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The Structured Essay: Building on Critical Discussion

The aim of this module is to develop critical understanding within the field of the history of medicine. Through providing you with the opportunity to interview a series of historians of medicine about some of their most important works, the module aims to be transformative for you in your understanding of history of medicine and of historical work more generally. You will be introduced to thinking about the complex processes, structures, and choices that shape historical work, but also its after-life through review, response, and public as well as professional impact and engagement.

You will be assessed by a 6000 word essay, as in your other modules. However, your essays for this module will centre on a methodological, historiographical, or theoretical issue* which aligns with your own interests and speaks to the field of history of medicine. You will each select this issue in the opening week of the module (with an introductory seminar devoted to helping you make this choice). Your individual choices will help to coordinate the program that follows.

Students will lead on their chosen theme in engaging with scholars and their books over the following weeks (you will have space here to probe the historian on issues relating to your theme; and you should also look to present your ideas in response to their work and to solicit feedback and advice that will help in development of your essay). Good engagement in the seminars – your own, but also involvement in discussion opened up by others in the seminar – will directly feed into your own essay. A final seminar for the module will provide each student with opportunity to begin piecing together an argument about how the works reviewed in the seminar speak to their theme.

*What do we mean by 'methodological, historiographical or theoretical issue', you ask? Well, you might want to look at 'history from below'; 'sensitive history'; 'activist history', globalising history of medicine; the 'visual turn'; or similar aspects of the history of medicine. Your initial choice can of course be adapted as the module proceeds as your thinking develops.

The final 6000-word essay will:

  • Demonstrate an ability to conduct in depth critical review of historical works, involving independent assessment of strengths and weaknesses, analysis of methodology and theory, and reflection on position within the field. It is likely that this will include at least one of the texts examined in class, and here there is the expectation that analysis will be supplemented through reference to the dialogue with the author. Review of these works will serve as case studies for the essay. This will take up about 40-50% of the word length. This portion of the essay will also help you prepare for the literature review section of your dissertation.
  • Demonstrate broader examination of the chosen theme in relation to the field of the history of medicine through independent reading that goes beyond but may be prompted by the books examined in the seminars and which supplements and enhances the review of those works. As a guide this will take up about 40-50% of the essay. Again, learning how to find and research the secondary literature(s) that address a key theme or question is an important skill you will need for your dissertation.
  • Demonstrate participation in and learning through the module. This will be evident through engagement with one or more of the selected texts, evidence of learning through dialogue with authors, evidence of understanding that goes beyond the written texts and that includes issues of production and impact, evidence of engagement with some of the themes developed by others on the module. This will take up about 5-20% of the essay. Thinking about WHO writes history, WHY books and articles are written and HOW their authors produce them at a given historical moment will help you think about your own positionality and contextual influences as you begin to frame your dissertation.

Example Essay Title: ‘Towards a Sensitive History of Medicine?’ Analysis of the challenges and history of a sensitive history. This could be prompted by case-study reviews of books and author dialogues in the seminars (eg Elise on the politics of skulls; Roberta Bivins' handling of issue of race). Those works would then provide the springboard for broader analysis that might look at other works but also at professional ethical guidelines, public responses to work etc. Via the in-depth analysis of works, an essay might have insight on the range of issues that might fall within concerns about sensitivity; an understanding of how broader structures and individual choices mitigate and shape sensitivity; how the sensitivity of works changes over time etc. The aim of such an essay would be to demonstrate how the in-depth analysis of works and dialogue with authors can enhance understanding on such an issue, but also to demonstrate how this can be built upon by a broader body of research and reading that helps to situate the reviewed works within the broader field.