Erin A. Frost

Erin A. Frost

Assistant Professor
East Carolina


In general, my work critiques contemporary instances of sex- and gender-based injustice in medical technical rhetorics with the goal of moving toward social transformation. As a technical communication scholar, I have found that many people consider technical communication to be “neutral” or “objective,” particularly when that communication is associated with health and/or medicine. As a result, I am very interested in questioning what precisely causes a person to believe a piece of communication is objective. Further, I am invested in disrupting these notions of objectivity. In service of this goal, I have developed a theory of apparent feminism. Apparent feminism works from three interrelated angles: 1) It responds to the need for feminist activism by encouraging feminists to make their affiliation explicit, especially in venues that some claim are objective or “post-feminist”; 2) It emphasizes the benefits of working with allies who do not claim feminist identity but nevertheless do work that complements feminist projects; and 3) It critiques rhetorics of efficiency, a term often used to justify communication that marginalizes some audiences—often women and people of color. Above all, apparent feminists are interested in promoting social justice.

In applying apparent feminism in my research, I often respond to exigent circumstances. Some current exigencies include the passage of laws that require pregnant people to undergo ultrasound prior to abortion in a number of states. One of those states, Texas, has also recently been in the national spotlight for its misogynistic silencing of Senator Wendy Davis as she attempted to filibuster a restrictive abortion bill. And, finally, my home state of North Carolina recently added legislation about abortion to a motorcycle safety bill in an attempt to pass it without discussion. I am in the very early stages of writing an article that will analyze this constellation of political actions and related rhetorics about women’s bodies and public health.

I have found, as well, that disaster communication tends to sponsor an urgency to uncritically accept rhetorics of efficiency; as such, it is especially important to apply apparent feminist critiques in disaster scenarios. To that end, one of my current research projects—tentatively titled “The Inefficiencies of Health: An Apparent Feminist Look at Constructions of Risk and the Deepwater Horizon Disaster”—will analyze rhetorics surrounding health services for those affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. (This project will draw on a research trip to the Gulf Coast as well as an already-published article: “Transcultural Risk Communication on Dauphin Island: An Analysis of Ironically Located Responses to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster.”) More specifically, I will be examining the availability of healthcare for pregnant women in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster as well as the ways that women access(ed) and talk(ed) about that healthcare.

key words to describe work

feminisms, public health, efficiency, risk, visual rhetorics, cultural rhetorics

work in relation to symposium keywords

The terms dissemination and theory resonate the most with me.

Because my work often crosses cultural boundaries and/or focuses on spaces where such boundary-crossing occurs, tracking the dissemination and spread of medical rhetorics is vital to my research. I chose theory because it is very important to me to consider multiple and sometimes contradictory theories (and methods) when exploring different approaches to controversial situations. Theory—which is, of course, inextricable from practice—can help us to navigate transcultural borders responsibly.

Participation Questions

  • How do you explain/define what you do to medical personnel and/or other stakeholders in the research process or to the public?

I often describe myself as a healthcare communication researcher who engages in social critique. If it is necessary to explain what I do in a very short time frame, I articulate my work as focusing on the efficiency of healthcare communication. When I give example of what I do, I talk about medical legislation and its effects on day-to-day lives. However, I should also say that my opportunities to have meaningful conversations with non-academics about my work have been somewhat limited. I’m very interested in discussing how to create more opportunities for this kind of conversation.

  • How would you describe the relationship between medical rhetoric/health communication (however you see yourself) with other fields and sub-fields (e.g., rhetoric of science)?  For example, we struggled with what to name the symposium.  Some suggested medical rhetoric, but that doesn’t comfortably fit some from Communication nor from English Studies.  In other words, how do you align what may be a specific focus with broader disciplinary concerns and tensions?

I started to answer this question in the section above before reading this list, so this is obviously something that matters to me! I think the relationship between medical rhetoric and health communication is far more complex than I often acknowledge in my day-to-day thinking. Personally, I often use these terms interchangeably. Sometimes I choose one over the other depending on my audience; for example, I recently used “medical rhetoric” when applying for a university grant because of my sense that it is a more respected term in that context. However, I also find “health communication” to be more reflective of what I actually do as well as more in sync with feminist work on the body and politics. Another way of answering this question might be to suggest that “health communication” is a broader term, while “medical rhetoric” is a term associated specifically with the recognized medical establishment—for better or worse.

  • What are some of the most pressing questions in health and healthcare that health communication/medical rhetoric scholars can help answer?

I think that healthcare has been monopolized and legislated in ways that prevent many layperson audiences from feeling competent to handle their own health concerns. (Often this is articulated as being an “informed consumer,” though I have some reservations about offering that metaphor.) This translates into a direct limitation on bodily agency—even limiting access to healthcare—for many people. Therefore, a very pressing question in this field is how we can help healthcare workers and patients to communicate more efficiently with each other.

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