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NEH grant to fund new certificate combining humanities, health research

| Gary Johnson

Louisa Rice headshot

Dr. Louisa Rice

The global pandemic has provided insight into how human behavior affects critical health care decisions, says Dr. Louisa Rice, professor and chair of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s history department.

“I think what we’re finding is that the impact of the disease goes far beyond understanding the medical science of it,” Rice says. “It is having uneven consequences that are grounded in histories of structural racism and xenophobia; it’s raising ethical and philosophical questions about the equitable provision of and access to health care; it’s showing how human behavior has profound effects on the progression of an epidemic.”

These issues are best addressed by combining humanities and health research, Rice says, and starting as early as next year, UW-Eau Claire students will have the opportunity to better immerse themselves in the field.

Rice has been awarded a $35,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to develop an Integrative Health Humanities Certificate Program at UW-Eau Claire. NEH received 121 applications for funding and made 17 awards nationally — a 14% funding rate.

The 12-credit certificate program will be a collaborative effort involving the university’s history, English, philosophy, biology, psychology and social work departments. Students will take a three-credit core course and engage in immersion programs, including collaborative research and internships.

Program developers hope to have at least part of the program available in 2021, Rice says, with a full launch in fall 2022.

According to the project summary submitted to the NEH, the objective of the certificate is threefold:

• To respond to student need in health-related majors for humanities perspectives and cognitive pedagogies.
• To provide students in the humanities with the opportunity to connect their expertise to health social science pedagogies and experiential learning.
• To serve as a sustainable model for interdisciplinary, humanities-centered collaborative programs that fulfill UW-Eau Claire’s strategic goal of ensuring student success through integrative, experiential education.

Rice says the topic of health humanities is an important and rapidly growing field of interdisciplinary study, and COVID-19 is “a really good illustration of the need for learning and research that transcends disciplinary boundaries.”

“As we’re experiencing right now, health care practices need to take into account what it means to be human; the study of human dignity, the histories of health care practices, human values and bioethics,” Rice says.

Dr. Julie Anderson, director of the William J. and Marian A. Klish Health Careers Center and an associate professor of biology, is co-project director of the grant with Rice.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to focus on the humanities and their application to medicine, public health and humane health care,” Anderson says. “The humanities provide valuable insight into the human condition and what it means to be human. They offer a historical perspective on health care, and help to develop the skills of observation, analysis, empathy, creativity, and self-reflection that are crucial for future health care providers.”

The certificate program would be helpful for students applying to health professional schools, Rice says, adding that applicants need to demonstrate they have a background in being patient-centered, ethically intelligent, skilled in communication and competent with diverse populations.

The certificate also would be useful for students pursuing careers in health care leadership, government, civil engagement and administration in the public and private sectors, Rice says.

“It’s also just a really good way for students to show that they are trained in multiple disciplines and can think outside the box,” Rice says. “And we all will ultimately make choices about our own and our loved ones’ health care; this enables us to think about those choices and their repercussions more holistically.”

The grant also allows UW-Eau Claire to build on its collaborative relationship with Mayo Clinic Health System.

Mayo Clinic Health System has expressed interest in expanding experiential learning for students through health humanities initiatives. In the grant application, Dr. Donn Dexter, chair of education for the health system, stated Mayo Clinic Health System officials are “hopeful that by integrating humanities into the ‘hard science’ of medicine and research we can help round and deepen the experience for our providers and patients.”

For example, UW-Eau Claire students in a history of medicine course could work with local practitioners to create a digital record of medical innovations in the Chippewa Valley or creative writing students could collaborate with clinicians to look at writing as a form of therapy.

Carrie Ronnander, director of the Chippewa Valley Museum, says the certificate program’s internship opportunities could include enabling students to develop programming for the Memory Café that is held at the museum monthly for individuals with memory loss.

Dr. Ruth Cronje, a professor of English who is part of the team developing the certificate program, will be involved in making connections in the community to ensure the courses that are part of the certificate enable experiential learning. 

“I think this is an important initiative both because it offers students who are interested in health care professions important perspectives on power, equity and social context that will be vital to their ability to advance health and well-being, and it’s a significant opportunity for students majoring in humanities disciplines to explore how these disciplines relate and contribute to health,” Cronje says.

Top photo caption: Dr. Patricia Turner, professor of history, (pictured on left), helped write a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to develop an Integrative Health Humanities Certificate at UW-Eau Claire.