NARRATIVE MEDICINE SEMINARS: 1st year medical students | learn more

  1. Fiction Workshop | learn more
  2. The City of the Hospital: The Medical Student as Writer | learn more
  3. Life Stories of Anatomic Donors: An Obituary Writing Workshop | learn more
  4. The Philosophy of Death | learn more
  5. Attending to Movies: Affect and Insight | learn more
  6. Dance for Parkinson’s Disease | learn more
  7. The Art of Paying Attention | learn more
  8. Why Works of Art Matter | learn more
  9. Observation and Uncertainty in Art and Medicine | learn more
  10. Comic-book Storytelling Workshop | learn more
  11. Life Drawing | learn more
  12. Qualitative Research Methods | learn more
  13. Mindfulness Meditation | learn more

NARRATIVE MEDICINE ELECTIVE: 4th year medical students | learn more


Narrative Medicine is medicine practiced with the narrative competence to recognize, absorb, interpret, and honor the stories of illness. This competence lets doctors imagine and enter patients' worlds, represent complex events or situations so as to understand them, and reflect on their own experiences in caring for the sick. The Narrative Medicine Seminars in FCM II offer graduate-level training in multiple aspects of narrative competence.

All first-year medical students at Columbia are required to complete an intensive ½ semester seminar in humanities. Each year, the medical students select among the 12-14 concurrent humanities seminars offered. Typically, the catalogue includes seminars in literary studies, narrative writing, history of medicine, ethics, visual arts, religious studies, and alternative medicine.


Note: These sessions take place April 15, 22, 29, May 6, 13 & 20

1. Fiction Workshop   |    Chris Adrian, M.D., M.F.A.
Wednesdays, 3-5 p.m., Location: P&S

What is fiction writing for, and how does it work? How can we transform our ideas and material into works of art? This workshop, designed for beginning and experienced fiction writers, will address these and other questions through reading of literary texts, classroom discussions, writing exercises, and group critiques. By the end of the course, students will have a working knowledge of techniques, strategies, and devices used by writers in the acts of creation and revision. Workload will include reading short stories between sessions, in-class writing exercises, and the development of one longer piece. Estimated work outside of class: 2-3 hours per week.

Chris Adrian is physician and writer whose fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Esquire, and other publications, and his work has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is the author of three novels, most recently The Great Night, and a collection of short stories, A Better Angel. He trained in pediatrics and pediatric oncology at the University of San Francisco, and received a Master of Divinity Harvard Divinity School in 2011. He is currently Writer in Residence in the Columbia Narrative Medicine Program and the David S. Ferriero Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Participation limited to 14 students.

2. The City of the Hospital: The Medical Student as Writer   |    David Hellerstein, M.D.
Wednesdays, 2-5 p.m., Location: P&S

The purpose of this class is to develop skills in writing about experiences of becoming a doctor. William Carlos Williams, in his Autobiography, wrote of the "city of the hospital." In the course of his/her training, the medical student has unique opportunities to explore this miraculous city—from the medical school lecture hall to the scientific laboratory to the wards and clinics of the hospital itself. These experiences provide a unique opportunity to observe the city of modern medicine in all its triumphs, complexities, and contradictions. The goal of this workshop will be to help students develop skills to write about their training experiences, and to mold their observations into finished essays. The primary focus will be on 'creative nonfiction' writing approaches. The will include a variety of readings of works by doctor-writers, in-class exercises, and assignments. Participants will be encouraged to keep a journal of their medical school experiences. Outside of class assignment time will amount to around 2-3 hours per week. Previous writing experience not required.

Dr. David Hellerstein is Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, a research psychiatrist at the NY State Psychiatric Institute, and a practicing clinician. Hellerstein is author of books including Battles of Life and Death (essays), A Family of Doctors (memoir), and Heal Your Brain (nonfiction). His writing has appeared in the NY Times, Harper’s, Esquire, North American Review, and The Huffington Post, and has been awarded the Pushcart Prize best essay award. Participation limited to 14 students.

3. Life Stories of Anatomic Donors: An Obituary Writing Workshop   |    Dr. Jessica Tanenbaum and Aubrie-Ann Jones
Wednesdays, 2-5 p.m., Location: P&S

Students enrolled in this new seminar will have the opportunity to think about and connect with the lives and experiences of those who have donated their bodies to Columbia’s Anatomical Donor Program. Participants will interview donors’ loved ones and will compose an obituary to present to donor kin at the end of the seminar. Students will have the opportunity to learn about the lives of donors in a holistic way rather than solely a biomedical one, and to consider the connections between their past roles as dissectors, interviewers, and writers, and their future role as physicians.

