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Jennifer A. Malkowski, J. Blake Scott, and Lisa Keränen

Rhetoric, commonly understood as the art, practice, and analysis of persuasion, has longstanding connections to medicine and health. Rhetorical scholars, or rhetoricians, have increasingly applied rhetorical theories, concepts, and methods to the texts, contexts, discourses, practices, materials, and digital and visual artifacts related to health and medicine. As an emerging interdisciplinary subfield, the rhetoric of health and medicine seeks to uncover how symbolic patterns shape thought and action in health and medical texts, discourses, settings, and materials. In practice, rhetoricians who study health and medicine draw from the standard modes of rhetorical analysis, such as rhetorical criticism and rhetorical historiography, as well as from social science methods—including participant observation, interviewing, content analysis, and visual mapping—in order to deepen understanding of how language functions across health and medical objects, issues, and discussions. The objects of analysis for rhetorical studies of health and medicine span medical research, education, and clinical practice from laboratory notes to provider–patient interaction; health policymaking and practice from draft policies through standards of care; public health texts and artifacts; consumer health practices and patient advocacy on- and offline; public discourses about disease, death, bodies, illness, wellness, and health; online and digital health information; popular entertainments and medical dramas; and alternative and complementary medicine. Despite its methodological breadth, rhetorical approaches to science and medicine consistently involve the systematic examination and production of symbolic exchanges occurring across interactional, institutional, and public contexts to determine how individuals and groups create knowledge, meanings, identities, understandings, and courses of action about health and illness.


Bradley A. Serber and Rosa A. Eberly

Mass public shootings in the United States have generated increasingly urgent efforts to understand and prevent active shooter scenarios. After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, government officials tried to no avail to identify a demographic profile of those who might become active shooters. Confronted with the limitations of identifying potential shooters in advance, government officials, mental health professionals, criminologists, and others interested in preventing active shootings have shifted their focus to guns, mental health, and location security. However, the terrain of each of these topics is murky and exposes additional uncertainties. The sheer number of readily available guns, the prohibition of gun violence research by federal public health and justice institutions, and the variance in attitudes toward and laws about guns in the United States inhibit clear and consistent gun policy. Further, linking active shooters with mental illness risks stigmatizing the vast majority of mentally ill individuals who are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. Because different locations vary in design, function, funding, resources, and vulnerabilities, no organization or institution can guarantee total security despite extensive and costly efforts. While political and social changes can lead to incremental and important improvements in each of these areas, the problem of active shootings is large, multifaceted, and evolving. Adding to the urgency is the increasing number of U.S. states voting to allow concealed and/or open carry of firearms on public college and university campuses. In the absence of certainty and in recognition of contextual differences, government agencies and educational institutions recently have promoted variants of a “run, hide, fight” approach to active shooter situations, and many schools, workplaces, and other sites have subsequently adopted these tactics in their active shooter training messages. From a rhetorical perspective, pentadic analysis (Burke, 1969) of “run, hide, fight” and its variants reveals the complexities of trying to prevent active shootings. “Run” and “hide” demonstrate both the possibilities and challenges associated with the scene, or when and where an active shooting might occur. “Fight” implies the ambiguities of agent and agency, that is, who gets to fight and how, in debates about gun-free zones, concealed and open carry, and on-site and off-site law enforcement. Meanwhile, the multimodal nature and often disturbing content of active shooter training messages sensationalize the act of active shootings, making them seem more real and present despite the low probability of such an event occurring in any particular place at any particular time. Given these complexities, active shooter training messages as a whole illustrate a tension of purpose in that they presumably attempt to alleviate fear while simultaneously producing it. By looking at a variety of government documents and workplace active shooter training messages, this analysis will explore uncertainties, controversies, and lingering questions about the content and consequences of active shooter training messages and how the producers of these messages frame active shooter scenarios as well as efforts to prevent and respond to such occurrences. No previous studies of the rhetorical or communication dimensions of active shooter training have been conducted, and no archives yet exist that cull such training materials for purposes of comparison, contrast, and analysis in the aggregate.


Explanations designed to teach, rather than to support scientific claims in scholarly works, are essential in health and risk communication. Patients explain why they think their symptoms warrant medical attention. Clinicians elicit information from patients and explain diagnoses and treatments. Families and friends explain health and risk concerns to one another. In addition, there are websites, brochures, fact sheets, museum exhibits, health fairs, and news stories explaining health and risk to lay audiences. Unfortunately, research on this important discursive goal is less extensive than is research on persuasion, that is, efforts to gain agreement. One problem is that explanation-as-teaching has not been carefully conceptualized. Some confuse this communication goal and discursive type with its frequent verbal and visual features, such as simple wording or diagrams. Others believe explanation-as-teaching does not exist as a distinctive communication goal, maintaining that all communication is solely persuasive: that is, designed to gain agreement. Explanation-as-teaching is a distinct and important health communication goal. Patient involvement in decision making requires that both clinicians and patients understand options underlying health-care choices. To explore types of explanation-as-teaching, research provides (a) several ways of categorizing health and risk explanations for lay audiences; (b) evidence that certain textual and graphic features overcome predictable confusions, and (c) illustrations of each explanation type. Additionally, explanation types succeed or fail in part because of the social or emotional conditions in which they are presented so it is important to note research on conditions that support patients, families, and clinicians in benefiting from explanations of health and risk complexities and curricula designed to enhance clinicians’ explanatory skill.