hink back to the last time you visited the doctor. She might have sat you down and asked what hurt or was amiss. You probably replied with a story—a very human, and humanities, thing to do.

This fall, in the Norwich Humanities Initiative’s first course, English professor Patricia Ferreira and Nursing Director Paulette Thabault will help students examine the nexus of practice, poetry and prose in Narrative Medicine.

Ferreira taught Narrative Medicine, inspired by Columbia University’s same-named master’s degree program, once before at Norwich University, offering it two years ago. Although the class drew nursing students, it also drew psychology students, pre-med students and emergency medical technicians, Ferreira said.

As in the previous iteration, the class will work to make students better listeners. The skill will help in health care jobs and others, such as social work, business, education, criminal justice, and journalism.

“Better listening is ... about recognizing the words the patient is using and being aware of the kind of velocity the patient is using to say those words.” Patricia Ferreira, English professor

“We’re realizing there’s a need to help those in medical profession be better listeners, and better listening is not just about bringing the chair closer to the patient,” Ferreira said. “It’s about recognizing the words the patient is using and being aware of the kind of velocity the patient is using to say those words.” 

Thabault said by mastering critical listening, which stands with critical reading as a pillar concept in the course, prospective medical practitioners will derive more meaning from patients’ stories, interview patients more effectively and deliver better care.

“It’s using storytelling and stories about important life events to help them develop listening and, really, develop empathy,” Thabault said. “The question is, ‘Are you born an empathetic person … or is that a skill you can learn?’ And I think we can start to teach people how to be more empathetic.

“One of the things that nurses do is we take a history,” she added. “And if we can take that history in a very intentional way and be sure to listen to all aspects of it, hopefully it will prompt us to ask the right questions, ones that will help get to the meaning of how this illness is affecting that person.”

Beyond practicing critical listening, students will practice critical reading. Texts will include Anna Deveare Smith’s play “Let Me Down Easy,” Damon Tweedy’s memoir “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine,” Pamela McPherson’s poetry anthology “Vigil: The Poetry of Presence” and Rachel Lindsay’s graphic novel “Rx.”

Having Thabault in the classroom will broaden the discussion, and the learning, Ferreira said.

“When the students are engaged in what they’re doing,” she said, “we’ll be engaged with them, and with each other.”

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