Visuals and Diagnosis: Reflections from FemRhet

Breaking the monopoly of the book tradition is something that should be recognized as valuable not only for future research in rhetoric, but also for examining the study of our past.

–Richard Leo Enos (pg. 47 – Rhetorical Archaeology: Established Resources, Methodological Tools, and Basic Research Methods in The SAGE Handbook on Rhetorical Studies, 2009).

I had an amazing time attending the Tenth Biennial Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference in Tempe, AZ last week/this weekend! I am usually  more productive if I have a deadline, so I actually compiled some research into a reasonable google slideshow ( I kind of knew that our panel would be poorly attended because it was the last possible session at the conference (though shoutout to the two people who came + our chair!), so I wasn’t as worried as usual about making a fool of myself. However, I embarrassed myself a number of times by asking awkwardly phrased questions to famous people in feminist rhetorics. Strangely, I felt like their answers were as perplexing as my questions. (HA! There’s probably a connection. Weird questions call for weird answers?)

Question 1: Are we still invested in recovering WOMEN rhetors, or have we moved on to focusing on recovering gendered rhetorical practices (per calls by Sarah Hallenbeck and others)?

Answer 1: Four matriarchs of feminist rhetoric responded to this question during a panel about creating feminist edited collections. LA argued that we can’t recover gendered practices without recovering women, and GC asserted that these new alternative recoveries aren’t that well known and are beyond our reach (still?). In the context of the panel, maybe my question didn’t make sense–we anthologize people, not practices–but when feminist rhetorical history matriarchs put out an edited collection, people read it like a bible, which in my opinion reinforces the idea that we must recover WOMEN and not people’s (men and women’s) gendered practices.

Question 2: Is a dissertation project about visual ethnography as a rhetorical research method a terrible idea?

Answer 2: JN said that was probably a good idea, since the field seems to be moving away from historiography. DJ noted that I should still keep track of the genders of my participants in case I want to do a gendered analysis if my data/experiment fails.

To a human who inhabits the regular universe, these questions might seem useless or mundane. However, they (albeit inarticulately) highlight a number of the current debates about the future of feminist rhetorical historiography, which will likely impact the research that I do now and in the future. If I pursue a dissertation project that articulates an alternative vision (i.e. recovering gendered practices instead of women for the sake of their gender), could it keep me from getting a job? Probably not, but it’s something to consider. If committees don’t respect my methods, I’m in trouble…so we shall see?

In any case, I had a really productive “office hours” meeting with a prominent scholar in disability studies/rhetoric whose work I really admire. I have a few important takeaways from our discussion:

  • What QUESTION do I really want to answer? (It will make the most sense to select a method based on the question, not the other way around).
  • How did scholars I admire come to identify their focuses? Meaning, everyone does not start out knowing exactly what they are going to write a book about. This scholar suggested that I ask some people how their ideas and focuses have evolved over time and how and why their projects ended up the way they ended up.
  • Medical rhetoric and disability studies can function in opposition. They usually have very different methods, sites of participation, research participants, etc., and I need to take that into account as I move forward. Also, visual research methods might increase access for some people and limit it for others. How can I make my project as accessible as possible? (Maybe descriptions of the images? But I’d want the image-takers/individuals in the image to help me craft the description to keep it from being too slanted? Is that possible in humanities research?)

Perhaps most significantly, this scholar suggested that I turn my project towards diagnosis and visuals, using Lyme Disease bull’s-eyes as a case study. Are there any other defining visuals besides the bull’s-eye? What do health seekers identify as key Lyme visuals based on their illness experiences? (This made me think about the brief moment when I decided to take daily photographs of my knees, which I would typically identify as my most impactful remaining Lyme Disease problem). These are fascinating questions because only 20% of probable Lyme patients get (or notice) a bull’s-eye rash, and yet clinicians see it as the “least subjective” diagnostic criterion–a paradox. In class today, TJ suggested that I might not just think about how people see illness *on* their bodies, but rather *in* (or some other preposition) to represent the felt experiences of illness and emphasize their importance (versus their subjectivity). This was a compelling remark–how would I go about capturing images that narrate seemingly invisible pain? (Or how would I ask people to narrative their seemingly invisible pain? I guess I might just have to see what happens?)

Quasi-Related New Challenge: In (what felt like) my first hundred readings of McNely et al.’s article about visual ethnography and game development, I somehow missed a key phrase: “empirical visual research methods.” Umm…time to read some more to see what other scholars/communities think! (Since I didn’t image visual ethnography to be an empirical research method…which seems so counterintuitive. Isn’t it a qualitative method?)

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