New institute connects humanities to careers

-Since Nicholas Hall ’14 plans to go to law school, he hasn’t given much thought to the skills that medical doctors need to care for patients.

But after attending an hourlong panel at Wheaton on February 28 in which four medical doctors talked about their work, Hall said he was struck by the similarities between talents required of both doctors and lawyers.

“The ability to conduct an interview, ask questions, listen closely and build a relationship of trust with a patient or client applies to being an attorney, too,” he said. “There’s a real cross-application of skills.”

Hall arrived at his observation at the conclusion of Practicing Medicine and Practicing the Humanities, the inaugural event sponsored by the Wheaton Institute for the Interdisciplinary Humanities (WIIH), co-founded and co-directed by Assistant Professor of Art History Touba Ghadessi and Associate Professor of History Yuen-Gen Liang.

The institute aims to enable students to take learning achieved in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations. Each year, a team of two professors will co-direct the institute by developing a cutting-edge theme and designing activities that explore it. 

Touba Ghadessi
Touba Ghadessi

Conferences, art exhibitions, performances, film series, panels and lectures will bring distinguished guests from New England and beyond to present innovative scholarship and work, which will be incorporated into coursework. Another event, The Humanities Give Back, was held on April 1 in which Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton University, moderated a roundtable discussion inaugurating the institute.

The purpose of the institute’s debut programs this winter was to shed light on the ways in which the study of the arts and humanities builds skills and habits of mind that contribute to professional success in many fields.

Ghadessi described the mission of the events as an exploration into how the arts and humanities come together in facilitating a successful professional life.

The physicians who participated in the February panel described a number of ways in which their humanities study helps them every day.

Yuen-Gen Liang
Yuen-Gen Liang

“There is an art involved in eliciting a patient’s narrative,” said general internist Melissa DiPetrillo, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University’s School of Medicine.

Angela Leung, M.D., who specializes in research at BU’s medical school and practices medicine at a clinic in Quincy, noted that part of the challenge in understanding patients lies in “trying to figure out where people are culturally.” In some cases, she says, the root cause of a complaint may be emotional rather than physiological. “I try to get to the heart of what’s really going on with the person.”

The doctors’ comments not only demonstrated the ways in which the humanities and the arts inform disparate professional fields, but also illustrated that art happens in everyday life, said Adrianne Madden ’14, a double major in art history and studio art. “Creating art does not necessarily mean that you are producing a painting, drawing or sculpture.”

A painter and photographer in his spare time, Cheng-Chieh Chuang, M.D., described the similarities between the artistic process and the practice of medicine.

“As a painter you need to investigate your subject before you start the creative process,” said Chuang, a family practitioner who practices medicine in Raynham, Mass. “As physicians, if we conduct a good examination and we are creative in using the tools of medicine, we create a masterpiece in healthy lives.”

Read more about the Wheaton Institute for the Interdisciplinary Humanities online at