UIC Creative Dissemination Grant

One of the grants that funded dissemination activities for the Health Humanities Portrait Project was the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Creative Dissemination Grant (January 2020- March 2021).

The Project Team included:

Project Lead: Sandy Sufian (Project Director)
Co-Leads: Joanna Michel, Michael Blackie (Co-Investigator)
Website Designers: Mallika Patil and Madeline Lee (Co-Investigator)

Under this grant, we disseminated our approach and curricula in 3 concurrent ways:

Website Development and Dissemination:

We completed building our project website, Human Stories of Illness: the Health Humanities Portrait Project, located within the Health Humanities website of the Department of Medical Education of UI’s College of Medicine site. The website is a way to share our innovative approach and to disseminate HHP materials for teaching at other institutions.

We uploaded all Health Humanities Portraits (HHPs) to establish an HHP online repository that has the capacity to expand as more portraits are developed by instructors nationally and internationally.

We established a mechanism to capture ongoing feedback about each HHP from website users. We hope to build a growing network of humanities faculty nationwide with whom to collaborate in creating and disseminating additional HHPs that are focused on new and different social themes.

Piloting HHPs:

We piloted select HHPs by teaching them to other UIC health professions and undergraduate students within and beyond the medical school. The purpose of piloting the portraits was to see if and how HHPS can be adapted, applied and eventually integrated into different pedagogical settings. We explored course offerings in the College of Nursing, School of Public Health, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to identify topic areas that might align with the topics covered in our various HHPs. We also identified faculty across the campus whose research or teaching areas of interest aligned with our topic areas. We then contacted teaching faculty by email, providing a description of our dissemination grant as well as a list of HHPs (title and brief description) for their review.

Due to the need for all virtual courses for the Spring 2021 semester, we learned from conversations with these select faculty that many courses were being offered asynchronously. Lectures and materials would be posted online and students sign in and complete coursework when they are able. As a consequence, there were few opportunities for live lectures during which we could deliver the portrait and dialogue with students about it. This limitation offered us the opportunity to explore alternate modes of delivering the portrait, namely posting all portrait materials online and offering a virtual space for the dialogue (i.e. discussion board). After careful consideration among core faculty, we came to the conclusion that the portrait truly “comes alive” during the dialogue with students and thus must be delivered synchronously to be effective.

As of March 2021 we have scheduled the delivery of five different portraits to be taught by our portrait Trainee Faculty in two of our health science colleges (Applied Health Sciences, Medicine) and one in Liberal Arts & Sciences (Anthropology). Due to the asynchronous nature of nursing school, we were unable to identify a suitable course to deliver in the College of Nursing.

Date Portrait Title Course Discipline for Pilot Course title for November 20, 2020 Number of participating students
November 20, 2020 The Medicalization of Trans Lives Applied Health Sciences DHD 501: Disability Studies 10 graduate students
February 26th, 2021 Aging, End of Life, and Narrative Ethics Medical Education MDC 631-4: Medical Colloquia 12 1st year medical students
April 2nd, 2021 Life without Shelter in the US: Veterans and Homelessness Liberal Arts & Sciences Anthropology ANTH 216: Medicine, Culture, and Society 70 undergraduate students
April 19th, and 21st 2021 Identity at the Intersection of Gender and Religion Among Mexican-American Women in Chicago Anthropology ANTH 216: Medicine, Culture, and Society 70 undergraduate students
April 20, 2021 Racial Disparities in Pandemic Care School of Public Health


Global Public Health


42 undergraduate students


Based on survey feedback from 37 students in the disciplines of medicine and disability studies when asked Is the Health Humanities Portrait (HHP) approach an effective way to learn about broad social forces that shape the illness experience 15 students felt that it was “extremely helpful”, 9 “quite helpful”, 1 moderately helpful and 12 didn’t respond. When asked “why” those who answered “extremely helpful” commented:

“I think narrative is the only way which builds our empathy, which is the only hope I have that I will be able to temper my own stress & fast-pace to slow down and assess the situation and connect with patients, families, co-workers – people”.

“This was incredibly effective because it was layered with complexity, intersectionality and kept students engaged through activities and quality discussion. The facilitators were prepared and well informed in the subject matter to direct and enrich the discussion”.

Among those that responded “quite helpful” one student commented:

“Effective way to didactically learn about this side of medicine. Only better way to learn about it would be to actually see it”.

