Teaching Health Justice: Centering Reproduction

Heather Brook Adams, University of North Carolina at Greensboro 

Date posted: January 2022

For 4.4, Adams contributed an article that makes a case for a RHM-based course on the subject of reproduction and gender that is curated through a reproductive justice framing as a valuable opportunity to address gendered- and raced-sites of health in/justice. The value of cultivating health-oriented rhetorical agency and advocacy creates a hopefulness for reproductive justice to be used as an activist framework within pedagogical spaces. Adams’ article provides an overview of reproductive justice as an activist framework, details the rhetorical functions of that framework, and follows with a description of course exigency, teaching context, and course design. This article encourages replication or adaptation of such a course within various pedagogical settings. It is through this reproductive justice framework that individual, familial and communal epistemologies can enrich the classroom experience, countering sanctioned narratives of medical authority and the assumed trust that some people and communities hold for health professionals and health practices. By opening up this space for more collaborative exploration, critical and culturally dismissed health experiences can be given new light and students are encouraged to explore avenues for self-sponsored rhetorical activity which fosters hopefulness in RHM.

Topic: health justice, reproductive justice


Online supplemental material for article only. Read below or download here.



Welcome to English 363: Rhetorics of Health. We are working this semester as a cross-disciplinary group focused on issues of language, communication, and health. In this course, we will be guided by questions such as the following:

  • How do language practices—the ways we talk, write, listen, and/or occupy silence (purposefully or not)—play a role in understanding and communicating about our own health and wellness?
  • How do language, gender, and other social factors shape our perspectives on illness, pain, medical interventions, and healing?
  • What expectations and reactions do we have to our bodies and others’ bodies based on notions of gender, health, and ab/normalcy?
  • How do we understand medicine’s history as both based in fact and a reflection of the stories we tell ourselves about our relationship to health, illness, and body management?
  • What are some of the challenges of communicating about health to public audiences or to medical professionals?

Our goal is a simple but very challenging one: to critically consider tendencies—whether tacit or explicit—of talking/ writing/thinking about various bodies and their relationships with health. We will be spending a significant amount of time this semester thinking about these concepts in relation to reproduction.

This version of the course will especially focus on several forms of communication in this realm:


  • documentary film—that is, film that raises awareness
  • interactive narrative—that is, text-based choose-your-own-adventure “games”
  • graphic medicine—that is, health communication in comics form


All three of these forms offer important ways of learning, thinking, and talking about health. Additionally, the course materials will reflect (but not be exclusive to) my research expertise on reproduction, pregnancy, and gender.

Together we will engage with various texts and learn about rhetoric as a lens for considering the issues raised in them. By the end of the term, you will apply your learning to an advocacy-oriented, personal, creative, or more traditional academic project or undergraduate research proposal.

This course is not created with a particular major in mind; all students willing and able to take up these questions, embrace our reading/watching list, and engage in class conversation are welcome. It is okay if you haven’t thought about these ideas before or if you are just curious about an unusual-sounding English class. ENG 363 is designed to be accessible to students who are entirely new to rhetoric, or the study of communication, as well as to students who are curious about how language practices implicate issues of illness, health/wellness, gender, and power. In other words, no prior knowledge or specialty is required.

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Demonstrate understanding of foundational rhetorical concepts by applying these concepts to analysis of various types of writing
  • Articulate key connections between language/rhetoric/communication; bodies/embodied experiences; and concerns and issues of health, wellness, illness, and disease
  • Identify and adapt key insights and perspectives from this course in order to advocate, explain, or invite understanding through writing and speaking. (this SLO incorporates our speaking intensive course focus)

Shared Expectations for the Fall 2020 Semester

There are several principles that I ask we collaboratively uphold this term:

Put people first. Practice patience and empathy with one another (I include myself in this group). There are many things we can control but some things we cannot. Consider our course as an opportunity for social solidarity (by being in conversation) at a moment when most of us are experiencing social isolation in some form or another.

Stay informed. We will keep ourselves educated about the development of the public health situation. We will make informed decisions about our personal, social, and professional lives.

Communicate early and often. Even when we are physically and socially distancing to help stop the spread of the Corona virus, we can remain connected and stay in active communication. Always reach out if you need anything necessary to support your learning and your own well-being.

