Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Degree Program

English Rhetoric and Composition, PhD

Committee Chair

Sheridan, Mary P.

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Kopelson, Karen

Committee Member

Kopelson, Karen

Committee Member

Griner, Paul

Committee Member

Potter, Debbie

Author's Keywords

medical rhetoric; technical communication; scientific writing; health humanities; rhetoric and composition; feminist


This project explores the role of rhetoric in crisis—how rhetoric can contribute to both the stabilization and destabilization of a worldwide health emergency. Specifically, I utilize the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study to investigate how institutional rhetorics exacerbated the ongoing burnout epidemic amongst healthcare workers. Through a feminist, materialist take on institutional ethnography (Fullagar & Pavlidis, 2021; Griffith & Smith, 2014), I show how, while institutions like the CDC were under pressure to contain the spread of the virus, in the chaos of communicating safety regulations to healthcare professionals, they inadvertently subverted clinician autonomy and expertise by “coordinating” (LaFrance, 2019) their care practices through unrealistic “self-perpetuating” (Derkatch, 2022) efficiency rhetorics—rhetorics that no longer matched the reality on the ground in the day-to-day. Instead, clinicians were rhetorically assembled like machines, where they often felt institutions wanted them to be more like “robots,” even when workers wanted to make more humanistic interventions in patient care. The hospital, as a complex rhetorical institution (Porter, et al, 2000), straddles two realms—war (against disease) and business (Segal, 1997). Between these realms, there is a tension vii between mechanization and human-centric care. The hospital as mechanized imagines clinicians as soldiers to be sacrificed in battle, providing care with unquestioning service even when their lives are at risk. As a business, it imagines patients as consumers and clinicians as the machines to “fix” ailments, as if on an assembly line. However, this view conflicts with the reality that clinicians are humans with human limitations, and patients are people, not profits. My research demonstrates that the effects of these framings are deeply felt, particularly during a traumatic health crisis. And despite institutional rhetorics putting forth mechanistic notions of providing medical care, medicine remains a deeply embodied practice (Campbell & Angeli, 2019; Groopman, 2007; Montgomery, 2006; Ofri, 2013; Ruth-Sahd and Hendy, 2005). Utilizing feminist epistemology as a framework to study “who can be a knower” and “what can be known” (Barbour, 2018; Brooks, 2007; Poole, 2021), I closely examine the deeply embodied rhetorical work clinicians employ during the pandemic to stabilize their working environments, despite practicing under so much chaos, strife, and uncertainty. Ultimately, I argue that institutional rhetorics that mechanize people and practices have significant enduring consequences. And in the end, these effects are ultimately felt by the most vulnerable—all who enter a hospital to receive care.