My research focuses on five key questions:
- How does digital communication affect how we understand medical expertise, patient empowerment, and shared decision making?
- How do competing public and professional discourses reshape accepted knowledge about the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from contested illnesses?
- How do patients seek to address invisible illness and what public and professional genres most effectively counter invisibility?
- How do patients and healthcare providers respond to changes in healthcare information as it circulates across multiple genres and media?
- What do conceptions of race, gender, disability, age, and sexuality bring to bear on our understanding of medical rhetoric?
My dissertation, The Empowerment Paradox: Rhetorics of Lyme Disease and the Future of Chronic Illness, seeks to answer these questions. Though a case study of scholarly articles, Instagram posts, websites, patient databases, interviews, and other materials, I argue that chronic, contested illnesses like Lyme Disease cause public and professional boundaries to blur and reshape patient empowerment efforts. Rhetorical analysis reveals that scientific knowledge is not simply transmitted from experts to patients. Instead, surprising interconnections exist between patients and scientific and medical experts due to the rhetorical work of patient advocacy groups, “Lyme Literate” doctors, and health data management companies. Each chapter of my dissertation examines multiple genres and considers how they function as sites of empowerment for different audiences: ill people, healthcare providers, advocacy groups, government entities, and/or corporations.
Ultimately, my project suggests that the increasing permeability between public and professional communities can be productive because it advances biomedical knowledge, destabilizes traditional power hierarchies, and changes medical practice. Yet, my research also suggests that widely accepted rhetorical “moves” that are supposed to be empowering—such as teaching patients to research their medical conditions, prompting patients to share information about their illnesses on social media networks, and advocating for patient-centered healthcare practices—may be disempowering and harmful. A rhetorical approach reveals how intersecting visual, textual, and multimedia health discourses shape the conditions of possibility for patient empowerment efforts. Accordingly, it is integral to understand how, when, and why patients are adopting vernacular, scholarly, visual, and textual rhetoric in pursuit of better health.
Beyond my dissertation, much of my research has been collaborative and interdisciplinary, drawing on my interests in feminist rhetorics, medical/health humanities, rhetorical genre studies, digital composing, and disability studies. During my time at UNC, I have been privileged to be part of two research teams:
- Writing Diabetes, a team that investigated if and how writing might help people with diabetes manage their HbA1C and improve their sense of social support. (The results of our study are outlined on the HHIVE website and in this article, recently published in Technical Communication Quarterly).
- The Genre Project, a team that investigated which written, oral, and digital genres UNC instructors across the disciplines assigned in their classes and why they made these selections. (We are preparing two manuscripts that detail the results of our study and expect to submit them for publication soon).