MONTREAL, 23rd May 2019 – In May and June this year I had the opportunity to return to Canada, and the beautiful city of Montreal, for a short research visit as part of the Making Clinical Sense project. Montreal is home to so many fantastic research groups that relate to our work – the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, a hub of sensory research in the world; the SenseLab, also at Concordia; and the Department of Social Studies of Medicine at McGill to name a few.
Many of these places I visited fresh from my Masters in medical anthropology, as I worked as a research assistant in the city. One of those meetings which helped steer the course of my research was with the anthropologist David Howes at the Centre for Sensory Studies. So what a pleasure it was to be able to return and meet with David Howes again and give a talk about Making Clinical Sense and my upcoming book with this inspiring group of researchers (details of the talk below, also supported by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture). Many inspiring conversations and hopefully future collaborations.
Writing by making: experiments in how to write a book on learning sensory knowledge
By the time I visit Montreal I will hopefully have completed a manuscript for my new book project called A Sensory Education. This book takes a close look at how sensory awareness is learned and taught in expert and everyday settings around the world. My ethnographic examples vary from the medical schools where I spend a lot of time in, studying how doctors train their sensory skills of diagnosis, to cookbooks and IKEA instructions. The central message of the book is that sensing is not innate or acquired, but evolves through learning that is shaped through social and material relations. In particular the book looks at the work that goes into sensory education, including vocabularies, lesson-set ups, the design of instructions and the role of industry.
Much of this will not be new to many in the audience. What I would like to explore in this talk is the process of writing the book – a process that involved not only studying instruction but also making and designing educational materials too. As I want the reader to not only read about but also work through sensory instructions, the book has elements of a “how-to” format, which meant I needed to experiment a lot with the instructions myself. For example, as I wrote about the teaching tools in Maastricht, the Netherlands, I knitted a uterus. I made a 19th century instrument to measure the blueness of the sky when writing about learning sensory vocabulary, then tried to make a YouTube instructional video of the process. I included instructions on how to make these materials in the book and want to explore in the talk the possibilities and limitations of this kind of material thinking, another challenging aspect of what it means to write sensorially.