M.A. in Literature, Medicine, and Culture

Announcing a New MA Degree Track at UNC

In collaboration with the Department of Social Medicine, the Department of English and Comparative Literature has recently instituted a special course of study (or “subplan”) leading to a Master of Arts degree.  Committed to fostering interdisciplinary study of medicine, the curriculum in Literature, Medicine, and Culture embraces a wide and growing variety of courses offered by faculty across the University. 

This curriculum is designed primarily to serve the needs of three groups of students: 

  • Students seeking to explore this field, whether as a terminal degree, or as a prelude to professional training in healthcare or to a doctoral program at UNC or elsewhere, may apply for admission directly to this MA subplan.
  • Students already enrolled in graduate study at UNC may (subject to approval by the candidate’s committee and home department) pursue this MA subfield to earn a significant credential and to ground their eventual work on the PhD.  Graduate students in the Department of English and Comparative Literature can continue to be funded during their MA work through teaching or departmental fellowships pursuant to the Department’s policies on support.  Students pursuing doctoral study in other fields must retain their status as a doctoral candidate in their home departments; such students may also qualify for continuing funding through their home departments, subject to approval by the candidate’s home department. 
  • Students considering or already enrolled in a professional training program in a healthcare field can earn this interdisciplinary degree as a valuable adjunct to their professional education.  Some professional training programs at UNC have procedures that allow candidates to combine their training with a Master’s degree program in another discipline by taking time off at some point in their training program.  (Candidates considering such an option should consult with their professional school advisor or Dean’s Office to find out about the procedures specific to their program.)  Other candidates may want to complete the MA before enrolling for professional training, or take time after earning their professional degree. 

In addition to these groups, practicing and retired healthcare professionals who seek to reflect on their professional experiences in a humanities context are welcome to apply; for such candidates, time to completion of degree may be extended to accommodate professional obligations.

History of the Program

Although the term “medical humanities” has been in use since the 1940s, the first academic program was not created until 1967 at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine.  This was followed in 1972 by the University of Texas at Galveston (which now offers a PhD in the field).  The American Association of Medical Colleges notes that three-fourths of all medical schools now require course work in the medical humanities.[i]

The MA track in Literature, Medicine and Culture at UNC is the product of six years’ collaborative effort between faculty from the Department of English and Comparative Literature and the Department of Social Medicine.  Involved faculty now come from a dozen other departments across the University, as well as the Honors Program, which offers an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in the field. 

In addition to working with faculty from across the UNC campus, candidates for this degree have a wide range of opportunities for collaboration with other institutions.  Through a longstanding partnership with its neighbor Duke University, many graduate students in interdisciplinary studies of health & medicine at UNC and Duke take courses at both institutions and have faculty from both universities on their committees. King’s College-London, which offered the world’s first MA program in literature and medicine, and now offers an MSc program in medical humanities through its Wellcome Centre for Health Sciences and the Humanities, has been engaged for several years in a wide-ranging partnership with UNC-CH, offering opportunities for study abroad on their London campuses.   Through the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, both UNC and King’s, along with Columbia University, Dartmouth College and other centers in the US and abroad,  are collaborating in proposing and seeking funding for research combining theoretical, topical and practical approaches to the interdisciplinary study of medicine. 

UNC’s Unique Stature:

Among the many distinctions of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is its School of Medicine, ranked number one nationally by US News and World Reports.  The School embraces not only an MD program, but also professional training in such fields as physical and occupational therapy.  With its hospital and allied schools of Nursing and Social Work, the School stands only a few minutes’ walk from the College of Arts and Sciences, where over a dozen departments rank among the top 25 nationally in their fields.  Such close proximity between healthcare and the liberal arts is relatively rare; such a concentration of top-ranked programs in medicine and the humanities is even rarer.  Among our peer institutions, universities possessing such resources for interdisciplinary study in medicine and the humanities can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  With this new degree track, UNC enters the field already a national leader.

Partners at UNC
Department of Social Medicine:

The Department of Social Medicine at UNC-CH embraces teaching and research in the whole range of the medical humanities and social sciences.  One of the few such comprehensive programs in the United States, the Department has over the past three decades acquired an international reputation as a leader in the field.

The Department seeks to educate health care practitioners about the social conditions and causes of illness, the cultural contexts of medical care, and the moral and ethical dimensions of medicine.  In the past decade the focus of Social Medicine at UNC has expanded to include an NIH-supported research center in the ethical, legal, and social implications of genomics and genetics; we have investigated the intersections of health and human rights through fieldwork in South Africa and Cambodia; through the Center for Health Equity Research we look into causes and responses to disparities in health care; and, through our newly-established Center for Bioethics, our faculty pursue a wide range of topics including global health ethics, clinical and research ethics, and the ethics of research on animals.

For more information about the Department, see http://www.med.unc.edu/socialmed.  

Department of English and Comparative Literature:

In 2009, 2010, and 2013, US News and World Report ranked the Department’s graduate program fifth nationally among public universities, and, most recently, fifteenth overall.  The Department’s nationally recognized creative writing program includes writers whose work on illness and medicine has won multiple national awards.  Through courses about the construction of health and illness, the premodern medical imagination, case histories, political rhetoric, trauma, bio-ethics, representations of medical risk, and definitions of the human, as well as through the intensive advising offered its graduate students, English and Comparative Literature offers the ideal departmental home for this degree.