Educator and Program Creator
Sarah Berry //
This interview series features educators, scholars, artists, and healthcare providers whose work is vital to the growth of the health humanities. On Friday, October 2, I interviewed Dr. Jessica Hume about her work as a health humanities educator, a health and social justice advocate, and undergraduate program creator at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.
SB: What are you working on?
JH: I just finished an application for a National Endowment for the Humanities implementation grant to start a new major at Bellarmine University called Health, Culture, and Compassion. There are three tracks. The first is Health Disparities and Health Equity (HDHE), the second is Narrative Medicine and Medical Humanities (NMMH), and the third is Aging and End of Life Studies (AEoLS). Our goal is to start course design in the summer of 2021 and to launch the program as available to students in the fall of 2022. We’re hoping to get students who are interested in becoming clinicians such as doctors and nurses and also any student interested in humanities and interdisciplinary approaches to issues relating to health, healthcare, or the body. The minor is currently making its way through faculty governance. It’s already designed and it should be approved by the end of this semester [Fall 2020].
SB: It’s so great to hear about a new baccalaureate Health Humanities program. This will be the first of its kind in Kentucky. Congratulations! What inspired you to put together this new academic program?
JH: I would be lying if I said it wasn’t partly my passion for the topic. But also it’s a great fit for Bellarmine University. There’s a mural in our library of Dr. Allan Lansing, for whom our nursing school is named, featuring his healthcare philosophy: “You can’t ignore the human element in healing. People get better when you care about them.”
And that has always been at the core of our mission in healthcare programs at Bellarmine. When I started thinking about launching this program, I knew that our school would make a great fit for humanities-infused health and healthcare. It’s an approach that our liberal arts mission matches. I think our school is well-equipped to offer this major and has the right people who have their hearts in the right place.
The thing I am most proud of about this program is the level of faculty collaboration across disciplines and departments. Each of the tracks within the major has a clinical expert and a non-clinical colleague. The HDHE track is being designed and executed by David Scott, whose fields are bioethics and health law, and Pam Power, a nursing professor whose interests are women’s health and resilience in health professionals. For the NMMH track, I have partnered with a respiratory therapist, Sarah Pehlke, who is also studying resilience, compassion, and healthcare education. Finally, the AEoLS track will be designed and run by Kevin Hansen, an attorney whose background is in elder care law and policy, and Amy Tudor, whose background is in creative writing and the humanities, particularly cultural studies on death and dying. We also have a curriculum review committee comprised of other faculty across the university. This program will be richly interdisciplinary, and it has the added bonus of being a fun project for faculty to work on together.
SB: You began teaching Medical and Health Humanities content at Bellarmine in the Galileo Learning Community, a First Year program. What has been your favorite course to teach?
JH: The one I’ve loved most is a study abroad course in London called Doctors, Grave Diggers, and Dissection. It’s an interdisciplinary course that weaves together the history of medicine with 18th century British literature. It asks students to reconcile ethical questions about how we made a lot of medical progress in earlier centuries, how those ethical issues came into British popular culture at the time, and how they’ve influenced the ways in which we think about literature and healthcare now. This course will count toward the new major once it’s safe to travel again.
SB: What courses are you currently teaching and what’s the best thing for you about teaching right now?
JH: This fall, I’m teaching English 101 and English 200 exclusively to healthcare students. The skills are writing and literary analysis and the content is health-based. For example, in English 200 we just started reading [Tony Kushner’s play] Angels in America. We watched the CNN documentary “The Eighties: The Fight Against AIDS” to give them some context. What’s fascinating with this particular group is that they can draw a lot of parallels between what happened with the ’80s and ’90s AIDS epidemic with what’s happening now.
The best experience I’m having as an educator is seeing them making those connections. This is the first group of students who were not yet alive when 9/11 happened. They have no idea about the AIDS epidemic and yet they are making these connections and articulating the ways in which history can repeat itself. We’re discussing the idea that one of the ways we cope with that inevitability is through literature, and to see them peel back that onion is pretty amazing.
SB: Those are some of the most rewarding moments in my teaching, too. What’s your greatest challenge right now?
