From Human Anatomy to Humanness: Jacquie Van Hoomissen | University of Portland

From Human Anatomy to Humanness: Jacquie Van Hoomissen

Biology Professor Jacquie Van Hoomissen studies the beneficial effects of physical activity on brain function, mental health, and well-being. She has published her work in neuroscience and public health journals and the popular press, and she has received national and local grants to support her research as well as her science education and outreach efforts.

Virtual Classroom Reflection, Summer 2020:

From Awaken the Stars, published 2017:

I am fascinated with life. Not the chronological marching of time that defines the beginning and end, but how we, as humans, exist and coexist within the totality of everything else, the intriguing, complex, and sometimes mystifying stuff that just is. You could say I am fascinated by our humanness, by our existence in comparison to all else. What does it mean to be uniquely human? I want to know how we define “humanness” and share that experience with students. Is it possible to complete the definition of what it means to be human by learning all there is to know about how we are put together? If we look deep enough beneath our skin will the answer be there, bounding around our cells and illuminating the inner darkness? I teach Human Anatomy because it is a place to develop our definition of humanness, a discipline in which we puzzle-piece our structures together to understand what it means to be us.

Humanness is both something to know structurally but also something that transcends structure. It is a mystery to discover deep within ourselves. Anatomy is a place to start, a place to figure out what we know about our own physical make-up. It helps form a map of how we are put together, but the map falls drastically short when we try to understand ourselves and what makes us uniquely human. For that we have to dig deeper and go beyond the standard anatomical classification system that simplifies and normalizes every human body into the same alpha- numeric code in an anatomical reference book. Within this text of tight typographical structures, of indentations and font changes, there must be a place for difference, for nuances of design, for uniqueness that is impossible to categorize. In essence, there must be room for humanness.

Through the exploration of a human cadaver, students write their own definition of humanness by engaging in what it means to be us—to ask questions, to ponder options, to explore our own existence. This experience is profoundly challenging. Students experience discomfort, frustration, accomplishment, baby steps forward, backwards steps, long and short lists of terms, gross things—like cadaver fingernails with nail polish. But they also discover the camaraderie gained through a shared, transformational adventure and a deepening sense of purpose. Anatomy lab provides the catalyst. The experience pushes students to see themselves differently and to under-stand that it is impossible to really know every structure of the body, because our knowledge is incomplete. In other words, we are still unsure of what it fully means to be human.

From my side of the chalkboard, I understand the struggle my students go through in class trying to wrap their minds around understanding themselves from a structural perspective. I was once that student, the one asking the questions they now ask of me about our bodies and what it means to be human. I was the panicked student trying to figure out how I could possibly learn every structure on the cadaver, making endless note cards for reference, drawing pathways of blood flow

in my free time, staying up late into the night in the cadaver laboratory, finding classmates who were willing to study with me so I could teach them because I knew by doing this I would learn the material even better. It was darn hard, and I’m sure at some point I shed more than one tear. I persevered long enough, however, until one day the terms were easier to say, the structures no longer seemed randomly organized, organ systems started to come together, and finally the human body began to make sense to me. All the words, the vast array of com-plex terms derived from languages I didn’t speak, added up to a human body, but the body I was looking at on the dissection table wasn’t just a teaching tool, it wasn’t an “it,” he or she was a person…a beautiful, intricate, amazing person who was a mirror to my own design.

How remarkable to be human. How fascinating to see how we are stitched together and in what ways each structure supports another, summing to something greater that we can fully comprehend. How extraordinary to be human and possess the capacity to persevere in the pursuit of knowledge about our own existence. Such self-awareness is unique in the animal kingdom.

I can’t directly lead my students to the same in-sights I had as a student, but I can give them opportunities to write their own definitions within our classroom community. Throughout their study of anatomy students add to their vision and conceptions of their bodies while simultaneously learning more about themselves and their place in the world. These learning opportunities come in fits and starts when their initial conceptions confront reality. As we progress through the semester, students change. Their definition of humanness expands with each new insight. At first they start to recognize reality; cadavers look nothing like the perfect, multi-colored models and charts present in the anatomy lab. Then they start to identify inconsistencies; not all anatomical structures are identically created in different people. Finally, they question what we know; if we understand so much about the anatomy of the brain, why can’t we detail where consciousness comes from? Their questions go deeper than wanting to know which blood vessel carries oxygenated blood to the toes. They start asking who came before our species, what structures are vital to life, what might be the next evolutionary adaptations, how do humans develop from a single cell to a newborn baby, how are we different from our animal relatives, why do some populations suffer from preventable diseases, why do specific anatomical structures take on such social and cultural relevance, why is their sister so ill, is cancer going to take their dad away from them? They ask questions spontaneously, in the quiet moments in lab, while we sit together in a community of learners at a small table covered in lower pelvic floor models or lumbar vertebrae or skull replicas of long-ago extinct hominid species. I answer them the best I can, but always initially with a simple question, “What do you think?” Then I just listen as they pour out their inner thoughts about all things hu-man. What students don’t realize quite yet is that through the act of posing and pondering anatomical questions they write their own definition of humanness.

As a professor, I now teach the same class I once agonized over two decades ago. My students and I spend the semester figuring out how the body is puzzle-pieced together, structure to structure, but our experience goes beyond that. At some point in the semester our Human Anatomy class becomes a new one I call Humanness Studies. I hope my students recognize this transition. I trust they learn more than just names and structures. I want them to see how each of us is knitted together by an unfathomable number of structures we share with one another and with other species…and to understand how truly amazing that is. I want them to know that we’re not just memorizing structures; we are really learning about being human. We are learning about ourselves, and this knowledge cannot be categorized, named, or pointed out on any anatomical chart or model. At the heart of it, I want them to see that humanness is unique and with this distinctiveness comes our capacity to per-severe and change the world around us. Yet it all starts with understanding how the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone.