In the Margins

Steven Puente reflects on Sayantani DasGupta's workshop on narrative humility and medical listening in oral history.  This talk took place on Thursday, October 16, 2014.

On October 16th 2014, Sayantani DasGupta, a professor of Narrative Medicine, discussed her experience with Oral History and her thoughts concerning its place in the field of Narrative Humanities.  Over the years OHMA students have taken electives courses in the Narrative Medicine program and many sing Prof. DasGupta’s praise. I’ve not had the opportunity to take one of her courses and so I anticipated her scheduled workshop.

The workshop began with Prof. DasGupta participating in a private Q&A session for the OHMA workshop students.  In that space she did something I don’t often see scholars do. With quiet humility she honored the lineage of ideas that came before her. Prof. DasGupta took a few minutes to discuss the recent history of her program yet went further back in history to discuss the emergence of the Health Humanities field.

For an Oral Historian this was a great example of a scholar knowing where to place their research in the constellation of ideas. Prof. DasGupta talked of the vastness of the Health Humanities field and envisioned the many applications of the Oral History. She mentioned “The Health Humanities Reader” a recently published book containing the work of many prominent thinkers in the Health Humanities and said, “The benefit to having many people in the field is that we get to disagree.”

This statement got me to think of Oral History as a growing profession and my place in it. Do I have any disagreements with established theories or with a particular methodology?  It reminded me of a moment at the recent Annual Meeting of the Oral History Association in Madison, WI (my first conference). In one of the sessions, an Oral History scholar was presenting their paper and mimicking a foreign dialect when quoting their interviewees. It struck me as antiquated and disrespectful to their interviewees. I wondered if it was intentional and thought of times I’ve made similar blunders. I waited for the Q&A to ask yet, withheld my question.  I decided a private inquiry would be more respectful. The conference went on and I never approached the presenter. Did I know enough to question a scholar in the field? Was I alone in my thinking? Disagreement can be a source of progress according to Prof. DasGupta, and a source of discovery. She paraphrased the author bell hooks, saying that the greatest potentiality is in the margins.

Through a social justice lens, DasGupta challenges her colleagues. Inspired by the term cultural humility, she builds on Rita Charon’s (Co-Founder of Narrative Medicine at Columbia) term narrative competence and pushes the idea further by discussing it in terms of humility.  With this term she refutes “the idea that health and humanities teachers can train clinicians to be utterly competent in eliciting and interpreting patient stories.” She states, “Narrative humility suggests an inward orientation, requiring not only that we learn about others, but that we begin by learning about ourselves.” The explanation is simple yet for many it’s a radical idea that leads the discussion of narrative to the issue of power and politics. The more I’ve thought of this principle the more I thought of the OHA presenter and my missed opportunity to grow.

Social justice is not always a comfortable topic and often met with silence.  DasGupta shared a time where a student pointed out that she was the only professor of color in the Narrative Medicine program and the only one teaching texts by authors of color. She admits her surprise when a student brought this to her attention and asked, “Don't you think that is marginalizing of yourself?” It was a moment where she questioned her professional trajectory. She is a great example of a scholar striving to live an authentic life. She wears her passions proudly on her sleeve.

Her workshop provided me space to imagine new horizons in Oral History and my place in it. I’m encouraged to challenge scholarly thought and to participate in public discourse. I’m excited to explore the merging of my passions and professional career. And if I’m lucky, somebody, somewhere, will kindly disagree with a published idea of mine and we’ll talk. 

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Program in Narrative Medicine have partnered this year to present a workshop series open to the public on the intersections of oral history, health, and medicine. Join us next time.