JH: Politics in the classroom. Issues of social justice that inevitably come up when you discuss things like this. In a lot of ways, many of the issues at the political fore have become pretty obviously issues of morality. And so it’s difficult when my personal feeling is, “This is either right or wrong. It’s not political anymore. It’s not about parties. It’s about the way that we treat people, and social justice doesn’t need to be partisan.”
I’m cognizant that I teach at a university that has a social justice mission at its core. I want students to feel that in all of our courses and mine in particular, but at the same time, I have to tread very carefully so as not to alienate them. I want them to feel comfortable in involving themselves in a discourse because I believe that’s how we make progress. And if I go into my classroom with guns blazing about what I think, first of all, it is not appropriate as a teacher, and second, it alienates them. And so I want the work and the content of the class to open them up and let them discover those issues and their feelings about those issues on their own.
But, you know, the morning after the [first presidential] debate, it was really hard not to come in and ask, “Did you folks see that dumpster fire that happened?” Instead, I came in and asked, “So did anyone watch the debate? What did you think?” but I really wanted to say, “That was a s**t show! What is happening in America?” They said it for me. One student, I think, said it best. She said, “I can’t believe this is the first election I get to vote in.”
SB: Right. I’m experiencing similar feelings in my courses; we just covered the centennial anniversary in August of the 19th amendment, ensuring the right to vote regardless of sex. My women students who are first-time voters are getting the same feelings about this election. Do you have any other techniques for creating genuine learning around issues of inequality?
JH: I did this entirely by accident. Our vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion had distributed all these wonderful materials about how to make our classes more diverse and how to incorporate material that would do so. So this semester I added an amazing essay by Brent Staples called “Black Men and Public Space” [originally published in Ms. magazine as “Just Walk On By.”]
The essay begins with him assuming the role of a predator and saying, “My first victim was a white woman,” and he goes on to explain in a very educated tone that, as a black man, he feels often that he’s viewed as a predator and a criminal in dark streets and he goes on to talk about that, and at the end he reveals that his strategy for that is to whistle Beethoven and Vivaldi. For some reason, people don’t believe that a predatory criminal would be whistling classical music, so it puts them at ease. The brilliance of it is that he begins by assuming the role of this stereotype that many folks have about black men, and then he completely disproves it and endears himself to the readers. My class read that essay this week. It was a perfect way to open up the conversation about race and bias in a way that wasn’t so literally close to home for them here in Louisville. Yeah. I think that went really well because the essay is very subtle. And so it allows them to get into the topic without immediately feeling like they’re landing themselves right in the middle of something that is so difficult and riddled with tension and challenges right now.
SB: That’s a great strategy. I’m going to borrow that one. You mentioned your backyard, being in Louisville, you and your students are in the center of activity around the Breonna Taylor shooting by three armed policemen using a “no-knock” warrant, sparking protests in the city. Has that local trauma and the national attention to it affected you and your students?
JH: Yes. I think it’s really affecting the students of color, particularly the ones who are really active and community-engaged. They have told me that they’re feeling devastated. They’re embarrassed, they’re ashamed, they’re disappointed. They feel alienated from this place that they’ve called home for so long. And they’re very emotionally charged. And so it’s a matter of being considerate of that and giving them the space to have that. And a lot of my students have gone down to protest. I’m so proud. Several of them have gotten pepper sprayed and even sustained rubber bullet [injuries]. So it’s very real for them.
For the students who are not as close to it, who maybe haven’t protested, or who aren’t as close to the issues, they still bring a very heavy load to the classroom about the Breonna Taylor issue, but also the intersection of that with COVID-19; they’re all freshmen. They missed all these major milestones last spring. They’re all feeling the weight of what’s happening in our country very heavily.
And I try to give them a lot of grace for that, and I tried to give them a lot of space to talk about what they are experiencing because I believe that writing and literature do not happen in a vacuum. So I encourage them to talk about any of this.
