Workshop on “Physical Diseases” in Marburg, January 2013

Comment on the workshop on “Physical Diseases” by ISHA Jena,

held in Marburg 16th to 20th January 2013:

In the beginning, there was coincidence. ISHA Marburg had just agreed on hosting the New Year’s Seminar and was looking for workshop ideas, and ISHA Jena had just grown to seven strongly motivated members which were looking for joint activities. So we suggested to design a workshop fitting to the general topic “Health and Disease in Historical Perspective”. Two factors were influencing us: firstly, it should be something new, not the usual ‘presentation-discussion-style’; secondly, each of Jena’s members should be able to contribute to the workshop concept, as only one of us could participate in the seminar (due to exams etc.).

We came up with the idea to design a workshop programme that is mostly based on work on historical sources. In our discussions we came to the conclusion that we would like to cover the seminar topic through a workshop on physical diseases and chose an approach to it by examining the political, religious and individual aspects of physical illness. Besides the general questions of the seminar (What do illness and health mean? How did these concepts emerge, how were they defined throughout different centuries and cultures?), the specific questions which appeared were, for instance, as the following: What did it mean for the state when the ruler fell sick or was „disabled“? Was health ever a private issue? Furthermore, it is of high interest which connotations „sick“ and „healthy“ get when they are interpreted against the background of religion. Were physical „illnesses“ always and everywhere seen as such or were they understood as divine or maybe diabolical signs? An finally: How were illness and health experienced by individuals from Ancient Greece to recent times?

Each of us started to look for sources which could help us to consider these questions. Thereby we searched beyond our actual field of studies and took into account e.g. healing rituals from ancient Mesopotamia, propaganda posters against infection with VD and depictions of rulers. We provided each source with background information, questions for the examination of the source and suggestions for further reading. In the meantime, seven ISHA members had applied for the workshop, so we divided them into two smaller groups: Political Aspects of Physical Diseases + Individual Aspects I and Religious Aspects of Physical Diseases + Individual Aspects II. We sent them the sources of their respective small group so that they could read them on their own and think about the questions we added.

Furthermore, the participants themselves were asked to look for sources which could be examined against the background of those questions. The idea was to get a larger source corpus with texts and other historical objects from different eras and cultural backgrounds and thereby to be able to answer the questions to some extent. In the workshop, they should firstly discuss the sources sent by us and share the answers which they had worked out on their own with the other members of their small group. Secondly, they would present them the sources which they had chosen and discuss those as well. Lastly, the two small groups would present their results to each other, compare them and come to more general results. Those general results should be presented during the seminar’s Final Conclusions.

So far the theory. The problem which occurred was, that only some participants had read the sources at home, only one had searched for sources on his own and only a few had brought the material with them to the workshop. Therefore we had to abandon the usual plan and instead started to read the sources in the workshop. After each person had gotten familiar with the content, the workshop moderator stimulated discussions about it in the small groups, and helped to formulate some results which could be presented to the respective other small group. We then followed the original plan to come to some more general conclusions and prepared a presentation which combined serious, scientific parts with funny acting parts.

So to come to a final statement, this new workshop type has the same disadvantage as all workshops have: If the participants are not sufficiently prepared, one has to improvise and change the original plans. In fact, when the workshop is only based on presentations, the risk to have no objects of discussion is much bigger. The great advantage is that our workshop is much more flexible, as we could read the sources together and therefore had enough material to discuss. Also the participants stated that they were very satisfied with the workshop programme. They enjoyed having a common topic for discussion where everybody was able to contribute something, not like after a presentation where only a few experts can make their comments. All in all, they had the feeling that they have learnt more than in the usual workshop programmes.

Considering all that, one can definitely recommend further alternative workshop types, maybe with less preparatory work for the participants. This is particularly helpful for those which have only a little amount of time and are not yet familiar with the seminar topic in general. However, for the workshop moderator(s) it is much more preparatory work compared to the usual type (finding and commenting sources, maybe translate them, looking for literature, read background information etc.). Moreover, it is definitely more challenging during the workshop itself, as it is difficult to encourage discussions when people are less familiar with the general topic. We would recommend to prepare a workshop like ours in a group and to moderate it at least with two persons, so that one can follow and moderate the discussions of the one small group and the other one those of the other small group. We also suggest to bring enough copies of the material you need, as one cannot expect that all participants bring it with them. Then you will most likely enjoy a challenging, but effective workshop with satisfying results for everybody.

On behalf of ISHA Jena

Anne Greule

(moderator of the workshop “Physical Diseases” in Marburg)