Reflections: Diving into the Wreck

I submitted my Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship (!) mid-last week. I’m relieved to have turned it in, and I’m excited to move forward now that I’ve sorted out some ideas about my potential dissertation project. Here are some brief reflections:

1. Diving into the unknown is scary.

That’s the point of this particular fellowship, of course–to learn a new research method that might reveal compelling things about your existing topic. Yet planning how I might do so was MUCH harder than I anticipated. I transitioned from knowing exactly what I was doing–rhetorical analysis of health and medical texts (popular and scientific)–to speaking to discourse communities that are completely new to me: visual rhetoric, visual ethnography, social science methods, etc. I was constantly using Google Scholar to find the most heavily cited texts in these fields just to get a taste of what’s going on there. For so long, I’ve pretty much ignored visuals (particularly ones about/for Lyme Disease because they seemed so generic). As Adrienne Rich writes, “The words are purposes./The words are maps.” But now there are also physical maps to consider…and who knows what they mean or if they matter?

Regardless, I did come to an important conclusion: tracing the evolving discourses alone wasn’t doing it for me. At first, I worried that I was a having a millennial moment where I was temporarily bored or stumped by my research and thus needed to immediately jump to what appeared to be the next best thing. And yet I think that studying visuals (and perhaps design) in rhetoric of health and medicine is a fruitful possibility for pushing scholarship forward. I think that we miss out on a lot by only focusing on alphabetic text. Perhaps this is related to J. Blake Scott’s rhetorical-cultural analysis, which (roughly speaking) applies a cultural studies lens to science to help us more effectively figure out what it’s doing and how it is functioning in the world. Many people have made visual arguments about print documents, ranging from Latour and Woolgar writing about how small mammals in a lab get translated into a graph that is then dropped into a text (which disconnects it completely from the original mammals themselves) to health communication scholars analyzing how the design of disease pamphlets impact patients. In turn, I have to figure out what I want and where I fit in. (OR, better yet, what the research tells me).

2. The best research questions are one that you can’t already answer. 

As #TeamRhetoric discussed during last week’s writing group, our students often only want to pose research questions to which they already know the answer: How does caffeine affect the body? What do CT scans do? Maybe what I mean is that these answers become obvious through just a little bit of research–no digging, just aimless Google-ing. Along with everyone else, I already know that Lyme Disease is controversial. It doesn’t take much work to google IDSA vs. ILADS or “lyme disease diagnosis guidelines” before you figure out that there are opposing camps about diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. However, I have absolutely no idea what the standard and patient-generated images of Lyme Disease mean or do–if they have any impact at all. My wonderful boyfriend thinks that I’m trying to investigate something unworthy of investigation–that, by researching the standardization of these images and the history of circulation, I’m trying to make something out of nothing. He’s right that there is a distinct possibility that this project might not generate anything at all. (Though isn’t that a risk with  most research endeavors?) It also might generate something completely different from what I expected. Jen and I kind of laughed at Jason’s suggestion to write my entire dissertation about how to use visual ethnography as a research methods for doing rhetoric of health and medicine scholarship. The project would then be a case study/experiment (as if all projects aren’t really experiments…) that would truly try out something new vs. recovering and restating existing information from a new angle. (Or maybe it would reveal the same things as rhetorical analysis via discourse? Hmmm).

I guess we’ll see what happens? For now, it’s time for me to shower and prepare for an appointment with my new rheumatologist….


We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.
--Adrienne Rich, "Diving into the Wreck" (1973)
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