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Narrative Medicine Among Five Columbia Faculty Projects Awarded Guggenheim Fellowships

By Jo Kadlecek and Kristin Sterling

Rita Charon

Rita Charon has long believed that good readers make good doctors. For years, Charon, a professor of clinical medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of the program in narrative medicine, has been working hard to bridge the gap between literature and medicine. Also a Ph.D. in English, she has helped Columbia become a leading medical school in the country with a program in narrative competence, which teaches medical students how to better "read" their patients' stories through literary studies. Along with co-editor Maura Spiegel, professor of English, Charon has edited "Literature and Medicine," one of the premier academic journals to publish works by health professionals and literary scholars on the connections between the two disciplines.

So when she learned last month that she had been selected as a 2002 Guggenheim Fellow to further explore the role of narrative medicine as a model for empathy and clinical courage, she felt her efforts had been worth it.

"It was incredible confirmation that what we're doing is important," Charon said, speaking from her writing studio where she is working on the book project that earned her the award. She had already decided to take a sabbatical to work on the book but had no idea that such an endeavor would qualify her for a Guggenheim. Now she is able to live "a whole year without my beeper. I'm taking time off from my practice [to write the book] but will continue to teach a faculty literature course for my colleagues because I like that."

Martha C. Howell

Charon is one of five Columbia professors who received the 2002 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowships in disciplines ranging from narrative medicine and sociology to painting and fiction writing. With this large number of recipients, Columbia is tied with UCLA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for the most fellowships received at a single university.

Martha C. Howell, Gustave Berne professor of history, earned an award for her study of market culture in cities of the late medieval North. Her project explores the tensions attending the explosion of commercial wealth in Europe between about 1300 and 1600, and she plans to use the Guggenheim to continue her work in Belgium and France.

"I am of course thrilled to have received the fellowship, not just for the honor it bestows," Howell said, "but also because it allows me to expand my research base from cities in the southern Low Countries such as Ghent and Bruges to Paris, which was then the undisputed capital of luxury consumption in the age."

David Stark

After three years serving both as a department chair of sociology and as a director of a director of the Center on Collaborative Organization and Digital Ecologies (CODES), David Stark, Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, is especially looking forward to having a block of time for writing that the Guggenheim fellowship affords. His project explores the network properties of East European capitalism.

"The postsocialist transformations of Eastern Europe offer a wonderful opportunity not simply as a laboratory to test existing theories," says Stark, "but as a chance to develop new concepts to understand social, political, and economic change." Stark -- who will be traveling to Budapest for some of his research -- looks forward to branching out and supplementing his earlier ethnographic research with new methods of analysis.

Artist Tomas Vu-Daniel, associate professor of art, won a fellowship for his work in painting. Vu-Daniel --whose wife, Jennifer Nuss, is also a 2002 Guggenheim fellow for her work in painting -- celebrated with her by taking some of their artist-friends to dinner. He sees the award as "an opportunity to travel back to Vietnam where most of my work and history has been greatly involved." Vu-Daniel will produce a short film while visiting Vietnam in a few months and will return to his studio to work on a new series of painting and prints.

Thomas Vu-Daniel and Jennifer Nuss

Adjunct professor of writing, Paul LaFarge, will use his Guggenheim award for fiction to continue working on his third novel. When LaFarge's first novel, "The Artist of the Missing" (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) won the silver medal for the California Book Awards in 2000, he discussed the power of storytelling in everyday living.

"I think it's a very important activity, this process of taking what's around you and coming up with a story that accounts for it or, if you can't bear to think about where you actually are, telling a story that allows you to imagine that you're somewhere else," LaFarge said. "This is how we survive the world, and how we find our place in it." His second novel, "Haussmann, or the Distinction: A Novel" was released last September to strong reviews.

The $36,000 awards assist research and artistic creations and are given annually. This year, 184 artists, scholars and scientists representing 86 U.S. and Canadian institutions were selected from over 2800 applicants for awards totaling $6,750,000.

Paul LaFarge

The decisions were based on recommendations from hundreds of expert advisors and were approved by the foundation's Board of Trustees, which includes seven past fellows -- Joyce Carol Oates, Richard A. Rifkind, Charles A. Ryskamp, Jean Strouse, Wendy Wasserstein, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Joel Conarroe. Fellows were appointed on the basis of distinguished achievement in the past and exceptional promise for future accomplishment.

Published: Apr 30, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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