The one student that responded “moderately helpful” offered this critique:

“It all depends on the motivation of the group that’s learning….if the prep was shorter (i.e., a paragraph or interview summary), it may be easier to reach and engage other students who may not have had time to complete the prep work. At the end of the day, it’s more effective that what we currently have (in medical school curriculum).

When asked if they would make any changes, students recommended that portraits be delivered in small classroom settings only to encourage an intimate dialogue, that facilitators offer to split into smaller group discussions, and a recommendation to add readings about structural violence and racism for those unfamiliar with larger structural barriers.

From our piloting experience we learned that the portrait approach is a unique and valuable way to explore the complexities of the lived experience using the lens of various humanities disciplines, and that they can be successfully adapted to teach both undergraduate and graduate students from an array of disciplines. It was often time consuming and challenging to figure out ways to fit the portrait into already existing courses and to adapt each portrait to various lecture lengths (e.g. 50 minutes to 2 hours). Yet all students found value in the approach and benefitted from the dialogue that ensued. Our next steps are to figure out how to fully prepare outside faculty (i.e. those not involved in creating the portrait) to teach an HHP and also how to integrate HHPs so that they become an integral part of a course year after year (sustainability).

Creative Nonfiction Writing Component for Health Humanities Portraits

Developed by Lise Saffran and Michael Blackie

Background and Rationale

At the center of each Health Humanities Portrait (HHP) is a first-person account of an illness experience. These narratives provide a foundation for the humanities-driven exploration of the HHP’s social theme. By immersing students in the subjective experience of an individual, these narratives engage students emotionally and are memorable and vivid in a way that scientific and medical literature often is not. The close reading of personal narratives offers the opportunity for students to engage in the critical methodologies typical of work in the humanities, which values and emphasizes the subjective. At the same time, an understanding of how individual experience is impacted by structural factors requires students to reach beyond one individual’s experience and to connect it with scholarship and critical analysis. The creative nonfiction component is designed to guide students toward combining the two kinds of information in order to tell more nuanced and layered stories about the structural inequalities and multidimensionality of the illness experiences initially presented in the HHP. In asking students to connect the two in a coherent narrative, the creative nonfiction component: it asks students to consider the different ways that readers process scientific and narrative information; it requires them to grapple with and make sense of contradictions that exist between personal experience and population data; and it illuminates the ways that their own perspectives and biases may guide the selection and omission of story elements.

Expanding Scope and Reach

The HHPs developed through the NEH grant were initially designed for medical and health professions education. In addition to learners in these fields, the creative writing component takes into consideration students enrolled in undergraduate health humanities courses and programs, where the popularity of health humanities content continues to grow, and in classes that meet over longer periods of time.

Learning Objectives

  • Draw students’ attention to the power of stories to influence how social issues are perceived by individuals, communities, and beyond.
  • Deploy elements of creative nonfiction that facilitates critical thinking about the complex interplay of patients’ experiences and the worlds they inhabit.
  • Guide students through self-reflection as a means to consider the relationship between population data, personal narratives, and their own response to the material.
  • Consider the nuances of how to deliver information about the social theme through creative nonfiction, that take into account the potential for these themes to elicit charged responses from learners and other audiences.
  • Ground creative component within key elements of the HHP’s social theme.

Methodology and Grounding

Guiding students in how to frame their reactions to new and challenging material through the lens of curiosity should help diffuse some of the emotional charge of the material they encounter and thereby help them to maintain an openness to new opportunities for learning. After students have identified a first-person narrative in an existing HHP that appeals to them, the following steps should guide them through the in-class exercises, writing prompts and the composition of their final project:

  • Identify your own emotional response(s) to something in the HHP that is unfamiliar to them.
  • Be open to what you want to know more about, even if the subject is foreign or intimidating.

Workshop Exercises and Writing Prompts

The exercises and writing prompts developed for the creative component should be introduced after students have engaged critically with the materials in an HHP. They are designed to guide students’ thinking beyond the evidence presented in the HHP toward a recognition of their own responses to the material. Instructors can ask students to respond to these prompts in short, reflective paragraphs or in short answers on a worksheet. The important thing is to provide students with a structure for recording their initial responses and discoveries that they can refer to and draw from for the final project.

Click here for the Creative Nonfiction Writing Component Guide.