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  • Writer's pictureAimy Ayo

Innovative Teaching Practices: Book Club

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

“In The Knife Man, Wendy Moore unveils John Hunter’s murky and macabre world—a world characterized by public hangings, secret expeditions to dank churchyards, and gruesome human dissections in pungent attic rooms. This is a fascinating portrait of a remarkable pioneer and his determined struggle to haul surgery out of the realms of meaningless superstitious ritual and into the dawn of modern medicine” - Amazon synopsis of The Knife Man, written by Wendy Moore.

The Knife Man is the perfect addition to ANA400 – Human Dissection; an advanced undergraduate course offered to exceptional students in the Division of Anatomy at the University of Toronto. Accepted students are afforded the rare opportunity to learn human anatomy through a series of focused regional dissections. In addition to traditional anatomical content, some grim procedures that transcend medical history are explored during weekly book club tutorial sessions - some of which include grave robbing, coercion of consent, plagiarism, and general immoral behaviour.

Walking into the book club, one is greeted by the elevated voices of the dynamic students separated into small groups. Each group has an ongoing dialogue about the prompting questions they would have completed before attending class; meanwhile, Dr. Bentley can be seen circulating from group to group, listening in on the students and sharing her thoughts. The students are encouraged to share their points of view, which often spark polite, but lively, debates. Eventually, the small group discussions progress to a whole-class discussion, where themes continue to be explored among the entire group of 20 students.


Pictured: Students in Dr. Bentley's ANA400 class (Anatomy Dissection) discussing in their small groups.


However, the class wasn’t always set up this way: “When I initially re-designed the book club element of ANA400 for the January semester of 2018, I had quite a different format than I do today. Most notably, the entire class used to speak about the assigned reading as a large group without any prompting questions. Imagine the group arranged in one big circle. I quickly realized I was not happy with this design. The interactions felt forced, there was a lack of genuine discourse, and the energetic dialogue I had hoped for was missing,” explained Dr. Bentley. She goes on to share that this large-group format also resulted in the overrepresentation of confident speakers’ voices.

After turning to the literature on best practices for small group engagement, Dr. Bentley found activities such as ‘round-a-bout discussions’, ‘hat full of quotes’, and ‘snowball answers’, all of which have been welcome additions to the book club structure. Excitingly, when she decided to redesign the book club tutorial sessions with a small-group format she noticed a dramatic difference in the students’ comfort levels. Thanks to the supportive and collaborative environment smaller groups fostered, it became easier for the students to form personal connections between themselves. In addition, the small groups facilitate deeper conversations between students as it allows them more time to become comfortable and express their thoughts and ideas.

Overall, current ANA400 students have positive appraisals of the book club element of the course: “I love book club because it's a slight break from dense heavy anatomical material, and it offers a lot of different perspectives! We were talking about eponyms and despite learning about all the different anatomical terms, I never knew about their history (albeit controversial at times), and how often eponyms are used. It really gives us a chance into looking at anatomy as more than just memorizing and naming, and makes it more of a wholistic approach,” shared Michelle Sue, a third-year physiology and global health student enrolled in ANA400 for the Winter 2023 semester.


Weekly book club chapters have been carefully selected so that discussion topics complement weekly regions of dissections. Peter McLean, a fourth-year English student enrolled in ANA400 for the Winter 2023 semester, expressed that he is pleased to be exposed to a wide range of topics and ideas related to the history of medicine that are still related to the course: “I enjoy the historical perspective our book club provides. It has caused me to consider how the study of anatomy has changed in the last 300 years, and also how it has remained the same in some ways… One example of a change I am glad of, is that our donors will their bodies to the university and we aren't required to procure cadavers on our own. But as our book has mentioned, one of the causes of this is the attitude of the public to dissections. […] we can be thankful that people willingly donate their bodies to deepen our study of anatomy,” he explained.

In addition to focused group discussions, the ANA400 book club also invites guest speakers to add context to the subject matter and enrich discourse. Recent guest speaker topics have included current procedures for body donation (with the University of Toronto Willed Body Donation coordinator), preparation of the famous Grant’s Museum collection (with the Division of Anatomy’s Lab Manager), and the use of eponyms in anatomical research (with a previous ANA400 student and graduate student researcher). These speakers are a valuable resource for answering students’ questions, as they have specialized knowledge and can elaborate on certain aspects of the book. Callie Silverton, a fourth-year neurology and pharmacology student enrolled in ANA400, expressed her thoughts about the University of Toronto Willed Body Donation guest speaker: “I really valued learning about how the body donor program works. I think it’s important to know the process, so we understand the magnitude of what we are given the privilege of doing in ANA400.”

I had the pleasure of being invited to participate in one of the book club sessions this Winter 2023 semester. I came ready; I borrowed a copy of the book, and read the chapter that would be discussed that day, covering body snatching and consent. Thanks to Dr. Bentley having sent me a copy of the associated questions and themes, I was able to prepare my answers for the book club session. One of the prompting questions asked if I was surprised to learn about this dark past of anatomy. My emotions were running high from having just finished reading the chapter I enjoyed, so I was excited to write down my honest responses and to be participating in the book club session prepared with what I had to say. Still, on the day of, I woke up feeling apprehensive about entering an unfamiliar setting. My nerves were soothed by the inviting and relaxed atmosphere of the classroom. I was assigned a group to sit with, and we interacted with and built upon each other’s ideas. We talked about consent to become an organ and tissue donor. I was happy to share my thoughts on the chapter of the book, which I thought was a very interesting read. I personally do not have any anatomy background, but I found that Wendy Moore wrote a captivating book on the history of anatomical and surgical teaching that I was able to critically engage with. As a life science student, most of my previous courses used traditional lectures and wet-labs for delivery of course content. It was a positive experience for me to engage with Dr. Bentley and peers in this unique setting, which had a refreshing sense of comradery.

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