2018 Forum Highlights

Welcome to the website from our Fall 2018 Forum, Humanities Approaches to the Opioid Crisis. Click above to see highlights; the menu on the top left provides access to complete videos of each panel.

Our annual BU Center for the Humanities Fall Forums are designed as “open air markets” in the classical sense, that further the free exchange of ideas among scholars in humanities and other academic fields with professionals and practitioners from private and public institutions across the city, the country, and the world, by bringing them together to discuss social problems and their prospective solutions. Our subject in 2017 was “Libraries and Archives in the Digital Age”; our 2018 forum treated “Humanities Approaches to the Opioid Crisis,” and our topic in 2019 will be “The State of the Academy.”

Our collaboration this year with BU’s School of Public Health yielded a range of participants from area schools of public health and medicine, and from the city, state, and federal government to reflect upon the problem of Opioid Addiction and the social crisis it has generated. The Forum demonstrated the ways in which humanities fields provide a language that builds bridges across disciplinary boundaries while also foregrounding the role of language in the many aspects of treatment and policy, from the obvious social stigma associated with addiction, to the much harder-to-define subjective experience.

The Forum’s three panels — Friday evening, October 12th, “The Public Face of the Crisis”; Saturday morning October 13th, “The Crisis, Its Internal Language”; and Saturday afternoon, October 13th, “The Crisis, Its History and Culture” — identified three areas of particular significance: how society comes to define a “social crisis”; the different meanings and various uses of narratives in representing ‘the crisis’; and the underlying social and political circumstances.

Sandro Galea, Dean of the School of Public Health, observed that one of the most important questions to be raised about our current “Opioid Crisis” is how it came to be classified as such. Columbia historian, Samuel Kelton-Roberts noted how our society tends to tolerate high rates of drug addiction, violence, and even death when it is confined to disadvantaged communities, a sentiment echoed by John E. Rosenthal, founder of “The Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative.”

Eoin Cannon, Chief Speechwriter, City of Boston, discussed how addiction narratives can be appropriated and misappropriated, and emphasized that the term ‘narrative’ has different meanings in the various spheres dedicated to addressing the Opioid Crisis, a point Amy Appleford, Professor of English, developed in her remarks and I pursued as well in my paper on David Foster Wallace and Breaking Bad.

Paul Summergrad, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Tufts, offered a stirring account of the “savagery” of our contemporary culture, responding implicitly to Michael Botticelli, Director of the Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine, who highlighted the social breakdown that has contributed to “the crisis.” Perhaps the most poignant moment of the Forum occurred when Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, described one of the inadvertent consequences of the Opioid Crisis: that for the first time, we do not have a lack of organs for donation.

We hope that you will review these highlights from Humanities Approaches to the Opioid Crisis and that they will inspire you to watch all the Forum presentations.


Susan Mizruchi, Director, Boston University Center for the Humanities
William Arrowsmith Professor in the Humanities