Connecting the Dots: Comprehensive Exams

I  need to be thinking more about my dissertation prospectus, but it’s so cold here and my qualifying exams are 6 days away…. I have decided that it would be a reasonable compromise for me to work through some of my exam materials and consider how my dissertation project might join or draw from those conversations. (Since I already watched my 1.5 episodes of My Five Wives on Hulu for the evening, I guess I had better get started).

What is the rhetoric of science, you ask? Umm…So, the rhetoric of science is the study of how scientific writing–and science itself–is rhetorical. I guess that definition needs work. Well…by rhetorical, I mean deliberately constructed and always persuasive. I’m finding that some people don’t like to think about rhetoric as (merely?) persuasion, but when discussing science and knowledge and other things that people believe are natural and thus incontestable, I light to highlight the persuasion piece. Since the rhetorical study of health and medicine descended from rhetoric of science, I should also think through that piece, too.


HOT TEA BREAK. DAMN IT’S COLD HERE. And my fingers hurt from cold-weather arthritis and because I’ve anxiously bitten my nails into gross nubbins. Ugh.


Rhetoric of Science:

In the introduction to the foundational Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science (1997), Joseph Harris defines rhetoric of science as “the study of how scientists persuade and dissuade each other and the rest of us about nature, – the study of how scientists argue in the making of knowledge” (xii). Harris traces the history of the study of rhetoric of science to the 1970s and 1980s, beginning with theory papers by natural and social scientists who did not have much knowledge about rhetoric and has since shifted to rhetorical analyses of science (xix). He names three specific developments: the rhetoric of inquiry, concept of argument fields, and the sociology of scientific knowledge (xix); the collection is organized into case studies that examine the discourse of major scientific figures, scientific conflicts and revolutions, public science, and writing science (xxix).

What is significant here–as well in most other 1970s and 1980s rhetoric of science texts–is the concept that science and scientific facts aren’t natural. Instead, they are deliberately constructed, often so seamlessly that we forget that what we believe are “facts” are actually unbelievably subtle arguments about what should and should not count as knowledge. This is one of the main takeaways from Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (1979), which is thought to be one of the first and most influential rhetoric of science texts. The text is actually an ethnographic study (which Latour and Woolgar call an “anthropology of science” (27-28), an in-situ study one one group of neuroendocrinology scientists studying peptides via rat brains. Their main questions were rather controversial at the time: 1) “How are facts constructed in a laboratory, and how can a sociologist account for this construction?” and 2) “What, if any, are the differences between the construction of facts and the construction of accounts?” (40). To get some answers, Latour worked as a lab tech and then they spent two years (same time period?) observing the lab while pretending to be completely uninformed outsiders. Latour and Woolgar found that diagrams and graphs, which are the result of hundreds of hours of consultations and work and a lot of money,  are the only “evidence” thought to be “significant” (i.e. the initial rat brains are meaningless) (50-52). They note that the paradox of science is that the “ideas, theories, and reasons”  that are published in scientific literature are the result of material factors that very quickly cease to exist or matter (69). The results suggest that scientists don’t merely come up with facts in their labs; their work is the “processes by which scientists make sense of their observations” (32) – i.e. the crafting and interpretation of graphs and diagrams to show difference and/or statistical significance.

Similarly, Jeanne Fahnestock’s study of rhetorical figures in science (1999) and Charles Bazerman’s study of the scientific article (1998) articulate the claim that the words and images that make up science matter. In terms of my project, I’m following Fahnestock’s claim that rhetorical figures in science–both figures of speech and illustrated figures–make scientific facts and concepts meaningful. (She talks more about figures of speech than illustrated figures, but the idea is important). On the other hand, Bazerman makes key claims about scientific genres as constructing knowledge (much like Carolyn Miller’s discussion of genres as social actions, which he references). I’ll let him say it himself:

Persuasion is at the heart of science, not at the unrespectable fringe. An intelligent rhetoric practiced within a serious, experienced, knowledgeable, committed research community is a serious method of truth seeking. The most serious scientific communication is not that which disowns persuasion, but which persuades in the deepest, most compelling manner, thereby sweeping aside more superficial arguments. Science has developed tools and tricks that make nature the strongest ally of persuasive argument, even while casting aside some of the more familiar and ancient tools and tricks of rhetoric as being on superficially and temporarily persuasive. (321)