Remain flexible. This is a moment in our shared experience when we may have to deal with change or unexpected interruption in some form. Let’s be gracious with one another as we remain flexible and supportive of the shared learning and wellbeing of all members of this course.

Celebrate accomplishments. We will support a culture of uplift and celebration in this course. Achievements—major or minor—are a testament to your dedication and perseverance in a very challenging time. Share with me your successes (or failures) and I will acknowledge them as you prefer.

Take care of yourself. This is an unusual semester in that you might need to work especially hard to care for yourself (unless this is already part of your priorities as a student, which would be great). Rest your body and mind, move your body as you are able, eat as well as you can, using the Spartan Open Pantry if/as needed. If you do not feel well, do not force yourself through the coursework. Let me know so we can consider alternatives together.

Additional Expectations/Considerations for Taking This Course

Be open to the topic, format, and expected participant dispositions of this course. This class requires that you think critically about concerns of bodies, health, medicine, illness, gender, race, normalcy (as a construction), and power. Thinking critically means thinking from specific and often unfamiliar perspectives that you temporarily adopt, grapple with, test out, consider in relation to other scholarly perspectives, and reckon with your own lived experiences and truths. Students in this class are expected to do this critical thinking with both generosity and some skepticism—the preferred disposition of a critical thinker in any context. We will be touching on a range of potentially uncomfortable and sensitive topics. These include but are not limited to pain, illness (physical and mental), depression, reproductive injustice, and death. Many of the topics we will engage with in this class are—or are nearly—taboo; that is precisely why a course like this asks us to consider them openly and honestly. Additionally, we will often think through these challenging topics in light of questions of gender, race, and sexuality–other areas that can be sensitive and challenging. In light of these considerations, students in this course should:


  • Be able and prepared to engage with the topics listed above and the course readings and films. In other words, you will not be able to opt out of whole portions of the course, so be sure that you are up for engaging with the course themes and readings.


  • Self-reflect on your ability to engage with these topics intellectually while maintaining healthy boundaries to preserve your emotional wellbeing.


  • Be open to engaging fully while not feeling the need to self-disclose. That is, although your personal experiences may inform your thinking in this class, you will never be expected or required to disclose personal or family information.


  • Value gender, race, and sexuality (among other forms of identity) as significant sites of lived truth and scholarly knowledge-making. Students in the course are NOT expected to have one particular ideology (e.g., feminism). All students should, however, be open to critical engagement with philosophical positions that take seriously epistemologies of gender, race, indigeneity, sexuality, etc. Someone who wholly discounts or dismisses any of these ways of knowing as a valuable category of meaning-making would not be able to effectively take part in this course because they would be willfully rejecting a fundamental aspect of this learning project and learning environment.


  • Bring intellectual curiosity and even a sense of levity and fun to this course, which may challenge the way you think (or haven’t really stopped to think) about your own relationship to health, bodies, wellness, and illness.


  • Show respect to the widely recognized genre of graphic medicine (e.g., comics) as a unique and significant rhetorical response to the lived experiences of humans dealing with illness. Take seriously the authors’ perspectives and the rhetorical form through which they share their stories.

Be prepared to show up (on zoom) and contribute. It is an exceptional time to study rhetoric and health, and I wish to support a learning environment that is both structured (and thus a good use of your time and energy) and unstructured (so that we can really engage with course ideas in a generative and collaborative way, without the fear of “doing” the course “wrong”). As you’ll see below, my approach to grading is meant to allow you to focus on participating in the best way you can and to receive credit for your effort, not your mastery of content.


Expectations You Should Have of Me

I’m prepared to be a responsive professor, working within reasonable professional boundaries. I am present during office hours for your benefit and will make an appointment with you to meet at a different time with enough planning in advance. Drop-ins during office hours are fine, but a heads-up will help me help you avoid wait time. I will do my best to respond to student email within 24 hours during the work week (M-F) and within 48 hours during the weekend.


Activation “Warning” & Commitment to Supporting a “Brave” Classroom Space

College-level readings, particularly in the humanities, often ask us to encounter and explore difficult topics. The special topic of this course relates to particularly sensitive and often personal, if quite valuable, issues. This course asks all of us to explore sites of controversy, divisiveness, and/or misunderstanding in relation to health.

