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Why I teach with a neurologist

by Laura Otis, PhD

Dr. Otis is a Professor of English at Emory University. Although she ultimately obtained a PhD in Comparative Literature and now teaches English literature, she holds a BS in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and an MA in Neuroscience, and she worked in research labs for years. She was awarded a MacArthur fellowship for creativity in 2000 and is currently working as a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Editor’s note: The following post is the first of a pair of short essays about interdisciplinary teaching that will be featured on the blog. Stay tuned next week for Dr. Krish Sathian’s “Why I teach with an English professor.” It is often said that academic fields are becoming increasingly segregated as specializations develop more jargon and become more detailed with each new peer-reviewed paper. However, the classes co-taught by Professors Otis and Sathian are unique interdisciplinary spaces where students across traditional disciplinary divides are able to wrestle with topics shared by the humanities and sciences: perception, imagination, and art. Is this kind of interdisciplinary inquiry a necessary counterbalance to the segregation of the disciplines? Or even part of the ethical practice of science? Might having more classes like this improve the scientific literacy of those in the humanities, and keep scientists in touch with the depth of expertise that other fields can contribute (as I have argued in an earlier post)? Should we begin to find ways to institutionalize more of this type of work into the higher education system, or provide more movement between the disciplines? Or is interdisciplinarity merely a fad and a buzzword? Readers: what do you think? 

In teaching, there are few things worse than realizing you’ve told your students something wrong. The jolt may come a year, five years down the line, but you can’t issue a retraction. They’ve dispersed to medical schools, where they’re now propagating your error. It’s been thirty years since I studied Neuroscience at UCSF, and a few things have changed since then. The human genome has been sequenced. Scientists analyze data on computers. I try to keep abreast of what’s happening, but this is hard while teaching Victorian literature. In this climate of near-worship for Neuroscience, I worry that I could say anything about the brain, and people would believe me. With a neurologist in the room, this can’t happen.

At Emory University, Krish Sathian and I have taught two courses together: “Images, Metaphors, and the Brain” (spring 2012) and “Language, Literature, and Mental Simulation” (spring 2014). Both times we were blessed with a mix of bright, open-minded graduate students in Neuroscience, Psychology, English, and Comparative Literature as well as some gifted undergraduate Neuroscience majors. Nothing dissolves stereotypes like familiarity, and it did all of us good to exchange ideas with intelligent, well informed people who saw the world differently. Professor Sathian himself was a vital role model for the students in English, since this high-energy person who healed patients, ran a lab, and wrote grants knew a great deal about literature and was eager to learn more. He saw it as related to his work.

In our two courses, we read scientific and literary works that explored creative metaphors and sensory imagery. We studied Dedre Gentner’s “career of metaphor” theory in parallel with Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities with David Kemmerer’s “The Semantics of Space.” I learned the most from the course when the students disagreed, and I think that they did as well. Behavior was good, but people came head to head over the issue of whether science is a cultural narrative or an all-out effort to learn how the world works. In these situations, it was helpful to be teaching with a colleague who is a doctor as well as a scientist. Before coming to class, he had worked for hours in a place where “aphasia” and “paralysis” aren’t just words. Tell a patient at the VA his seizures are cultural constructions, and he’ll tell you something about your mother. Professor Sathian’s clinical experience, as well as his work as an experimentalist, helped those from other fields to appreciate what scientists do.

When I did make a mistake, my colleague from Neurology corrected me tactfully and unhesitatingly. Our aim was to teach, not perform, and our “hybrid” courses on metaphors and imagery have given me some of the best teaching experiences I’ve ever had. I urge everyone in the humanities to try teaching with a scientific colleague. In my experience, scientists are eager to learn from scholars whose critical eyes scan language and culture. Aren’t all of us trying to figure out how the world works?

Want to cite this post?

Otis, L. (2015). Why I teach with a neurologist. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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