Public Health and Persuasion
An endowed professorship supports critical inquiry into the ways we talk about and understand health.
“Every Laurentian should be able to speak and write well.”
It’s a simple, inarguable statement, but its consequence — for every student and the University’s alumni — cannot be overstated. For Allie Rowland, it is now part of her mission.
“Rhetorical competence is the foundation of a strong liberal arts education,” she says before asking, “How could we participate in a democracy without it?”
Rowland is assistant professor of performance & communication arts at St. Lawrence and holds the Maurer Professorship of Speech and Rhetoric. Established in 2007 by the Maurer Family Foundation and Gilbert C. ‘50 and Ann Maurer P’74, ‘81, ‘81, GP’03, this fund supports a faculty position in the rhetoric and communication program.
“As Maurer chair,” Rowland says, “I need to champion speaking across campus, and I don’t limit that to mean only public speaking. There are so many oral communication skills our students need, including deliberation, working with a team towards an actionable solution of a complex problem and dialogue, empathetically listening to another person to understand other perspectives. These are crucial skills for every Laurentian, at work, at home, and in the community — especially in today’s fractured and polarized world.”
These skills will be central in a new course called Against Health: Rhetoric & the Health Humanities. Rowland developed it with financial support from the Mellon Foundation’s Wide Angle Learning Grant.
“We will question some very basic assumptions — what counts as healthy? For whom? How do we know we are healthy?”
Rowland says the course will give students the tools to examine and understand complex public-health issues by deconstructing the way these issues are discussed in the public sphere.
“Consider the direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceutical prescriptions,” she says. “We’ve all seen those drug commercials that end with Ask your doctor about… Prozac or Allegra or some other medication taken by lots of Americans.
In the class we can focus on a number of conditions, like depression. How do these advertisements, as public messages, influence the way we experience sadness, in ourselves and in others? Some scholars might say these ads help people by de-stigmatizing mental illness. Along with many critical scholars, I am skeptical of this.”
It is this skepticism, rooted in scholarship and the intellectual dissection of rhetoric, which will play an important role in the course — and in students’ lives.
“It’s right there,” Rowland says, “number one on the list of 10 learning goals, enshrined on the very first page of the St. Lawrence University course catalog: ‘An ability to speak and write clearly, articulately and persuasively.’”
She says the importance of teaching writing is readily recognized by liberal-arts universities, as evidenced by Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID) initiatives.
“Both WAC/WID curricula simultaneously teach writing itself (learning to write), while also using writing to enhance students’ clarity and depth of thinking about a particular topic (writing to learn). In my work with faculty, I import this into a learning to speak/speaking to learn model.”
Rowland says many St. Lawrence faculty members are hungry for coaching on how to construct and grade speaking assignments, or instruct students in oral communication skills.
“That’s where I come in,” she adds. “For a few years now, I have co-facilitated the grant-funded Oral Communication Institute. I also deliver workshops to First Year Program faculty, and do one-on-one coaching with these faculty members.”
By supporting the new course, the Mellon Foundation’s Wide Angle Learning Grant is also linking Rowland’s work on communication to the public health minor at St. Lawrence. This interdisciplinary initiative will help our students develop the specific analytical abilities the marketplace now demands.
Additional support is needed to expand these types of learning opportunities within the St. Lawrence public health minor—and to fuel its growth into a major. This is a priority of The Campaign for Every Laurentian and each of us has a role to play in our University’s future. n