Jessica Tanenbaum, P&S Class of 2014, was a journalist and obituary-writer at the Boston Globe before coming to P&S. For her P&S Scholarly Project, Jessica taught P&S first-year students how to write obituaries and guided them through the process of interviewing family members of cadaver donors. The families were profoundly moved and grateful for these written portraits of their loved one, and the students that participated found tremendous professional benefits to the contact with families and writing the formal obituary. This seminar will continue Dr. Tanenbaum’s project, using the seminar time in the curriculum for writing training and deeper reflection on the Anatomy experience.

Dr. Tanenbaum is a first-year resident in the primary care track of NYU's Internal Medicine program. She has a BA from Yale University, an MPhil from Cambridge University in the History and Philosophy of Science, and an MD from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Aubrie-Ann Jones is a graduate of Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program. She has taught at Rutgers University in the Doctorate in Social Work program, and is currently leading Deliberate Practice workshops with first-year residents at NYU Langone Medical Center. She is an editor at The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and a volunteer in Bellevue Hospital Center’s Emergency Department. Aubrie also holds a BA in Anthropology from Fordham University and an MFA in Fiction from The New School. Participation is limited to 12 students.

4. The Philosophy of Death   |    Craig Irvine, PhD
Thursdays, 2–5 p.m., Location: P&S

In a sense, all philosophy is a meditation on death. One cannot ask the fundamental questions—What is the meaning of Being (ontology)? How ought we to live (ethics)? How do we know the True (epistemology)? What is the nature of Beauty (aesthetics)?—without confronting one’s mortality. Indeed, to face death is the beginning of wisdom.

Of course, facing death, eyes wide open, is not an easy task. In this class, we will be guided by works of philosophy and literature that bring us face-to-face with death, from Plato to Tolstoy to Camus and beyond.

Craig Irvine is a founder and Academic Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine and Director of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine. He holds his PhD in Philosophy. For more than 15 years he has been designing and teaching cultural competency, ethics, Narrative Medicine, and Humanities and Medicine curricula for health professionals. He has over 20 years of experience researching the history of philosophy, phenomenology, and narrative ethics. Reading for this seminar should amount to 2 to 3 hours per week.

5. Attending to Movies: Affect and Insight   |    Maura Spiegel, PhD
Wednesdays, 3-5 p.m., Location: P&S

"We do not know what we see, but rather the opposite is true: we see what we know." ~Yvette Biro

Objectives for this course include adding film-viewing to your strategies for increasing reflective practice and observational skills. Through discussion and short reflective writing we will develop greater awareness of how movies work on us and the density and idiosyncrasy of our responses. Close reading of several narrative films will engage us in themes pertinent to your current undertaking, including the toxic body, organ trafficking and globalization, "sexuation," the loneliness of the dying, the "plot of suffering," panic and consolation. Attention will be given to fundamentals of cinematic form. Films will be selected from among the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Pedro Almodovar, Akira Kurasawa, Lasse Halstrom, Terrence Malick, and Ari Folman.

Students enrolled in this seminar will be asked to screen films prior to the meeting of the seminar. The films selected will be made easily available for viewing. Class preparation will be approximately 2 hours per week: screening the assigned film and completing a ten-minute writing exercise.

Maura Spiegel teaches fiction and film in the Department of English at Columbia University and was recently editor-in-chief of the journal Literature and Medicine. She is co-author of The Grim Reader: Writings on Death, Dying and Living On. Her scholarly interests include study of the affective and cognitive dimensions of the film-viewing experience. She is a member of the Core Faculty of the Program in Narrative Medicine. Participation is limited to 14 students.

