Self Improvement: A Final Reflection

The course epigraph for English 101 is a quote from the notes of Beth McCoy during a question and answer session held by Dionne Brand, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” This quote is the basis for successfully completing this class. Without being able to notice purposefully in the text and during in class discussions, there is only minimal acceptance and understanding of the material. Noticing can be applied to every piece of literature that comes into the class and is a constant wall present to bounce ideas and thoughts off of.

Specifically for me, the epigraph has helped me delve deeper into the studies and research that I learned throughout my biology degree process. Having the full ability to notice that medicine is rooted much deeper than the physical body is extremely useful information as I progress to dental school. I felt uneducated and ignorant about something I am otherwise very passionate about and this drove me to want to actively learn and become a better member of the dental community to spread awareness of the medical oppression I had been blinded from for so long. A better understanding and ability to notice throughout my career is what will hopefully distinguish me as being a great doctor instead of a good one. Noticing has also helped me push back on some of my initial assumptions about medicine and build ideas that I never would have constructed otherwise.

            In Kate Williams, Mary Wooliams, and Jane Spiro’s Reflective Writing, they list that a good reflection consists of being open, patient, honest, curious, transparent, and rigorous. These are the basis for being able to reflect on the course as a whole and were the key things I worked on to improve my writing and understanding. Without these pieces you cannot completely and thoughtfully reflect on all you’ve learned. Being open requires a circling back of past assumptions and ideas that have been altered from beginning to end of the semester as well as how views have been shifted throughout the process. Being patient means to read through the course material thoroughly and notice as much as possible in conjunction with the course epigraph to accurately reflect on revelations that occurred while reading. I packaged together honesty and transparency in that admitting to inaccurate assumptions and unpacking how you were wrong are not only relatable to others but create an understanding that learning is a process and trying to skip to the part where you know everything will prove unsuccessful. Taking the time to be honest will help grow the knowledge needed to make connections throughout the rest of the course. This was not only difficult for me as I have trouble being wrong, but once I accepted the fact that it’s part of a greater process of understanding I found that I was getting a lot more out of the course than I ever thought I would. Curiosity was my main source of questioning throughout my reading and acted as a basis for my various blog posts. Genuine curiosity was easily evoked throughout this course and helped formulate ideas that I didn’t think I was capable of forming. Rigor was found when writing the whopping ten blog posts throughout the semester which was a lot more writing then I am used to completing in my major of biology. The class setup pushed me to grow with the course and accept that my first few blog posts were not going to be my absolute best but, watching my growth has been inspiring and rewarding. It was awesome being a part of a classroom community that encouraged failure at first to reach a goal of improvement before the semester ends. Rereading my previous blog posts, I’ve realized that my noticing is most effectively applied when carried outside the classroom and the lessons I’ve learned here become a piece of a new and improved me as I navigate the world in the future. 

Although I’ve learned to notice things beyond the literature and examine the applicable ideas, the readings were the glue that held everything together and provided evidence for my claims. Percival Everett’s Zulus helped me identify myself with the main character Alice Achitophel. It was a relief to see myself in her because I was constantly searching for an identity throughout the semester as the literature slowly took what I thought I knew from me with each book. As the reading began, I had more questions than answers. Everett wrote various scenes that were abstract and hard to picture, “Her liver and spleen had expanded to twice their normal sizes, engorged with blood and yellowish with infection, pulsing in rhythm with her heart.” No human person could realistically expand to become the size of a room and break open so this made imagery challenging for me. Although this book would have been one I’d give up on in the past I cycled back to the themes I saw her display and made connections in myself. At multiple points throughout the book, Everett portrays Alice as feeling trapped, “The hollow-eyed faces in the bleachers watched the canisters, studied them with a kind of reverence and measured indifference. Alice Achitophel walked down to the level of the tanks and viewed them from about fifty feet, feeling at a distance closer to power, though she understood nothing about the containers, nothing about the stares cast upon them…She rested there, breathed slowly and found an easy rhythm, looking up and finding comfort in seeing the sky.” She felt trapped in her body and once she had broken free from that, she was yet again trapped on the court for her impending suicide. I connected with her on many levels as I’ve had to escape my many “trappings” and assumptions to push myself beyond my original thoughts. An assumption that I carried with me throughout the reading was that this book was meaningless and abstract and too complex for me to understand. This is where my assumptions became burdens on my ability to make connections with the text, but during the discussion of the end of the book I connected in a big way. Some made the connection that Alice Achitophel was “stuck in the book” viewing the people reading her story which was supported by Everett’s words, “The angular woman gave warm laughter and told Alice Achitophel to realx and let things happen as they would…” Looking back on this quote I noticed that my mind had corrected the misspelled word relax and it wasn’t until I reread it that I noticed the incorrect spelling. This got me thinking about how if Alice were writing the book herself, words would be misspelled as she is human and not perfect. I again broke through my assumptions that there was this overarching obvious theme or “Aha!” moment and interpreted her story from my perspective. I realized that each reader that delves into Everett’s Zulus will gain something new from it depending on their individual thoughts and experiences that connects them to the book in one way or another. I began to make connections that if Alice wrote this book chapters A-Z, she must want the reader to start again, as the infamous alphabet tune states, and use their new perspectives to gain something once again from each reread. I had to read over many different parts of the book a couple of times to try and grasp what was happening, and I confused my multiple connections with confusion when in fact it was just me creating different interpretations. Everett has taught me to trust my abilities of interpreting and admit when I’m lacking confidence so I can improve my growth mindset. 

