Tag Archives: #TeamRhetoric

Everything is Arbitrary

I submitted my prospectus to my dissertation co-advisers on Thursday, March 24th at 1:31am. Don’t tell my dad, but he was right: I did feel a sense of relief after submitting it…even though it’s only 14 pages long and the chapter outlines are practically one paragraph each (instead of a few solid pages each). As I alternated between almost hyperventilating and hiding under my bed, taking pictures of my adorable kitty, snacking, and writing words on the page, I had the biggest breakthrough I’ve had in months. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will help anything.

Everything is about my prospectus (and perhaps this entire process) is…


…which is why I’m having so much trouble making decisions about everything.

When I find myself in a high-stakes writing environment, I feel paralyzed until I have a clear outline and projected order of things. Then, I can begin…but the “real” work has already been done: I know what I’m going to write about, where different pieces are going to fit into the puzzle, and probably what the end result is. The trouble with my prospectus, so I’m finding, is that I’ve completed at least 20 different outlines of different versions of the project. I’ve moved pieces around, shifted ideas in and out. Everyone–#TeamRhetoric, #TeamSarah, etc.–was supportive and said that my ideas were great, so I played with different versions of the project but never stressed too much about it. And then came time to finally finish my prospectus. Which version was I going to use? Which one(s) were most promising? Which ones will help me achieve my ultimate goals for the project?

That’s the funny thing about prospectuses. You write them about projects you haven’t done yet, and even in their “final form,” they may serve no purpose other than to check a box that allows you to begin your dissertation project. It’s hard to plan a project you haven’t done yet. It’s hard to anticipate the results of research you haven’t conducted yet.

The moral of the story:

1) pick something; 2) move forward; and 3) revise as you go.

To me, this feels hard and terrible. Perhaps inappropriately so, but that’s been my experience. It’s hard to know how other people solve this problem. One possible way that I’ve surmised is to pick some topoi (cultural commonplaces), search for them in your archive, and switch them up if they’re not meaningful and/or theorize why they aren’t meaningful. In Margret Price’s Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (2011), she analyzes topoi such as “presence,” “participation,” “resistance,” and “collegiality” (21-22). Maybe she didn’t start with these exact topoi, but she probably had a few to begin with and discovered the others along the way. She analyzes a range of genres, such as published guidelines from MLA and APA and interviews with “independent” scholars, which probably informed her thinking/topoi selection. Similarly, when I was talking with one of my co-advisers a few weeks ago, she suggested that I mine the pinterest #chronicillness posts (there are thousands of them) using a particular frame like disability. That made that piece of the project seem a hundred times more manageable. (She was probably actually thinking about topoi since she’s written about them before, but that only occurred to me five seconds ago).

Whatever I decide…I have to decide SOMETHING. Maybe kitty can help?


Oriole “Kitty Queen” the cat sitting on a red fleece bathrobe next to my laptop on top of a black reclining chair. 


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Questioning the Lyme Disease Dissertation Project

I’ve been working on finalizing my dissertation proposal for a few weeks now, and I keep having crises of ideas. Despite wonderful support from my friends, parents, #TeamRhetoric colleagues, and advisers, I remain tormented by the following questions:

Should I make Lyme Disease the focus of my study, or is that too limiting? My adviser is probably right when she says that a book about Lyme Disease, like Autism or another particular condition, may be attractive to presses because it will interest a specific population of people and thus might be more marketable. However, I can’t even think that far ahead right now. I’ve read so many articles on the ChronicleVita, and in other places about affirming that your dissertation is NOT a book and that it may not become a book, so even though my advisers think the project is promising in its current form, it’s still hard to imagine it transitioning into a book.

Is it rhetorical enough? WHAT IS RHETORIC? Why am I using rhetoric as a method and lens for analysis? Much of the research about chronic illness, gendered experiences with illness, the value of patient narratives, etc. is coming out of medical sociology and anthropology, social history, history of science and medicine, etc. I know that rhetoric, which studies how arguments are constructed and thus create ways of knowing and making meaning, is a useful way of looking at data. (By “data,” I mean any ideas, facts, or knowledge that can be investigated as a way of answering a question–which can range from narratives to images to lab tests). BUT STILL. I think what might be confusing me is that scholars and activists from these fields are trying to show how constructed–i.e. not natural–these illness things are, and that’s pretty much what rhetoricians do, so I don’t want to feel like I’m repeating work that’s already been done. I’d like to believe that rhetoricians’ perspectives bring something unique to the table, but thus far it has been difficult to parse.

