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Artful learning

Kirstin Borgerson (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Philosophy)

“I try not to talk for more than ten minutes without asking a provocative question or posing a problem,” Dr. Borgerson says. It is her “pedagogical project” to create “a safe environment” where students can openly discuss an issue’s full ethical breadth and depth.”

Any student expecting the typical lecture in Assistant Professor Kirstin Borgerson’s undergraduate Philosophy classes is in for a surprise.

“I try not to talk for more than ten minutes without asking a provocative question or posing a problem,” Dr. Borgerson says. It is her “pedagogical project” to create “a safe environment” where students can openly discuss an issue’s full ethical breadth and depth. She expects students to respond, and they do.

“I wanted to become one of those profs who – when a student makes a comment that’s kind of vague – can see through to the core idea,” Dr. Borgerson explains. “I try rephrasing what they’re saying in the language of the course. For example, ‘It seems you’re talking about the patient’s autonomy….’”

Dr. Borgerson believes that that listening to each other is a way to come closer to a “nuanced truth.” It’s also how sensitive health-care professionals are created – especially relevant, as most of her students are science majors planning to apply to medical school or a health professions program.

She also insists on responding to “what’s happening in the world,” to help students see the relevance of their education. She regularly brings in news items, articles and opinion pieces for student reflection and discussion. In 2012, she even took her students to the theatre.

The Story of Mr. Wright, a local production by 2b theatre, was playing at the Neptune Studio Theatre. It dealt with a doctor who gave one of his patients a placebo but told him it was medication. Aided by an Open Academy grant from the Royal Society of Canada, Dr. Borgerson bought all 175 seats one night so her students could attend the play. She also invited patients from the North End Health Clinic, health-care professionals from the Nova Scotia Health Ethics Network, and students in Dal’s Medical Humanities program.

Dr. Borgerson chaired a panel discussion right after the play: “We had an expert ethicist talking about hope, another philosopher discussing clinical research ethics, and the director discussing the dramatic presentation of issues,” she explains. “It was fantastic – so lively and interesting.” Students were asked to write an ethical analysis of the play’s various relationships.

Dr. Borgerson is delighted that this play was presented while she was teaching her Ethics & Health Care course, and she’s confident “some new exciting thing will come along” for future courses. When it comes to engaging her students and helping them grapple with important issues, “I like to keep my eyes open, my ear to the ground.”