6. Dance for Parkinson’s Disease   |    David Leventhal
SATURDAYS: April 11, 25, and May 2 from 3:30-6:30 p.m., Location: Mark Morris Dance Center in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn 3 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11217
SUNDAY: April 12 from 1:30-4:30 p.m., Location: The Juilliard School - with a discussion/workshop session

Watch this short video to see the program in action

Narratives are formed through the body and through space and time. David Leventhal, program director of Dance for Parkinson’s Disease (PD), teaches this concept to participants by empowering them to explore movement and music in ways that are refreshing, enjoyable, stimulating and creative by integrating movement from modern and theater dance, ballet, folk dance, tap, improvisation, and choreographic repertory. The Dance for PD class is an aesthetic experience that uses the elements of narrative, imagery, live music and community to develop artistry and grace while addressing disease-specific concerns such as balance, flexibility, coordination, isolation and depression.

In this six-session studio-based course, students come to the Mark Morris Dance Center in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn and learn to observe, interpret and create movement vocabulary. These sessions are participatory in nature and will help students practice observing the world as dancers and choreographers do, while learning how to relate this artistic skill building to general medical practice. In addition to these six studio sessions, students will be invited to attend one of the 14 monthly Dance for PD classes offered around New York City.

David Leventhal was a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group from 1997-2010. David is Program Director and one of the founding teachers of MMDG's Dance for PD® program, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group that offers weekly classes for people with Parkinson's at the Mark Morris Dance Center, fosters similar classes in more than 100 communities in nine countries around the world, and presents regular training workshops for teachers interested in leading Dance for PD® classes. He is the co-recipient of the 2013 Alan Bonander Humanitarian Award for his efforts to make the Dance for PD® program widely available. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Global Alliance for Arts and Health. Raised in Newton, Mass., he trained at Boston Ballet School and attended Brown University where he received a B.A. in English Literature. Participation limited to 15 students.

7. The Art of Paying Attention   |    Carrie McGee
Wednesdays, 3-5 p.m., Location: The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building The Museum of Modern Art, 4 West 54th Street, New York, NY

Modern and contemporary works of art demand attention; they reward by encouraging examination of the parameters (and boundaries) of sight, analysis and even the definition of art itself. How do we understand such works? What do they tell us about our own mechanisms of seeing/listening/understanding? In this course we will pay attention to works of art in MoMA’s collection and to each other. In doing so we will investigate what it means to “see” an image or object, and explore the benefits of multiple modes of engagement and observation. Through close looking and group discussion, students will enhance their observation, critical thinking and communication skills. Students will be required to actively participate in group discussions and activities. No prior knowledge of art is necessary.

Carrie McGee is the Associate Educator for Community and Access Programs at MoMA where she develops programs in collaboration with community-based organizations and for audiences with disabilities. With her colleagues, she launched the world-renowned MoMA Alzheimer’s Project and co-authored "Meet Me: Making Art Accessible to People with Dementia." Carrie also serves on the Board of Directors for The Global Alliance for Arts and Health. Participation limited to 12 students.

8. Why Works of Art Matter   |    Rika Burnham
Wednesdays, 2-5 p.m., Location: The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, NYC

In Why Works of Art Matter, we propose that the relationship between art and medicine is rich and multifaceted. Students engage in dialogues about masterpieces of The Frick Collection, opening up a complex array of subtexts and interpretive possibilities. Discussing one masterpiece at a time, participants develop appreciation for works of art and contemplate how we understand them. As a class we think broadly and deeply about experiences of works of art, why they matter, and their relevance within the study and practice of medicine.

Rika Burnham is the newly appointed Head of Education at The Frick Collection. Ms. Burnham was previously at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where for more than 20 years she was in charge of the Student Program. She was a renowned gallery teacher for docents and teachers, student groups and adult visitors, originating many new programs, such as the popular Observant Eye and award-winning Find Yourself at the Met. With Elliott Kai-Kee, Ms. Burnham is coauthor of several essays on gallery teaching, including "The Art of Teaching in the Museum" and "Museum Education and the Project of Interpretation in the Twenty-first Century," both published in the Journal of Aesthetic Education. Together with Mr. Kai-Kee, Ms. Burnham is currently writing a collection of essays on the history, philosophy, practice, and future prospects of museum education. Participation limited to 12 students.

9. Observation and Uncertainty in Art and Medicine: A Combined Course for Columbia and Weill Cornell Medical Students   |    Anna Willieme, MFA
Wednesdays, 2:30-4:30 p.m., Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave. New York, NY 10028

This six-session course will focus on observational skills and the practice of medicine via engagement with art in the museum setting. Through a variety of student-centered exercises, students will have the opportunity to enhance their observational skills and reflect in particular on issues concerning the management of uncertainty, biases, and ambiguity. The majority of time will be spent in the galleries actively exploring these issues through discussion, writing and sketching. No formal art experience is necessary.

Anna Willieme, MFA, is an art lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a visual artist with exhibition experience in galleries and public spaces in both the US and Europe. Willieme is on the seminar faculty of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and is also the creator of ArtMed inSight. ArtMed inSight offers workshops for physicians and healthcare practitioners using art to enhance perceptual and communication skills and currently leads programs for residents at Massachusetts General Hospital. Participation limited to 6 students from Columbia and 6 students from Cornell.

10. Comic-book Storytelling Workshop   |    Ben Schwartz, M.D.
Wednesdays, 3-5 p.m., Location: P&S

This workshop will give students the opportunity to explore the often-overlooked medium of comics and develop valuable storytelling skills. Students will learn how comics express narratives that neither prose nor pictures could convey alone. They will discover that they can translate many of these techniques to the floors and wards, where complex stories are often told with more than just words.

Selected readings and in-class exercises will focus on comic storytelling fundamentals such as clarity, pacing, and mood. Basic instruction on figure drawing, perspective and abstraction/caricature will also be offered, but no previous visual arts experience will be necessary for the course. Students will be given time during class to complete a final project: a short comic book on the topic of their choosing.

Ben Schwartz has a BA in psychology and an MD from Columbia University. His cartoons and illustrations have been published by The New Yorker, B5 Media and Hyperion Books, among others. He is currently developing a comic-based curriculum for Columbia’s department of Ophthalmology.

Please bring pencils and something to draw on (a pad or blank typing paper is fine--doesn't have to be fancy). Participation limited to 14 students.

11. Life Drawing   |    Ephraim Rubenstein
SATURDAYS 10 a.m.–2 p.m., April 18, 25, and May 2, Dodge Hall studio 501, 116th St. & Broadway

Life Drawing - the practice of drawing the nude figure - gives us an unparalleled encounter with the human body. We have never really looked at anything until we have tried to draw it. Drawing an object calls on the viewer to visually take it apart, analyze its components, put it back together, and understand something of how it functions. Both intimate and detached, the practice of life drawing calls upon the entire spectrum of human response; it utilizes our analytic skills in order to measure and compare parts, our emotional side in empathizing with the human being before us, and our spiritual sense as we confront the beauty and wonder of the body.

This course will teach you the rudiments of proportion; of measurement (sighting); of volume (trying to create the illusion of form on a flat surface); and a basic understanding of movement.

Ephraim Rubenstein was born in Brooklyn New York in 1956. He received his B.A. in Art History from Columbia University and his M.F.A. in Painting from Columbia University's School of the Arts. In addition, he attended classes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, the National Academy School and the Art Students League.

Rubenstein just had his eleventh one-person exhibition in New York; seven at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, one at Tatistcheff & Co., and three at George Billis Gallery in Chelsea. He has exhibited, as well, at the National Academy of Design, the Butler Institute of American Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Maier Museum of Art. His work is represented in numerous public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Exxon Corporation, and Deloitte & Touche.

Rubenstein was Associate Professor of Art at the University of Richmond from 1987-1998, where he received the Distinguished Educator Award and the Outstanding Faculty Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia. He has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and the National Academy of Design School. He is currently on the faculty of the Art Students League of New York and Columbia University, where he teaches the Literature of Art Seminar and Life Drawing in the Department of Narrative Medicine. Participation limited to 15 students. No experience with drawing necessary.

Supplies needed for this class (These supplies should be available at any art supply store: Utrecht, Pearl, The Art Students League store, etc.):
    1. Strathmore 400 series Drawing Pad 18" x 24"
      Kneaded eraser
      Drawing Pencils; 2B, B, HB, H
      Pencil sharpener
  • 12. Qualitative Research Methods   |    Edgar Rivera Colon
    Wednesdays, 2-5 p.m., Location: P&S

    More and more P&S students are seeking to learn about lived experiences of illness and health care through qualitative research using in-depth interviews, focus groups, and longitudinal conversations with persons. Certainly, many of the students doing Scholarly Projects in the Narrative & Social Medicine track are proposing such projects. Their proposals range from wanting to interview sugar-cane harvesters in the Dominican Republic about their health care needs to learning about the lives of very ill children living with cystic fibrosis or recovering from severe burns. All such projects require disciplined and rigorous training in qualitative research methods. Conducting an ethnographic interview, performing field work, moderating a focus group, and then knowing what to do with the transcribed conversations require the kind of training that anthropologists or sociologists receive.

