Who Cares About Lyme Disease and Rhetoric?

Well, the good news is that I PASSED my written and oral exams! WAHOO!!! The bad news is that I need to revamp my project. During my oral exam, my committee brought up a number of significant issues with my dissertation project plan:

  1. It is unclear who will care about people taking pictures of their experiences with Lyme Disease.
  2. It is unclear how and where rhetoric fits into my project. I need to do–at least in part–a traditional rhetorical analysis to have a chance at getting a rhet-comp tenure-track job. (If only that were a guarantee).
  3. It is unclear how my project will become a dissertation (versus an activist project, which is quite different).
  4. It is unclear if my project has an overarching framework, which is perhaps why I’ve been kind of stuck.

Although I was relatively aware of these issues, hearing my committee discuss them was disheartening. I know that they were trying to help me dream up solutions and that they want the project to be good–which is why they’d even spend the time dreaming up solutions–but I found the experience of having five brilliant people debating my project at once to be overwhelming. Maybe the problem is that I’m not doing a good enough job of articulating my ideas about the project…or maybe the project is just in rough shape. At the moment, here’s what I’m imagining the project will do:

  1. Demonstrate how the LD functions rhetorically as a diagnosis and illness in general.
  2. Demonstrate how the circulation of trite/non-human LD images rhetorically constructs our networked and multivalent understanding of LD.
  3. Demonstrate how visual ethnography–particularly participant-solicited photography–might be an effective rhetorical research method for prioritizing affected individuals and learning about the experience of LD diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.
  4. Demonstrate how the frameworks of intersectionality and feminist rhetorical disability studies support the activist/academic work of studying LD within and beyond the academy.

I guess that one of the missing pieces is figuring out what studying LD will DO for rhetorical studies. I am well aware of how positioning LD as rhetorical will impact the biomedical community, but I think I have a less well-developed idea about what it will do for me as a rhetorical scholar. There are probably multiple possibilities: bringing the doctor-patient relationship into view; examining the culture of diagnosing difficult-to-diagnose emergent health conditions; studying how social networks connect people with certain illnesses and allow them to testify and speak back to their experiences; etc. I am taking a history of renaissance rhetoric course this semester, and we’ve been spending a lot of time talking about if and why rhetoric is an appropriate framework for studying different things and what it (uniquely) helps us see and understand. This is an annoying process. It’s so much easier to say that everything is rhetorical all the time, but the professor is working hard to make a distinction between what is “rhetorical” and what has “rhetoricity.” I’m not sure that I fully understand it, but I do think it’s a question worth asking. While something may be rhetorical, it may not have rhetoricity/actually DO anything?!

There’s also the question of methods. I need do make a big chunk of the project a traditional rhetorical analysis so that future job committees will “read” me as rhetoric scholar. However, I’m not yet sure what this chunk is going to be. I thought it was going to be about the generic LD images, but now I’m not so sure. My committee members made multiple suggestions: collect Instagram or twitter posts/photos of LD, gather illness narratives from a few people, do some sort of study…but none of these ideas really grabbed me for some reason. Again, maybe I was just nervous and having trouble explaining myself, but in any case, I need to figure this out. The LD itself is a case study…but for what in terms of rhetoric? Originally, I thought the using visual ethnography as a rhetorical research method was going to be my major intervention, but I guess the missing piece is that I haven’t convinced anyone else (besides McNely et al. who wrote the article that inspired me) that visual ethnography can be a rhetorical research method? I guess I thought we (broadly defined as LD clinicians, advocates, researchers, and general publics) could learn something by looking at people’s depictions of their experiences with illness. (And I assumed that I would figure out WHAT we could learn after studying the images). Maybe not? Or maybe it’s not significant enough?

This is going to sound dramatic, but I feel caught between two worlds. Work that matters in the biomedical sphere and in the general public sphere isn’t the same as work that matters in the academy. I want to make change in both places, but I guess I need to get my prioritizes straight….


PS: Now that my exams are over, I was able to adopt a kitty!


Image Description: A 4-photo collage with different photos of Oriole, my a gray and black striped kitty with yellow-green eyes. In the photo on the top left, she is sitting on the bottom shelf of a coffee table with her paws dangling over the shelf. Sitting on the table above her is Allie Cashel’s book, Suffering the Silence, and an Amazon Prime tv remote; Oriole is sitting next to some small boxes and papers that are stored beneath the table, and a lone blue and white striped sock is balled up on the floor near her. In the photo on the top right, Oriole is laying on her side beneath two folding chairs and playing with a toy mouse. In the photo on the bottom right, Oriole is laying on her side, just a few inches from her food and water bowls in my kitchen. She has an exhausted expression on her face; her front paws are crossed. In the photo on the bottom left, Oriole sits on a multi-colored couch from the 80s atop a black, green, and blue knitted blanket. She is making an almost-kitty smile, indicating that she loves me or that she’ll eat me in my sleep.


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