wordpress tells me it’s been a year since i posted on this blog, and indeed my last post contained the news that i had just been appointed as the Andrew W Mellon Faculty Fellow for Nursing and the Humanities at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia. as you can imagine, the year between then and now has been tumultuous. i have been so busy getting through the days, doing what i needed to do to make the move happen, to get through US immigration, to arrive in atlanta, find somewhere to live, move into my office, meet all the people, learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road, negotiate american supermarkets, american winters, american bureaucracy. you dont need the details – sometimes it’s been great and smooth and easy and fabulous and sometimes its been heart wrenching and lonely and scary and overwhelming. some days i love it here in ways i never loved living in australia. some days all i want to do is run home to the beach and the mangoes and the dogs and my family.
but i am still here, and i will still be here a year from now, because i know this is where i’m meant to be. i wanted to take the time today to just make some notes about what i’m working on now, and plot out the way forward. the last year has been a bit of a fog but its starting to lift now.
the first question for me, and often the abiding one, as i think about what i’m doing at Emory, is ‘what does it mean to be a Mellon Fellow’? (or a Mellonhead, as i am sometimes affectionately called). there are two really important things that were said to me on my first day here that stay in my mind, and i try to make them into my beacons, when i’m feeling lost. i asked one of my vice provosts what did the Mellon Foundation want from the position, and the first thing he said to me, without hesitation, was ‘for you to flourish’. we talked a little about what that meant, and it was, and still is, music to my ears. my friend Alison in australia even stitched it into a cushion for me. i repeat it to myself sometimes, like a mantra.
i have never had anyone in australian academia say that to me. that’s the kind of question that gets you rote parroting about citation indexes and impact factors. so i hang onto that for dear life, because it’s why i came here.
the second thing he said was ‘there is a growing recognition that current approaches to health care are missing the point. the humanities give us a way to ask new questions’. and with that, really, my fate was sealed. i have been thinking a lot lately about what sort of person i am. moving across the planet to a culture so familiar and so entirely different really does ask you to know thyself, to get to the root of who you think you are, what do you stand for, what are your values, how are you going to handle this? so when i think about what kind of work i want to do, it is work that makes a difference. it matters to me that i address issues of social justice, that i reveal something critical about the way we approach health care in the west. a lot of people write history for its own sake and that is an important task. but when you are working in a school of nursing, there are a lot of other people who want to know why history matters. i’ve written about it in a few places, and i think anyone with half a brain knows why the history of health matters to contemporary practice. if not, please just do yourself a favour and read the birth of the clinic.
so the task for me is not to just use the Mellon grant as a way to hunker down and write two books in three years (although i am trying to do that too). its to find active and meaningful ways to bring history alive for nursing students, to show them why the history of what they do matters to the people they do it to today, and why the society they do it in effects the very health outcomes of ordinary people. i think you can probably see the link to bioethics there, and i am very pleased to have been offered an association with the Emory Center for Ethics as a Senior Faculty Fellow, because if i think history has anything to offer nursing in particular, it’s in the exploration of the ethical dilemmas that have been at the core of nursing practice in the past, and continue to be so today.
yet we see nursing schools continue to push shorter curriculums, more accelerated programs, higher level technical skills, biomedical and scientific research, and i cant help but feel anxious about that. these are all important and significant areas to focus on, but they can not be the sole focus. there is something unique and different about nursing, and it lies in the debate about CARE. to hitch one’s wagon too closely to the biomedical model is to run the risk of not being able to ask new questions, to not be able to be critical, to start experimenting on people without their permission because science is more important than the people it’s meant to serve… and thus, we are back to history.
so i am working on a number of things here now to try and make this connect between past and present, between politics and practice. my first manuscript is still being written, it’s a book about the development of psychiatric nursing as a distinct practice in the context of the Cold War, and the second manuscript which is still in proposal stage is about the relationships between race and mental health institutions in the american south. this year alone i have been to archives at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, the National Library of Medicine in DC, the Gottlieb archive in Boston and the Carter Presidential Library here in Atlanta. I am about to start the process of applying for money to get to archives here in Georgia, in Alabama and Mississippi, and probably back to Philadelphia, DC and Boston (one can not go to Boston too often really). i am thrilled to have academic publishers interested in both projects, i am beyond thrilled to have been asked to present some of this work at the Harvard History of Psychiatry Colloquium in December of this year.
but all of it will mean less to me if i cant find a way for nursing itself to value this knowledge, if i cant work it into the classroom, if i cant hold up that mirror and ask nurses to think about the ethics of what they do, the power of their profession, if i cant ask them to think about why they do it that way, and to think about their patients as people, trying to do the best they can in a society that’s stacked against the poor, the coloured, the unwell.
history has the power to change people’s lives. it would easier to write history for its own sake and not care about the health and social justice part. but im not that kind of academic. im not that kind of person. this last year in the US has made that clearer to me then ever, and i hope its my driving force for many years to come.