Making Meaning

The Humanities in Times of Crisis

Episode Notes

Poet, writer, and physician Dr. Rafael Campo reads his poem “The Doctor's Song” and talks about the healing power of the humanities. Dr. Gioia Woods, a professor in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University, shares The Pandemic Stories Project, a reading, discussion, and oral history program she created to document the impact of COVID-19 in her rural community.

Learn more about Dr. Campo’s work and poetry on his website, watch his TEDx talk, and read the Poetry Section he edits at the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Explore the Pandemic Stories Project and Plague Virtual Book Club, and read more about Dr. Woods’ work and recent book, Left in the West: Literature, Culture, and Progressive Politics in the American West.

Read more about this episode’s topic and guests at our website.

Episode Transcription

Sydney Boyd: Hi, Welcome to Making Meaning, a podcast that explores how and why the humanities are an essential part of our everyday lives. In this series, we hear stories from our nation's humanities councils and leaders across the greater United States about the role the humanities have played during the pandemic and are playing in our recovery. I'm your host, Sydney Boyd. And today I'm thinking about how poetry and storytelling offer us empathy, clarity, and context in moments of crisis.

Dr. Rafael Campo is a celebrated poet, writer, and physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, where he is also the director of literature and writing programs of the arts and humanities initiative. I first came across his work in What The Body Told, a collection of his poetry that won the 1996 slam de literary award for gay poetry. Published at the peak of the HIV aids epidemic in the US, it has been a touchstone for me to think about how the humanities and specifically poems help us process tragedy, move towards healing and imagine a hopeful future. So I asked him if we could start our conversation with a poem.

Dr. Rafael Campo: This poem is The Doctor's Song. The ventilators rise and fall, the ambulance's siren call. The blue gowns rustle down the hall. They page us and we go, the wail of loved ones. Silence then until the next alarm, a pulsitile bleat, almost like an infant's cry. A team in baggy scrubs slogs by the coughing like a symphony a virus might conduct. We listen as if the breath sounds might not lessen, as if the body we are given protected us. The stethoscope won't be an instrument of hope. It merely amplifies the gallop, makes audible the failing heart. The doctor's song is not heroic, sing like the needle sing like hurt.

Boyd: I'm struck by how you write about others' pain, but also your own. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between those two things?

Campo: Poetry really helps me, I think, to be more present empathetically and really hear my patient's voices, really elevate what they're saying to me above the noise of the clinic of all the technology and beeping machines and all the science that also of course informs my work. And I do think that through that experience of what they are telling me and what they are feeling, I can become more alert and attentive to my own suffering, my own pain. And that really, I think ultimately I hope makes me a better healer. And that connection I think in itself is therapeutic. I think when we connect through each other's stories, through shared experiences that are made audible to us through poetry, I think we're able to heal. And I think we're able to overcome some of the challenges we face and certainly in this moment of the pandemic, another pandemic, I think that that empathetic connection is healing and is really how we can endure.

Boyd: You mentioned another pandemic. And one of the things that I was thinking about is that you were such a leader during the AIDS crisis, but I haven't heard a lot of people talking about the AIDS epidemic alongside this pandemic. What are the parallels between the AIDS epidemic and this pandemic and how do you see the humanities working similarly or differently?

Campo: When I think about it from the perspective of medicine in my work in the clinic, I see in many ways, both pandemics have marginalized certain groups in our society. I think that when we're dealing with marginalized people being more greatly impacted by disease by pandemic, and when we're grasping for some kind of cure, when we're looking for some kind of way forward in the midst of so much suffering, poetry, it's our imaginations. It's how we speak to each other, how we can connect across difference and across this sort of barrier of the pain of another person by helping us to see that that other person is actually me. That other person's story resonates with my experience. That other person's song reminds me of my own music.

And I think that when I recall the terrible AIDS pandemic at its height in San Francisco, when I was training during my residency, I remember activists in the street chanting silence equals death. Silence equals death that incantatory call to action as people were dying. And those poems, those acts of language, really, I think not only joined people together in community to help us fight the pandemic at that moment, but in a very practical sense also, I think spurred some of the scientific advances that have led to some of the amazing treatments we have now for HIV and AIDS. And so I'm hopeful, and that's another wonderful aspect to why the humanities in moments like these, because we can remember through those poems, through that activism, through that incantatory language, through that art that responded to HIV and AIDS, what we might do now in the face of this new pandemic. And that's partly how I think they help us to endure. They provide almost a kind of roadmap to a better future to an imagined better humanity.

Boyd: It's beautiful, the way you talk about empathy here. And it has me thinking during moments in my own life where I felt in crisis, I think I looked to the humanities and literature especially as a means of escaping and less so healing. And you have me sort of thinking about the role that storytelling plays in healing, specifically in this coming together, this community and this idea ultimately of hope that it can bring.