What archives or primary materials am I going to investigate to make claims, and which methods will I use? When I first started investigating the health and medical humanities, I thought their methods were engaging and presented new and exciting opportunities for rhetorical scholarship. Now, however, I have to be careful that my project will be “read” as rhetorical to future job committees and tenure committees, which is forcing me to reconsider some of my (seemingly) radical methods. I spent a lot of time trying to justify why visual ethnography would make for a compelling rhetorical research method (building off of McNely et al.’s work), but I have long since moved away from the *justification* piece. If I’m going to include nontraditional research methods, I will have to spend time and space justifying it…which means that I need to figure out a) what methods I’m going to incorporate, and b) WHY they’re going to be useful and illuminate something new and exciting and different. Again, although I spent so much time toying with this visual ethnography thing, I haven’t figured out if or how it is going to work and what it might do that might be helpful.

It’s funny how these things work out. My undergraduate rhetorical education focused on feminist rhetorical history. I have since moved away from this focus during graduate school for a variety of reasons, but it’s easy to want to return to those methods because I already know how to do them. For example, I could study local and national newspaper articles to chart a revised history of the emergence of LD, which was “discovered” by researchers at Yale…who never really credited the two mothers from Lyme, CT who alerted them to the phenomena. These mothers, Polly Murray and Judith Mensch, are sometimes named in popular publications, but according to some quick researchers, never in peer-reviewed scientific ones (i.e. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/10/nyregion/taking-a-new-tack-against-lyme-disease.html). This gets particularly interesting because there has been some research about the sexual and in utero transfer of LD (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mothers-may-pass-lyme-disease-to-children-in-the-womb/), which makes me think a lot about the rhetorical characters of LD and how they have informed the LD controversy as we know it. Some sources I’ve read have argued that because LD was discovered by patients and wasn’t easily figured out by researchers of clinicians, it is deeply grounded in community efforts and thus doesn’t easily become the authority of researchers, unlike in many other cases.

Relatedly, I’ve also come upon another conundrum: If chronically ill people with controversial/emergent illnesses are doing collective action work in certain places already, WHY THE F— AM I GOING TO DO MY OWN STUDY?!  Not accounting for and valuing the work people are already doing and doing my own study instead seems to contradict everything I believe about valuing patient narratives and experiences.My preliminary research/internet perusing suggests that ill individuals are hashtagging #LymeDisease, #spoonies, #chronicpain, #chronicillness, and other terms on Twitter and Instagram (and probably other places) to visually and textually document their experiences and get community support. I’m sure there’s more out there, but I’m hesitant to jump in with both feet. What worries me about using social media as a research archive is that it seems ephemeral and might not matter in a few years. (Truthfully, I’m concerned that it will be meaningless by the time I try to publish a book). However, other people (per this Slate article from the other day – http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/users/2016/03/how_spoonies_people_with_chronic_illnesses_use_memes_selfies_and_emojis.html) are taking it seriously, so perhaps I should, too. I guess what’s been hard is that my early searches have been hard to “code,” meaning that sometimes it seems like people are  using these hashtags to gain social capital to sell something or as spam versus using it to build or enter into an illness community. My adviser suggested an interesting solution: come up with a key term or concept to help me “read” (i.e. organize, generate meaning, analyzed) these materials. For example: disability. I could look at all of the Instagram posts with a #LymeDisease tag and try to answer the question, “How do LD patients construct (or not) a disability identity?” With inquiries by disability studies scholars like Alison Kafer about who “counts” as disabled, what terms individuals with disability should or should not take up, and more, I’d like to work on answering this question as part of my dissertation. However, I feel uneasy about using social media to answer it. I could certainly conduct some qualitative interviews with individuals with LD in North Carolina and study them for similar themes. There is very little qualitative research about Lyme Disease AND very little research about Lyme in the American south, so I would certainly be generating new knowledge, but that also doesn’t feel quite right to me.

