Upcoming Conferences

Health Humanities Consortium: March 25-28, 2021 at Penn State College of Medicine (Virtual)

Individual Paper: “Our Microbiota, Ourselves: Imagining Communal Health in a Pandemic”

In the conclusion to his 2009 book, A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body, Ed Cohen asks: “How might we experience ourselves as organisms if we imagined that coexistence rather than self-defense provides the basis for our well-being?” (281). The global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, in which US public health responses reinforce the discourse of self-defense, has seemingly made Cohen’s imagined future farther from reach than ever. However, as I will argue, we are living with a paradoxical view of microorganisms: we are simultaneously aware of their power to both cause catastrophic disease and support human health. The growing body of microbiome research that examines human-microbe coexistence, symbiosis, and commensalism has disrupted the myth of biological individuality, one in which the boundaries of the individual body are clearly demarcated and thereby defensible.

This view of the permeable human body has the potential to undo the centrality of the individual in our social, political, and medical systems. And yet, this communal thinking has been coopted by research priorities and product marketing that emphasize individual microbiome optimization within a larger context of compulsory wellness. In an era of probiotics, fecal transplants, immune-boosting supplements, and microbiome-conscious diets, the problem of microbiome health, and therefore human health, gets understood as an individualized problem and solution rather than a collective endeavor or shared responsibility. While a microbial lens can highlight the connections that humans share with their environment, I caution against a narrow focus on microbes that allows us to ignore each other and the structural forces that contribute to sickness and debility. Instead, I suggest that we can use the collaborations between humans and microbes that shape individual health as a model for potential collaborations on the human-scale, from collective health programs that promote health justice to interdisciplinary health humanities research.

Health Humanities 2020: Narrative and Counternarrative: July 9-11, 2020 at Hiram College (Postponed due to COVID-19)

Workshop Facilitator: “Interdisciplinary Collaboration”

This workshop will address examples of and opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration in the health humanities, whether among scholars/educators from different humanities disciplines, or humanities scholars/educators and medical professionals. Example materials for submission: project descriptions, co-authored abstracts.

Past Conferences

MLA 2020: January 9-12, 2020 in Seattle, WA

731. Being Human in a Microbial World: Literature, Science, and the Microbiome

January 12, 12:00-1:15pm | WSCC – 213


  • Laura Forsberg, Assistant Professor of English at Rockhurst University (presenter)
  • David Rambo, Research Associate in the Program in Literature at Duke University (presenter)
  • Melissa WillsPhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis (presenter & panel organizer)
  • Kym Weed, Teaching Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (presider & panel organizer)

Special Session Description:

In the twenty-first century, we are witnessing a radical refiguration of the nature of human embodiment. As scientists reveal the sheer scope and diversity of microbial life associated with the human body—our microbiome—it is increasingly clear that human and microbial lives are deeply entangled. To understand our own humanity therefore means to acknowledge the extent to which we are colonized and influenced by our microbial contingent.

The recent flourishing of human-microbial ecology has been increasingly assessed by scholars in the humanities and social sciences: anthropologists have shown how microbiome science shapes cultural practices, while philosophers have inquired into its implications for biological individuality. Yet while these approaches detail the influence of the microbiome, they rarely address the cultural heritage of the microbiome concept and the shaping influence of language and narrative. This panel shows, in contrast, how historical representations of microbial life tangibly inform scientific discourse in the present.

“Being Human in a Microbial World” defines literature, in particular, as an active influence on scientific discovery. This premise follows from abundant scholarship in literature and science, which asserts that literature does not merely reflect scientific concepts but in fact also shapes the metaphors, language, and trajectory of science itself. Such scholarship was inaugurated in Laura Otis’ Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science, and Politics (1999), and has turned specifically to biomedical and microbiological themes in the past two years with Sari Altschuler’s The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States (2018) and Tita Chico’s The Experimental Imagination: Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment (2018). This panel expands the conversation to consider the entanglement of human and microbial bodies as figured in literature and science. Its three papers show how the literary imagination has structured what is thinkable, and therefore knowable, in contemporary microbiology.

In keeping with the MLA Presidential Theme, this panel focuses in particular on “being human” at two key moments of transformation: the Victorian era and the present. As the discipline of microbiology took shape in the late-nineteenth century, literary authors began to ask how our imagination of subvisible life takes shape through an understanding of our own humanity. The tropes and themes of this era have resounded across the subsequent development of the field, resurfacing anew, as this panel shows, in contemporary discussions of the microbiome.

SLSA 2019: November 7-11, 2019 at UC-Irvine

Microbial Futures

How do microbes shape the future?

Over the past decade, scholars across the humanities and social sciences have documented the interrelationships between human and microbial worlds, showing how micro- and macro-scale lives are entangled in human bodies, practices, and thought. In this context, we ask how the study of microbial life can do more than show us what is — what microbes do, where they occur, how they interact with humans — but especially, how it can help us to imagine different futures.

In a series of panels at SLSA 2019, we hope to address the futurity of microbes broadly:

  • How do cultural representations of microbial life influence the future of scientific discovery in microbiology?
  • How does research on microorganisms drive the imagination of different kinds of futures?
  • What is the future of humanistic study of microbes and microbiomes?
We welcome approaches to any of the following, and beyond:
  • Microbes, microbiology, microbiologists, and microbiomes in literature, popular science, scientific discourse, or the arts
  • Microbiology in/as science fiction
  • Fiction or imagination and scientific knowledge production
  • Cultural politics of the human microbiome
  • Citizen science and the democratization of microbiome research
  • Ethical questions raised by the study of microbes and microbiomes
  • Microbial ecologies within and/or beyond the human body (e.g., agriculture, planetary processes, the built environment, outer space)

You can read the full Panel Stream Description including participants and abstracts here

For more information, contact stream organizers: Melissa Wills (mawills [at] ucdavis [dot] edu) and Kym Weed (kweed [at] unc [dot] edu).