Snapshot: Dr. Andrea Charise

Our Snapshot article series features Q&As with key pioneers, innovators and emerging practitioners across the multidisciplinary and multi-dimensional arts and health field in Canada, who are part of the Arts Health Network Canada community.

Interview by: Zara Contractor

Dr. Andrea Charise (@AndreaCharise) is Assistant Professor of Health Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she is the lead developer and instructor of Canada’s first undergraduate minor in “health humanities.” In addition to receiving recognition for her teaching and scholarship in literary studies (most recently, the 2014 Polanyi Prize for Literature), Dr. Charise has more than ten years of work experience as a medical researcher (clinical epidemiology, geriatrics). Her award-winning research has appeared in a wide range of peer-reviewed venues including Health Expectations, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Academic Medicine, Essays in Romanticism, Age, Culture, Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Journal, and English Literary History (ELH). She currently serves on the International Health Humanities Network (IHHN)’s International Advisory Board and is one of four founding Executive Committee members of the Modern Languages Association (MLA)’s brand new Forum on “Medical Humanities and Health Studies”. You can find her online at or on Twitter as @AndreaCharise.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you are involved in arts and health?

Like many of us in the field, my involvement in arts and health springs directly from my own radically interdisciplinary background. I have a PhD in English literature but for many years I’ve also worked as a medical researcher (primarily in geriatrics, although I started off in clinical epidemiology). For much of my undergraduate and graduate career, my interest in the connection between arts and health felt a bit inchoate—a sense that was often reflected back at me by family members, teachers, advisors, or other well-meaning people who would say things like, “well, you’re either a science or an arts person,” or “that’s nice, but you’re going to have to choose one someday!” Even while I was doing my Master’s degree, I got strong messages that my interests in arts and health were eccentric and that I’d have to come around if I wanted to be employable.

A turning point came—intellectually and professionally—when I was hired as a research associate in geriatric medicine at Parkwood Hospital in London, Ontario. Much of the research I did at Parkwood focused on how to improve elder care curriculum in undergraduate medical education. One intervention involved an intergenerational dance initiative, which we discovered, had the effect of improving medical students’ attitudes toward working with older people. For me, this project highlighted the potential for community-based arts interventions to improve health outcomes, medical education, and health delivery more generally, especially concerning older people. After working full-time for a while, I continued my research in geriatrics while I began my doctoral degree at the University of Toronto’s Department of English where I wrote a dissertation on the representation of older age in the 19th-century British novel. That was the opportunity I needed to formalize my interdisciplinary interests in the relationship between arts and health, with a specific focus on aging. I still had to explain what I did and why I had a non-traditional background (as far as literary scholars were concerned), but I received a lot of encouragement and I’m lucky to have had advisors that saw the worth of my work. As a result, I might be the only researcher on the planet that can say I’ve published studies on the portrayal of aging in nineteenth-century British literature and factors affecting postoperative delirium in older persons!

After earning my PhD and taking up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Iowa’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, I’m now delighted to be back in Canada as an Assistant Professor of Health Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough.  My current research and teaching is focused on developing the field known as health humanities, which investigates how the methods and materials of the arts inform the study of health and illness. This approach is a brand-new direction for health studies at the undergraduate level, and my colleagues and the administration at UTSC have been really supportive since I began my position in July 2014.

2. What have been some of the major outcomes in your experience, of using the using arts for promoting health and educating health sciences students?

I am thrilled that I’ve been able to begin my career at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) by launching an undergraduate course cluster in health-humanities, because it’s something I’d only dreamed of doing much later in my career. To see that grow into a new minor in Health Humanities at UTSC—to my knowledge, Canada’s first and one of about 35 in North America—indicates how much this field just makes sense to future health professionals. I’m grateful to be working at an institution that’s so encouraging of this emergent field. And my smart, creative, courageous students are a constant inspiration.

In addition to developing UTSC’s health humanities curriculum, in the upcoming year I’ll also be conducting a formal study of students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes towards arts and health prior to and following taking HLTB50 (Introduction to Health Humanities).  I think it’s essential to generate data—both quantitative and qualitative—that reflects the impact of bringing arts- and humanities-based materials to health studies students, about 2/3rds of whom major in more traditional sciences like neuroscience or human biology. While UTSC’s health studies program is primarily focused on training future health professionals, I’m just as interested in evaluating how the arts possess the potential to impact students whose relationship to health may never be “expert.” By the way, that’s one of the big reasons I employ the language of “health” humanities over the somewhat more traditional phrasing of “medical” humanities: at the end of the day, I’m really excited about health humanities’ emphasis on the arts as a means of informal care or self-care, that is, as a non-expert approach to health that makes meaningful—I might even say, healing—use of the creative energy we all have within.

But my favourite outcome is the amazing creative work generated by my health humanities students. My students have made sculptures, light installations, poems, songs, comics, dramatic monologues, and paintings inspired by our coursework. I often hear my students say that prior to our health humanities courses, they had put aside their own engagements with creativity – either because it’s something they associate with childhood or viewed as incompatible with health studies. I love the chance to reignite that spark, and sometimes I’m even gifted with their work! (I think I’m going to need a bigger office.)

3. How does your work/practice fit within the larger picture of arts and health in Canada?

Today, the intersection of humanistic and health knowledges is increasingly implemented in postgraduate and undergraduate medical curriculum (most often under the banner of “medical humanities”). Vital as these initiatives are, they also indicate a missed opportunity, namely: how can the humanities be implemented earlier and outside of professional training programs to enhance the health education of a more widespread public. I see the interdisciplinary training of undergraduates in this field as opportunity to expand arts health knowledges beyond medical experts to reach publics that interface with these ideas every day.

