Complete Story

Workshop 25: Pandemic Rhetorics

Primarily Asynchronous (June 1-4)

rsa logo

Workshop Leaders:

Øyvind Ihlen, University of Oslo:
Sine Nørholm Just, Roskilde University:
Lisa Keränen, University of Colorado-Denver:
Jens Elmelund Kjeldsen, University of Bergen:
Lisa Melonçon, University of South Florida:
Shaunak Sastry, University of Cincinnati: sastrysk@UCMAIL.UC.EDU
J. Blake Scott, University of Central Florida:

Paula Treichler suggested that pandemics can be approached, in part, as pandemics of meanings, leading her to call for what she famously termed an “epidemiology of signification,” or “comprehensive mapping and analysis of these multiple meanings” (How to Have Theory in an Epidemic, 39). More recently, Priscilla Wald observed the “appeal and persistence” of outbreak narratives, noting their influence in “how both scientists and the lay public understand the nature and consequences of the infection, how they imagine the threat, and why they react so fearfully to some disease outbreaks and not others” (Contagious, 3). Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is confronting us with a bewildering array of meanings, rhetorical conditions, and challenges for publics and for political, social, and economic institutions. As we continue to live and work through the ongoing pandemic, rhetoricians are well-positioned to contribute to the mapping and analysis of pandemic-related rhetorics, the processes that produce them, and their array of enactments, communities, functions, and effects. We also are (or can be) variously positioned to work with others to develop more effective and ethical rhetorics and to ameliorate harmful ones. If, as Wald suggests, the “interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community” (3), then contagion compels reconfigured relations of immunity and belonging.

This workshop will explore the roles and responsibilities we as rhetoricians (of various stripes) may take on in relation to communicative responses to pandemics, informed by the vibrant and growing body of rhetorical research about them. This body of work has 1) included a range of rhetorically inflected scholarship that is cross-historical, cross-cultural, transnational, and multi-methodological; 2) emerged from various parts of rhetorical, communication, and composition studies writ large (e.g., biocriticism, risk and crisis communication, studies of outbreak narratives, community-based health communication); and 3) explored the rhetorical contours of smallpox, typhoid fever, HIV/AIDS, SARS, H1N1, Ebola, Zika, COVID-19, and other pandemics, epidemics, outbreaks, and scares.

Our time together will focus on the following: 1) discussions of and exercises around shared readings (chosen for topical and methodological contributions); 2) workshopping of participants’ projects, and; 3) collective planning opportunities for collaboratively advancing our work (e.g., reading and writing groups). Participants will be invited to plan and submit their work (individually or collaboratively) to a designated 2023 special issue of the journal Rhetoric of Health & Medicine.

Possible foci of discussions will include applications and adaptations of cross-historical rhetorical studies of pandemics, emergent opportunities and challenges around studying pandemics-in-process, methodological considerations for rhetorically studying pandemics across changing media landscapes, applications of pandemic rhetoric scholarship for other types of work and topics, and collaboration with other researchers and stakeholders in our rhetorical work on pandemics. Key questions will include, but are not limited to: How do citizens navigate rhetorically in such difficult times? How do public health institutions negotiate trustworthiness? How is uncertainty treated rhetorically? How do politicians demonstrate rhetorical leadership during key moments of pandemic? What rhetoric is used to garner support for political decisions and measures? What rhetoric dominates in legacy media? How are imagined immunities and contagious Others configured and mobilized for political aims? How and with what effect are social media users discussing the pandemic? How is COVID-19 (or other pandemic) rhetoric different in different countries? How does the rhetoric of nationalism and/or populism influence the perspectives in the public debate? How does the health crisis impact particularly vulnerable and/or precarious groups, and how do the needs of such groups figure in the public debate about the pandemic? What does the pandemic look like from a post-colonial perspective? How does the COVID-19 rhetoric compare to rhetoric of SARS, Ebola or other preceding pandemics?

Because this workshop invites participants to adapt or develop rhetorical approaches in their own scholarly projects on pandemics, we will be asking accepted participants to submit twenty- to twenty five pages of writing (which could be at various stages, including notes/outlines and working drafts) to members of a small working group approximately one month in advance of the workshop. Applications should briefly detail your interests in this workshop’s topic and the (planned) focus of your project; projects need not be focused specifically on pandemics, but should be able to benefit from rhetorical work on this topic. Participants will leave the workshop with concrete feedback about their works in progress, an expanded “toolkit” for their projects, and possibilities for ongoing and future collaborations.

Dr. Oyvind IhlenDr. Øyvind Ihlen is professor at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo and co-director of POLKOM—Centre for the Study of Political Communication. He is leading the four-year research project called “Pandemic rhetoric: Risk communication in a changing media landscape,” financed by the Research Council of Norway. Ihlen has over 130 publications, including Public Relations and Social Theory: Key Figures and Concepts (2009, 2nd expanded edition 2018), the award-winning edited Handbook of Communication and Corporate Social Responsibility (2011), and Handbook of Organizational Rhetoric (2018). Ihlen was President of the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (EUPRERA) 2016–2017, and still runs the annual PhD seminar of the association. He has won several awards and had guest stays at various universities, including Purdue, University of Southern California, Waikato, Wollongong, Stirling, and Bordeaux Montaigne. His work has been translated into Chinese, German, French, and Portuguese.

Sine N. Just Sine N. Just is a professor of strategic communication at the Department of Communication and Arts, Roskilde University. Sine has an interdisciplinary background in rhetoric and organization studies. She defines strategic communication as processes of strategizing and seeks to conceptualize these processes as the interrelation of organizational assemblages, technological affordances, and human agencies. She is linking this definition with some of her other projects on the dynamics of legitimacy and identity in the context of public meaning formation. Using this broad lens, she has studied a variety of empirical phenomena, including the public debate about the future of the European Union, the communicative dimensions of the financial crisis, and organizational negotiations of diversity and difference. Sine is the work package leader on organization studies within the project on Pandemic Rhetoric. Further, she is the principal investigator of a project on alternative economic organizing, AlterEcos.

Lisa Kernen Lisa Keränen is associate professor and Chair of the University of Colorado Denver Department of Communication and is a past president of the Association for the Rhetoric of Science, Technology, and Medicine (ARSTM). Her writings on biosecurity and resilience, bioterrorism, viral apocalypse, and avian influenza, appear in places such Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Western Journal of Communication, and edited scholarly volumes. Her first book, Scientific Characters: Rhetoric, Politics, and Trust in Breast Cancer Research, received the 2011 Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award from the Public Address Division of the National Communication Association (NCA).

Her most recent book is the co-edited Imagining China: Rhetorics of Nationalism in an Age of Globalization, which contains her collaborative work on influenza A (H7N9) discourses in China. Keränen’s research has also received the Karl R. Wallace Memorial Research Award from the NCA and, most recently, with her co-authors, the 2019 Xiaosui Xiao Award for Outstanding Rhetorical Study from the Association for Chinese Communication Studies (ACCS).

Jens E. Kjeldsen Jens E. Kjeldsen is Professor of Rhetoric and Visual Communication at University of Bergen, Norway. He has written extensively about theory and methods of rhetoric, especially within the fields of visual and multimodal communication and argumentation, speechmaking, speechwriting and rhetorical audience studies.

Kjeldsen is immediate past president of the Rhetoric Society of Europe and co-founder and long-time chief editor of the research journal Rhetorica Scandinavica. Among his publications are Rhetorical Audience Studies and Reception of Rhetoric (ed. Palgrave, 2018), “Visual rhetorical argumentation” Semiotica, 220, 2018, 69-94. “Symbolic condensation and thick representation in visual and multimodal communication (Argumentation and advocacy, 2016, 52), and Speechwriting. Theory and Practice of Writing Speeches for Others (Palgrave, 2019, with Amos Kiewe, Marie Lund, and Jette Barnholdt Hansen). Kjeldsen has worked as professor of Rhetoric at Södertörn University, Sweden, and been a visiting scholar at University of Berkeley, California, and a visiting professor at Northwestern University.

Lisa Melonon Lisa Melonçon is Professor of Technical Communication at the University of South Florida. She is founding co-editor, with Blake Scott, of the journal Rhetoric of Health & Medicine, which won the 2019 CELJ Best New Journal award. Melonçon specializes in rhetoric of health and medicine, disability studies, programmatic issues in technical and professional communication. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and book chapters. She is editor of Rhetorical Accessibility: At the Intersection of Technical Communication and Disability Studies (2013); co-editor (with Blake Scott) of Methodologies for the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine (2018); co-editor (with Scott Graham, Jenell Johnson, John Lynch, and Cynthia Ryan) of Rhetoric of Health & Medicine As/Is: Theories and Approaches for the Field (2020).

Melonçon’s current work is a book project that merges her interest in technical communication and the rhetoric of health and medicine, Technical Communication and Health Experience Design, to build a new understanding of rhetorical contexts with an emphasis on material places and time. She is also the founder of the biennial Rhetoric of Health and Medicine Symposium.

Dr. Shaunak SastryDr. Shaunak Sastry, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Cincinnati and Affiliate Faculty, Center for Culture-centered Research and Evaluation (CARE) at Massey University, New Zealand. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of health and culture, globalization and health, and the cultural politics of infectious diseases. His work combines ethnographic and field-based methods with critical analysis of public discourses of health. He has published on HIV/AIDS in India, the politics of global HIV/AIDS interventions, and on the 2014 Ebola epidemic.

His work has been published in leading international peer-reviewed journals like Health Communication, Communication Theory, Journal of Health Communication, Culture, Health & Sexuality, Frontiers in Communication, and Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, in addition to several book chapters and more than 30 paper presentations at national and international conferences. He is an incumbent senior editor of the journal Health Communication, and sits on the editorial boards of several other academic journals. He is currently working on a digital ethnography of China’s early response to CoVID-19, and a book manuscript on the politics of mask-wearing in infectious disease outbreaks.

 Blake Scott J. Blake Scott is Professor of Writing & Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida. He is founding co-editor, with Lisa Melonçon, of the journal Rhetoric of Health & Medicine, which won the 2019 CELJ Best New Journal award. Scott co-led previous RSA workshops on Medicine and Its Publics (with Lisa Keränen) and Theory Building in the Rhetoric of Health & Medicine (with Jeff Bennett and Jenell Johnson).

Scott’s rhetorical-cultural research related to pandemics has focused on HIV/AIDS, and specifically HIV testing and prevention. His book on this topic, Risky Rhetoric, won the 2017 NCA Health Communication Division Distinguished Book Award. His current work includes a funded study to develop training materials to address provider-enacted HIV stigma, and a book project on risk conflicts around pharmaceuticals, the latter of which includes some analysis of the current COVID-19 pandemic. He has also worked on transnational health rhetorics and cross-historical responses to pandemics.

Printer-Friendly Version