University: Rowan University
Description of Work:
I study the rhetoric of prenatal testing and prenatal diagnosis. The clinical “problem” that my work addresses is how medical professionals can both advocate for people with disabilities and while at the same time offering a means of preventing disability through prenatal testing and pregnancy termination. This situation creates a rhetorical problem for medical professionals, like genetic counselors, who wish to appear “nondirective” and unbiased, while at the same time directing patients to approach reproductive decision-making in a careful, deliberate way. Since patients are ultimately individually responsible for these decisions, they are also, as Rapp (2000) notes, put in the position of being “moral pioneers,” responsible for justifying reproductive decisions—either to continue or terminate pregnancies—to themselves, to their physicians, and to the public. Ultimately, I am interested in the residual effects of this rhetorical navigation, such as: 1) how the meanings of disabilities and conditions that are targeted by prenatal testing technologies get altered by this discourse and 2) how biomedical technologies and their subsequent marketing create new forms of authority for medical professionals.
Methodological Approaches to Medical Rhetoric: Creating a Collective Body of “Recognizable Knowledge”
In their seminal TCQ article on medical rhetoric, Heifferon and Brown (2000) argue for the necessity of the subfield by suggesting, “Language events within the medical profession are often literally life and death rhetorical situations that create an even greater need to bring the power of in situ language study to bear” (p. 246). In other words, they claim that analysis of language practices and texts can and should affect medical practice—at a local and, perhaps, disciplinary levels. However, the collective impact of medical rhetoric scholarship on medical contexts is difficult to assess, especially considering the newness of the subfield and its “lack of apparent conceptual/ methodological structures” (Segal, 2005, p. 316). Rude (2009) suggests technical communication’s impact on social issues like health and medicine may be limited so long as we fail to “collectively generate recognizable knowledge about texts” that can be applied more uniformly to the contexts we study (p. 204).
Towards this end, my proposed project addresses two of the symposium’s central questions: (1) What current methods need to be expanded? What methods should we move away from and why? What methods should we seek to explore or include? and (2) How can we (re)cast our methods to increase acceptance form and enhance interest in partnering with individuals in the healthcare professions?
My project addresses these questions by investigating the current medical rhetoric scholarship in order to evaluate, systematically, the methods and methodologies that are currently being used, the types of knowledge that are being produced as a result, and the potential applications of these findings for other fields and audiences. To use Rude’s terminology, this project categorizes the types of meaning-making produced by medical rhetoric scholarship in order to make it “recognizable” both within and outside of our field. A second goal is to determine how medical rhetoricians build knowledge both in the subfield and beyond, especially considering how methodological approaches may bridge the professional chasms that separate medical rhetoricians from other stakeholders in medical contexts.
The data for this study comes from a medical rhetoric bibliography that was culled from existing bibliographies (one developed by Barton and Wells, and another by Eberhard) and from a systematic review of professional and technical writing, rhetoric, and language-focused journals in all issues since 2000. I coded the articles from this bibliography quantitatively and qualitatively to answer pertinent methodological questions in the subfield of medical rhetoric including:
• What methods or “techniques for collecting data” are used (Powell and Takayoshi, 2012, p. 1)?
• What methodologies or “theories of how research does or should proceed” drive data collection (p. 2)?
• What subfields of language studies do medical rhetoric scholars draw from?
• What theories of rhetoric or rhetorical concepts do medical rhetoric scholars draw on?
• What medical topics or contexts have been or are currently being addressed?
• How do medical rhetoric scholars situate their research amidst other research in technical and professional communication?
• And, in turn, amidst interdisciplinary medical research?
• Given the variability inherent in medical contexts, to what extent and how do medical rhetoric scholars reference each other’s work or build a cohesive theory of medical rhetoric that is applicable across contexts?
Addressing these questions will not only help document, as Goubil-Gambrell (1998) says, “where we are now,” but also offer a chance to reflect on the usefulness of current methods to answer medical rhetoric’s major research questions (p. 7). Reflection might also help us imagine possibilities for new methodological approaches that will expand the scope and utility of the subfield.