I ask that you engage with this course with an open mind and that you be respectful and supportive of classmates and their viewpoints. Together we are responsible for creating and maintaining a productive learning environment through dialogue and thoughtful engagement. The study of language and rhetoric—among other subjects that ask us to employ empathy, engage in varied perspectives, and value complexity and nuance—demands that we not shy away from true thinking and learning. That is, we may not use shields like “politeness” or “civility” to opt-out of challenging ideas. We all have a responsibility to share, listen, and respond with rigor and respect.

I will strive to support making the class a learning space where we actively and robustly—but without intentional insult or harm—discuss works that address challenging issues; your responsibility is to help make the classroom a brave space where we purposefully explore these themes together. Together we will work through some specific language/dialogue strategies for difficult conversation.


Assigned Work

Zoom Meetings

Attend Thursday Zoom meetings throughout the semester. These are an opportunity to learn through discussion and to participate in the discussion-based SI portion of the course.


Discussion Board Posts & Responses

Post on the week’s discussion board according to the schedule outlined above. That means that each week you will either be posting on Tuesday (an original, getting-us-started post) or on Wednesday (responding to two peers’ posts). See Canvas for more information on how to complete these posts and responses.

Because our focus is on learning together through writing, speaking, and discussion (instead of mastery through memorization, testing, or other forms of evaluative assessment), these online discussions will be the primary way you will demonstrate that you are engaging with assigned course readings/viewings. Simply put, these posts and responses will constitute a major portion of your work in this course—and they will provide a rich basis for our weekly conversation.


Speaking Intensive Assignment #1: Discussion Contributor

One time this semester, you will take a lead in supporting our Zoom conversation by providing some summary (2-3 key points) of discussion board posts and presenting one specific question for discussion. More details to follow.


Speaking Intensive Assignment #2: Self-Care or Health Information Minute

This short presentation (2-4 minutes) asks you to inform your peers about something that you think they should know that relates to health/health communication or that can support self-care during these very trying times! What is a specific recommendation for self-care that you can share with the class? What is a moment in the history of medicine that we should know about? Who is an important figure in health or medicine that you can tell us about? What is a health trend or site of controversy that we should be aware of? What is a piece of graphic medicine (e.g., a comic about medicine) that you find engaging?

Each presentation should be your effort to communicate effectively with your audience with the purpose of informing us of your chosen focus. This approach should include:

  • oral references to at least one credible source of your information (you should interpret what credible means in this situation!)
  • an explanation for why we, as your audience, should care about this information
  • organization (a beginning, a middle, and an end!) and practice (show us that you care about the topic and about our time and attention as your audience)

Feel free to use this presentation to support your research for your final project.


Final Project Task #1: Position and Inquiry Statement

Use this 500-700 word position statement to clarify your own definition of health and/or wellness, to reflect on your relationship to health or health communication, and to express your idea/s for what aspect of rhetoric and health you might like to independently study in this course.


Final Project Task #2: Project Proposal

In this short proposal (of about 300 or so words), you will let me know a topic of health/health communication that you want to explore more fully through a rhetorical/communication lens for your final project.  You will tentatively plan for the intended audience, rhetorical purpose, and form for your final project.


Final Project Task #3: Project Update and Annotated List of Sources

This update paper will allow you to communicate to me how our course readings, viewings, and conversations have re/shaped your thinking about your final project. You will shared a list of sources that you have consulted that relate to your individual project, providing a short note on each source. You will communicate additional research you need to conduct and/or questions you have for me.


Final Project Task #4: Small Group Conversation

Meet with me the last 15 minutes of one class session –likely Week 8, 9, 10, or 11—to talk through your thinking-in-progress related to your final project.


Final Project Task #5: Peer Response Activity

Last week of class. Format TBD.


Final Project Task #6: Final Project Submission

Your final project encourages you to be empowered to use your knowledge (from course-based learning and independent research) for a purpose that is meaningful to you. Your final project should reflect your thinking about health, medicine, illness or a related topic in ways that are resonant with our course (that is, through a rhetorical lens). In other words, you wouldn’t want to write a “typical” paper about the so-called epidemic of obesity in the United States that presents this phenomenon in an uncritical or “objective” manner; instead, you could create any one of the following:

