Medicine, Literature and Society Major Track

The interdisciplinary major track in Medicine, Literature and Society, offered under the auspices of the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society’s Comparative Literature and Society major, prepares qualified students to explore the biological, social, economic and cultural dimensions of health and medicine in a global and multilingual framework.

At the level of the individual patient, medicine and medical systems diagnose and treat disease to prolong life and to diminish the suffering that accompanies illness.  But in many societies, the reach of modern biomedicine far exceeds the intimate zone of patient and caregiver encompassed by this model. From climate change and food activism to city planning and public housing, from family planning and surrogacy to gendered and racial identities, the biomedical model of health now underwrites national and supra-state policies, corporate ventures, targets of social and political activism and modes of individual engagement.

Students enrolled in the MLS major track work at the intersection of these different forces and discourses, examining the many factors, from the biological to the social, economic, political and aesthetic, that influence health and shape our perceptions of physical and psychological wellbeing. Through interdisciplinary work in fields as diverse as neuroscience and comparative literature, they develop their ability to think critically about the reciprocal relationship between health and culture. The major’s unique focus on the cultural and societal dimensions of health and illness promotes an awareness that crosses disciplinary, regional and linguistic divides.

Situated in the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society, the MLS major track is committed to an understanding of health that is global and embedded in the study of diverse cultures and their languages. Students must be able to read fluently in at least one language other than English, and are required to take courses with readings in a foreign language.

Medicine, Literature and Society educates students to participate critically and humanistically in the expanding array of health-related fields and prepares them for careers in medicine and public health as well as for graduate training in academic disciplines such as anthropology, history, sociology and literature. All students take Introduction to Comparative Literature and Society, a seminar that introduces important concepts, discourses and methodologies in the humanities and social sciences, as well as the capstone, student-led Senior Seminar. In conjunction with the major adviser, they choose an area of methodological or disciplinary concentration.  The program also requires a service-learning or outreach course, which can entail anything from volunteering at the Columbia University Medical Center to collaborating with organizations that promote health justice and activism, whether locally or during study abroad.

Requirements for the Medicine, Literature and Society Major Track  (33 points/11 courses)

*Note: this version is the most current version of the major requirements which are pending review at the NYS Department of Education. Please use this as a guide to the MLS requirements, not the 2019-2020 College Bulletin. If you have any questions or concerns, please reach out to the DUS or ICLS administrative office. 

  1. Introduction to Comparative Literature & Society (CPLS 3900): 3 points

This course introduces important methodologies and areas of disciplinary reflection in contemporary comparative literature. It is taken jointly with comparative literature and society majors taken in the spring semester of a student’s sophomore year. In addition to units on narrative, authorship and the history and practice of comparative and world literature it includes units relating to science, health and medicine, race, gender and sexuality that are directly relevant to MLS majors.

  1. 1 course with a CPLS or CL- course identifier: 3-4 points

Students choose from among the wide range of courses sponsored by the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society or cross-listed between ICLS and other departments. These offerings change every semester and are listed on the ICLS website.

  1. 1 courses with readings in a language other than English: 3-4 points

Students may either take a course that is taught wholly or partially in a foreign language or a course taught in English for which they have received approval to do most of the reading in a foreign language.

  1. 3 courses that form the disciplinary/methodological nexus of the student’s interests: 9-12 points

Students will develop an individualized course of study at the nexus of health, society and the humanities in discussion with the DUS (Some example of prior constellations include but are not limited to:  Literature and Medicine; Narrative Medicine; Medical Anthropology; History of Medicine; Comparative Public Health; Disability studies; Neuroscience; Biopolitics; Bioethics.)

  1. 2 required core courses in Medical Humanities: 6 points
  1. 2 classes in the biological or biochemical sciences: 6-8 points

 Students in the MLS major should be versed in contemporary and classical debates and knowledge in the biological sciences.  Students may take any two biology or biochemistry classes that relate to fundamental concepts in human biology.

  1. Senior Seminar in Medicine, Literature and Society: 3 points


  1. Senior Thesis (optional): 3 pts

The senior thesis must be a minimum of 35 pages, double-spaced. It must include footnotes and a bibliography. It should be written in English unless a student receives permission from the Director of Undergraduate Studies to write in another language. It is usually written over the course of a year. In the fall, students formulate a topic and select an adviser from among the regular faculty of Columbia or Barnard. In the spring, they sign up for CPLS, indicating that they are writing a thesis. The completed work must be submitted in bound form to the DUS by April 15 of senior year. The grade for the thesis is assigned by the faculty adviser.

The specific course of study must be approved by the DUS.

 The Heyman Center for the Humanities, Room B-101
74 Morningside Drive
New York, NY, 10027
  (212) 854-4541
  (212) 854-3099