Campo: Yes, I think, we are so much of course our physical bodies, but we are equally, I think our stories and our words, our language. And so in that kind of realization, I think is that connection between what we can say, what we can imagine, what we can write, the poem we can make and how we might heal our bodies and our society at large. I think there really is a very profound connection there and yes, metaphoric language helps us actually, I think can physically move us from one state to another. It can help us imagine by juxtaposing, by comparing to different ideas, how we might move from one to another. I think the experience of illness, the experience of suffering often, I think alienates us from ourselves. It's very isolating. It can be a very, I think, lonely experience.

And the act of creating something, I think, through the imagination, I think can help restore a sense of control over the body gone awry or this pain that seems in some ways can't be contained. Yet somehow by putting pen to paper, by making art, we can represent it. We can get our minds around it in I think in a really an important way that can restore a sense of peace and again, a sense of healing, even as we suffer.

Boyd: I'm so encouraged by hearing you speak on this, because I know that you have seen an enormous amount of pain in the work that you've done. And I'm wondering too, if you could talk a little bit about how moments like this also teach us about equality and justice on the hopeful end of things.

Campo: Really, I think that by attending to, by listening, by really immersing ourselves in the experience of another, I think we can begin to move to a place of more equity, more equality, because despite our, what I think of often in some ways as really kind of superficial differences, we all suffer in the same profoundest way. We all feel pain in the same way. It's remarkable. And maybe not actually all that surprising that in the hospital, we see pain, yes, through the lens of culture and identity, but ultimately we see it as human, I think. It's a shared human experience in the most profound sense. And so by helping us to recognize that, we can see each other again across differences in identities and points of origin as fundamentally human beings. So I think that yes, the humanities really can help bridge some of these divisions and some of these distances that we see occurring in our society at large, in particular these days, and all the more reason we need the humanities in our lives.

Boyd: To find out what this kind of storytelling looks like in practice, I spoke with Dr. Gioia Woods, a professor in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University. In 2020, she received a grant from Arizona Humanities to support the pandemic stories project, a reading discussion and oral history program that documented the impact of COVID-19 in her rural community. They started by reading together, Albert Camus' 1947 novel The Plague.

Dr. Gioia Woods:                                      

So when the pandemic sort of hit my town, I was experiencing a lot of insecurity like a lot of other people around me. What does this mean that I should stay away from the supermarket and stay away from crowds? And what are we going to do? How are we going to teach? How are we going to function? And in times like these, I do what I always do, which is I pick up a novel. And so I picked up The Plague and I read it and it gave me no small comfort.

Boyd: Can you just say, in a few sentences, what is this book about?

Woods: The Plague is about a town called Oran in the African Mediterranean, which suffers from a mysterious illness in the beginning. Rats start coming out and beginning to die. And the townspeople are mystified, and some of them want to flee and some of them want to diagnose, and some of them want to profit, but in the end, four of the five characters put their shoulders to the wheel and confront this mysterious illness. And they're kind of deciding what to do and how to proceed.

And this gave me a little bit of comfort. And so I thought, well, if it could give me comfort, maybe it could give others comfort because everyone was obsessively reading the news, right. And the news doesn't tell you everything. It doesn't tell you what pandemic means. And this is the job of the novel. By seeing the characters struggle through meaning, the novel does what the news, or even what science can't. It gives us a sense for what it means and how people behave. So my philosopher friend and I put together this book club, and then in all the confusion over that pandemic, summer of July, June and July of 2020, when universities across the country, universities like mine were thinking, are we going to open? How are we going to open? How are we going to educate our students?

We thought, well, let's turn this into a class as well. Let's invite our public health professor friend. Let's invite a historian who studies hospitals and health and pandemics. Let's invite others who can do guest lectures. One of the partners was a creative writing professor who designed our assignment for the students to record someone's pandemic story. And so we had folks recording the stories of educators, roommates, parents, younger siblings, healthcare workers, supermarket workers, politicians, people across the world. And so now our library is the proud owner of 52 born digital pandemic stories from our town. And I think that this will be a really important historic record.

Boyd: So there's this reading stories, but also telling our stories. And then the final step is putting these narratives together. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your students navigated those three sort of steps of storytelling and how we use stories.

Woods: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that happens in the novel is so, so powerful. And we talked about this multiple times over the course of the months that we were doing this project, not just with students, but with community members as well. There's a Jesuit priest character in the novel, Father Paneloux. He recalls the plague in Marseilles, France in the 1700s. And he says, "There was this one monastery called the Mercy Monastery." And in this monastery, all the brothers, right, the clergymen fled or died. And there was one who stayed to tell the story. And this one brother, this one clergyman who stays to tell the story, records the story and records all the nuances of the story. And then Father Paneloux says to the congregation, "Brothers and sisters, it is contingent on us to be the ones who stay to tell the story."

And staying to tell the story, bearing witness is one of the most powerful things we can do. So we asked students to first reflect on their own individual stories. What was it like for me during the pandemic? And then we asked them to go out and record someone else's pandemic story. And then finally, we asked them to weave together these two narratives, put these two narratives in conversation. See how these stories of living through COVID-19 during 2020 were similar, were different. What caused you to laugh? What caused some tears? What caused some recognition. We're reeling from a contentious election. We're by a mysterious illness. We are trying to understand police brutality and systemic racism. And so our country is in turmoil.