I tell them, “The point of this class is to enable you to articulate yourselves and your convictions with power in a way that allows you to come to the conversation that’s already happening.” Yeah, so what’s happening here in Louisville is 100% appropriate for this class. That’s been the biggest part of what they bring to the classroom. They have things that they want to say about it, and it is weighing heavily on their minds and hearts, I think. And so it’s just a matter of leaving space in the classroom and in the course content for discussion of the present context and not feeling like I have to come in every day and rush through material. We have to meet all these objectives and get all this work done, but what they’re living through right now is really the biggest learning experience they’re ever going to have.
SB: That’s such a great point. There are so many extra layers to teaching humanities this fall. I appreciate very much your description of giving students time and room to process in such a charged context of health, politics, and social justice that is impacting our incoming classes.
With Breonna Taylor, there is even another layer to think through because she was a healthcare worker. Her life and death are located at an extremely complicated intersection between health and social justice, race-based police violence, frontline worker vulnerability, and social disparities in COVID-19. From a theoretical health humanities standpoint, there’s a lot of richness there, but in our classrooms, these more intellectual points may take a backseat to the reality that students are living all over the nation. Your students are living in that particular place of trauma and protest and the lasting impact of recent judicial decision-making in Taylor’s case. It’s literally close to home, and the rest of the nation is watching.
SB: Can you tell us more about what’s happening with the Louisville community this fall, and how it impacts you as an educator?
JH: I went down to Injustice Square the other day, in the heart of Louisville across from Town Hall. It used to have another name but ever since the Breonna Taylor case, the people occupying it, the Until Freedom and Black Lives Matter folks, have named it Injustice Square. For two blocks in every direction every street is barricaded off. And I don’t mean with cones. It’s with concrete highway barricades and then behind that are parked garbage trucks. So I had to park and walk down there. Along the route in, a lot of businesses are boarded up. Someone had painted this beautiful mural that said, “Listen, Learn, Love.” I was standing there taking pictures of it. This man in a security uniform rolled up in a little golf cart—I guess he was security for one of the nearby businesses. He was an older black man and he kind of rolled up right next to me and said, “Hey,” you know, and I said, “Hey, how you doing?” And he just kind of shook his head, and said, “How do I even answer that question?” Then he said, “Yeah, you know, I’m here. And that’s about all I can do.” So that gives you a sense of the tenor in Louisville right now.
In the middle of the square, there’s a big mural of [Taylor]. But the community has also installed various pieces of art memorializing other people of color who have lost their lives in extrajudicial killings. People have put up all this beautiful art in all the trees. I mean, it’s a really beautiful place right now. I happened to get there and there were what seemed like over 100 reporters set up in a semi-circle, and they had a stand with a bunch of microphones around it. The family was about to make a statement for the first time since the indictment, and I had no idea. I just happened to be there. What a time to accidentally turn up there.
And it was the day after Representative Attica Scott had been jailed and charged with rioting and arson. A long time ago, she taught at Bellarmine. If you know Attica Scott, those charges are so impossible. And so people were still kind of upset about that. And so I asked this woman, you know, is Attica out yet? She had just been released and had literally walked out of jail and into Injustice Square because they’re only a block apart.
And then the family came out with their lawyers and wanted to have the press conference right in front of their memorial. So everything had to be moved, and all these reporters swarmed with their stuff right on top of the memorial.
I was standing up on this little rock riser with another woman, and it reminded me of Wendell Berry writing, “There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” People from the movement started telling the reporters, “We understand that you want to be here, and you want to hear things, but you’re destroying a beautiful memorial right now.” Then there was a lot of working to get them to back off and to move away from it.
Then [Taylor’s] family and a lawyer spoke. Hearing and seeing the family was one of the most powerful things that I have ever seen. And then Breonna Taylor’s sister did a butterfly release.
Of all the things in Louisville that I have been so ashamed of and disappointed in recently, watching and hearing this family, I felt proud. I felt proud of their love and fellowship and endurance, but it was the only pride I’ve felt for Louisville in a long, long time.
The complete juxtaposition of what’s being portrayed as happening down there is really shocking. And really upsetting. I was fortunate to be there and witness that moment.
