Areas of Study

When a part of your body is removed in a routine test or surgery–say, your blood or appendix–what happens to it? Does it still belong to you? Do you still have control over it? Should you?

Skloot’s book details the story of Lacks, an African American woman who died in 1951 at the height of the Jim Crow era in the United States, leaving behind a small mass of cervical cancer cells in a vial at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Her cells lived on, and have been used for 60 years in everything from testing laboratory equipment to cultivating the precursors of the polio vaccine.

These cells were taken from Lacks before her death without her permission or knowledge; her family has received no compensation from the medical research the cells provided, and lived in poverty. Her legacy, because of the intervention of a single doctor at Johns Hopkins, was split into two: An indestructible mass of growing cells, and an all-too-mortal group of deaf and hard of hearing men and women.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was selected as the Common Reading title because of the depth and richness of the issues underpinning the story,” said First Year Experience (FYE) Acting Director Maria Waters. “It engenders questions about social responsibility, ethical behavior, and cultural identity, as well as encouraging students to develop and apply critical thinking skills in pursuing a line of inquiry.”

First-year student Giovanna Vasquez immediately sensed the complexity of the work. “When I read the book, I was not expecting something as big as this,” she said. “That was very thought provoking.”

The work of teasing out the many layers of meaning, ethics, and race in this book began in the JumpStart Program for new students in summer 2010, when Associate Professor Carie Palmer of the English Department created a presentation to help the students summarize all the relevant points of the book. She also worked with faculty from other departments in the program to create a curriculum centered around the essential questions that Henrietta’s story posed. Instruction and Reference Librarian Jim McCarthy created a LibGuide devoted to the Common Reading topic, an online resource that synthesized multiple sources of information and offered a guide to researching the many possible topics of study found in the book and its story.

As summer turned to fall, the First Year Experience program, headed by Waters and FYE Coordinator of Curriculum and Assessment Jerri Lyn Dorminy, began to introduce the book almost immediately in all GSR 101 courses, which are taught by individuals drawn from a wide variety of departments at Gallaudet. Students completed a project that required them to select a chapter, summarize the events in that chapter, and discuss their experiences with the book.

In the process, class discussions were held across all FYS sections. Students debated bioethics, the history of race relations in this country–particularly in Virginia and Maryland, where much of the story takes place–and the Patient Bill of Rights legislation. Some questioned why the Lacks family didn’t speak up for themselves, while others pointed out that this was in an era when their race had no voice, and others expressed strong, well-reasoned opinions on the growing question of genetically engineering unborn children to display certain traits.

Mark Weinberg, an associate professor in the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, who was teaching GSR 101, learned through a student about an October event at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., where Skloot, members of the Lacks family, and other familiar faces from the book would speak about their experiences. Director of Student Success Darian Burwell organized a group of Gallaudet students, faculty, and staff to attend. She worked closely with staff at Johns Hopkins as they prepared to host their first deaf delegation, forming an ongoing relationship.

For participants like A’Ja Lyons, a transfer student at Gallaudet, the event allowed readers to draw their own connections and conclusions. “The Lacks family in the book was portrayed as a guarded but a willing group. They were, in fact, very open and intimate with everyone, especially the deaf people in the audience,” Lyons said. “It’s important to know the person behind the cells, the people Henrietta interacted with, and what imprint she left behind.”

Near the end of October and in mid-November, two discussion panels were co-sponsored by the Library and the First Year Experience. Both panels pulled in faculty from the departments of English, philosophy and religion, history, psychology, biology, and others. At both events, the panelists and audience members engaged in lively, interdisciplinary discussion.

The conversations will continue into the spring semester, as three FYS sections discuss the book. In yet another area of growth beyond the classroom, philosophy instructor Teresa Burke will facilitate dialogue among residents of the Denison House residential facility’s living and learning program.

–Jim McCarthy

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