Complementing Bazerman and Fahnestock, Lisa Keranen constructs science as rhetorical via the presence and transformation of what she calls scientific characters in her book, aptly titled Scientific Characters: Rhetoric, Trust, and Character in Breast Cancer Research. Keranen arugues that “the participants of science-based controversies create, modify, and extend rhetorically constituted characters in order to maintain, undermine, or rehabilitate reputations; to challenge or defend scientific norms and knowledge; and to invigorate and resolve disagreements over scientific knowledge, policy, and values. The characterizations that emerge during such controversies thus reveal underlying norms and assumptions about science and its stakeholders, compel particular policy solutions, and divulge some of the key tensions facing scientists and citizens who participate in public science-based controversies” (5). She studies the Datagate breast cancer research scandal of the 1990s, particularly the constructions of two key researchers, to evidence this claim.

Since I’m particularly interested in visuals, it’s important that I pay attention to the history of visuals/images/figures (not sure how I want to distinguish these yet) and the rhetoric of science. Gross and Harmon’s Science from Sight to Insight (2014) includes a helpful introduction in which they trace this history. Gross and Harmon report that fully integrated, complete, non-haphazard images did not occur in scientific journals until the mid-1800s (with the advent of advanced imaging technology), though most major rhetoricians (like Aristotle, Cicero, Perelman, Burke, etc.) have paid attention to images in their work (6-7). I had a difficult time navigating this text, which is grounded in theories that I honestly don’t really understand, but it was interesting that Gross and Harmon traced the number of images in Fahnestock, Bazerman, and others’ texts. Ultimately, they put forth a Heidegger-inspired theoretical framework of visual-verbal interaction. (Helpfully, there are short conclusions at the end of each chapter to summarize what you were supposed to understand from reading the chapter). Gross and Harmon’s theory is supplemented by a study of graphs, tables, and maps, which I think they argue are  mostly used for data retrieval and then analysis.

The goal of Cartwright’s Screening the Body (1995) is to “take up historical instances of the use of the cinema in medical science to analyze, regulate, and reconfigure the transient, uncontrollable field of the body” (xiii). [[TO BE CONTINUED]]


Rhetoric of  Health and Medicine:

My dissertation joints two recent conversations in the rhetoric of health and medicine: 1) research methods, and 2) future directions for the field (i.e. what’s missing).

Kim Hensley Owens’s Writing Childbirth: Women’s Rhetorical Agency in Labor and Online (2015) examines what she calls “everyday rhetorics of health and medicine” (2). Owens considers her study of 120 narratives from parenting websites (with special attention to stories about first births), 34 surveys distributed to the authors of the narratives, 5 birth plans (offered by the authors), and autoethnography about her own birth experiences to be “qualitative” (15-17) and aims to expand the field beyond the physician-patient experience. Owens states and restates that the act of creating a birth plan is one of feminist rhetorical agency , even if the plan isn’t implemented and thus kind of fails (68). (I vehemently disagree, though I might be missing something key). However, Owens provides a helpful model for using autoethnography and/or personal experience in rhetoric of health and medicine and feminist rhetorical work. She argues that “[t]he value of experience–and of a scholar’s acknowledging or narrating that experience–depends on the audience,” noting that, in the end, “it is the audience who determines if a rhetor’s ethos is appropriate” (140).* Ultimately, Owens writes that she does not believe that scholars must have a personal experience with a topic in order to study it but simultaneously sees the value of personal experience when studying a topic…which is a challenging line to draw.** Her birth stories mimic the genre of the birth stories she studied. In any case, my project will also explicitly straddle the typical scholarly/personal/bodily binaries, and I’m glad to have her work as a model. One way that I hope to expand upon Owens’s work is to make my autoethnographic portions explicitly intersectional and to theorize intersectionality as part of my study.



*This kind of reminds me of Wegner’s work about teaching contemplative writing practice; we want to teach people to pay attention to their bodily processes but not subscribe to a strict body/mind dichotomy. Bodily knowledge is one, but not the only, way of knowing (about writing practice and childbirth as described in these cases).

**Though I can’t help but note that, despite all the talk about valuing experiential and traditionally scholarly ways of  knowing, I really disagree with Owens’s use of the concept “rhetorically disabled,” which she takes on without providing a definition of disability or problematizing the concept of disability or acknowledging any of the politics.


Some other things to consider:

  • Owens conducted her survey research in 2005 and her book wasn’t published until 2015. Does this mean that the research is dated? Does the length of time that between research and publication limit the use/value of the research?



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