Caitlin Stobie is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds working on representations of abortion, embodiment, and agency in southern African fiction. She is a research intern on the AHRC-funded research network “The Risks of Childbirth in Historical Perspective” and co-director of the Leeds Animal Studies Network.
On Thursday 14 September, 2017, I travelled to Durham University for the inaugural Congress of the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research (NNMHR). As a comparatively new member of the Network, I was unsure what to expect, but excited by the packed programme of perspectives from the critical posthumanities to ‘global’ medical humanities. It’s important to stress this prospect of universality, since the Congress had attracted speakers from South Africa, Canada, and more. The opening keynote by Ericka Johnson and Kristin Zeiler (of Linköping University) further foregrounded the importance of international collaborations by problematising instances of miscommunication in the development of gynaecological simulators between the U.S. and Sweden. It was immediately apparent, therefore, that the event was concerned with how local conversations about the medical humanities are illustrative of global problems, conversations, or trends.
From a feminist perspective, I was particularly pleased to see problematisations of material-discursive entanglements recur throughout the panels I attended (Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism being a particularly popular reference-point). The snappy hashtag #NNMHR17 further fostered great exchanges on Twitter about intersectionality and ethics.
Two stand-out sessions were, in my opinion, the ones that took place at end of the first day: a panel of five ‘provocations’ by early-career researchers and the Medical Humanities Marketplace. Both sessions afforded researchers the opportunity to present their research in accessible and stimulating formats. As a speaker in the former panel, I was pleased to see that the organisers had arranged our presentations in such a manner that there was ample room for discussion of the interconnections between literary studies, fine arts, psychology, and related disciplines. More conferences and colloquia would do well to create similarly inclusive spaces (especially for younger researchers) and to encourage participation from all attendees.
The marketplace was memorable because of its interactive elements; it worked particularly well as the last session of the day not only because it was slightly more informal, but also because it encouraged academics to consider how they may present their research as praxis. Over the course of the evening we learnt about medieval tales of redemption while playing a board game (no one, it turns out, is beyond salvation); discovered the world record for holding one’s breath (and failed miserably at breaking it); interacted with a very friendly robot named Miro (the trick is to rub the ears); and even questioned our senses of balance by holding peacock feathers in our palms (which is trickier than it looks). I left with an itch for a robot companion – and a good few ideas about presenting research in exhibitions such as The Risks of Childbirth in Historical Perspective.
I am grateful to the funders of the congress (the Wellcome Trust and Durham University) for sponsoring my attendance at #NNMHR17. Both the Network and the Centre for Medical Humanities created a fantastic event which laid the foundation for many more productive collaborations between thinkers, artists, activists, and medical professionals from the North of England and further afield.