanizing approach to suffering and illness.

[1] Jillian Linster, “Health Humanities: Building the Future of Research and Teaching: A Conference Report,” Somatosphere: Science, Medicine, and Anthropology (24 April 2014);

[2] In its admittedly flawed but influential rankings, U.S. News and World Report places UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine #2 in primary care and #22 for research; School of Public Health #2; the School of Pharmacy #2 (tied); the School of Social Work #5. Its Ph.D. programs within the Graduate School are also highly ranked, with Clinical Psychology at #2, English and Comparative Literature at #15, History at #11, Political Science at #13, and SILS at #2.

[3] These include the M.A. graduate program in Literature, Medicine, and Culture, a collaboration among diverse departments in the College and Social Medicine; interdisciplinary teams working on grants in Social Medicine (e.g. Jill Fisher’s HealthyVOICES project:, Social Work (e.g. Mimi Chapman’s Envisioning Health Using Images project:, and Sociology/SOM (e.g. “Pass the Popcorn: Children’s perceptions of ‘obesogenic’culture in movies”:; and cross-division teaching initiatives (e.g. the Interdisciplinary Teamwork in Geriatrics course, AHSC 285, MEDI 285, SOWO coordinated by Sue Coppola and many others). The School of Nursing is funding the development educational modules for healthcare professionals and graduate students in medicine, nursing, social work, public health, nutrition, and pharmacy. UNC SOM is revamping their curriculum now called TEC (Translational Educational Curriculum) to include a streamlined preclinical Foundation Phase, lasting 18 months and an Application clinical phase for the remainder of medical school. A new course called Intensive Integration (II) is being created which revisits behavioral, social science and humanities concepts and skills including work in interprofessional teams (in addition to basic science and population science). This course occurs during the first 12 months of patient care and hopes to serve as an innoculation to prevent the empathy decline and moral distress that can lead to burnout that have been documented nationally in students at this phase of training. The thread mentioned above will be co-taught by medical and social sciences/ humanities faculty. The course will be co-directed by Drs. Amy Denham, Yuri Fedoriw and Amy Weil.

[4] Here is a brief sampling. Provost James Dean has formed a Quality Enhancement Plan Steering Committee with the explicit charge to re-vamp UNC-CH’s undergraduate science curriculum and will make funds available to support cross-disciplinary teaching initiatives (known as STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts (and Humanities), and Math). Honors Carolina is enhancing support for its popular Literature, Medicine, and Culture minor.


[6] Reach Carolina: The 2011 Academic Plan of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: