Goal setting: reflection, discomfort, and care

Jacob Clarke 

Dr. McCoy

ENG 439


Thus far, this semester’s study of American Ways; Literature, medicine & Racism have proved just as challenging as rewarding. During the first class meeting Dr. McCoy spoke on the need to face discomfort in order to understand and address the content we’re grappling with. It’s clear that avoiding discomfort is futile and counterproductive when seeking the truth, it’s absolutely necessary to acknowledge this discomfort so that we can continue learning, rather than running from uncomfortable topics. In addition, we spent a good deal of the first session going over our mutual commitment to peer growth. This emphasis is reflected in our course grading model as well as the course epigraph from Dionne Brand: “My job is to notice … and to notice that you can notice”.

After taking the time to understand the demands of the syllabus, it was important to me to begin shifting focus on contemplatING and unpackING rather than empty recapitulations of “safe talking points”. Its clear to me that the course compels us to invest in our own growth, to focus on practice over product, to “think more, judge less”. I find this power simultaneously freeing and intimidating, it allows me to focus more on the content itself and my own intellectual growth rather than pulling my hair out trying to write what I think my professor wants to read. 

From the beginning of the semester I knew that this content could be difficult and sometimes painful to interact with. I believe that growth is almost always uncomfortable, by practicING and showING our care, we can understand the “what, why and how?” of intersections between American Literature, Racism and Medicine, but just as importantly honor and venerate the tremendous amount of resultant human suffering. 

I feel challenged with my ability to sit in discomfort when reading Harriet Washington’s Medical Aparthied. Reading the accounts that Washington gives of individual stories of medical professionals abusing other humans is painful, unpackING the material per the course guidelines I find especially difficult. For example, the medical specticalization of Africans described in chapter 2 “circus africanus” was gut-wrenchingly uncomfortable, but the true challenge for me was the unpackING of Washington’s recount of the career of James Marion Sims, the “founder of gynecology”. Here we’re told about the myriad of medical experiments on he performed enslaved african women without sterile conditions, anesthesia, or basic patient rights by a number of other standards, in the process both hiding the crimes against humanity behind medicalized jargon, while justifying any transgression with racist antebellum rhetoric. Eventually his work led to a new understanding of the disease neonatal tetanus as well as the first successful repair of the Vesicovaginal Fistula, both legitimate advances in medical advances which have undoubtedly saved thousands since. Understanding this, Washington invites us to begin unpackING the implications, was care distributed equitably then? Is the good that comes from these advancements distributed equally now? What does it mean for people interested in medicine that such an essential breath of scientific understanding was informed by such irrevocable cruelty? What does it mean that this type of experimentation was condoned and encouraged by the state? None of these questions have easy answers and it’s important to answer them even though it makes us uncomfortable.

In addition to this consciousness of discomfort, I’m interested in this course’s commitment care as well as to peer growth. Dr.McCoy made it clear that as we’re moving back into an in-person model of instruction, it’s necessary that everyone comes to class not only thinking about how they can succeed, but how we can all succeed as a dedicated team. This vision requires both sincere effort and deliberate strategy of each individual to implement. I began to see these pictures more clearly from the readings, especially through Frank’s sister, Cee in Toni Morrison’s Home. Perhaps Cee’s biggest obstacle to her development throughout the novel is her tendency toward codepedndence, always having a protector to look to and resolve her issues, up until their separation, “[Frank} would, as always, protect her from a bad situation”(51). When Cee is forced into a situation that requires healthy scepticism,self- respect, and personal resilience she finds herself helpless before promising that she would protect herself by the end of the novel. In the same way, persevering through discomfort and through confusion presses us students to invent and discover novel interests and skills that inform our academic career. By the end of the Home, Cee has been challenged to the point of reconceptualizing the limits of her capabilities, I hope to have a similar journey of growth through this course by testing myself and reevaluating my capabilities as an academic voice.

Another example of growth that’s stuck with me since the original reading is Marilyn Nelson’s note on the nature of requiem and honoring the dead with both solemn mourning and  jovial celebration. Nelson briefly references the “second-line parade”, the traditional New Orleans post-funeral celebration as a form of honoring and remembering. Nelson is careful not to REDUCE fortune’s story to a form they can digest, but puts CARE into honoring all that we know about Fortune, and appreciating the possibilities that were never recorded. Nelson never aims to reconcile, or resolve these issues because she understands that as a witness to fortune’s story hundreds of years after his life and death, it would be ludicrous to put herself in that position. It was helpful for me to see how Nelson approaches Fortune’s story with the aim of CARE over RESOLUTION.

Reflecting on all of these points, I have a better idea of what I can expect from my goals for the course going forward. Firstly, I plan to hold myself accountable for thinking critically about the perspective about the literature, especially careful to consider biases of scientific racism within the established medical mainstream, as I’ve realized how powerful and subtly pervasive it can become in practice. Next, I plan to persevere through inevitable discomfort, there are unavoidable reckonings that will challenge my ever-evolving perception of the world, and even compared to the beginnings of this semester I feel as though I’ve learned a great deal about how to work with concepts despite discomfort. Lastly, I will make sure to emphasize my ability and capacity to care. Showing care, taking care, analyzing care, carING; these are essential attributes of growth on the level of the individual as well as the group. Acknowledging this, I believe in the benefits that will come from extending that care to my peers grappling with the very same content. My ultimate hope is that I, along with my peers in class, will grow to become more capable, more critical and more caring individuals by the semester’s end.


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