by Barbara Heiffron
I’m going to take you on a 20-year hike through the history of medical rhetoric as part of technical writing, done at warp speed, or if you’d rather, ON speed. As far as I know, medical rhetoric itself started with three (3) people in rhetoric: Chuck Anderson at UALR, Judy Segal at UBC in Vancouver, and me at U of A as a graduate student. Over the years, Chuck veered over into the Literature side of the house, replacing Rita Charon, some years ago, as the editor of Literature and Medicine—a title he still holds today. He does publish medical rhetoric pieces there as well. Judy Segal has, as far as I know, stayed in medical rhetoric as a rhetorical field without crossing over to technical communication, and she keeps medical rhetoric alive in Canada as well as the U.S.
As for me, I had opportunities at Clemson University, my first academic job, to be part of a Professional Communication center named the Pearce Center, work with an on-site medical clinic, and to regularly teach technical communication and scientific writing, as well as rhetoric, professional communication and empirical research. I’ve also been able to keep ties in rhetoric of science and medicine as well as composition. I do think it’s possible to do some of it all and I was the greedy one who loved it all!
The first step in this process toward a sub-field of medical rhetoric was a Special Emphasis Group in Medical Rhetoric (SIG) at CCCC, about 20 years ago, which I started as a graduate student. It was inspired by the Disability Studies SIG headed then by Brenda Jo Brueggemann, who not only initiated a SIG for the purposes of engendering a field, but also to do activist work within the conference to move CCCC forward in insuring open access and accommodations for those who are differently abled. She inspired the founding of the Medical Rhetoric SIG, and we promised to share members as we foresaw a number of them wanting to attend both groups. Unfortunately, our SIGS were always scheduled in the same slot, in spite of multiple protests sent to the C’s Executive Committees.
It often seems to me that as CCCC is inundated with larger and larger #s of proposals, it’s become somewhat more difficult for medical rhetoric papers and panels to get in, not out of any evil conspiracies, of course, but due simply to their goal of having a place at the table for every area. We could only be a small part of it, but they have also always given us a place for the Med Rhet SIG, which has been an important space within which to network with each other and bring more people into the field. We have been grateful to have that support of both groups over these many years.
At the same time, ATTW, meeting right before C’s and CPTSC, as well as other organizations, have been the open arms and willing spaces for us, and in many ways, given the continued development of Western bio-medicine’s ever more technical and scientific endeavors, that historical move made sense.
My own roots in technical communication and marrying it with all things medical grew as a result of the nine (9) years I spent at Clemson, which provided many classes in which I could work on project-based activities with my students. Through service learning opportunities, sometimes called client work, I was able to stay engaged in the technical and professional communication fields. From the beginning there I was able to teach beginning and advanced technical writing classes for undergraduates, as well as technical and professional communication classes for graduate students. We partnered repeatedly with the nurse-led clinic that was independent of university funding and kept itself afloat as a non-profit through contracts, which gave my students opportunities to do real work providing communication products. These activities included such projects as designing websites for impoverished rural South Carolina health and senior organizations, partnering with the USDA on grants to develop better local food stamp PSAs and print materials, designing nutritional programs for state highway workers, and developing bilingual materials for health intake stations around the state for Spanish-speaking farm workers, etc. Looking back, these projects were indeed the most fun I’ve had in Academia, as well as being most able to help others with real deliverables.
We’ve seen medical rhetoric’s connection to technical and rhetoric programs grow all around the country. We’ve also seen more and more texts published not only in technical communication journals, but also in partnership with health communication in Communication Studies, a field with a much longer history; in addition, there have been partnerships with linguistics. Our first medical rhetoric anthology, edited by Stuart Brown and I, was published in the series that Gary Kreps, in health communication, edits. Those of us coming along 40 years after the brutal J.L. Austin debate that split communication studies off from rhetoric or vice versa wanted to mend fences, and that has continued to happen. We found and find ourselves sitting down with other fields who share our interests.
Our institutional settings do make a difference and we, like the chameleon, as long as we keep open and willing to work with others and change and morph as needed, can continue this ability to work well and fit in where we are.