On the other hand, Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid has validated my carrying of assumptions with more concrete tangible evidence. Her evidence has not only opened my eyes to the truth about the medical profession but has made me a more understanding biology major as I progress into the medical field as well. Washington’s subtitle, “Finding the Truth in Plain Sight” describes exactly how I felt while reading her work. All the information in her book is out for the public to read yet I had gone my life without knowing medicine’s racial past. In previous blog posts I discuss the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment where treatment was withheld from dying participants in search for good data as well as the dark and twisted history of P.T. Barnum, who until reading this book seemed to be a fun creative circus inventor. I wasn’t just wrong, but I was confused and embarrassed when others had known that he, in the words of Washington, had exploited “black bodies” for his own gain. I had walked into this class feeling confident and believing that I had a leg up with my interest in medicine and biology background. Again, my assumptions had been completely wrong. I had to accept that maybe I wasn’t one of the most knowledgeable people in the room and that literature and novels can maybe teach me more about myself and medicine then the textbooks I had trusted for so long. I had neglected to pick up books such as Washington’s Medical Apartheid until now because I couldn’t break this assumption and once again prevented myself from gaining more knowledge without even realizing it. I had to break away from facts that I made the basis for all my assumptions and dig deeper and be more open to being wrong and push myself. Washington ironically used more facts to help me achieve this and I used her book as a reference while reading the fiction-based works from the course. The only thing Washington mentions that is more shocking than Medicine’s dark past, is it’s dark present, she states, “Old measures of health not only have failed to improve significantly but have stayed the same: some have even worsened. Mainstream newspapers and magazines often report disease in an ethnocentric manner that shrouds the true cost among African Americans.” If it weren’t for Washington exposing this information, clearly it would have never been relayed to me in the media either. She continues with, “Three times as many African Americans were diagnosed with diabetes in 1993 as in 1963. This rate is nearly twice that of white Americans and is sorely underestimated. The real black diabetes rate is probably double that of whites. As with most chronic diseases, African Americans suffer more complications, including limb loss, blindness, kidney disease, and terminal heart disease. Cancer, the nation’s second greatest killer, is diagnosed later in blacks and carries off proportionately more African Americans than whites. African Americans suffer the nation’s highest rate of cancer and cancer deaths.” It’s sad that this is a statistic I will have to tackle entering the medical field in the twenty first century. Like many I had to break my previous assumption that everyone receives equal care, because those that don’t are too afraid to ask for it. This deep mistrust is rooted in so much evidence which Washington has compiled, and I’ve learned that it will become my duty to attempt to repair this. 

            I’m not only extremely grateful for English 101, but I am grateful for the person it has made me today. I started off arrogant and confident in my fast-approaching medical career and have truly been humbled. I am so excited to move forward in my studies having all this knowledge and continuing to work on being a more open minded and understanding person. I’m confident that this class has provided me with tools for my career that I would have never gained elsewhere. I will always keep in mind that even if I think I know it all, there will always be so much more I still haven’t learned. Thank you, Professor Beth McCoy for helping to open my eyes and my mind to the importance of this literature and teaching me that it’s okay to ask for help. I will always remember all that Washington’s Medical Apartheid has taught me and will keep it forever by my side throughout the rest of my studies.  

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