To speak more specifically to my interest in the arts and aging, as a literary scholar with more than ten years’ experience as a medical researcher in geriatrics, it’s clear to me that growing old is far more than just a physiological or biological phenomenon. The aging process also involves complex interactions with history, ​political ​ideology, and the human imagination. What my interdisciplinary research aims to do is highlight the fascinating texture of aging, which is far more complex than the usual platitudes regarding decline or so-called “successful” aging. My research and teaching are committed to​ demonstrating​ how the arts and humanities are especially valuable materials for ​exploring the ​many different meanings and expressions of aging. A fuller, more humanitarian vision of older age depends on ​engaging the profound insights of literature, film, and visual arts with the knowledge gleaned from the sciences.

4. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and continue dealing with in your work and how have you responded to those?

We live in a time when the arts are constantly questioned in terms of their utility, and thus their value. I think health humanities as a field provides an outstanding example of the arts and humanities’ application to real-world issues of health and illness. Importantly, I also see this field as a chance to test out how we can make more nuanced arguments for the expanding relevance of an arts education to administrators, politicians, or laypeople that assume STEM fields hold all the answers to our pressing questions. In health humanities and arts-health work more generally, we have a great opportunity to bring the right energy to applying the insights of the humanities.

It’s largely in response to this climate of skepticism that I’m piloting a formal study of students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes towards arts and health prior to and following taking HLTB50 (Introduction to Health Humanities) at UTSC. And it goes without saying that resources like AHNC, especially infographics like these on arts and health, and dementia, are great ways of quickly communicating the value-added benefits of arts- and humanities-based health education.

5. What advice would you give your students or someone just starting out in your field?

First, I would emphasize that health humanities offers a range of career and educational options, perhaps most immediately as a value-added perspective that can be integrated into the more traditional health professions. If you’re interested in public health, or nursing, or counseling, rehab, or medicine, ask yourself: how can health humanities illustrate how arts-based practices, methods, and materials inform those professions? What gaps does it address?

Second, it really helps if you can relate your own professional goals to artsy habits and hobbies you already have—or would like to have! At the very least, I advise my students to play to their interests in the arts (narrative, film, literature, visual arts, digital media, dance, drama, printmaking, sculpture, etc) or, better still, their creative strengths. The other crucial element is to draw deeply from your own community knowledge, whether you define community in terms of geography, cultural heritage, identity, language, religious affiliation, or virtually (online). What unique perspectives do you and your community—however you define it—bring to the study of arts and health? And then: what can artistic or humanistic engagements with health bring to the people that matter most to you? It’s essential to see this as a two-way relationship, and work accordingly.

Third, if you’re serious about working in the field then compose an “elevator speech,” that is, a 30-second statement of purpose that describes what you do (or want to do) in arts and health, why you do it, and why it’s important. This is my most practical bit of advice because people working in an unusual or atypical field—like ours, in 2015 anyway—don’t have the luxury of what is called “brand familiarity.” Think hard about your pitch, then write it out. Make it strong. Employ it regularly. Let it evolve. That’s how arts and health can build a robust brand and make a big impact on those around us.

6. Are there any resources related to your work that you’d like to promote and bring attention to?

There are so many! But here are a few at the very top my list, as well as some favourites of my students:

  • Books: Paul Crawford et al’s Health Humanities (Palgrave Macmillan 2015), Alan Bleakley’s Medical Humanities and Medical Education: How the Medical Humanities Can Shape Better Doctors (Routledge 2015)

A few Toronto-based initiatives include:

  • Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project As the website states, The IZZAT Project is expressive arts project in which young South Asian women use illustration, writing and theatre to explore and share community stories about resilience in the face of violence.
  • Sketch , a community-arts-development initiative based in Toronto engaging young people homeless and on the margins from across Canada.
  • Native Earth Performing Arts , Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre company dedicated to creating, developing and producing professional artistic expressions of the Indigenous experience in Canada. (Drew Hayden Taylor’s “God and The Indian” was staged in May 2015, just before the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in Ottawa earlier this month).
  • Tangled Art + Disability  is a charitable organization dedicated to enhancing opportunities for artists with disabilities.

In terms of aging and dementia-related work, Anne Basting’s TimeSlips Storytelling Project is extraordinary. Her recent documentary, Penelope, is an inspiring example of how the arts can “dramatically raise the bar on activities in long term care”.

And there’s a lively health humanities community online. For some good resources (besides Arts Health Network Canada!), see the International Health Humanities Network and I tweet often about health humanities and aging-related initiatives, so if you’re on Twitter, be sure to make use the health/medical humanities hashtags #HealthHum or #medhum.

7. What do you think is needed to continue developing the connections between arts and health in Canada?

To my mind, scholars, educators, and practitioners in this field must:

  • Broaden our idea of who benefits from arts-health programming. Arts-health programming of all kinds must develop its non-expert reach to include unpaid caregivers and care-partners, as well as the allied health professions. It’s essential not to limit this kind of training to medical schools.
  • Lobby vigorously against the current paradigm of federal funding that views health largely a single-sector issue (i.e., of health science). Funding opportunities, especially those of SSHRC and CIHR, must reflect the inherent transdisciplinary nature of health through cross-sector funding because health is not a single sector issue.
  • Launch headlong into policy development. The arts-health community must do more to emphasize the long-term, wide-reaching strategic aspects of our diverse work. To do this, we need to be talking with policy-makers in health, education, long-term care, arts and culture, and linking up our efforts with cognate groups in public health like Upstream. We might take our lead from colleagues in the UK who have been very proactive—and effective!—in this regard.

In short, I hope to see more open lines of communication between academics, practitioners, and policy-makers interested in realizing the benefits of arts-based approaches to health. We need to work on more diversified ways to get our message out, and embrace relentlessness – both in our advocacy for the arts in our optimism for this exciting field.