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ENGL 208: Literature & Health: Group Topics

Explanation of Topics

Gender: When we talk about gender, we generally are not discussing the physical or biological differences between or among sexes. Rather we are discussing the cultural assumptions about differences that may or may not be rooted in biology. For instance, while it is generally true that men are physically stronger than women, this doesn’t mean that men are emotionally more resilient than women. Nevertheless, many cultures (though not all) expect men to be able to handle trauma more stoically and effectively than women. Why is this? What other gender norms or assumptions is the culture making which contribute to these expectations about men and women? How do these assumptions change from culture to culture from era to era?

Class: One’s social position and income really has nothing to do with a physical body, and yet lots of cultures make all sorts of assumptions about the differences between rich and poor, upper class and lower class, slave and master, peasant and lord. How do these differences effect individuals’ processing of trauma? And of course, just as assumptions about gender change over time and space, so to do assumptions about class. The way that the ancient Greeks understood class differs from the understanding of class in Medieval Europe, since one was a slave economy, the other a feudal economy. And the Ancient Greek slave economy was different from the early American slave economy. So in order to fully grasp how the texts treat class, we also need to understand how the broader economy functioned.

Race/Ethnicity: This is a necessarily broad category for a number of reasons. First off, race as a cultural category really doesn’t exist until the 1600s at the earliest. So in pre-modern texts, you won’t see many discussion or even acknowledgments of race. That being said, there are plenty of pre-modern cultures that make assumptions about a person’s identity based on their ethnicity or ancestry. For instance, is there a difference between the Trojan’s and the Greek’s way of processing trauma, and is that difference rooted in assumptions about their ethnicity. Race, of course, you will be more familiar with, though like gender, we need to remember that cultural assumptions about race isn’t rooted in biology, and so when investigating this topic, you need to focus on the way the text relies on or maybe challenges stereotypes and cultural norms.

Religion: Historically, one of the ways individuals processed trauma is through religious ceremony and beliefs. But of course, these ceremonies and beliefs have changed over time, not just between older pagan religions and Christianity, but within the Christian tradition itself. What were the dominate beliefs of the era? How does this influence the text? What is the text saying about the ability of religion to handle trauma and loss? Or does the text rely on more secular forms of morning and coping?

Body: This one is a bit of a wild card, but I think hugely interesting. Like our understanding of race and gender, humans understanding of the body has changed over time. The theories of the body in the ancient world were very different from our own. How did these different understandings of the physical body affect how they understood trauma to function? We can ask this question, because what we now think of as psychology was not always separate from broader understandings of the physical body. Or to put it another way, the mind and body were not always thought of as separate. The important thing to keep in mind is that when we are talking about the body in literature we are discussing the historical body. The history of the concept of the human body.