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Neurorhetorics: Thinking Together About the Persuasive Brain

Workshop Leaders:

Jordynn Jack, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
David Gruber, City University of Hong Kong

This workshop will examine intersections between rhetoric and neuroscience, with an emphasis on the productive interchange between these two areas of study.

Recently, scholars in rhetorical studies have called for interdisciplinary engagements with neuroscientists in order to examine “the constitutive nature of language, perception, and consciousness” (Gruber et al.) or to “investigate the rhetorical appeal, effects, and implications” of neuroscience research (Jack). While the excitement around neuroscience makes it tempting to import new theories into rhetoric, uncritical adoption of neuroscience findings carries with it attendant risks, including the tendency to present neuroscientific theories as facts, or to import troubling assumptions, such as the tendency for some neuroscience research to reify differences based on sex, gender, ability, and race. Accordingly, the focus of this workshop will be to develop skills in critical, rhetorical analysis of neuroscience and to develop projects that effectively engage the neurosciences.

We will begin our reading with the position statement, “Rhetoric and the Neurosciences: Engagement and Exploration,” which appeared in POROI in 2011 (co-authored by Gruber, Jack, Keranen, McKenzie, and Morris). Using this position statement as our guide, we will undertake a series of case studies: on the persuasive power (or lack thereof) of brain scan images, on the validity and usefulness of concepts such as “mirror neurons” and “Theory of Mind” for neurohumanities research (particularly rhetorical theory), on sex/gender differences as rhetorical effects of neuroscience research methods, and on the popularization of neuroscience findings. Readings will include articles by Matt May and Julie Jung (“Priming Terminist Inquiry: Toward a Methodology of Neurorhetoric”), David Gruber (“The Neuroscience of Rhetoric: Identification, Mirror Neurons, and Making the Many Appear”), Jordynn Jack and L. Gregory Appelbaum (“This is Your Brain on Rhetoric”), Melissa Littlefield and Jenell Johnson (“The Neuroscientific Turn”), and David Johnson Thornton (with selections from Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media).

We will practice reading neuroscience research articles rhetorically, while also questioning how those findings might inform rhetorical theory. Our workshop will also consider how to work directly in partnership with neuroscientists. As part of this effort, the workshop will feature “Ask a Neuroscientist,” a Skype session with brain researchers who are willing to answer questions about their research methods, theories, and assumptions.

Finally, participants will draw on workshop readings to further a scholarly project of their own. Participants are encouraged to bring with them a 6-8 page project (a research article, section of a dissertation chapter or prospectus, book proposal, etc.) that they will workshop with other participants. 

Questions should be directed to Jordynn Jack, jjack@email.unc.edu


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