What You Can Do With Comics, Humanities And Medicine [Interview with Professor Graham Matthews]

"Art shouldn't exist in some rarefied space behind closed doors; it should speak to as wide an audience as possible"

By Kanksha Chawla

July 11 2019

[Image Copyright Jon Gresham. All rights reserved. www.igloomelts.com]

Before entering Professor Graham's office, I saw the Constellations magazine cover taped to the wooden door. On the table inside, several blueprints lay scattered. While settling down, I asked him about them and he told me that some of his students will be displaying their installations at the Singapore Writers Festival. "There will be thousands of people, it's a good opportunity for exposure."

Professor Graham Matthews teaches Contemporary Literature at the School of Humanities, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He did his PhD in English at the University of Exeter, worked in China for three years and then moved here. "I want to teach in a place where my students have an emotional connection with their material and are passionate about it. As a nation, Singapore is interesting because it is a cosmopolitan city filled with diversity in people and thought." His students told me that he breathes vibrancy and humour into his lectures. "You should come to my Alice in Wonderland class. The life of the lesson is in the interactions."  

STYLEGUIDE  shares with you our insightful converation about interdisciplinary humanities and initiatives set out to create paradigm shifts in the way we think.

Do you think there exist any stereotypes of humanities students that need to be broken?

Humanities students are known to be very daring, empathetic individuals who critically evaluate and solve problems. In the age of artificial intelligence, robotics, personalised medicine, and blockchain, they can potentially contribute a lot because of the skills that are inculcated in them. Although stereotypes exist, every humanities student is an individual with his/her own set of beliefs and principles. They will never be unemployed [laughs] because they know how to adapt and collaborate, learning new skills while retaining old ones. They associate themselves with causes that they believe in. 

He stops for a moment, as if reading my mind.

I feel that people shouldn't be engaging with negative stereotypes, because by engaging with them, we risk propagating them. We have so many applications to come and study in the School of Humanities this year too and it is very motivating to see so many more capable individuals join our community.

That's promising for the country!

Haha, yeah, students get into all sorts of jobs after graduation, ranging from arts organisations and translation to healthcare and business industries. It's not just limited to academics and civil services as most people think it is. The crux of humanities is to be able to conduct effective communications and be directly involved in global matters.

In such a scenario, what does it mean to study subjects beyond the core framework in academics? 

He adjusts his office chair to face the desktop, types on his keyboard and then tilts the screen so it faces me. It's the school page with the list of interdisciplinary research clusters based in the School of Humanities.

I'm not sure many how students actually see this [gestures] because students tend to see us as teaching and not so much researching, but we are very keen to include students in our research initiatives. At the moment, in the School of Humanities, we have five clusters that cross the traditional boundaries.

"These are some of the interdisciplinary research areas that are stretching the definition of what humanities can be and in some ways, speaking to matters of immediate concern."

We have Green Humanities which is to do with the environment - it's such a huge question that can't be left just to the scientists. A lot of Green Humanities is about culture, politics and how people perceive the relationship between themselves and the environment. Medical Humanities is very diverse and vibrant; it includes the history of medicine, analysing doctor-patient relationships and stories of sickness told by individuals. Most people have a story of sickness to tell and by looking into these we can learn a  lot more about the cultural contexts of their health.

We also have gender studies which has been of increasing importance in the last few decades. We are currently very concerned with issues to do with class, age, gender and ethnicity. There's an increasing recognition that gender cannot be studied in isolation. The experience of women in the United Kingdom, for example, is incredibly diverse, and class makes a big difference.

Besides these interdisciplinary courses, should art be integrated into our lifestyles?

Art shouldn't exist in some rarefied space behind closed doors, it should speak to as wide an audience as possible. You know the truism that films should show and not tell? Really art is similar insofar as it should be about showing you unique experiences; it certainly shouldn't tell you how to see the world in a different way, it should show you alternative perspectives.

Using art as signposts.


What are your thoughts on its accessibility in Singapore?

The Singapore Museum and the Art Science Museum both do a very very good job of communicating the value of art and making it very open and accessible to the general public.

I am increasingly interested in ways in which we can make art and literature more accessible so one of the initiatives that I am pursuing in the coming semester is to bring a series of graphic medicine workshops into the Singaporean community.

Is this inspired by one of your classes on Medical Humanities?