    Because of the importance of asking the kinds of health-related questions that can only be answered with qualitative means, Narrative Medicine has arranged to offer intensive seminars in qualitative research methods, tailored for our setting.

    Dr. Rivera Colón is a Lecturer in the Program of Narrative Medicine. He is a medical anthropologist who trains frontline African American and Latino/a HIV/AIDS activists in the use of ethnographic research methods in developing community-level interventions. For the last 15 years he has been conducting ethnographic research on New York City’s House Ball community. He is an expert on Latino gay and bisexual male sexual cultures and HIV and regularly trains public health professionals in cultural competency in working with Latino/a LGBTQ communities. Recently, Dr. Rivera Colón published "Between the Runway & the Empty Tomb: Bodily Transformation and Christian Praxis in New York City’s House Ball Community" in an edited volume by Dr. Samuel Cruz entitled Christianity and Culture in the City: A Postcolonial Approach. He is now working on a co-edited volume entitled Queer Latino/a Theologies and the Churches. Participation limited to 12 students.

    13. Mindfulness Meditation   |    Jane Fried, M.D.
    Wednesdays, 2:00-4:30 p.m., Location: P&S

    Evidence-based research supports “Mindfulness Meditation” as a useful patient intervention for a variety of stress-related situations and diagnoses. It has also been shown to increase empathy and reduce stress measures in medical students. In this experiential course, the participants will learn how stress unfolds in their lives, their responses to it, and how mindfulness practice ameliorates it. The participant will also review emerging evidence supporting mindfulness meditation-based interventions in clinical care, thus enabling them to use this approach in their own patient care, and to serve as models for their patients. The curriculum is adapted from the highly successful Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. Participants will learn a variety of stress reduction techniques, and will be expected to practice these techniques for 20-30 minutes per day for the duration of the course. Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn is the recommended text. Please wear loose, comfortable clothing, and bring a yoga mat if you have one.

    Dr. Jane Fried, who trained with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., is a pediatrician at the New York State Psychiatric Institute who specializes in the pediatric care of psychiatrically ill children, and has taught this course for medical students since 2000. Participation limited to 12 students.


    Director Rita Charon and faculty of the Program in Narrative Medicine offer a month-long intensive fourth-year elective in Narrative Medicine in March. Close reading, writing fiction, and reflective writing develop narrative and literary skills that end up adding to one's clinical effectiveness. In our Narrative Medicine Immersion month over the past several years, we have gathered twelve fourth-year students from P&S and from visiting medical schools for intensive craft and interpretive training, with the conceptual framework in mind that strengthening the skills of representation is a powerful means toward strengthening the skills of attention in clinical work. On the basis of student evaluations, the quality of written work produced, and projects that students undertake in the years following the intensive narrative training, the elective has demonstrated a capacity to target and improve these specific narrative competencies toward attentive and effective patient care.

    The elective will include the following:

    • Graduate-level training in close reading of contemporary fiction, not limited to fictions about illness or medicine but rather attending to the complexities of the act of reading. Critical and theoretical approaches will be introduced alongside the literary texts. Students will read a novel a week, including works of William Maxwell, Per Petterson, Pat Barker, and John Banville. One 2-hour meeting per week. Weekly reader-response writings assigned.
    • Seminar on illness narratives, including first-person accounts of illness written by patients or family members of patients and works offering theoretical frameworks of such autobiographical materials. One 2-hour meeting per week.
    • Writing workshop directed by Narrative Medicine Writing Faculty. Students will read and workshop one other's work, read established writers focusing on craft and technique, and do in-class writing exercises to help generate new writing. By the end of the month, students will have written new stories or poems, revised old ones, and learned methods to critique their own work. One 3-hour meeting per week.
    • Comics and Visual Storytelling workshop - this section of the course invites students to explore the principles of storytelling from a new perspective by delving in to the unique narrative language of comics. We will learn the tools and techniques of the form through selected readings and in-class exercises, and we will discuss the ways they may challenge or reinforce our underlying storytelling instincts and assumptions. By the end of the month, each student will complete a two page comic story related to his or her experiences in medicine. One 2-hour meeting per week.