This has prompted me to consider if I should incorporate digital humanities research tools and methods into the project. LD is very much geographically bound–socially and environmentally–but should I go there?

What ideas might I use for peer-reviewed journal articles vs. THE DISSERTATION? This might seem insignificant, but I think that some of my inner chaos come from trying to narrow my focus for the dissertation but finding perfectly useful, bounded projects that might be interesting to pursue but that don’t fit in the realm of my current project outline. For instance, there are various health poster collections that are perfectly suited for rhetorical and visual analysis, but if they’re not about LD, they probably aren’t a great fit for my dissertation unless I’m directly connecting them back or comparing them with LD ephemera.


To begin answering some of these questions, I started playing around (i.e. “researching). I made the following list:

Possibilities for Archives/Materials:

  • Peer-reviewed scientific journal articles about Chronic Lyme Disease/Post-Treatment LD à learn about the emergence of LLMDs and the rhetorical problem of “Chronic Lyme”
  • Interviews?
  • Arts-based therapy ephemera?
  • Hash tag activism on Tumblr, Instagram, and/or Twitter à and/or ChronicBabe.com
    • Leveraging gender and chronic illness – pushing back against traditional patriarchal authorities
    • Femininity as radical, rhetorical reclaiming of authority and identity à paper I wrote for Jane’s seminar

This led me to think about Judith Lorber’s Gender and the Social Construction of Illness, so I used Google Scholar to figure out who had cited her (almost 500 people) and then, with that sect, who had also used the term”rhetoric” in their publication. Here’s a few I came up with:

  • Werner, Anne, and Kirsti Malterud. “It is hard work behaving as a credible patient: encounters between women with chronic pain and their doctors.” Social science & medicine 57.8 (2003): 1409-1419.
  • Sim, Julius, and Sue Madden. “Illness experience in fibromyalgia syndrome: A metasynthesis of qualitative studies.” Social science & medicine 67.1 (2008): 57-67.
  • Willard, Barbara E. “Feminist interventions in biomedical discourse: An analysis of the rhetoric of integrative medicine.” Women’s Studies in Communication 28.1 (2005): 115-148.
  • Bell, Mebbie. “Re/forming the anorexic “prisoner”: Inpatient medical treatment as the return to panoptic femininity.” Cultural Studies↔ Critical Methodologies 6.2 (2006): 282-307.
  • Clarke, Adele E., and Janet Shim. “Medicalization and biomedicalization revisited: Technoscience and transformations of health, illness and American medicine.” Handbook of the sociology of health, illness, and healing. Springer New York, 2011. 173-199.

Note: I got up and got a snack, but I still managed to bite off all my nails. :-/

I’m not sure where it will go from here, but I told my advisers that I’d figure it out by Sunday night…. AHHH!


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Revising Lyme Disease: When and Where the Work Happens

My students are peer-reviewing the final versions of their final projects today, and I’m revising and reviewing my chapter draft (my pre-dissertation prospectus plan). It’s funny how these things happen. I find revision to be one of the most trying parts of the writing process, so if nothing else, I can sympathize about the pain of it all. I’ve worked so hard on this, so why do I have to reread it? What if what I’ve written is shitty and doesn’t make any sense–is it too late to change it now? WHEN WILL THIS (PART OF THE) F-ING PROJECT BE OVER?!

Unfortunately, it’s never really over. If I’ve learned anything about building knowledge in the academy over the past seven years, it’s that we’re always in the process of revising and resubmitting. We submit our best possible version of a project (well, that’s the hope) to a journal, and then reviewers send back comments to help us move forward. We respond to those comments and resubmit it, only to be forced to revise even more carefully, picking out finicky grammatical errors and fixing the ones the professional editors have caught for us. I find that I’m someone who regroups at all stages of the writing process, often soliciting feedback from different people to get different ideas. At the beginning, I usually query my parents, partner, and #TeamRhetoric friends to figure out if the idea is worth pursuing. I then go to my advisers and committee members…or sometimes I jump right in and wait to talk with them until I run up against a problem. Or many problems. There’s always a horrible moment in the midst of composing when I wonder, “Is this even rhetorical? Why am I doing this? Does anyone care?” These questions can really shake my confidence, but thankfully a brief consult with #TeamRhetoric during writing group or a quick phone call to some of my colleagues who have since graduated Carolina can put my mind at ease. (For the next few hours, at least).

