What is learnt?

One of the larger issues I have faced during my PhD is the problem of the difference between what is taught and what is learnt. As any teacher will know, what students take away from a class is often different to what was intended. However, how do we investigate this difference from a research perspective?

Through what students choose to write down we can infer a lot about what they take away from a class. If we take a look at the student notes of Charles Darwin from his days as a medical student (available via John van Wyhe’s fabulous Darwin Online resource), we can clearly see the difference between learning and teaching. In these notes Darwin takes down some information about differences in bone colouration with relation to race and ‘dropsical people’. Mere lines later, he writes ‘This is all general & useless Anatomy’, finishing his note taking for the class. Here, we can quite clearly see the subjects which peaked the interest of young Darwin and those which did not.

So does this not solve the problem of finding what was actually learned by students? Unfortunately not. Whilst the student notes of Charles Darwin and other famous figures have been relatively well-preserved by scholars, curators, and historians, those of your average student are not always so well kept. In specific cases, notes found after many generations are donated by family members to an archive. However, in my experience these instances are few and far between. This can leave the large concept of ‘the student experience’ to be extrapolated from a single set of notes from just one term of classes; an unsatisfying arrangement.

One option for dealing with this issue is undoubtedly to go through every annual class list for each year and search for records from the student days of each class member in archives across the globe. I am certain that my research will lead me to this path in the future, however this is long, arduous, time-consuming, and potentially unrewarding work.

Another method for dealing with this issue of ‘missing’ materials in the words of Glenn Adamson, author of ‘The Case of the Missing Footstool: Reading the Absent Object’, is:

‘When faced with an unexpected ‘hole’ in the historical record… look at the edges of the perceived gap, in the hope of delineating it’s precise contours, and thus… guessing at the reasons behind it.’

In my case this means looking at courses offered, classroom resources available, class lists, lecture topics and much more to understand what medical students of the nineteenth century might have learnt in their anatomical classes. This technique is the historical equivalent of negative space imaging- we create the edges of the space to understand what’s inside.

Clockwise from top left: Maggie Enterrios (Instagram @littlepatterns), Ileana Hunter (Etsy shop), Aimee Davies (andstitches.blogspot.com)

Obviously this research methodology has its flaws; it does only create an outline of the topic (and a potential outline at that). However, it does allow me to fill a much smaller space with the few sets of notes I can find.

This ‘negative space’ method provides a rather neat workaround for historians who find themselves missing materials they know once existed. However, it is never ideal to be short of research material. I’m not suggesting that we should inundate the archivists at our alma mater schools and universities with old class notes but… maybe flick through them again before throwing them out?


What’s in a PhD?

It has been quite some time since I last posted here and that has been largely due to the nature of the beast which is the PhD. What follows here is my attempt to ‘anatomise’ the life of a PhD student for my long-suffering family and friends. The PhD isn’t just about sitting down and writing 80-100 thousand words (although it should be!!) and it often takes quite some effort to steal back your own time from other commitments. These ‘time thieves’, however, aren’t there to be ignored; they are an integral part of the PhD and in some cases almost as important as the words you get down.



Let’s start with the big ‘P’, the dreaded Damocles’ sword of academics everywhere. Publishing is vital at all stages of academia, but I must say I think PhD students have it hardest. This is mostly because the idea of Publishing, for most of us anyway, is essentially new. I am slowly learning how to choose which journals to send my papers to- something I am not afraid to admit I learnt in part through a particularly galling paper rejection with reviewers’ comments (which made me cry whilst questioning my abilities as a scholar and a researcher, of course).

PhD’s are expected to publish at least one and ideally two articles whilst simultaneously writing for the thesis and although we can twist chapters or even masters’ theses into papers, this takes some quite substantial editing to get the tone exactly right. There is a fine knife edge on which to balance between intellectually grabbing and sensationalism, scholarship and stoicism. It’s a damn steep learning curve.

As a result, many of us look to book reviewing to get a few publications to pad out our publishing résumé (some shameless self-promotion of my recently published review of Joanna Ebenstein’s The Anatomical Venus). Although, we all know to pick our books to review carefully as the only payment we receive is a free copy of the book.


Public engagement

This is the slightly smaller ‘p’; telling the public about our research. (Yes, technically this blog counts as public engagement work!) Public engagement has two forms- it’s either big, flashy, and time consuming, or it fits in around your current work commitments.

Universities often have pots of money to fund big public engagement projects, and researchers usually have lots of great ideas (watch this space for 3D mapping and felt projects!). But these projects take a huge amount of time and energy! Future employers and funding organisations want us to engage, so for the most part we use methods that are slightly easier to integrate into a PhD research schedule. Apart from this blog, I myself give taster lectures of my subject to widening participation audiences and create courses for school children- something which doubles as a form of income. I know of others who work as museum engagement staff and those who go onto radio shows to talk about their work. These things don’t cost you three months of work and your sanity.



Everyone says that to be a successful academic you must teach, but for a PhD student how much teaching is enough teaching? Anyone who knows me personally will know that outside of the university setting I tutor privately to help fund my studies, something I have been doing for three years now. I also give taster lectures through the aforementioned widening participation programme, have acted supervisor and mentor to school students undertaking research projects, and have even constructed and delivered my own six-week summer school course as part of the WP team.  Not to mention years of experience working with children and young people outside the academic setting (dancing, library work, Girlguiding UK). At the university, I have acted as the technical assistant for two courses using a recording studio. However, I have only acted as a seminar leader on one module so far, and therefore I must do more.


