CCCC 2019 Proposal

CCCC 2019, Pittsburgh, PA

March 13-19, 2019

FOCUS AREA:  Research

TITLE:  Trauma-Informed Research Methods for Rhetorics of Health and Medicine


Words can be hurtful.

Although many of us learn this aphorism during childhood, when we grow to become adults who study language and communication, we tend to compartmentalize the types of words that can hurt and the harms they may cause. As rhetoricians of health and medicine, we often intentionally subject ourselves to potentially traumatizing discourses in the name of research. These discourses can come in the form of illness narratives, public health policy data, or ethics case studies. This observation that has largely gone unnoticed in our subfield (and in composition and rhetoric studies generally) because we tend to view textual study as value neutral and some genres, like narrative, as intrinsically positive or even liberatory.

In this presentation, I extend emerging research in psychology and traumatology to text-based research methods. In particular, I introduce and explain the concepts of “countertrauma,” being traumatized by experiencing others’ stories of trauma, and “counterresilience,” withstanding or overcoming the effects of countertrauma, and relate them to the work of rhetorics of health and medicine. I will illustrate these concepts with autoethnographic data from my own rhetoric research on mental health and qualitative data I’ve gathered from a sample of community mental health workers.

In addition to giving researchers tools to conduct safer, trauma-informed textual research, I invite them to understand trauma as a call to action. The presentation concludes with suggestions on how rhetoricians can use their text-based research to build community resilience and help heal those around us who suffer from trauma.


Textual research can be psychological harmful. Integrating concepts from traumatology into our research practices can make us and our communities more resilient to trauma.

Posted in Conferences, medical rhetoric, trauma Tagged with:

End of Semester Reflection: Tech in the Classroom

There will be no laptops in my classes next fall. Cell phones will be silenced and stowed, too.

This isn’t because I’ve been burned by students claiming to take notes on their iPhones or read from an ebook. I went to grad school with a dude who read books on his Samsung Galaxy and am familiar with what deep screen reading and textual referencing looks like on a pocket-sized OLED. I knew that they were checking sports stats, writing papers for their next classes, or shoe shopping.

It’s not that I didn’t care enough. Rather, I think it’s that I didn’t know how and why to care. I came up as one of those young teachers who scoffed at the oldsters’ out-of-touch technology policies. Laptops were tools for enhancing the learning experience. We had the google at our fingertips: infinite extemporaneous resources bigger than the Library of Congress to thumb through, shed light, auger in. And utterly dilute ourselves, wreck our attention spans, stress ourselves out with our next appointment, fake readings, double fake note taking, all the while never speaking or listening.

It bears repeating: never speaking or listening.

Cognitive psychology and applied linguistics are pretty clear on the relationship between speech and thought. Speaking is thinking. Listening. Scholars from Carl Rogers to Krista Ratcliffe have had brilliant insights on the importance of directing our attention to others to create meaning and understanding. Listening is the missing canon of rhetoric.

I owe it to my students to offer them practice being present with each other. Sure, this is a job skill, and most of their coworkers will be off task most of the time, but that’s not my concern. I want to us capitalize on the collective wisdom in the room. Genuinely listen, seek meaning, and speak the selves we create in the moment. This is learning. I am deeply troubled by the recent attacks that both students and the administration of my current institution have levied against dialogue. As a rhetorician, I’ll believe that dialogue is all that separates us from oblivion. Bad things happen when dialogue stops to say the very least. At minimum, my job is to teach students that discursive exchanges accomplish stuff. Maybe all of us on campus need a refresher on the foundation of the humanities and civilizations everywhere.

Additionally, and this is by no means an exhaustive justification for the policy, I’ve noticed that my students really need to know that someone cares about them. This is likely an effect of the self-isolation and narcissism fueled by screen culture. One student my first semester at my current institution endured two friends attempting suicide in the same week. She disappeared for a while and then told me once the full weight of the semester was hovering over her like a tidal wave. I can’t blame her, either. Who would want to go to classes where there’s no human connection? Half way through the last semester, I started checking in with all of my students at the beginning of class. There were days when I could see the difference it made for some. Commiseration, celebration, fear, a lot of fear of the future, but fear externalized and corroborated by their peers. But there was a sense that we had joined in the collective narrative process of learning. The individual narratives bundled together to make the class narrative.

I want my students to be aware of these benefits and practice acting like they value them. Who knows what will happen next.

So on the syllabus, I’m requiring students to bring a notebook and a pencil or pen to each class. And we’ll use them in each class before, during, and after we talk to each other.

There is an irony to this new policy that I will have to iron out with my students. My fall courses are Digital Writing and Technical Writing. In both courses, we’ll be composing in online spaces for online audiences. We’ll have to negotiate the boundaries of this work: when to communicate IRL, F2F and when to productively stare at our screens. (I think I have this figured out: Mondays are for collective inquiry and Wednesdays are lab days. Done.)


Posted in teaching, unplugging

Syracuse Veterans Writing Group April 2018

The VA Is Where Veterans Fight the War of Percentages (or Letters as Artillery)

The VA was an annual letter informing my grandfather that he was now 5% more disabled this year than last.

It’s another letter telling my father that is disability claim has been denied. He isn’t more disabled this year than last. A year-over-year net gain compared to his father, but a loss still.

“Deny until you die,” he says over the phone. Then he asks how he can prove to them that he’s depressed. My mother’s listening in the background. Is there any information I can send him? I do. He was surprised to find out that he really is depressed. But that doesn’t matter much unless the VA thinks so, too.

More white bags of pills in the mailbox: he gets 90% disabled pills in the mailbox. He’s convinced if he took them, he’d be 100% dead.

The VA is a letter to my brother telling he’s 100% disabled and another letter instructing him to return to have his disability status verified. He’s married now and has never hurt his wife. Is he less disabled this year than last? What’s the percentage difference between homicidal and happily married?

The VA is where my father’s thyroid was removed and where he took radioactive iodine to cure him from the cancer caused by Agent Orange and depleted uranium munitions. It’s also where they removed his kidney after the radioactive iodine defoliated his kidney and gave it cancer, too.

The VA is where my brother spent 30 days as an in-patient to prove his sanity to Union County College after they expelled him for having a flashback. He showed the administration a letter stating he was 100% sane. But he was still 100% expelled.

The VA is car rides for my father to Tuskegee, other times Montgomery, most times to Columbus, where he sits in group therapy sessions so he can prove to the VA that his percentage is too low.

The VA is the calculator that tallies the debt a grateful nation can never repay to those who swore to uphold its Constitution.




Posted in SYRVWG, veterans studies


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