Updated: Jan 21
Teaching in Higher Education seldom throws up explicit indications that whatever you are trying to communicate is actually provoking thought amongst students. A lecturer or tutor does not build a relationship with students over the course of a year by way of a form group, as is the case in primary and secondary schools. Our interactions are usually far more fleeting, lasting for an hour or two per week, over a few weeks or at most a semester, in large classes that might number in the hundreds. Perhaps most fundamentally, the students are no longer defined as children to whom lecturers have the same duty of care as secondary school teachers: they are adults, (ideally) capable of organising their own thoughts and time. It can often feel like ordering food in a restaurant where you and the hosts do not share the same language: you point and speak, but are never quite sure whether or not you have hit the mark.
However, last October I received an email from former students of mine, who I had taught in the preceding Spring term, which provided some rare and much appreciated clarity. They were undergraduate medics who opted to take an optional module that I had designed and taught in partnership with the medical faculty at NUI Galway. They related that the course had made a profound impression upon the class, to the point that they thought history should be a compulsory subject in medical education, not an optional extra.
I was delighted. It's unusual enough to receive such positive feedback from students, let alone six months after a course and without any prompting. Doubly satisfying was that their feedback satisfied my belief that the history of medicine can and should form a central part of the socialisation of medical students into their profession. That belief relates more broadly to the history of healthcare being centrally important for student nurses, biomedical engineers, paramedics and anyone else who will go on to manage healthcare systems.
I think the place of history in the education of students across healthcare disciplines is not just another example of 'history as a source of moral improvement'; that humans are made better by learning history's lessons. It's as much to do with the fact that the subject is an excellent training in being effective at weighing different types of evidence, thinking with complexity about change over time and being empathic with peoples and cultures different to those with which we are familiar. These are all skills that can be useful to every single person who passes through an educational institution, and on into a profession, especially those where the stakes are as high as they are for the healthcare professions.
The email my former students sent me is why you are reading this, and why I started Body Politics. It provided me with the impetus to make the knowledge historians produce available to the equivalent of those medics I taught at institutions elsewhere in Ireland and around the world, and also to those who might be listening just for sake of interest. Body Politics also fulfils my long-standing love of good broadcasting, which is entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. Finally, and ironically for someone who has spent his working life in and around educational institutions, I don't believe education in classrooms and lecture-halls is the most effective form of educating oneself. Certainly, for nearly all of my secondary education, and most of my time at university, I found being taught pretty dull. Much more interesting was the time I spent reading for myself, having conversations or listening to the conversations of others, or watching TV and, latterly, YouTube.
The podcast's episodes are going to be published every fortnight, on the second and fourth Thursday of the month, for as long as each series runs. In the time between, I'm going to use this blog as a means of giving an insight into the challenges and joys that arise from building a podcast from scratch, and, where I feel I can, my takes on the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it.
Thanks for tuning in and, as always, please subscribe through either the form at the bottom of this website, or by following the podcast on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher or PocketCasts.