The Rhetoric of Health and Medicine

Course Description

The medical field is uniquely positioned to communicate science—to current patients who need to understand their healthcare options, through journalism’s coverage of the latest breakthroughs in treatment, and via public and preventative health measures. As advances in medical technology begin to blur into science fiction with breakthroughs like CRISPR, medical researchers and journalists need to be all the more attentive to their communication strategies. At the same time, in the midst of debates about Obamacare and Trumpcare, America is facing urgent questions about who has access to even the most basic forms of healthcare. These debates motivate an attention to how issues of gender and social and racial justice are important both in our present moment and in the history of the medical and research fields—from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment to the case of Henrietta Lacks.

 

This course will aim to give students a foundation in the rhetoric of health and medicine across major stakeholders—researchers, government, institutions, doctors, patients, journalists, and a general public obsessed with health and wellness. For example, we will analyze key theories about the relation of institutions, doctors, and patients, from Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic to Rita Charon’s Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. We will also investigate how patients make sense of their illnesses through art and memoirs, how doctors are trained in an empathetic “bedside manner,” and the rhetoric of medical “breakthroughs.” From this foundation, students will choose an issue to tackle in their own research projects, from the politicization of Planned Parenthood and women’s healthcare, to the experience of trans patients seeking care, to the rhetoric of “access” vs. “coverage” in current debates about health insurance.

Main Assignments

  • Reading Reflections: In the first weeks of the course, students will respond to the readings with an eye to potential research questions they might pursue: What’s most interesting about the week’s reading? What questions does it raise for you? We’ll gather these reflections together as a class blog. (One reflection per week.)
  • Issue Diagram: As they develop their projects, students will design a visualization of the issues or stakeholders involved in their research question. What are the perspectives and motivations of medical institutions, insurance companies, politicians, patients, the general public, etc.?
  • Research Project in Chosen Genre/Mode: In this assignment, students build on the work they have done in PWR1 and 2 by choosing for themselves the best genre and mode in which to convey their research. This might be a traditional academic essay imagined for a particular journal or research community, a multimodal “long form” journalistic essay incorporating video and text, a hybrid of personal memoir and argument, a presentation intended to inform either a general audience or a particular set of stakeholders in an issue (whether medical professionals or politicians), etc.