  • An analysis of discourses (or stories) about this “epidemic” that explains the tacit assumptions of this public health phenomenon.
  • A piece of advocacy communication related to the issue that provides reliable and accessible information to some portion of the public. Your artifact could be anything that helps you fulfill your goal of informing some audience about what you have learned—and it could be creative. For instance, it could be a DIY, printable and foldable zine; a suite of social media posts; a video or podcast-style interview or presentation; etc. No matter what form the artifact takes, you will include an overview that explains the rhetorical purpose, the intended audience, your genre choice, etc.
  • A proposal to support (funded) undergraduate research that will extend beyond the course. This is a particularly good option if you wish to apply to graduate school.
  • A researched paper or presentation that addresses issues of power, voice, representation, or communication challenges related to this phenomenon
  • A creative product (rendered in writing, spoken word, and/or visual or graphic form) that enables you to leverage your research toward a specific and meaningful personal goal (to be defined by you).
  • A critical engagement (e.g., applying several rhetorical themes we examined in class) with Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir or another piece of literature, memoir, film, comic, or poetry collection that engages with the issue of obesity through narrative.

I will provide more details as we near this assignment; while this is an open-ended assignment, you will produce the artifact (paper or other composed “thing”) and a summary/reflective statement on your research, your thinking, and your rhetorical choices. Because this assignment is meant to take a form that is empowering to you, I may need create somewhat specific criteria for the final project based on your proposed project.


Working toward a Grade Goal

Given our unusual circumstances and my goals for the class (for you to engage with the work toward self-determined projects and for empowering ends instead of mastery), I am choosing to honor your labor in the class rather than grade by evaluation based on fine distinctions in the quality of your work.

Let me explain what this means. I’ll be giving you feedback on your ideas and writing and speaking, and you will be reflecting on your responses to readings, your thinking, and your (oral and written) communication choices. These are opportunities for learning to take place. Your work will earn a grade based on you having sufficiently completed it instead of my determination of how closely it follows specific criteria of effectiveness. Instead of points and percentages—and as long as you put in a good-faith effort—you will earn full credit for your work in the class.


Why this approach?

I am taking this approach so that you can have more control over your learning in the course. It also is an opportunity to redouble my efforts to be fair to all students, which is a cornerstone of my teaching. This approach focuses on whether you are participating in the course and turning in sufficiently completed work rather than my subjective judgment about the quality of your work (produced during a global pandemic and a time with many unknowns, no less). It is the fairest option that also enables you to make as much of the course as you’d like; remember, I’m here to provide feedback, help you sharpen your thinking, and continue to guide you all through our study of rhetorics of health.

I also care deeply about your learning. When students focus on trying to earn a grade, they are less likely to actually learn in a course. Additionally, evaluation is arguably a practice that primarily ranks students against one another and is a strategy for inducing students to do work. Assessment is not the only method for facilitating the learning environment that I want my courses to support—a space where my feedback helps you do the following: actually learn, care about what you are learning, take risks in thinking (and writing), and orient your learning to your personal, interpersonal/civic, and/or professional goals. This research essay supports these claims that I am making.

Additionally, research shows that students from privileged backgrounds (e.g., white, middle-class students who have traditionally thrived in school) typically receive higher grades than students from minoritized backgrounds. Removing traditional grading schema is a way to foster an environment where everyone thrives and where we can collaborate toward shared learning.


What does this mean for me?

In terms of logistics, this policy means that you can keep track of your work in the course according to the chart below, and that you can work toward the grade you hope to achieve in the course. You should have an easier time, as well, determining your grade in the course is at any given moment this semester.

This approach also means that if you are feeling nervous about the mode of delivery, the course content, your writing or speaking, or the general unknowability of learning in the middle of a pandemic, then you should (I hope) have less anxiety. I trust you as learners and hope you experience a greater ability to take risks through your thinking and writing and to do your best in this course without the fear of “underperforming.” If you do your work, keep up with the course and participate, and try your best, your grade should be evident. I will remain open to answer questions about this grading policy as we move forward in the semester.


What if I have a personal emergency, illness, or situation that interferes significantly with my learning in the course?

There is no way for me to accurately and fairly address hypothetical situations. It is always possible (and often the case) that some students will face a significant interruption to their learning in a given semester. If this happens to you, please be in touch with me to let me know that you are facing an interruption that might negatively affect your performance in the course. From there, we can remain in communication to determine next steps. Note that I will not be able to help you if you disappear from the course and then reappear at the end of the term, hoping to make up work to pass the course.

Also note that I have created a class format and a grading policy that should facilitate a productive learning environment and support students facing a variety of potential contexts and constraints.