SB: Thank you for sharing that inside view. You said earlier that in times of public crisis, such as the current moment, we turn to literature. What’s on your bookshelf?
JH: Next to my bed, there’s a little antique milking stool and every time I go to the bookstore, I add another book to the stack. A couple of good titles in there are Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. It’s about her work in a crematorium.
Another one is Sick [by Jonathan Cohn], about all the problems with the American healthcare system. The Complete Works of Anne Sexton, which I’m rereading for class. Two books by Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies and Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space; she does feminist theory of space and place. Phenomenology of Illness by Havi Carel. And The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris.
SB: What’s on your secret reading list?
JH: There’s a book about tarot that my husband gave me, 78 Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack. I got really into the tarot during the [early part of the] pandemic. I don’t know why.
The one that I really have to hide when I go out in public, and which I’ve gotten really I’ve addicted to, is this magazine called Garden and Gun. There are zero guns in it. I think the title is designed to make it more edgy, to convey that it’s about the indie South. I first saw it in this little independent bookstore called Poor Richard’s in Frankfort. It’s really rich and really cerebral, as if Poets and Writers magazine and Southern Living had a baby. What I love about it is that it’s inclusive. It is not the magazine for how to throw some flowers around or decorate in a southern farmhouse way, but there’s lots of stuff about African American food ways that we’ve inherited and the last one had an article about a guy called the Bard of Appalachia, Ron Rash, and his literary work. I like Garden and Gun, but I have to be real careful when I carry it around because it could easily be misperceived as a gun magazine.
SB: If you could recommend one book, performance, artwork, or film as a national common read right now, what would it be?
JH: Unsurprisingly, I’ve been recommending [the 2016 documentary] 13th to a lot of people. If we were in different times, I would say something different. But right now, whenever the issue comes up, and I’m talking with somebody who wants to learn more or seems like they need to know more, I say, “Look, just watch the film 13th. That’s all I ask, and let me know what you think.”
I think it draws together the legacy of inequity in the American system, the whole picture for the last several hundred years in a short but comprehensive way that a lot of folks may not know. I consider myself fairly educated on the subject [of race and the prison industry], but I had never seen it in that particular way. If I have a conversation with somebody who’s not necessarily sympathetic toward issues of racial inequity and I say, “Well, you need to read How to Be an Antiracist [by Ibram X. Kendi],” they’re immediately going to check out. They’re not interested. But if I say, “Just watch this documentary. It’ll take two hours of your life. And tell me what you think,” I think it’s more approachable for some people, so that’s what I’ve been recommending.
SB: To conclude, let me ask one final question: what has inspired you the most in your career?
JH: My students. Last year, a student and I took an alternative spring break trip to Selma to celebrate the [1965 Civil Rights] march. Both of us were very powerfully impacted by that trip. She had always intended to be a lawyer, and since then, she has done a lot more work, like research on racial equity and participating in several protests. She’s involved in student government as a representative of Bellarmine and was pictured a lot on the news. I’m just so proud of her and the work that she’s done because when we went on this trip, initially, she didn’t know a lot about it. Afterward, she realized that this was something as a student of color that she had been sheltered from her whole life. And since then, she’s made this huge commitment to it.
Another student who inspires me graduated about three years ago now. She just started a doctoral nursing program. She’s been working in Utah in a pediatric burn unit with children who have been severely burned. Her goal eventually is to work toward equity for women’s healthcare. Last time I talked to her, she was interested in opening her own clinic one day. And so she’s out there doing that.
I have another student who is about to start medical school. It’s taken him five years to finish undergrad because his freshman year, his mom was diagnosed with cancer and then his sophomore year he was diagnosed with cancer. He is the kind of student for whom I am starting the Health, Culture, and Compassion program, for he is so naturally compassionate. And he has often said to me, Dr. Hume, I don’t just want to be a physician, I want to be a good physician. I want to be the kind of physician that I wanted when I was sick, one who listens and is really compassionate to the entire experience that people are going through. And he’s uniquely positioned to do that because of his own experience. I can’t wait to see him be a doctor, one day, I’m just so proud of him.
I am so proud of my students, and they are what really keep me charged and going right now.