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PWR1TD: Anatomy of a Discipline: Rhetorics of Health, Illness, and Medicine

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Catalog Number: PWR 1TD

Instructor: Tara Diener

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP) 

Prerequisite: None


Course Feature: WR-1 requirement


Can a diagnosis have an argument?

Is disease a story we tell ourselves? Does the language of medicine influence experiences of health and illness? In this course, we will explore such questions using a range of written, visual, and material texts concerning the what (biology, anatomy, pathology) and the how (clinical training, bedside manner, diagnostic imaging) of medicine. We will learn how the medical model came to dominate other approaches to illness and healing, and critically examine rhetorics working to sustain and contest the status quo.

Images are often strategically paired with words to create compelling arguments. In the medical field, images perform both clinical and rhetorical work. With this in mind, we will apply the tools of rhetorical analysis to visual texts such as paintings, films, and photographs. Through dissecting exam-room conversations and pulling apart texts like Grey's Anatomy (both the book and the TV series), we will discover key strategies physicians and patients use to make sense of suffering, disease, and each other. Based on your own scholarly investigation, you will craft a research-based argument about health, illness, and medicine. For example, you might examine how pharmaceutical advertising has changed since the 1800s. You might research the anti-vaccine movement, organ donation, or the medical school admissions process. You might investigate a new therapeutic technology or the allocation of a scarce medical resource. Through in-class activities involving role play, experimentation, debate, and Play Doh, you will gain a new appreciation for the art of argument and the craft of revision. The course even comes with a guarantee: no matter what your major, you will never look at a waiting room the same way again.

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages) This assignment asks you to conduct a rhetorical analysis of a medical website or the social media account of a medical organization (such as a hospital, an obstetric practice, a professional association, a medical school, or a specialty clinic). How does the author use language and imagery to construct an argument about medicine, illness, or healing? Who is the intended audience? What is at stake?

Texts in Conversation

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages) For this assignment, you will conduct a comprehensive examination of literature about topic related to conceptions of health, illness and/or medicine. Once you have identified sources expressing a range of positions on the topic, you will place these into critical dialogue with one another. This assignment will both enrich your understanding of how debates around your chosen topic are articulated and inform your final paper.

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages) This assignment, you will take a stance about your topic. You will have developed a sense of what the major arguments around your topic are, how they are constructed, and what is at stake for whom in those debates. The goal of this assignment is to move beyond rhetorical analysis to demonstrate your skill at mobilizing and synthesizing evidence in compelling support for your own position.