What I’ve learned through these challenges is that being challenged is part of the process of doing interesting, conversation-joining, possibly paradigm-shifting intellectual work. Although I do the physical work of writing on my computer when I’m typing in Word or Google docs, searching digital or print archives, taking notes when I’m talking to people smarter than me about what they’re doing or what I’m doing, it’s the work in my brain that’s the hardest to move through. I ponder over questions such as “Is this really about x or is it actually about y?” and “My god, what does this all MEAN?! Is it actually meaningful or just a weird coincidence?” and “What does this DO for…my audience of the moment?” when I’m in my kitchen, baking brownies that don’t come out of the pan, or even in the shower, when playing with my cat on the living room floor, or sitting on the bus on the way to campus.

So where does the work happen? Anyplace and everyplace. Hopefully more of the time than less of the time. (I’ve posted an example of what some of it looks like below). No matter what part of the process you’re in, I’m sending positive thoughts your way!

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 12.02.05 PM

Image Description: Screenshot of a Microsoft Word Document depicting a page with a chart on it and blue comments and highlights.

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Rhetoric and Visual Ethnography: Envisioning the Future of Health, Medicine, and Bodies in Practice

Rhetoric and Visual Ethnography: Envisioning the Future of Health, Medicine, and Bodies in Practice

(Note: Trying out a title for…who knows what? I’m not even sure what “bodies in practice means.” I was thinking about doctors practicing medicine and people practicing their illness chronologies before they go to the doctor…but maybe that’s just something I do).

I’ve thought more about it, and I’m concerned that my investigation into Lyme Disease images is going nowhere. Yes, it’s weird/interesting that there are four main images in circulation (the deer tick, the bull’s-eye, the Lyme spirochete, and Lyme-endemic area maps), but…can I write a whole dissertation on it? Since I’ve never written a dissertation/book before, I clearly don’t really know the answer. It’s worrying me.

I’ve been tossing around Jason’s idea from the #TeamRhetoric writing group meeting a few weeks ago: that I write my entire dissertation on visual ethnography as a rhetorical research method. Here’s what I think this might be good for:

A) Demonstrating that LOOKING at health and medicine texts/images (broadly defined) might reveal something new/different/important about them. My exploratory research led me to sociology of medicine and medical anthropology journals that highlighted how visual research methods often (more effectively) illuminate the lives and experiences of underrepresented and systemically disadvantaged people. I know that there are a lot of these individuals who are sick and who are lost in the system—forgotten by doctors and the public at large. Perhaps a project that uses visual ethnography could shed light on some of those experiences that might not otherwise be put at the forefront.

B) Putting people and their bodies into practice. (Note: this sounds like a good idea but I’m not quite sure what I mean by it). I think what I mean to say is that it involves both the “participants” and the “researchers” in the making of the thing—which is TBD, of course.

C) A fantastic article about research methods (if nothing else)!

Here’s what worries me:

A) That visual ethnography isn’t rhetorical (enough). Jason is sure that it is, but I think I’m still lukewarm on the subject. The McNely et al. team is also sure that it’s rhetorical, and I can see how it would work for documenting/doing the writing process. And yet…I’m not sure about it.

B) I have no idea what I am doing or will be doing. Visual ethnography isn’t my field. In fact, I have very little training that supports this line of inquiry! I can take confidence in knowing that I know about rhetoric and power and practice and that that will take me where I want/need to go. But I don’t even know how to operate most cameras and I take terrible selfies, so I’m not sure if the images would even come out “right.”

C) Coordinating with the appropriate partners and experts. If I get the DPDF, I will have a (funded!) opportunity to do this and to consult with experts from the social sciences. However, without this boost, I will have to do this work completely on my own. I have some connections through the HHIVE and other friendly people I’ve encountered at UNC and UMD, but I don’t (personally) know any anthropologists or scholars who do digital work. (Well, Dan and Todd do, I suppose, but they don’t do visual ethnography…).