Logistics and service

Once you’ve done all of that you can just write, right? Not quite… where is your money coming from? Do you have to write more grant applications, get another job, or write reports for your current funder(s)? What about your research material- do you need to schedule interviews or archive visits? And are those available, close by, and accessible? Have you put all the departmental meetings and committees into your diary? Are you leading reading groups, going to conferences, attending external lectures, and holding office hours?

So yes, whilst I might *technically* be able to get up at 10am every day (ha!) and have nothing specific to be doing with my time, I also technically have about 20 things I should or could be doing at any given moment.


So please, if you know a researcher who is always cancelling dinner, turning up late, slow in responding to emails, or bad at updating their blog… cut them a little slack.


Here’s to the new academic year!

Can virtual reality solve all our problems?

One of the ways we might be able to fix the problem of body generalisation in medicine, as I discussed in my previous blog post, is with virtual anatomy programs. Today medical students are already beginning to use complex computer programs that can imitate real dissections in their anatomy lessons.

A virtual dissection table created by Anatomage, the medical supply company, in action. (Copyright Norbert von der Groeben, 2011, sourced from the Stanford Medicine News Centre website)
A virtual dissection table created by Anatomage, the medical supply company, in action. (Copyright Norbert von der Groeben, 2011, sourced from the Stanford Medicine News Centre website)

In some ways these programs are even better than the real thing. Students have the ability to remove muscles, bones and veins, as well as rotate the subject three dimensionally through 360°. These programs are also being fed information from real patient cases that have been logged in the Searchable Digital Anatomical Library; a project pioneered by Sakti Srivastava and her colleagues at the Stanford Medical School.

Indeed, replacing more traditional methods of learning with virtual technology does not seem to have an impact on how well students learn. In 2011, Anthony Codd and Bipasha Choudhury performed an experiment in which they compared the two methods of anatomical teaching, virtual and traditional, by testing students taught by the different systems (see end for link). There was almost no difference in test scores between the two methods, but those who used the virtual reality simulations came out slightly on top. It seems virtual reality could be a very effective replacement for traditional learning in medicine.


Still, the traditional use of cadavers in medical teaching has obvious benefits; this is the only way in which students are able to learn how the muscles feel and react in the flesh before they go into real surgical situations.

It has not always been possible to teach with real cadavers and this is where we start seeing the standard images and models that we discussed last time appearing in the classroom.

Many of you may have heard the infamous story of Burke and Hare, the men who murdered people to sell their bodies to science. The short supply of cadavers meant medical schools would pay handsomely for fresh corpses! Other less enterprising individuals turned to grave-robbing as the money to be gained far outweighed the danger of being caught.

A popular drawing of Burke and Hare suffocating one of their victims.
A popular drawing of Burke and Hare suffocating one of their victims.

There is still a shortage in the number of people who donate their bodies to science. However, virtual technology could take over from standardised images as the alternative.

The virtual isn’t the same as the real, what we want to do is leverage the best of both. It’s not really, ‘Is one better than the other?’ Rather it’s, ‘What can we do with the two combined?’

– David Gaba, associate dean for immersive and simulation-based learning at Stanford.

What indeed? This technology is currently using a variety of case files to teach students about specific clinical problems, but it could do so much more!

With the right programming we could replace our unchanging textbook images with software that gives the student a new body to look at each time (within a range of human shapes and sizes). This would mean that students could learn anatomy across the full spectrum of different body types.

Ultimately, this could be extended to practical surgery sessions with virtual reality headsets. This would let students practice locating organs within differently shaped and sized bodies during surgery.

How far away are we?

The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

All we need is information on the possible range of human body types and a good programmer.

(The full Codd and Choudhury article can be found at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ase.214/full )

(Information on the use of virtual anatomy programs at the Stanford Medical School can be found at http://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2011/05/body-image-computerized-table-lets-students-do-virtual-dissection.html )

When did we all become identical?

If you’ve ever picked up more than one anatomical textbook you, like I, will have noticed that there are two very distinct images of the human body; one male and one female.

Source: growablegreetings.com
Sources: http://growablegreetings.com and http://www.depure.org

Source: www.depure.org

When I look at people I’m not ashamed to say I don’t see the same person over and over again; I see a wonderful variety of characters. We are all so wildly different in our own ways and that is a wonderful thing. So where did this idea that we are all exactly the same on the inside come from?

Source: www.musclebuildingtnt.com
Source: http://www.musclebuildingtnt.com

At one point anatomy was taught with a range of specimens to show variety and difference. Halfway through the 19th century this all changed. Anatomical models began to be mass produced for teaching on a larger scale and to combat the problem of a short supply of corpses for medical research (the reason for the Burke and Hare scandal!).

These models were made out of wax or papier-mâché and were built to exact specifications- made from moulds again and again, exactly the same each time. They all had several things in common- they were white, they were young and they were athletically healthy. But who’s body did they use as the inspiration?

19th Century 'anatomical venus', unknown modeller Source: http://morbidanatomy.blogspot.co.uk
19th Century ‘Anatomical Venus’- unknown modeller Source: http://morbidanatomy.blogspot.co.uk

The most reproduced anatomical images and models are not actually based on an original study of a body. They are imagined bodies, fabricated specifically for the purpose of teaching human anatomy.

But why did so many anatomists choose the same images of the body at this time? Were these bodies seen to be representative of the population or were they idealised? Did they convey a deeper belief in human equality or did they set a standard for the perfect body?

Campaign against Victoria Secret ‘perfect body’ advertisement. Source: http://superselected.com

It is time to find out how the belief that we are all equal and the creation of a normalised body image fit together. Did we create one image of the body because we thought everyone was the same on the inside or did we create it to set a bodily standard to strive for and look up to?

I hope you will continue to read along as I find out more.

(Please search #notmybody for posts on other media)