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In the second of our “Spotlight” tutor interviews, Dr Andrew Schuman discusses poetry, passion and the potential for learning from students.

Andrew SchumanHow long have you been an undergraduate GP tutor and which courses do you teach on?  

It must be a dozen years or more that I’ve been a Tutor on the Patient Doctor I Course - but I honestly don’t know, it’s been such fun. Which has been my guiding principle over the years: if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. 

What attracts you to teaching medical students? 

Their hunger to learn. And, year after year, these students come to medical school excited about entering this vocation. It really is as if they’ve been ‘called’ - that this is what they want to spend their working lives doing.

And still it makes me wonder how I would answer that eternal question: why do you want to be a doctor? I think, ultimately, it’s that we have this extraordinary opportunity to become part of our patients’ lives; to be a witness to their suffering – and their joys. For me, the American neurologist and writer, Harold Klawans, summed it up best: “Taking care of sick people, inserting your life and skills into their lives, and allowing their lives and problems and tragedies into your life is the best way I know to live life to its fullest.”

And I find the (com)passion of these doctors-to-be so endlessly inspiring.

You teach on the Patient & Doctor I Course, which is for pre-clinical students early in their undergraduate careers. How important is clinical experience for these young people? 

The students are all in their first and second years of pre-clinical studies, and, aside from their Gap Year experience, they’ve not yet met a single patient. Only a year before, they’re sitting in a classroom. Now they’re talking to patients about real life, disease - and death. “This is why I went into Medicine” is the reaction of so many of them, over and over again.

You have a great interest in Literature. Do you use this in your teaching and what impact does it have? 

Absolutely, yes. Stories, poetry, songs, journalism – words and literature make us think about the stories that our patients are telling us, and to see each of these people as part of a broader, richer and endlessly fascinating narrative.

And with these pieces of writing as starting points, we can get to explore any aspect of the human condition: health and disease, life and death, language and communication, boundaries and touch. Not just the ‘measurable’ stuff we’re routinely taught, but the ‘meaningful’ stuff, too. It’s not something that happens often enough in medical education – and it gets us all thinking differently. Seeing things from a different angle, even if it’s only by a few degrees. Using a different bit of our brains.

Last year, for a session teaching “Consent”, I showed my second years a poem by Christopher Logue called ‘Come to the Edge’. I wasn’t sure how it would pan out, but that 27-word poem triggered a 20-minute discussion on so many different aspects of consent that we’d never have reached otherwise. I had to cut them short in the end.

Tell us about the poetry anthology you have edited (“Stressed, Unstressed: Classic Poems to Ease the Mind”). What led you to undertake this project?

This was a sort of self-help poetry manual that was initially the brain-child of the writers, Paula Byrne and Jonathan Bate. It was a recognition that throughout history, people have turned to words – songs, poems, prayers and lullabies – at any and every turn of life: birth, marriage and death. Joy, grief and loss. And these concentrated collections of words concentrate the mind like nothing else. They allow us to revisit and re-frame our experiences and emotions, allowing them to be better understood – or shared – or treasured.

We wanted to make it as useful as possible, and in a wide range of circumstances. So there are chapters on stopping, releasing, grieving, feeling alone, living with uncertainty, moving on, and positive thinking. Each chapter has a short introduction on suggested ways of reading and using the poems that follow. We don’t think any other poetry manual does this – and it was written with the combined expertise of four co-editors: my wife, Sophie, who is an English academic here at Oxford, the writers Paula and Jonathan – and with my input as a ‘grass roots’ doctor. 

Does teaching students influence your clinical work? 

I think it reminds me that we only ever practise medicine. We never perfect it. We’re learning all the time – from our patients, from their experiences, from when things go wrong. And I find this way of looking both backwards and forwards on my career endlessly refreshing and invigorating.

What would you say to GPs considering taking up a teaching role? 

I suppose it might be worth saying that, when I’m teaching, I’m always learning too. Seeing things anew, and differently – asking new questions. And you might find that it comes very naturally. I think it’s in our genes. Doesn’t the word doctor come from the Latin word docere, to teach?

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