D) THAT THIS PROJECT MIGHT FAIL COMPLETELY BECAUSE I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT WILL HAPPEN! Theoretically, there is a chance for this to happen in any project. But for the first time, I am honestly not sure about what will come out of this project. In general, when I’ve done text-based research, I always know that there’s something to find that I can use for something, even if it’s not what I originally intended. I mean, there was that one time when I was trying to learn about sex education courses at UMD since it opened in 1856 and the sad archivist had to tell me that no records exist because UMD burned down completely in the early 1900s. At the time, I felt a bit disoriented (and definitely derailed), but the absence of ephemera led me to study something related: home economics. In fact, I probably didn’t have the necessary vocabulary—the search terms and historical language—that would have generated helpful results for my sex education study. (Since they very likely did not call it “sex education.” HA! Actually, I know that it was often called “social hygiene” and went by a few other related names). I am in a similar stage with this project: I don’t yet have the vocabulary to locate the information that I’m looking for…and perhaps it doesn’t even exist.

I guess I’ll find out?

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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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Looking at Lyme

Once my eyes focused on these long snake-like organisms, I recognized what I had seen a million times before: spirochetes.

–Willy Burgdorfer, 2001

Before I submit the SSRC DPDF on Thursday, I need to do enough background research to figure out how/why Lyme Disease visuals are important to study. Ultimately, I need to figure out what the history of these images are and how and why they have been so widely circulated in order to frame my application. However, this is turning out to be more difficult than I’ve anticipated. I’ve been playing around on the internet (i.e. researching) for last hour and a half, and here’s where my web travels have taken me:

  • Google Ngram. It appears that the phrase, “Lyme Disease,” was first used in 1962, but I couldn’t figure out how to make Ngram provide a list of publications from oldest to most recent. (Or they just couldn’t list the publications from the 1960s?) The earliest things that came up were from the 1980s.
  • Google Images. A bunch of categories come up for in a Lyme Disease search: rash, dogs, symptoms, bacteria, tick, and awareness. Looking at pictures of ticks on people’s skin (particularly fingertips) was making me nauseous. How my mother earned a master’s degree in entomology is beyond me. I’m not normally grossed out by bugs (re: entomologist mother), but for some reason, the images of ticks were turning my stomach. Interestingly, this reaction is challenging my earlier claim that typical Lyme Disease pictures are rhetorically ineffective. If an image is making me nauseous, it means that it’s doing something. I’m just not sure what yet.
  • Twitter. I love using Twitter to see what people are posting about Lyme (and everything else in the universe), and I was pleased to find a few new popular articles about Lyme via the #lymedisease hashtag. I also investigated the #lymediseasechallenge hashtag and campaign, which elicited many photos (though not as many as you’d think) of people biting into limes and making puckering faces. A lot of the Lyme Disease advocacy/support groups had posted infographics (without visual data, though, so they were really just informational graphics) with a few facts about Lyme and other things that connect to Lyme. It was interesting to see how Lyme is connected to other spirochete-based diseases like syphilis and that advocacy groups compared the numbers of people diagnosed with Lyme Disease to that of HIV/AIDS, colon cancer, breast cancer, and more. My favorite, of course, were the graphics about how one might prevent Lyme Disease: wearing long sleeved shirts when out in grassy areas, checking for ticks, etc. These remind me of the ineffective campaigns about preventing rape via making at-risk groups responsible for preventing rape. Vomit. It is peculiar that Lyme advocates have taken up a similar campaign–could this be considered a kind of topos?
  • Google Scholar. Again, I was trying to pull up the earliest articles (in date order) using the phrase “Lyme Disease” and “Lyme borreliosis,” as well as a few other variations with and without quotation marks, but the publications only seemed to date back to the 1980s. I eventually realized that it would be helpful to figure out who discovered Lyme Disease and to see what this person/team published on it…and if they included any visuals! This led me to the obituary of medical entomologist Willy Burgdorfer in The Lancet (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60011-3/fulltext?rss%3Dyes). With his team from the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, he looked at ticks from Long Island that were suspected to have Rocky Mountain Fever. Apparently, his main contribution is that he figured out that Lyme Disease was cause by spirochetes (bacteria in a spiral shape), which helped scientists and doctors figure out how to test for it, treat it, and, for a time, vaccinate people against it. Note: This visual discovery has circulated through popular culture, and some people like me even have Lyme spirochete toys – http://www.amazon.com/GIANTmicrobes-Disease-Borrelia-Burgdorferi-Microbe/dp/B000NO9HK2. (Thank you, Emi!)

