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Medical Rhetoric: Ethical Issues, Archival Concepts, and Imaginative Writing

Leaders: Susan Wells, Temple University; Ellen Barton, Wayne State University

  Medical Rhetoric: Ethical Issues, Archival Concepts, and Imaginative Writing

Susan Wells (Temple University)
Ellen Barton (Wayne State University)

Medical Rhetoric is a growing field of research within both the rhetoric of science and composition studies; our medical rhetoric workshop at the 2007 RSA Institute enrolled over 25 participants.  This interest is well-founded: studies of medical discourse raise central issues of scientific authority, public accountability, and rhetorical ethics.  The doctor-patient interview, a very well-studied institutional interaction, is a fascinating transaction: the patient is articulated into the structures of scientific medicine, and negotiates for a favorable diagnosis and a manageable care plan.  Scholars of medical writing have investigated the practices of the narrative medicine movement, which encourages creative writing by both caregivers and patients, or the traditional medical genres of the case study, the clinical study, and the experimental report.  And historical studies in medical discourse have told us about the development of professions and scientific disciplines.  Composition/rhetoric is uniquely suited to make important interdisciplinary contributions to this field because it views medical communication, both oral and written, as rhetorical, with all parties working with and toward persuasion-a rare perspective in the current research literature in medicine. 

We propose a workshop that will introduce scholars to the basic tools and methods of this field.  Sessions in the workshop will consider such issues as organizing field work, archival work, theories of medical discourse, qualitative studies, interviews, and methods of reading and analyzing medical texts.  We will prepare bibliographies on each of these topics, and suggest compact pre-workshop readings; time in the workshops will be spent working on sample texts and interviews, considering the strengths and weaknesses of various theoretical approaches, and developing research strategies for topics of interest to participants.  Workshop members with work in progress are welcome to present their work for discussion and feedback; workshop members considering work in this area will have a chance to try various approaches, learn about available resources, and consider alternative ways of organizing their research.

The workshop leaders practice two distinct approaches to the study of medical texts.  Ellen Barton is currently working on medical ethics as both rhetorical and interactional. Investigating ethically-charged communicative events in medicine, such as end-of-life discussions and offers to participate in medical research, she argues that the field of composition/rhetoric can make important contributions to the understanding of ethical concepts, such as surrogate decision-making and undue influence, by analyzing the language of ethics as it is made persuasive in interaction.  She is particularly interested in the way that families as well as clinicians index their ethical frameworks for decision-making.

Susan Wells has done archival work on women physicians and is currently engaged in a study of the writing of Our Bodies, Ourselves; her approach is broadly Habermasian. Her last book, Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine (Wisconsin, 2001), was awarded the Winterowd Prize.

For inquiries, contact Susan Wells:

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