As many of you will know, I have been talking about teaching a class on graphic medicine to medical students at UMass Medical School for nearly a year now – AND IT FINALLY HAPPENED! Approved by the curriculum committee in January, this past week was the first offering of an intensive, week-long class at UMass about graphic medicine and health literacy. The short of this style of class is that at UMass, our 3rd year medical students are able to take 3, week-long courses, called flexible clinical experiences (FCEs) in subjects that might otherwise not be available in the curriculum. Students base their choices on course descriptions like ours here. If you want to chat more about this program, feel free to reach out. [You can find some of my thoughts as they happened throughout the week on Twitter using #FCE3043.]

Some Reflection…

I’m not going to spend too much time reflecting in this post for a couple of reasons. One, it would probably be me gushing over how amazing our students – Jess, MK, and Tiffany – were over-and-over. We couldn’t have picked a better group to teach this class to the first time! They had a perfect mix of experience, from being completely new to comics to reading manga regularly, to drawing regularly to almost never, and they all came with different plans for making use of the material. “Different experience levels and expectations were a good thing – are you daft?!” is what I’m sure some of you are saying and I get that. But I think one of the amazing things about comics are their ability to bridge divides and that is exactly what happened here. We worked together, supported one another, and explored topics new and old as a team despite different backgrounds and end-goals.

See? I gushed too much already! The second big reason I don’t want to reflect too much here is that it would be just my experiences and that isn’t representative of the course. Not only were there three students, but there were three instructors as well. Len Levin, the head of LSL’s Education and Clinical Services department taught the health literacy components of the class and, as a relative newcomer to comics, helped provide grounding for the comics conversations. John Trobaugh, part of the UMass Medical School Diversity and Inclusion Office and artist in his own right, provided important background in artistic and narrative theory – and some of the most fun exercises of the week as you’ll see below! Notably, John created a coloring book for patients and caregivers at UMass which was of great interest to one student, as she is working on a similar project for her capstone. This class wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without their expertise and willingness to explore this idea with me.

A Glimpse at the Schedule for FCE 3043

All that said, I want to get to the fun part of the week – the artwork – but first I want to include a clearer picture of just what the week entailed. To do that, I think the best way is to simply quote most of our “syllabus” from the week – which was far shorter and less authoritative than most, both because the short time-frame of the class made it feel unnecessary and because I wanted to allow our students as much freedom to direct our week as possible.

…meantime a rough outline for the coming week looks something like this:

• Monday: Introductions, Welcome, Introduction to Health Literacy, Discussion (Led by Len)
• Tuesday: Narrative and Art Theory and Structure (Led by John)
• Wednesday: Introduction to Graphic Medicine, Brainstorming, Drawing time
• Thursday: Book Club Discussions
• Friday: Wrapping up, Presentations

Given our short time together, I expect that I will be providing far more reading material than you can expect to get through – know that I know this when I send things out! I will try to make clear what readings we will discuss in class. For example, I am attaching here three articles that I think provide a decent overview of the basic idea of graphic medicine. All three of these are what I would consider required reading for discussion of comics in medicine. Try to make time to read through them ideally before we meet on Monday, but no later than Wednesday. I suggest Monday because it would be beneficial to have these ideas in mind from the beginning of our work together, but I understand the importance of the weekend!

While not required for our class, I do highly recommend getting a copy of The Graphic Medicine Manifesto when you are able (the library has one copy). It is relatively inexpensive and provides a solid overview of the various ways people are considering comics in healthcare – ways that are wider and more varied than we will be able to cover. I will provide more suggested readings as we progress.

Keep in mind that the deliverable for this FCE is self-drawn comic. I am not going to provide too much in the way of guidelines for this comic beyond the follow:

• Minimum length of 9 panels
• Related to medicine
• About a personal experience

That’s it. I will show some examples of comics created by medical students in a similar class at another university and we will take time in our class meetings to discuss any ideas, concerns, etc. as we progress.

If there are any burning questions, please feel free to reach out over the weekend. If not, then I look forward to meeting and working with you all come Monday!

The three articles I included in this initial email and as required reading were: Humanising illness: presenting health information in educational comics by Sarah McNicol, Memory for biopsychology material presented in comic book format by Paul Aleixo and Krystina Sumner, and Graphic medicine: comics as medical narrative by Ian Williams. I sent out and alluded to probably two dozen other articles or other scholarly resources throughout the week – not even counting what Len and John mentioned. If you want more on that, again, please feel free to reach out.

Activities

A class on comics wouldn’t be much of a class without plenty of drawing (and other fun art exercises), so naturally, we did a fair few! From daily self-portraits in crayon to jam comics to exercises to understand perspective and space, we covered as much as we could in our short time. I think the photos below will better show the artistic efforts. You’ll also see a couple of photos of lecture from Len and John (who were absent on my lecture day, so no photos of that thankfully!) and one of our health literacy role-playing.

On Thursday, day 4 of our class, we devoted the day to discussing three graphic novels I assigned on Monday – Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies, The Bad Doctor by Ian Williams, and At War With Yourself by Samuel Williams. I chose these because I thought each one brought a different perspective of graphic medicine to the table and could get the students thinking about the numerous opportunities for comics in their practice. It seems I chose well, as the students ultimately said back my impressions: Mom’s Cancer for family, friends, and occasionally patients, The Bad Doctor for medical professionals and students, and At War With Yourself as a conversation starter with patients and families.

As you can see in the “featured image” for this blog post, I made great use of Lynda Barry’s magnificent Syllabus and the great teaching ideas it contains. (I also recommended her journaling methods to my students – here’s hoping they keep at it!) I also found valuable ideas in the Graphic Medicine Manifesto, particularly in MK Czerwiec’s chapter (also known as Comic Nurse). While I’m at it with the giving credit-where-credit-is-due, I also want to thank Michael Green for both inspiring the final project for this class – a reflective comic – and for helping brainstorm with me a few months ago on how to condense a semester’s worth of information into a week!

Now for the fun part: pictures (and a little commentary)!


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John getting started on art theory for graphic medicine

John gave us some exercises to explore perspective, space, and color… the students (above) did far better than us (below) I think…

We began each day by drawing self-portraits using only crayon and note-cards. At least, that was the idea – you’ll see things were a little different some days!

My favorite exercise of the week were the jam comics. There are dozens of different ways to approach this exercise, but the general idea is that each comic grid is passed from person-to-person until every panel is full – theoretically telling a complete story. In this iteration, I drew in the first panel of each grid and then Jess, MK, and Tiffany cycled through to complete the comics.


And after a week of intense learning, drawing, and getting comfortable with comics and each other, I am proud and privileged to share these students’ comics with you all! I want their work to speak for itself, so I will present each without commentary – though I have plenty if anyone does want to hear it. I will also make their comics the last part of this post, so as not to cloud your reading of them with my ramblings! If you ever want to chat more about this class, again, please feel free to reach out to me. And keep an eye out for the next iteration of FCE 3043 (likely) coming your way in November!

Jess’s Final Comic

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MK’s Final Comic

MK


Tiffany’s Final Comic

TIFFANY


*I received permission from all three students to include their work here. All of their stories are written so as to protect the privacy of those illustrated. Please do not reproduce their work in any way without first seeking permission.

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