All of this led me to the journal, Science, where Burgdorfer’s team first published about their Lyme Disease discovery. “Lyme Disease” is first mentioned in the journal, which was then called Science News, in Vol. 113, No. 23 (Jun. 10, 1978), p. 375. The 318 word report discusses the discovery of the first-ever “insect-carried arthritis,” which the researchers call “Lyme Arthritis” after its discovery in Lyme, CT. Interestingly, the reports claims that this condition is most common in children, which is still true according to the CDC, and that most affected individuals life in wooded areas in the north east U.S. The report also claims that scientists suspect that it is a tick-borne illness because the accompanying rash is similar to rashes related to tick-borne disease in Europe. No visual accompany the report.

The groundbreaking Burgdorfer article (written by Willy Burgdorfer, Alan G. Barbour, Stanley F. Hayes, Jorge L. Benach, Edgar Grunwaldt and Jeffrey P. Davis) was published in Vol. 216, No. 4552 (Jun. 18, 1982), pp. 1317-1319 in Science New Series. I’ve included screenshots of the images for your viewing pleasure:


VIsual 1: Spirochetes in Tick Vectors


Visual 2: Spirochetes in an electron micrograph. Not sure what that is, so I guess I should look it up.

We’ll see where all of this goes?

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Entering New Territory: Picturing Lyme Disease

So here’s the thing: things are changing. A simple Q&A format clarifies everything and nothing:

Q: What’s the most fun part about research?

A: Things are constantly evolving and you never know where you’re going to end up next!

Q: What’s the most frustrating/scary/difficult part of research?

A: Things are constantly evolving and you never know where you’re going to end up next!

We might say that research is a process that is both recursive and reflexive…which reveals new things as it goes along. When you think you’ve already picked a good topic, found good sites/archives for research, and developed your main claims,this can be rather annoying. I’m currently working my way through this phase; it’s kind of like the denial, bargaining, and other stages of grief. I am frustrated because I know both that my original idea–to study the rhetoric of Lyme Disease–was good, but that my new plan–to study the visual rhetoric of Lyme Disease–is significantly  more compelling.

Thanks to my brilliant #TeamRhetoric Writing Group colleagues, especially Jason and Jen, it has become clear that I should shift my project about the rhetoric of Lyme Disease to focus on visual rhetoric/images specifically. Why this change? I’ve learned a lot about the rhetoric of Lyme Disease in recent history, and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have been particularly unimpressed with the images of Lyme that regularly circulate in popular culture. Photos of ticks and drawings of EM rashes? Maps of where Lyme is located geographically? B-O-R-I-N-G. Not compelling (i.e. seemingly not adding to any particular arguments and appearing to merely take up space at the tops of Washington Post articles). So underwhelming that I started taking photographs of my knees to document my own embodied experiences with Lyme for the fun of it. (See the right side of this blog for a link to some of my selfies). AND YET these underwhelming images are likely a subtle key to the contentious arguments about Lyme Disease–as it exists and as it is imagined.

Evolving questions include:

  • What does Lyme Disease look like?
  • Who circulates images of Lyme Disease?
  • What does the circulation network look like?
    • How do Lyme Disease health-seekers/patients envision their connection to Lyme? How do they document their experiences of Lyme, if at all?
    • How do clinicians who treat Lyme Disease and researchers who do experiments to learn more about Lyme Disease *see* it–in the lab, in the treatment center, in the exam room?
  • How do these images circulate?
  • What is the history of images of Lyme Disease?

and of course…how do Lyme Disease visuals function rhetorically? How might images/visuals be effective argumentative tools for presenting new ideas/shifting the focusing/reevaluating the stakes of Lyme Disease?