Yes, I've tried this in class. One week on my module is dedicated to graphic medicine and one of the exercises for that class is for students to work together to create a comic based on a topic in the medical humanities. I've never seen students so engaged! Groups of five were working closely together to work out how to convey complex ideas through a medium which immediately speaks to people. It's really interesting to see their thought processes evolving.

So you're interested in expanding this to the rest of the city?

The idea is that there are a tremendous number of stories of sickness that are published and a surprisingly large number of both graphic artists and ordinary people who draw and write comics about the subjective experience of health and sickness. The joy and beauty of comics as a form of expression is that you don't necessarily have to be good at drawing or writing and there's a wide array of techniques you can use like the size of panels, playing with scale, symbolism and simultaneously displaying gestures, thoughts and speech. The key thing about graphic medicine is that it's democratic, it's egalitarian, and anyone can join in!

"These workshops which I'm going to start running would be a kind of invitation for Singaporeans to share their stories, but also for them to think about health in a different way."

We will teach people the basics of how to draw a comic and how to read one in a critical way that will empower them to identify and apply the different devices that are being used. 

I'm intrigued by your particular interest in using graphic novels as a medium.

Because it surprises people! We often think of comics as something childish or for superheroes [laughs] but it's actually an incredibly diverse form. Maus, for example, tackles very difficult questions about memory and the Holocaust. So there's a huge range of subject matter out there and the form, I think, is quite exciting. It's about changing perspectives or assumptions that people might have about this form and also about building a community where they can share ideas and experiences in an innovative way.

Image source: https://www.graphicmedicine.org/2015-conference-announcement-and-call-for-papers/

We're also collaborating with Singapore Writers Festival on a set of panels on the topic of Medical Humanities and some of the students' work will be on display.

"Before my students start their course, they wonder how on earth literature and medicine can be related."

Medicine is an art or a practice. It draws on scientific knowledge but when doctors are communicating with patients, they are actually using skills that not dissimilar to that of a literature critic; patients have very difficult telling tasks and doctors have very difficult listening tasks to really get an idea of what's going on. 

They have to demonstrate skills in empathy to make sense of how an illness affects individuals. What an illness is can be quite similar but how it affects each person is always subtly different. It's important for doctors to recognise this. For the creative projects, the students have to bridge the gap between literature and medicine and make it communicable to a non-specialist audience. Basically anyone who has a vague interest in reading and wellness. We will be also be displaying some more of their work in the national libraries starting in the Jurong area. The idea is to start a conversation between the work that has been done in the School of Humanities and the wider community. 

Tell us a bit about Constellations (remember the cover taped to the front door?)

It's very much my baby! [laughs] But it could not have happened without the hard work and dedication of a whole range of students, faculty and administrative staff who have all contributed in meaningful ways.

There's a sense in which humanities is not that well understood in Singapore and the initial idea was to communicate the range and depth of recent research projects happening at NTU, Singapore and explain the value of humanities. So we have a print edition - we've published the inaugural issue, and the second one comes out in September - that will be disseminated through museums and libraries across Singapore.

Image source: https://www.constellations.sg/

It helps reach a wide audience in that respect and it also has a vibrant online website that contains a whole range of news, articles and video content which explain some of the excellent research projects that we have here. The magazine is very much a platform for explaining the value of humanities and encouraging other people to contribute. I'm very interested in publishing more stories that relate to humanities and Singapore generally; it doesn't have to be NTU only. 

What would you like to say to the mavericks out there?

I suppose my response to that is, well, everyone is a maverick in their own way; everyone is independent and has their own core principles and I think you should stay true to your core principles. However, I would qualify that by saying that the greatest mavericks in the world take inspiration from other people and work well with other people.

I'm not very keen on the idea of classification. It's like the idea of a genius. We tend to talk about great individuals from the past who made astonishing breakthroughs but we forget that they had an entire support network and that they were taking inspiration from the past. My advice, if any, would be to be open to others' ideas. Collaboration and co-operation are crucial elements of any successful society and it is only by working together that knowledge is shared; it is only through shared knowledge that everyone benefits.

I turn off my recorder and as we begin to talk about the installations, tapestries, websites and videos in preparation for the Singapore Writers Festival, I make a mental note to not miss them. The artist, like a genius, is often stereotyped as someone who works in solitude, under pressing circumstances, detached from the world. The concept of creating graphic novels through collaboration with local artists, writers, patients and doctors thrills me. As I take the train back home, I slip into a long reverie where I reevaluate my perception of how the arts and humanities meld into our lives.