In Spring 2013, I taught HIST 497C Global History of Medicine, a weekly hybrid class that met both online and at various sites in the Philadelphia area. These meetings had two purposes: to learn about the history of medicine, and to meet with various curators, archivists, and other professional role models that could share advice and perspectives about career choices in history. The students were given iPads on the first day of the class, and assignments were completed collaboratively using free apps and web technologies.
This class was part of a pilot program that allowed each student to check out an iPad 2 from the Abington College library for the entire semester. The devices were preloaded with the following apps for course management, file sharing, and communication (all free except for the last two, which were provided by PSU):
- Maps: To find their way to the off-campus locations
- Calendar: To manage deadlines
- Camera: To take photos/videos during site visits (when allowed)
- Facetime: For virtual office hours (MWF 12–2 by appointment)
- Kindle: For reading required books (when available as ebooks)
- Dropbox: For sharing files for peer workshop and for handing in work to me
- Adobe Reader: For reading files from me (e.g., course syllabus) and each others’ work
- Bamboo Paper, iOS Notes: For taking notes
- Yammer: For communication, workshops, and discussion (students have been instructed to use this in lieu of email)
- OfficeHD, Pages: if students chose to write their papers on the iPad, they could use these MS Word-compatible apps.
We spent the entire first class (about 3 hours) going over the technology, setting up accounts, and test-driving. Most of the students were unfamiliar with the iPad before the class began, and many even described themselves as “technologically challenged.” However, the content delivery, student-student collaboration, and student-faculty interactions for this class took place entirely online beginning in the second week.
The Site Visits
Every other week, the class met at one or another location in the Philadelphia area to learn about a particular aspect of the history of medicine and to meet with professional role models that could share career advice and other perspectives. Here are some brief summaries of the semester’s visits:
Penn Museum (1): We met with the “Keeper” of the Asian art collection, Stephen Lang. Steve brought us back into the staff-only area of the museum to look at some artifacts he pulled out of storage especially for our group. Many of the artifacts were of a religious nature, and we discussed the porous boundaries between religion and medicine in Asian history. Next, we met with Dr. Lucy Fowler Williams, an anthropologist specializing in Native American textiles, and the “Keeper-Curator” of the American collections. She told our group about how she came to work in museums, and fielded many questions from the students on internships, resumes, and job opportunities. We finished the visit in the Rotunda, contemplating a spectacular fresco of the Medicine Buddha and other Asian artifacts.
Penn Museum (2): Back to the museum to meet with Paul Mitchell, a graduate student in Physical Anthropology, who gave a presentation on mummies, human skeletal remains, and forensic procedures. We learned quite a bit about the science and culture of mummification practices, as well as how anthropologists study human remains to determine the date, sex, and health/diseases of the individual specimen. Paul brought in numerous bone fragments, but I think the highlight for most of us was the 1500 year-old Peruvian mummy he allowed us to see up close and to handle. The visit to the skeletal remains collection in the staff-only area of the museum was also a hit. After the presentation, students had some time to look around the museum’s Egypt exhibit and look at other mummies in the collection.
UPenn’s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library: We met with Brian Vivier (Chinese Studies Librarian), Benjamin Fleming (cataloguer of South Asian manuscripts), and John Pollack (Rare Book & Manuscript Librarian), who brought a range of medical texts from the 15th to 20th centuries for us to examine. The focus of this session was on texts as material objects, and students learned about different binding and printing techniques, as well as the care and restoration of books. The librarians discussed their opinions about the value of library science degrees (maybe not always necessary), foreign language skills (definitely always a plus), and other ways students thinking about a career in libraries can prepare for their futures.