And this is sort of what happens in the novel as well. And the fact that we see this cast of characters, responding to each of these things, it gave people a lot of hope that we too are going to be able to respond to this because this is the heart of what we do in the humanities, right, is we rub up against what's really different. And we see even despite the difference where there's a spark of recognition, and this is the way we grow empathy, right? I mean, this is what the humanities do for us. They help us to enhance empathy for one another. And when you put your story together with someone's story, you see the variances and varieties of the human experience. How do other people confront this challenge? What can I learn from other ways of confronting challenges?

Boyd: When you think back to discussions that you had, are there any major moments that really stand out to you that people brought up?

Woods: Oh, there's so many beautiful moments I can think of. One that immediately comes to mind is we had one evening at our regular book club. We had assembled health professionals from our community. We had a medical doctor who worked nearby on the Navajo nation. We had the director of the student medical center, but one thing that really stands out is a public health professional we had, when I asked her to read the novel, she was really struck by the character of Grand. And Grand is a character in Camus' novel, who every night records the statistics. And he tries to make sense of how many people are dying and where people are dying in the city, in the district. And Dr. Rieux asked him, "Grand don't you feel hopeless? Don't you feel downtrodden by all these statistics?" And Grand replies, "Are you kidding? This is what gives me meaning. It's easy when there's a pestilence, because our opportunity to make meaning is right in front of us."

And Grand says, "Ah, if only everything we're so simple," right? One of the things Camus says in terms of the absurd is that it's the fact that we're going to die is what gives our life meaning, right? And the fact that pestilences will always be with us, in fact, gives our lives meaning because meaning is to be found in the choices we make in the face of pestilence, which many reader found, I know it sounds strange, but found hopeful because there will always be opportunities for us to demonstrate our humanity, for us to make choices that mean something for our communities.

And so this public health professional, just, she was so moved, and we could see her in the Zoom box almost in tears. And she said, "I wish that all public health professionals could read this book during COVID and respond like Grand. This gives us a chance to do our jobs and the way that he treats the disease with such reverence in a way. And it's simple, what we do is do our jobs. This gives us the opportunity to fulfill our calling." And this really stood out to me and to the others gathered as a really important moment. The chat box on Zoom filled up with people saying, "Wow, I never realized what it was like to be on the public health side of this," which was a great exercise in empathy in itself.

Boyd: When you say this helps us do our job, how do you define what your job is here?

Woods: Well, what my job as a humanities scholar is to facilitate meaning making, right. I'm not a scientist. I'm not a public health professional. I'm not a politician. I'm a humanist scholar. And my job is to establish the conditions for my students, my peers, my community, to make meaning. And the way we do that is we use humanities products like in this case, this novel, right? And we step into this world of Oran, this world we do not inhabit. And we walk around in different character shoes and we experience the different kinds of choices people are making. And in this way, our capacity for empathy becomes enhanced.

Boyd: I love the way that this novel is helping us think about empathy in particular, and sort of also thinking about how literature helps us, as you say, step into somebody else's shoes in a way that nothing else can really allow.

Woods: There is a literary critic, Rita Felski. And she says, "What a novel does is help inspire the drama of recognition." When you read this novel, it's not pleasure that you're getting, right. It's not aesthetic pleasure. You're not confronted with something beautiful that sends you to some transcendent place, right? What you're fronted with is the drama of recognition, that flash of connection that works on us in aesthetic ways. And then the pandemic stories too, I think leaves a legacy of people and their acts of kindness and their acts of bearing witness. This is how we took care of each other. We collected one another's stories. We listened. We had empathy for stories that were so different, and we bore witness to one another.

And this is not only what makes us a strong community, but what makes us a strong democracy. I mean, the humanities has everything to do with a strong democracy because if we don't have opportunities to share empathy and develop empathy for one another, we can't have a strong democracy. You can't meet everyone in our country, right? So we have to imagine one another and the humanities help us to imagine one another. And so I feel the legacy that plague project leaves to the future is the way that one community made meaning. I can't say what the COVID year will mean for everyone, but I hope that deepens our appreciation for storytelling, for bearing witness, and for the opportunity to listen to one another.

Boyd: Thanks to my guests, Dr. Rafael Campo and Dr. Gioia Woods. At the top of the show, you heard the voices of Matthew Gibson, Julia Wong, Jennifer Tanko, Samantha Anderson, and Stephanie Gibson.

Making Meaning is a podcast from the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and as part of its humanities and American life initiative, which is generously funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation. You can learn more about our work and member programs by visiting our website at The show is produced by LWC. Elizabeth Nakano is our producer and sound designer. Jimmy Gutierez edited the series. Jen Chien is executive editor. Cedric Wilson is lead producer. You can find more episodes on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. I'm Sydney Boyd. Thanks for joining us.

CITATION: Boyd, Sydney, host. “The Humanities in Times of Crisis” Making Meaning, LWC Studios. October, 27 2021.