Marie Moeller

Marie Moeller

Assistant Professor of English
University of Wisconsin – La Crosse


My next project is a monograph tentatively titled Without Beneficence: The Discharitable Work of Charity Medical Writing. In this text, I address three questions—how do major US-based charity organizations frame and disseminate technical medical information; to what social, cultural, and material ends does/could such dissemination lead; and what implications does charity medical writing hold for the field of technical communication?

This monograph project was born out of research for a smaller, completed project that engages medical rhetoric on the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s (SGKF) website from 2007-2012. The central argument of this article is that SGKF’s approach to medical information dissemination belies heteronormative cultural commitments, rhetorically perpetuated by a correlative=causation reading of scientific research. As I illustrate in the article, SGKF’s website intimates causation between breast cancer, potential risk factors, and bodies heteronormatively deemed “non-normal” (specifically how SGKF organizes bodies into categories—“lesbians and women who partner with women”; “women with disabilities”). By categorizing populations, the SGKF’s website identifies and names populations with amplified breast cancer risks. While research is provided that indicates potential correlation, SGKF’s website relies instead on narratives of causation as to reasons why, indicating, for example, that lesbians face higher alcohol abuse rates, rates of obesity, and lack of health insurance, without any discussion of social, cultural, or other factors that may provide counter readings, instead locating responsibility and negative affective responses with individual bodies. The impact, then, is that via the cultural capital afforded scientific information, SGKF forwards a damaging logic that perpetuates locating narratives of non-normalcy with various positionalities, not with the system that treats positionalities in such ways.

While doing research for the smaller article, then, I found that major charities (not only The Susan G. Komen Foundation, but also Livestrong, Avon Foundation, and Heifer International, amongst others) often present audiences with data by intimating causation between positionality/ies (class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability, amongst others) and risk factors, preventative actions, medical treatment, self-care, and social treatment by various institutions. While data may indicate potential correlative relationships, my concern with this relationship is, of course, not the potential correlation. Instead, I focus on the ways correlations are articulated and often turned causal for users by charity organizations/their writers, and why causal relationships are created despite the fact that data only indicates correlation. This will be the first facet of the monograph; I will be tracking out other implications as my research continues and I am further able to address my research questions.

On a related side-note, I locate my analysis with charities both because of the particular cultural capital charities inhabit in the United States and because such cultural capital provides charities a trusted location from which to use medical information as persuasion towards a myriad of goals, some more ethical than others. I’m interested, in other words, of the politics of locations from where we glean information, in particular medical information, about ourselves, others and institutions.

keywords to describe your research

normalcy, online health communication, rhetoric, technologies, charity, ethics

work in relation to symposium keywords

The conceptual intersections of ethics and dissemination drive my current inquiries. Specifically, I research how locations of dissemination influence approaches to/understandings of ethical (or non-ethical, or ethically questionable) rhetorical intervention in medical data.

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?
Carefully. And in seriousness, I am very careful about my explanations—I work with a variety of populations (veterans, local health boards, medical technology software specialists, medical professionals), and depending upon the population, I do at times frame things a bit differently. In general, though I call myself a health communicator with a special focus on health literacy. Specifically, when pushed, I articulate that I see my job as to both respond to the ways medical data is framed and discussed, and to trace out the effects as such in an effort to improve experiences of all involved.

Rarely to the public do I say medical rhetorician, though in an academic setting, that is what I would be most comfortable with, as my commitment to critique seems to appear, at least in my mind, more readily when I employ the term “rhetorician”—and, too, I may be underestimating various stakeholders.

• What research challenges have you experienced and how did you solve them? Choose to focus on one or two specific examples that can help the group develop strategies for overcoming these types of challenges.

Interacting (or not being able to interact, more specifically) with institutions (in my case medical charities) that inhabit spaces with much power and little impetus to engage with parties outside said institutions. I have yet to be able to solve these research problems—it has posed difficult for publishing work, as well as frustrating to ask students and other scholars to engage with institutions and thus to be oriented towards rhetorical intervention/revision. I am hoping, in fact, that we might discuss such a research issue during the symposium; I’m interested to hear what others have encountered in such situations.

•What are some of the most pressing questions in health and healthcare that health communication/medical rhetoric scholars can help answer?
I’d say the largest and most pressing question medical rhetoric scholars can help answer is one of power and authority—who has or is given the power and authority in what situation to disseminate what information and why? In other words, we have a responsibility to model a kind of critical engagement with various institutions of information. Of course, this belies my commitment to critique and intervention, and to a belief that science and medical institutions, despite a slow turn of change, still hold much power in relation to bodies seeking information.

My concern, then, of course, is not one of just solely access, but in structuring information for patients, patient-adjacent populations, and patients-to-be. My hope is that as medical rhetoric scholars, we may work at the intersections of many populations to highlight the kinds of responsibilities we have as disseminators of language from a myriad of locations, not just traditional spaces.

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