Frankenstein as Deadbeat Dad: Literature Complements Health Science Courses

Posted: December 17, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Devon Madison

James Metcalf
James Metcalf

According to James Metcalf, Victor Frankenstein is “the ultimate deadbeat dad.” And who could argue with him? After all, the protagonist in Mary Shelley’s 18th-century novel essentially abandons the very creature he brought into existence.

With the possibility of cloning humans looming in the near future, debating the moral and ethical consequences of creating life is more important than ever.

Such discussion is central to many of Metcalf’s health science classes, and he has students read classic literature that illustrates themes relevant to current health issues.

Metcalf, a professor of global and community health in the College of Health and Human Services, has been weaving classic literature into his health classes for almost a decade.

He finds that examining literature provides students with a holistic view of health issues by highlighting timeless themes. It also serves to further develop critical thinking and writing skills.

“I’ve enjoyed reading these classic novels as part of the science classes,” says health science major Madilyn Curd, who has taken two classes taught by Metcalf.

“Applying these novels to health teaches us how to think outside the box. This is something that will be very helpful after college and into my future career in health care.”

In the Concepts of Health Care Promotion and Disease Prevention (GCH 332) course this semester, students read “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” to look at good and evil as a metaphor for sickness and health.

To examine the unique nature of the patient–provider relationship, Metcalf had his students read Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient” for his Health Education, Promotion and Holistic Health (GCH 350) course.

In another course surveying the American health care system, Metcalf showed portions of the movie “Man of La Mancha” and had the class read Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem titled “Mr. Flood’s Party” to give students an insight into the aging population.

With “Man of La Mancha,” the class explored the theme that the value of a dream is in no way related to the age of the dreamer, as the elderly protagonist goes out and lives a life of adventure. “Mr. Flood’s Party” paints a picture, a bit more somber, of a man who is old and alone.

“There are social and economic consequences to aging, but what about the personal consequences? What is it like for the person who becomes old?” asks Metcalf.

“That’s where ‘Mr. Flood’s Party’ came in. It tells us about the loneliness of old age, at least one aspect. My students are in their 20s, so it’s hard for them to relate to the human aspect of aging. But through ‘Mr. Flood’s Party,’ I think they moved a little bit in that direction. They’ll be caring for older patients until they themselves become old.”

But studying literature does more than explore health-related themes.

“Literature, I think, is a good way of getting to the affective domain,” says Metcalf. “The affective domain has to do with how you feel about the material. Many of our insights come from our experiences in the affective domain. So, in order to give that an opportunity to come out, I use classic literature.”

After all, students will enter the health sciences dealing with patients facing life-and-death issues. And while having scientific knowledge is imperative in health professions, demonstrating a sense of humanity is equally important.

“In health professions you deal with people who have different religions, backgrounds and concerns,” says Dana Fayyad, a sophomore health science major who took GCH 350 over the summer and is currently taking GCH 332.

“Dr. Metcalf’s classes are more than about just giving you scientific facts. The class discussions these books generate are really helpful; you get to hear the opinions of students who are from a variety of backgrounds. People are really different, and this class will help me be able to deal with people in general.”

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