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PWR 2SPB: Hope, Health, and Healing: The Rhetoric of Medicine

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Dr. Pittock discusses course PWR 2SPB.

Catalog Number: PWR 2SPB

Instructor: Sarah Pittock

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP) 

Prerequisite: PWR 1, ESF, ITALIC 95W, or equivalent

Course Feature: WR-2 requirement


In her award winning ethnography The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman describes the experience of a recently-immigrated Hmong family negotiating the American healthcare system. As a Western-educated medical team struggles to heal their beloved toddler, she develops progressively more severe epilepsy. Against the wishes of the family, who interpret the child’s illness as a spiritual disorder, her American doctors prescribe an aggressive medication regimen. This “collision of two cultures” illustrates the premise of this course: illness and healing are complex matters of language, mind, body, soul, and community.

In this course, we will investigate how and why medicine is a communication as well as a scientific challenge. We will consider how we are persuaded that a medical intervention is valuable, even when it’s experimental or elective; how expert research transitions from lab bench to hospital bedside; why culturally responsive care matters; and how we make meaning of illness. To answer these questions and more, we will read Paul Kalanithi, Rita Charon, Audre Lorde, and Arthur Kleinman, among others.

During the quarter, you will research a topic related to medicine in the cultural context and from the disciplinary perspective of your choice. For example, you might research a wellness initiative, such as Stanford’s BeWell, that is working to strengthen health literacies, or conversely, a public health threat such as the contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan. You may research a specific medical intervention such as the caesarean section or non-Western therapies such as yoga, meditation, or acupuncture. Finally, you might want to investigate new technologies such as AI that are changing the way we approach palliative care or claims that brain scans give us less insight into cognitive and emotional functioning than patient testimony. As you research the issue of your choice, you will focus on the patient, the caregiver, the family, or the institution, whether insurance company, clinic, or hospital.

Major Assignments

Research Proposal

(5-minute live oral presentation; written text of 900-1200 words) You will begin the quarter by proposing research into an issue related to health or medicine about which there is some academic debate.

Written Research-Based Argument

(3000-3600 words; 10-12 pages) Using the research and reading skills developed in PWR1, and building on your research proposal, you will synthesize a range of academic and public perspectives in an argumentative paper.

Delivery of Research

(10-minute live oral presentation with appropriate multimedia support) You will translate your print-based research argument into an educational and creative oral presentation to the class. You will explore strategies of delivery across media and mode, making decisions about which media will be the most effective as support for your argument.

Genre/Modes Assignment

(600+ word oral or written essay) You will complete the quarter with a sustained reflection (genre) on your work as a researcher and rhetor in oral, print, and multimedia contexts. Your reflection may be presented as a visual, written, or oral argument (modes).