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Posted on October 28, 2019 at 3:54 PM

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

As a philosopher and bioethicist by professional degree and training it is no more apparent that I have one foot in the world of bioethics and one foot in the world of health humanities than when I attend the annual meeting of American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH). Attending ASBH as I did this past week always makes me confront whether having one foot in each world means that I can do both well or if not fully being in any one world means I’m doing my students and my career a disservice.

As a tenure-track professor and junior scholar there is no shortage of advice from more senior faculty. From what you should be publishing, where you should be publishing, to how you should and should not be spending your time and with whom in the academy you should or should not be spend your time everyone has mostly unsolicited advice to offer. Most people mean well but deciphering what advice is worthwhile and what advice you ought to ignore is also a lesson one must learn to be successful in the academy. One piece of advice I have frequently been offered from bioethicists is to make my work distinctly bioethics. I have yet to really determine what this means but I think those who offer this advice mean something like make sure that editors, reviewers, and other bioethicists can read your work and not mistake it for anything but a bioethics manuscript, article, blog post, etc. This may seem like fair advice worthy of any junior scholar’s time but the problem is that health humanities and medical humanities scholars have also advised me of the same thing—make sure that your work is distinctly medical or health humanities. What complicates this advice even further is that my current faculty position is in a center for humanities and ethics at a medical school. Given my place of employment my duties are to participate in the academic work of both health humanities and ethics. Even if my place of employment didn’t entail being an active in both academic communities, I have interests in both health humanities and bioethics so I would nonetheless voluntarily participate in both academic communities. Furthermore, the very name of the main national conference of my profession, ASBH, includes both “bioethics” and “humanities” terminology but I’m learning that my own uneasiness with reconciling how to be an active and productive member of both disciplines may be reflected in the ASBH meetings themselves.

This last weekend at the annual meeting of ASBH in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania I attended many panels, workshops, and affinity groups that I would categorize as bioethics; the methodology of the research, the topics of conversations all pointed to bioethics. I did attend a couple of sessions that I would classify as humanities, largely because there just weren’t many humanities sessions. One standout humanities session was the “How to be a Respectable Junkie” session in which one man performed a screenplay based on the story of a recovering heroin addiction. But I left this session thinking “How did this happen at ASBH?” I was surprised that a session of this sort would be a part of the annual meeting. I’m hoping that this is a sign that more humanities sessions will be a part of future meetings. But my reaction to the novelty of this session, I think, reflects the tension in my own career, between wanting to be a good member of both bioethics and health humanities worlds but questioning if it’s possible. Similarly, is it possible that ASBH can be successful at balancing the number of humanities sessions with the seemingly abundant bioethics sessions? Or is to be expected that bioethics will be the star of the meeting and humanities will get the scraps?

My doubts about my own humanities abilities are partly based in my educational background. My doctorate degree is in philosophy and my specialty has always been bioethics. I took bioethics classes as a student, volunteered in hospitals and other clinical facilities, completed a bioethics postdoc, sat on ethics committees boards in hospitals, and most of my publications are on topics in bioethics. Even most of the blogs that I post here are on topics I bioethics. It wasn’t until I took a postdoc in an ethics and humanities center and started to attend more health humanities events that my interest in humanities grew. So as of now, my education and training in bioethics does not compare to my education and training in health humanities. But I see the need for health humanities and I see the benefits of pairing bioethics and health humanities together so I’m trying. I’m reading, learning, and researching more in the field of health humanities. I’m also teaching more in the health humanities. Recently I created a science fiction course for our fourth year medical students and although I was nervous about whether I had the skills to discuss literature with my students and wrestled with the legitimate belief that a more trained health humanities scholar could do a better job, I did the best I could and my students responded well. They seemed to enjoy the course and gave positive feedback.

I still have one foot in the bioethics world and one foot in the health humanities world and I still wonder if this means I can only hope to be unsteady in both rather than fully grounded in just one. And I still wonder the same about ASBH. For now, however, I will continue to do my part to grow into my role as a bioethics and health humanities scholar because professionally and personally I consider this task worthwhile. I want to be able to bring humanities to my students and I want to be able to continue participating in the bioethics community. But when it comes my time to give unsolicited advice to the next wave of scholars trying to balance their roles as bioethicists and health humanities scholars I don’t know what I will tell them. I hope that one day ASBH will be a source of guidance on this issue whether that guidance is reflected in its balanced schedule of sessions, its leadership, or its mission and goals. But right now my own confusion and struggles seem to parallel that of the ASBH.

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