Faculty Expert Q&A: Cathryn Molloy

A conversation with Cathryn Molloy

JMU Headlines

by Hannah Lynn Robinson

Cathryn Molloy, professor of writing, rhetoric and technical communication at James Madison University, researches rhetoric of health and medicine and rhetoric of mental healthcare.


Molloy studies the ways that stigmatized patients consciously and subconsciously use rhetoric to rebuild their credibility after being unfairly doubted due to demographic factors. In her research, she harnesses the power of the personal narrative to unlock reoccurring themes across groups of marginalized individuals—creating space for silenced voices to be heard.


Q: For the general public, what would be the most interesting work or research you have done while at JMU?

A: As a rhetorician of health and medicine, I study the ways that patients subconsciously and consciously use everyday conversations as ways to rebuild their credibility after stigmatizing health and medical experiences and how patients establish their credibility—and the veracity of their subjective symptom reports.

I am currently working on a project titled Credibility at the Clinic: A Critical Engagement with Rhetorical Ethos in Health and Medical Contexts, which is an interdisciplinary book project that takes up “credibility” or “rhetorical ethos as a particularly relevant framing mechanism for interrogating the role stigmas and abuses play in patterns of persuasion as they relate to social reproduction. This project showcases the value of rhetorically-focused humanities projects for unpacking especially thorny health and medical realities.

One of the chapters of this book uses over 700 open-ended surveys from and 68 interviews with a diverse group of men and women who convey remarkable stories of contested psychiatric diagnoses and years-long bouts of suffering before accurate diagnoses of physical disease. This project contributes to a burgeoning body of narrative work on patient mistreatment in mainstream US health and medical contexts; it extends and challenges this area of inquiry by avoiding critiquing healthcare providers and focusing, instead, on patients’ empowering rhetorical moves for undermining biases in clinical settings.


Q: What can we look forward to in the next year from your area?

A: Along with two colleagues in my field Bryna Siegel-Finer and Jamie White-Farnham, I’ve got an edited collection on women’s health advocacy coming out in 2019 titled Women’s Health Advocacy: Rhetorical Ingenuity for the 21st Century.


Q: What challenges do you face in your field of research?

A: It is often challenging to recruit participants for such specific research and to explain the value of humanities projects for adding important insight into issues and problems that would seem to be the purview of the hard and social sciences only. In WRTC, we live somewhere between the humanities and the social sciences. We borrow methodologies and basic epistemological assumptions from disparate sources. It is a challenge, but it is also what I like about the field.


Q: How does your area of expertise relate or play into what is currently going on in the world today?

A: There are many accounts of individuals receiving inappropriate or inadequate care due to erroneous assumptions about their mental health status. That is, it is dauntingly common to be wrongly diagnosed as having symptoms that are “in your head”—especially if you are from a marginalized group. This issue, of course, is exacerbated in the context of uneven access to quality care. That said, bodies and minds are connected, and some physical symptoms, of course, do have psychological causes. This problem is often framed in ways that make care providers out to be villains. To me, that approach doesn’t do much to empower patients, and it is not always fair to well-meaning care providers. Contributing to people’s knowledge of effective strategies for establishing and bolstering their credibility in health and medical contexts and beyond, I hope, is a better approach to an extremely intractable issue.


Media contact: Hannah Robinson, 520-222-2808, robinshl@jmu.edu

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Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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