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PWR 1SNB: The Rhetoric of Wellness: The Social Context of Mental and Physical Health and Wellbeing

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colorful post it notes with the words Mind, Body, Spirt, Soul surrounding the word you

Catalog Number: PWR 1SNB

Instructor: Shannon Hervey

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP)

Prerequisite: None

Course Feature: WR-1 requirement


What does it mean to be well? What does it mean to be healthy, both physically and mentally? And what do these definitions look like across different cultural contexts? It seems that a wider popular audience has recently become interested in the answers to these very questions. For example, over the last two years, The New York Times has published multiple articles oriented around the idea of “languishing” vs. “flourishing” and, at the same time, #mentalhealth TikTok videos are skyrocketing in views (the LA Times says that these videos have received over 20 million views as of January 2022).

In this class, we’ll examine a broad assortment of “wellness” materials to look for overarching themes and to explore the cultural context of their production. We’ll investigate questions like, does the self-deterministic rhetoric inherent in many wellness/self-help materials perpetuate toxic individualism, or does it provide avenues toward agency? We’ll explore a wide array of wellness technologies, from the evolution of smartwatches to Stanford’s own recent experiments in treating depression with magnetic brain stimulation. We’ll consider the ways in which some wellness programs might perpetuate certain stigmas, like for instance the US diet industry which was worth $78 billion as of 2019. And we’ll also think about paradigms in flux, an example of which might be Kaiser Permanente’s inclusion of the “Calm” meditation app in their healthcare, a signal that western medicine might be opening up to eastern medicines or philosophies. 

Analyzing the language used to talk about wellness will anchor our classroom community as we develop skills in writing, rhetoric, and research. (Possible student projects suggested in the assignment descriptions are not an exhaustive list!)

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages): For this assignment, we will study short written, visual, or audio texts to examine how “wellness” is framed in primary contexts. After choosing a text that you find interesting (options may include a tiktok video, an op-ed piece, a podcast episode, or an advertisement for a wellness program), you will analyze the rhetoric employed within the exchange. 

Texts in Conversation

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages): For this researched analysis of several secondary texts, you will explore the unfolding academic conversation pertaining to an aspect of  wellness you’d like to investigate further. Topics might include how yogic traditions differ across cultural influences (or how yoga was banned in Alabama schools until recently), the inclusion of mindfulness practices in K-12 educational settings, the origins of “self-care” in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a radical term tethered to civil rights and social justice movements, advancement in wellness technologies, or the importance of community to mental health. 

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages): Here, you will develop a research question stemming from your “Texts in Conversation” assignment and seek to answer this question in a persuasive essay. Possible research topics include #mentalhealth TikToks (or other related social media foci), the commodifying of spiritual journeys, the current medical research on psychedelics, or substance use disorders.