Pennsylvania Hospital: We met with Stacey Peeples, the Curator and Lead Archivist at the Pennsylvania Hospital. Stacey led us on a tour of the historical objects and spaces throughout the eighteenth-century hospital, including the famous library and surgical amphitheater. Students gained insight into the social and intellectual context for medicine in early American history, and enjoyed hearing stories about life at the hospital in the era of premodern medicine. We finished up in the archives room, where Stacey talked with students about her own career trajectory in library studies and archive management. She fielded questions from students about her current work as a multitasking archivist, curator, fundraiser, and public relations guru — and gave advice on how students might get a foot in the door as they launch their own careers. (She also told us a few ghost stories as well!)
Mütter Museum & College of Physicians: We had a tour of the Mütter museum’s collection of medical specimens, and met with the curator Anna Dhody to speak about the role of the museum in the public history of medicine. Next, we met with director Robert Hicks who gave advice both on positioning one’s self for a career in public history and the importance of good storytelling. Afterwards, we had a tour of the library with head librarian Annie Brogan. Students asked questions about the collections and archives, and got some ideas for future research projects on the history of medicine in the Philadelphia area.
Won Institute of Graduate Studies: We met at the Won Institute to gain a sense of the recent history of complementary/alternative medicine in the Philadelphia area. We had a tour of the Chinese herbal medicine dispensary, sampled acupuncture and tai-chi with various practitioners and staff members, and sat for a brief session with meditation teacher Glenn Wallis.
Academic Presentation: Throughout the semester, students were required to attend one academic lecture, presentation, or workshop in the area and write a brief response paper. The purpose of this exercise was to have students get a feel for high-level scholarly interaction, debate, and discourse. Students were free to choose any event in the area (including events at Temple and UPenn, or any of the area museums or cultural centers) so long as it was pitched toward a scholarly audience. I encouraged them to discover these events through the Philadelphia Area Consortium for History of Science, which maintains a website with current listings for the Greater Philadelphia Area.
In the weeks where we were not meeting, the students were responsible for three major areas:
- Watching the videos of the prerecorded lectures (see below), and discussing them on the Yammer group.
- Reading a book from the list of assigned readings. (Not “close reading” as they might do in other classes, but detailed enough to write a 2-page review.)
- Participating in the peer workshop, which means circulating drafts of their book reviews among their smaller groups (3–4 people), commenting on each other’s work, finalizing their own reviews based on these comments, and submitting them to me via Dropbox.
The assigned books all dealt with the history of yoga. I chose to focus on one narrow topic in the vast field of the global history of medicine in order to have the students learn the importance of reading several works on a topic and understanding how these fit together or speak to one another. The books were arranged in a specific order that are designed to build on one another. (Ideally, as students become more proficient in recognizing different historiographic approaches introduced in the lectures, they begin to discover how the books they are reviewing are representative of different approaches and can deal with them more critically.) Towards the end of the semester, the students were asked to edit and stitch together the four reviews they wrote in order to create an essay review that puts the books into conversation with one another.
Course content recording and delivery
On the weeks that we did not meet in Philadelphia, the students workshopped each other’s papers and watched my pre-recorded lectures. The lectures for this semester focused on how to evaluate historical writing and teaching on medical topics. The lectures covered:
- Introduction to the historiographic trends in the history of medicine, from the whiggishly outdated to the post-postmodern, and how different approaches have different strengths and biases.
- What do we mean by “medicine” anyway, and how can we determine if “medicine” is separate from “religion” or “magic” while not succumbing to modern Western biases?
- Brief outline of classical medicine in Greco-Roman, Indian, and Chinese contexts; of crosscultural exchange between these traditions in the medieval and early modern periods; of the rise of scientific biomedicine and resistance thereto in the modern period; and of the revival of “traditional” medicine in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Highlights of the semester
- Penn Museum’s mummy-in-a-box (picture at right)
- Resume, CV, and cover letter workshop
- Two students got into Library Sciences degree programs
- Two students landed summer internships from institutions we visited this semester
- One student landed a summer internship at a university library in the Philadelphia area
- One student got very interested in China and went on a summer study-abroad program after the semester was over