At the moment, I’m thinking through a few major concerns:

  • Is it possible to do a visual project from/with great attention to a disability studies perspective?
  • I don’t know nearly enough about visual rhetoric.
  • How can I ensure that this will be an explicitly feminist and explicitly intersectional project?

But what I do know is this:

  • Qualitative researchers in the health sciences have reported that visual research methods can reveal new and exciting things about health and medical behaviors and practices, particularly about gender.
  • Scholars in the rhetoric of  health and  medicine haven’t often taken up visuals as a) research methods, or b) objects of analysis. A recent special issue of Communication Design Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Special Interest Group for Design of Communication, focused on rhetorics of health and medicine and prompted me to think about designs as visuals….(?)
    • “The essays included here explicitly and implicitly point to different ways that ideas, texts, methods, practices, and technologies work in a variety of healthcare contexts, and more importantly, how that information is designed. The essays also bridge theory to practice.” (Frost and Meloncon 9)
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Research Questions/Questioning My Research

It’s funny how the process of creating research questions can prompt you to question your research (and your sanity) entirely! I met with Dan to talk about my Lyme selfies project the other day, and I came away with many insights. Here are a few of them:

  • Most academic monographs don’t have any pictures (or just a few in black and white) because they are incredibly expensive to print. We could say that this is one limit of the genre. My approach could be more of a genre-based approach that argues for the limits of alphabetic text; this would be something I’m very familiar with and would be a relatively easy argument to make.
  • My interest in this might fit into a number of existing academic conversations: visual rhetoric, visual literacy, digital humanities, etc.
  • It might be helpful to look for patterns to see how visual documentation of ill people/their bodies is happening in the vast social networks of the internet. (He highlighted Tumblr, Twitter, and Flickr). This means that I might start my analysis elsewhere–outside of my selfies–so better assess which conversation(s) I want to be part of.
  • Whatever happens, it might be helpful to take time to identify good archives, or strong pools of visuals that I could pull on now or later as part of my dissertation work.

This has led me to some other possibly more fruitful questions, many of which Jason, Jen, and Tiffany pitched at writing group this week:

  • How does a person license photos of their own body for public use? (Or do you?) Is there a kind of “best practices”? What choices do people make?
  • What is it possible for an archive of photos to do? What do I hope/expect that people will do with them, if anything? How do I think they will be circulated?
    • There’s an interesting rhetorical question here about public(s).
  • Can visuals create a space for unheard voices/identities to be recognized?
    • How are visuals a different way of knowing than alphabetic text?
    • Do visuals tell an alternative story?
  • How are visuals being use argumentatively? How could visuals be used argumentatively?
  • What are the networks in which these visual artifacts circulate?
  • How might digital methods/expectations interference/challenge disability studies methods/expectations? What are some effective digital approaches to making sense of things that aren’t alphabetic text?
    • For instance: metadata. Dan suggested that I try not to give text descriptions of my photos because then I’ll be analyzing–and in effect permanently marking–my images and the way the will be used. However, in order to make my photos more accessible to individuals who use screen readers, for instance, I need to embed text into my photos so that screen readers have something to process.
  • How will I catalogue and make sense of these images–my own and other freely available ones?

To prepare myself for a visual project (if that’s possible), I’ve been reading and rereading some scholarship about visual rhetoric, particularly ethnographic methods. This article my McNely et al. has been one of my main sources of inspiration. I thought that their justification for using photographs was compelling, so I’ve included it here:

We have made a concerted effort to use photography rather than videography for two primary reasons: first, as a practical constraint on our field research, we collectively had more experience working with the production and analysis of still images than video; second, and more importantly, we viewed photographs as affording both a medium through which we might better understand and analyze participant knowledge (in granular moments and as a collective whole), and as a mode of representing the complexity of our participants’ work. Our visual methods, therefore, helped us better understand the many genres of writing and rhetorical action that comprised participants’ eventual, public work.

–Brian J. McNely, Paul Gestwicki, Bridget Gelms, and Ann Burke, “Spaces and Surfaces of Invention: A Visual Ethnography of Game Development.” Enculturation (2013).

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