By Ragini Bhaumik
As both a scholar of literature and a writing teacher, Professor Ann Jurecic sees writing as a tool for exploring what it means to be human. “Working out an understanding of human consciousness,” she says, “is the work that writing does,” whether that work is done by a student for a class, by a dedicated literary author, or by a medical patient trying to describe the new states of being brought on by an extended illness.
Professor Jurecic’s interest in literature began long before she developed this sense of the relationship between writing and perception. As an undergraduate, she attended Bryn Mawr and majored in English. She then went on to Brown’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, which led her to teach English at a public high school. “I have two loves, teaching and literature,” she said, “so teaching seemed like the obvious choice for me.” Eventually, she earned her Ph.D. from Princeton, and taught at both the Princeton Writing Program and the Rutgers Writing Program.
In her Ph.D. thesis, she concentrates on representations of women healers in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature. The topic grew out of her observation that women doctors become rarer and rarer as modern medicine became a professional institution, beginning in the 1870s. She examines works by Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott, and others, to show the growing opposition between medical authority and human compassion, which begins to be characterized as “feminine.”
Her current research examines a completely different set of texts, from a more recent turn of the century. She is at work on a book about how language and narrative operate in and around the institution of medicine, and about the power and limits of these potentially humanizing forces. A chapter of this project – about autism and the challenges of writing about a disorder that is typically inaccessible to language – will soon appear in the journal Literature and Medicine. Other topics include artistic representations of pain, and cultural perceptions of medical risk. Intrigued by the recent explosion of writing about the potential for an avian flu pandemic, she may devote a chapter to the literary silence that followed the devastating 1918 flu.
Professor Jurecic enjoys applying this research to her teaching. One of her courses, “Literature and Medicine,” examines several writings that medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman calls “illness narratives”: first- or third-person accounts of people dealing with catastrophic health problems. “These are not always beautiful or artful novels,” she explains, because they are concerned with the damage that sickness inflicts upon the structure of a person’s life. However, illness narratives are often “powerful stories, stories that have to be told,” in part because they reveal the ways people cope with the extreme states of consciousness and the seemingly “unprecedented experiences” that a major health crisis can cause.
To introduce her students to these themes, her reading list includes many contemporary works that would not usually be taught in other courses. One example is Body Toxic, Susanne Antonetta’s personal account of having numerous illnesses that may have developed from being exposed to illegally dumped industrial toxins and radioactive waste; another is Epileptic, a memoir in graphic narrative form by David B. that describes the debilitating effects of his older brother’s seizures on his family, and on his own childhood. Part of what Professor Jurecic discusses with her students is how these illness narratives, so intensely personal and particular to each author’s experiences, can fit into our sense of important literature. “Literature about illness offers a compelling perspective on ancient puzzles about the relationship of nature and culture, mind and body, and self and others,” she says. “It also asks us to think about realms of experience that can seem beyond language.”
Her previous experience teaching for Rutgers English through the Writing Program made Professor Jurecic a familiar face around the Department even before she joined the faculty. She says she enjoys teaching Rutgers students because they come from a variety of backgrounds and bring their diverse interests to the classroom, especially for courses like “Literature and Medicine,” or her other course, a research and writing course for science majors. In “Science, Medicine, and Society,” students write independent essays on such varied topics as genetics, race and health care, and even plastic surgery, and she notes that nearly every student seems to find a topic to get excited about. “Science and medicine can tell us about our physical bodies, and the humanities can give our experiences meaning,” she says. “When we bring the two together, we can find new insights with profound significance to our lives.”