Pedagogies of Science and Medical Writing ~ Session G6


Review by Erin A. Frost

Read more about session G6 on the C&W conference site.


Kaitlin Marks-Dubbs, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Kate McKinney Maddalena, North Carolina State University
Brian Ballentine, West Virginia University
Robert Aaron Dawson, West Virginia University

This panel took on topics including rhetorics of contagion, interdisciplinary writing pedagogies, the importance of study abroad to technical communication programs, and the correlation of values between technical communication programs and university mission statements. Although panelists explicitly acknowledged that their presentations address very diverse topics, the panel as a whole provided a space to talk and think about the importance of being careful, deliberate, and reflective about disciplinary practices for the field of computers and writing.

Kaitlin Marks-Dubbs, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
In “Going “Viral”: Medical Writing, Digital Texts and Metaphors of Compositional Virulence,” Kaitlin Marks-Dubbs questioned how biological metaphors shape and constrain the roles of producers and consumers in texts. She stated that the conflation of the spread of ideas with biological transmissions happens in many disciplines, and she has been working to prove that the use of biological metaphors actually affects the spread of information. Framing composition in this way assumes that we can map physiological processes onto social structures.

Specifically, Marks-Dubbs studied rhetorics produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Mental Health that frame suicide as a contagious public health risk. She argued that the language is not just a vehicle, but also an actor in the situation. The specter of contagion and virulence changes audience perspectives and embodied cognition. Institutional definitions of suicide as a public health issue and contagion hail readers as good citizens who should be engaged in an effort to avoid the spread of the “disease.” In other words, contagion rhetorics invoke a logical social responsibility that urges compliance and develops channels of information distribution that reinforce institutional knowledges.

Marks-Dubbs asserted that the NIMH and the CDC have found a way to explicitly tell news organizations how to talk about suicide. The NIMH defines suicide contagion as occurring when suicides are reported in a way that sponsors additional suicides; that is, it suggests that news coverage can increase preoccupation for at-risk individuals and theorizes the existence of “suicide clusters.” By foregrounding the threat of contagion, the NIMH calls upon reporters and users of social media to minimalize sensationalism by limiting detail. In other words, utilizing a rhetoric of contagion provides the NIMH with agency to control reporting on suicides. These organizations are persuading writers to change what they write to a broader audiences for which the NIMH and the CDC themselves lack access. Marks-Dubbs asserts that reporting recommendations then become much like hygiene guides, reviewing what practices are contaminated and which are free of contagion. Marks-Dubbs left listeners with an important question: If we conceptualize compositions as able to mutate, evolve, contaminate, and infect, what happens when we send these compositions out into the world?

Kate McKinney Maddalena, North Carolina State University
Kate McKinney Maddalena’s presentation provided thought-provoking challenges to interdisciplinary composition instructors. Maddalena, who teaches both composition and science and technology courses, outlined new ways for thinking about science writing. Maddalena proposed a move for writing-across-the-curriculum scholarship away from transplanting composition into other disciplines; instead, she suggested, we should spend more time talking about the writing pedagogy that exists in the disciplines that we are looking at. For example, she said that chemistry teachers have recognized a problem with the common Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion (IMRAD) model for science writing: In order to do well on a science assignment, a student’s report should end up looking like everyone else’s. In other words, this format quashes diversity and scientific curiosity. Maddalena’s observation provides writing instructors with undeniable exigence to examine alternative writing models.

In developing new models of writing, Maddalena advocated open science and networked computing—particularly when we consider questions about how such concepts have changed technical writing and our access to scientific data. She encouraged writers to question what counts as a lab, data, access, and knowledge. Further, she asserted that we should situate students as producers of knowledge as well as consumers of knowledge. Maddalena’s work provided several noteworthy ways of thinking about how diversity—in methods, styles, and epistemologies—sponsors knowledge-making.

Brian Ballentine, West Virginia University
Extrapolating from a trend in the field of business that recognizes the value of study abroad experiences for students, Brian Ballentine sought to answer the question: Why does technical and professional communication need a study abroad component? To begin answering this question, Ballentine drew upon Deborah Andres and Brent Henze’s article “Teaching Professional Writing to American students in a Study Abroad Program,” which distills challenges, successes, and frustrations as well as offers several pieces of advice: settle in one location, advocate for small class size and recognize the business you are in, foster a resident’s rather than tourist’s perspective, explicitly accommodate technology, blend formal and collateral learning, grow local roots, and strike the right balance between holding on and letting go. Ballentine provided a careful literature review in which he paid attention to sustainability for study abroad programs as well as their effects on the legitimacy of the field. Ultimately, he argued that maintaining international study programs is essential if technical communication curricula are to be taken seriously.

More specifically, Ballentine argued that study abroad addresses current concerns about how to build out curricula to better incorporate the changing nature of knowledge work required of modern students. He also argued that study abroad enables the foregrounding of the relatively newer subjects of globalization and intercultural competency. Students who have studied abroad have an easier time solving complex problems; exposure to different worldviews supports the flexibility of cognitive processes. Ballentine suggested that questions do remain about the value of study abroad for technical communication programs, and he continues to do work in this area. In fact, Ballentine traveled to Porto, Portugal, in July of last year to work with the Center for Computer Produced Texts in Cyber Studies (CETIC); this trip is the basis of an in-progress work that will provide additional important reflections on the importance of study abroad for technical communication programs.

Robert Aaron Dawson, West Virginia University
R. Aaron Dawson examined how one might determine the nature of a technical and professional communication program. What texts impact our understanding of such programs? To this end, Dawson looked at the relative similarities and differences in the rhetorics used in university mission statements and program-level goals statements for professional communication. He argued that studying mission statements of universities and technical communication programs can help us to think about localized understandings of theory and practice, access to information, industry-academy relationships, and channels of influence.

In comparing these two sets of texts, Dawson searched for academic signifiers and industrial signifiers. He limited data collection to programs listed as “professional writing,” and he organized his findings based on each institution’s status as either a land-grant institution or a non-land-grant (NLG) institution. Specific NLG institutions Dawson discussed as somewhat representative of their categories were Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Memphis, Miami University. Land-grant institutions included Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, North Carolina State University, and Clemson University. Dawson’s summarized findings are that NLG institutions tend to have significantly more dissonance between their mission statements and professional writing program goals than do land-grant institutions.

Dawson was careful to emphasize that all the schools he mentioned have important and productive programs. However, when alignment doesn’t happen between these documents, a rift opens that can confound the professional writer’s task. Dawson said that a possible solution is re-evaluating the description of technical communication programs (so as not to undermine years of tradition) through tweaking program goals statements. Doing so ensures that professional writing programs will not become subject only to non-academic practices and also presents more fertile grounds for short-term collaborations and explicit engagements of theory in practice.

Erin A. Frost is an assistant professor at East Carolina University.


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