Friday, February 08, 2008

Novels for Teaching

Over the past two years my "inner English major" has been emerging and I have been integrating novels into my health law classes including bioethics and public health. It has been going amazingly well--the students have engaged with the characters and plots in these books in a way that second and third year law students do not usually engage with the material. They are excited, passionate and curious (something that law school can breed out of students). When I have taught medical students it is much harder to use novels because the courses are usually shorter. I, personally, don't enjoy short stories, however, so I wanted to try this since I have a whole semester with each class. Also, I thought you might be interested because although there is a canon of bioethics and medicine literary works, there are fewer interesting novels which combine law and medicine.

The books I recommend so far are "My Sister's Keeper" by Jodie Picault and "Intuition" by Allegra Goodman.

"My Sister's Keeper" is a very compelling story about a 14 year old girl who walks into a lawyer's office and says she wants to be legally emancipated from her parents so she can make her own decision about donating her kidney to her sister who is dying of cancer. One of the many twists in this story is that the girl (Anna) was selected by her parents as an embryo to donate cord blood to her older sister. It is a great story which is told from the perspective of all the characters, Anna, her mother, her father, brother (who is ignored in the face of his older sister's illess), lawyer and others. We are always trying to introduce our young students to life situations they have yet to experience and this book does so from the first page to the melodramatic conclusion (yet full of teachable topics).

The unpromising setting of "Intuition" a basic science research institute in which there is an allegation of research misconduct, is, against all odds, another engaging story. It is written by Allegra Goodman who has written several very good works of serious literary fiction and this among them. I am teaching a course on legal and ethical issues in clinical research and for the past week, had a room of 14 law students arguing passionately about the contents of a research notebook. Here, again, is a world with which my law students may have had no experience. By portraying how truly intense and competitive the life of research scienctists can be, the novel puts in context the horror stories they hear about research studies in which investigators seem to have ignored the fundamentals of ethics and common sense. My students are shocked that people with Ph.Ds. are treated like servants by the directors of the lab.

I think what is different about these books from the usual fiction in bioethics is that they are not classics--no WilliamCarlos Williams; no Camus; no Arrowsmith. These are contemporary, well researched and written compelling stories that quickly put students into a new world where they can better understand difficult ethical and legal situations.

(And yes, we did read "Wit" (which has become a staple of the medical school humanities curriculum) and then saw the DVD. Few law professors have to handle a seminar room full of crying students (men and women) and it has really enhanced and energized my experience as a teacher).

I am well aware I am far behind the vanguard of those using literature in bioethics or even literature in law school to teach health law (There is a great article on this by Professor Stacey Tovino which I will link tomorrow), but I wanted to relay my experiences, since they have been so positive, and to bring these two books to your attention. I look forward to giving you an update what students get out of a book I enjoyed very much "Wickett's Remedy" by Myla Goldberg which involves the 1918 flu and an actual research experiment with prisoners which took place on Deer Island in Boston harbor.


Cath said...

I'm always looking for new authors, so thanks for this! I've put My Sister's Keeper on my wish list...

Kathryn Hinsch said...

If you haven't already, check out the Women's Bioethics Project bookclub program. It features My Sister's Keeper as well as other works for fiction. A set of "bioethical" questions were developed by scholar blogger Sue Trinidad. They can be used in a book club forum or classroom.

You can find it here: