PWR 91SP: Doctors' Stories: The Rhetoric of Illness and Healing

PWR 1, PWR 2

Course Description

While medicine is a science that relies on meticulous research and professional protocols, it is also full of characters, conflicts, scenes, dialogues, and resolutions; in other words, stories. This course investigates the ways stories serve medical doctors and patients alike through a number of rhetorical questions: How are we persuaded that a medical intervention is valuable, even when it’s experimental or elective? What is a case history and how does it inform diagnosis? How does expert research transition from lab bench to hospital bedside? Why does culturally responsive care matter? And how do we make meaning of illness? Visiting experts will share their stories to help us answer these questions: patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and their advocates; hospitalists who serve Hmong immigrants; MD administrators who teach empathy and bedside manner; and researchers who collaborate internationally to innovate medical technology. Foundational readings in ethical science communication as well as work by Arthur Kleinman, Rita Charon, and Atul Gawande will provide us with tools to critically assess medical discourse.  
Throughout the course, we will consider why we must value communication in medicine and how narratives both enlarge and limit that communication; in other words, we will cultivate our narrative awareness. In pursuing independent research on a topic of your choice in the health sciences, you will practice writing a number of health science communication genres: the story pitch, the news story, and the profile. Your final project will be a publishable, research-based digital narrative coached by the experts of the Stanford Storytelling Project and vetted by an editor or science writer from The Stanford Medicine News Magazine.

Major Assignments

News Story (15%)
Write an 800-word news story that translates a recent research article of your choice for a public audience. Talk with the authors of the article or a respondent to the research in order to produce your story.
Profile (20%)
Profile a scientist, clinician, or patient of your choice in a 1,000-word narrative. An interview of the subject is required. Your profile must argue their newsworthiness and will draw on other contextual research to help you construct an authoritative, compelling story.
Feature Length Story (50%)
Your feature length story will build on the learning of your news story and/or profile. In a 2,500-word narrative, tell the story of a research or clinical controversy. You may choose to highlight the perspective of the hospital, the insurance company, the patient/family, or the doctor. Because this is a digital magazine story, you may incorporate photographs, graphics, or even video. Think about how the affordances of the platform might help you tell your story in compelling ways and reach new audiences.
Reader Responses and Reflections (15%)
You will post reading discussions on Canvas to set up our in-class discussions. Throughout the course, you will also be reflecting on your research and storytelling. What does a narrative help you say about your research? What is lost? How does story serve doctors and patients? Does it ever do a disservice?

Meet the Instructor(s)

Sarah Pittock

Advanced Lecturer

Areas of specialization: humanities and education

Genre expertise: research statements, personal statements, abstracts, honors theses and dissertations

Enjoys coaching invention, argument, style

Sarah Peterson Pittock is an Advanced Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. She earned a BA in English and French Literatures, with Honors in Humanities, from Stanford University and a PhD in Literature from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her PhD dissertation investigated the ways eighteenth-century British women became literary critics and scholars without access to higher education. Through salon conversation and letter writing, the Bluestockings, as learned women were then known, built reputations as public intellectuals. Their strategies — conversation, collaboration, and community — are at the heart of Dr. Pittock’s research and work as a teacher and writing program administrator. From 2013-2018, she served as Associate Director of the Hume Center, supporting a writing-enriched curriculum through tutor education, writing workshops, graduate writing and speaking programming, and writing pedagogy consultations. Currently, she directs Bing Honors College and coordinates Writing in the Major.

Her PWR1 courses include Growing Up Global: The Rhetoric of Children's Culture Today and Education as Self-Fashioning: College and the Good Life. She also teaches two PWR2 courses, Other Selves: The Art & Science of Friendship and Hope, Health, and Healing: The Rhetoric of Medicine.

Her work has been published in Women's Writing, the WAC Journal, and edited collections. New work is forthcoming in Writing Center Journal. Current projects include a study of the representation of Enlightenment women as “modern Aspasias,” in reference to Socrates's legendary rhetoric consultant.