Being sick has very few advantages that I can name. Literary enthusiast that I am, I would not subject myself to illness simply to come upon insight about literature. However, it can happen.
Having been sick recently, I was reminded today how much of medicine is reliant on, first, self-diagnosis, and second, the communication between doctor and patient. As a result, the doctor’s role is far less different from a literary scholar’s than you might think.
The doctor can rely on certain objective (if all equipment functions and is used and interpreted correctly) measurements like weight, heart rate, lung sounds, blood pressure, and temperature. Similarly, literati can note (with some discrepancies) the meter, rhyme scheme, rhetorical devices, and shape of a poem.
After that, though, unless the diagnosis is serious enough to merit more tests, much of the examination is based on the patient’s response to questions:
- Are you in pain?
- How much pain?
- How often do you cough?
- Have you noticed improvement since you started the medication?
- Have you experienced any side effects?
Even I, a conscientious patient, notice the ambiguity in my conversations with the doctor. I ask clarifying questions, but I’m not always sure that we understand each other. I’m not sure if I’m describing my condition accurately or in the right terms.
Like it or not, some symptoms are subjective and not as “scientific” as medical personnel would like. It is the doctor’s job to take what I’m saying and try to translate that into what it means for my health. A poet does something similar, looking not simply at the words that are used, but how they relate to one another to produce meaning.
I am not making the argument that analyzing poetry is the same or as important as diagnosing illness. As much as I love literature, I go to see a doctor, not a scholar, when I’m sick.
What I am suggesting is that the broadest divide is one of knowledge, and to a lesser extent, purpose—not method. Both jobs require thoughtful consideration of words and the meanings they convey. Both require judgment skills. Both require the ability to synthesize individual pieces of information into a deeper understanding of the whole.
And in that respect, Pre-Med and English majors may have more in common than the initial diagnosis would indicate.