Summary of Ann Jurecic's visit at SDU, 19-20 November 2018


Her monograph Illness as Narrative, published in 2012, is a milestone in the field of Medical Humanities and Narrative Medicine. Ann Jurecic, Associate Professor of English literature at Rutgers University, New Jersey, visited the Uses of Literature group for two days in November, where she held a lecture and a workshop. 

In her lecture with the title “Is Teaching Empathy Possible?”, Jurecic positioned herself cautiously among the many controversial and competing claims about the usefulness of literature and literary methods with regard to empathy. Empathy, following Jurecic, is not static. Rather, it is shaped by the environment, among others. Therefore, the many studies, scales and training tools that promise to accurately measure or increase empathy often fall short of delivering reliable and trustworthy results. This failure is also due to the fact that the definition of empathy itself is contested: Is empathy the ability to identify someone else’s thinking and feeling? And to what extent is empathy also dependent on self-awareness in the process of empathizing with another? Jurecic exemplified her own approach with Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams (2014), which she teaches to premed students. In her classes, empathy is a matter of critical discussion: How important is it to genuinely feel empathy? Is it okay to rely on recommended communication scripts or protocols, such as SPIKE? Rather than teaching how to be more empathetic, the learning outcome of Jurecic’s classes seems to be the ability to thoughtfully reflect on the many different aspects that make empathy possible (or impossible). A supportive social culture goes a long way, for example, towards encouraging empathy among colleagues.  

Thoughtfulness is a habit that can be cultivated. Similarly, attention, curiosity, and taking different perspectives are “habits of the creative mind,” which Jurecic explored in her 3-hour workshop on the second day of her visit. Drawing on her book Habits of the Creative Mind (2015), co-authored with Richard E. Miller, Jurecic invited the participants of the workshop to test a number of methods that she uses with her students. One involved the copying of a sketch by Pablo Picasso. The trick is to turn the drawing upside down so that the eye (and brain) is prevented from automatically and unconsciously completing the image. Such exercises, as Jurecic claims, make students aware of the differences between ‘seeing’ and ‘looking.’ They also realize how the mind jumps to conclusions because it relies on preconceived ideas. In another exercise, Jurecic invited the participants to come up with ‘an interesting question’ about “Sunflower Seeds,” an art work by Ai Weiwei, by researching online what they could find out about Weiwei’s work. The workshop concluded with a discussion of Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker essay on “What does it mean to die?” (2018), a harrowing report on medical mistakes, race, and competing definitions of death. Aviv’s piece inspired a discussion about perspective and, once more, the role of empathy. 

Ann rushed home the next day to celebrate Thanks Giving with family and friends, and we couldn’t have been more grateful to her for making the journey across the ocean to visit us and to share, so generously, her insights and expertise.