cite this article as
Currents in Electronic Literacy
Spring 2002 (6),
- I teach a rhetoric class on illness narratives
to University of Texas undergraduates. The course, "Illness
and Testimony," looks at a battle of stories: a battle
between the myths and images attached to certain illnesses and
the people who resist these stories by telling their own. We
analyze social and medical narratives about people who are ill
and then read patients' own writings to see how they reclaim
narrative control of their identities.
- This topic
is a challenging one: Students must become sharp readers of
real-life experience and thoughtful listeners to others' stories.
Sea MOO offers a "place" to practice both. Here,
students use the Internet to take an imaginative leap into the
skins and psyches of doctors and patients. Such role-playing
in a virtual environment invites students to invest their imaginations,
as well as their growing rhetorical skills, in the cares and
care of others.
- This paper
details a role-playing project undertaken by my students and
offers some of their responses to it. It also, I hope, suggests
the value of Multi-user domains for students and instructors
whose course material--like mine--grapples with "embodiment."
By asking students to interact "outside" their real
bodies, MUD role-playing allows a glimmer of experiential understanding
of what it's like to inhabit the body of another. This MUD technology
is a sophisticated, exciting teaching tool for three of my major
course lessons: that our bodies shape how we view the world
and are viewed in it; that bodies can never define us entirely;
and that narrative facilities help us define ourselves as we
How it Works
- Each of
my students receives an envelope--their identity pack--with
a roughly sketched character profile. Half are doctors, the
other half, patients. They know what ails them, or what ailments
they'll consult about (all ailments are fraught with stereotypes
they've just spent several weeks identifying and dismantling).
They know if they will lead the discussion, or follow their
partner's lead. And they know the number of their "examining
room." The rest is up to them. Here's a sample identity
Students flesh out their identity pack profiles.
They create a character, find an image to represent that character,
research their ailment, and write a 2-3-page character bio and
(most importantly) analysis of their choices in creating the
character. All are invited to embody or challenge stereotypical
representations as they choose. And, indeed, their characters
range from Norman-Rockwell-esque paternal physicians and "angelic"
young women with leukemia to HIV+ soccer moms and women-of-color
also devise a 1-page strategy sheet of things they plan to say
to their doctors/patients; persona-true "guidelines"
for their emotional responses; and ways to complicate, cool
down, or heat up their interaction.
Welcome to Playing Doctors, Playing Patients:
A Virtual Exchange! In this game identities are fluid. You
will play a patient who has had a cancerous growth removed.
On March 20th, you'll talk to a new-to-you doctor about
psychological issues you've had since your surgery. You
are the lead. You'll be in Room 5 of the Wellness Center.
- I've created
Center" in the MOO to host this project. The images
I used for the Center's rooms are of a "dreamy," imagination-inflected
clinic. In keeping with the MOO's Silver Sea theme, identities
are fluid here: Students pass through a pane of water to enter
a blue reception area and walk down a "liquid hallway"
and into their appointed examination rooms. The images, of course,
only matter inasmuch as they create an appealing game space
for the students. I've loaded all their character images and
descriptions into the MOO so that when doctor and patient "meet"
they are able to see with whom they're interacting.
- This game
is a demanding one, requiring students to keep up a 30-minute,
in-character, typed dialogue. It requires agility with the course
material, an imaginative taking-on of another's subjectivity,
a powerful encounter with assumptions surrounding how "sick"
and "healthy" and "broken" and "whole"
people look and act.
ultimately write an evaluative argument about their role-playing,
deciding if their doctor-patient interaction was a positive
or negative one based on criteria they establish. Virtual tape
recorders in each room provide full transcripts of all that's
spoken and gestured to help students offer very specific evidence
in their papers.
A Serious Game
- When student
doctors and patients meet, they find that the images they've
selected to represent themselves (their "bodies")
often over-determine their partners' responses to them. They
must find the words to assert--even defend--the characters they've
labored to create in the face of another's perceptions. Their
role-playing interactions are fraught with all the conflict,
disorientation, and disconnected communication of real-life
doctor's office dynamics. "It is always strange to meet
someone new and open up to them," writes one freshman in
a post-game discussion forum. It is strange in life, and strange
with her anonymous "doctor" classmate, she explains.
A student "doctor" writes, "The 'patient' I interacted
with really threw me some curve balls. Some of the questions
she had I didn't really know how to answer, and [I didn't know
how to respond to] some of her 'outbursts' or breakdowns. .
. . As diverse as the English language may be, sometimes words
- The role-playing
illustrates the strain of disappointed expectations. The game
"was very frustrating because I (as a patient) wasn't hearing
what I wanted from my doctor," writes one student, whose
character was a man with an eating disorder. Her doctor writes,
"My patient was very stubborn, and somewhat rude."
In response to this patient, she said, her character appeared
increasingly unskilled and relied too heavily on small jokes
to maintain the conversation. The transcript from their interaction
shows how these two characters, despite a seemingly smooth start,
struggle to define themselves in the face of what each views
as the other's misconceptions about him/her. The doctor repeatedly
asserts his authority: "You can call me Doctor"; "I've
won tons of awards"; "I'm the highest paid doctor
in this state"; "I know what's best"; "I
want to be recognized"; "I'm the doctor." The
patient, angered by his doctor's confidence and quick assumptions,
asserts the complexity of his situation and the depth of his
despair: He cries, "huddles into himself," and claims
no one understands him.
twosome, Dr. Knox, a surgeon, and Rebekah, a breast-cancer survivor,
find that what one needs, and what the other feels comfortable
giving, are very much at odds. Rebekah seeks reassurance that
she'll be able to feel comfortable in her marriage and in her
role as mother despite her mastectomy. She is insistently personal,
forcing her doctor out of "doctor-ly" clichés
and into intimate revelation. Rebekah's intense, unstaunched
emotion demands a person-to-person, rather than doctor-to-patient,
Yes, treatment is difficult mentally and physically, but
if you keep your head together you'll be back to normal
Rebekah begins to cry. [. . .]
Rebekah: Tell me, Doctor, if your wife lost both her breasts,
would you find her repulsive too? [. . .] Tell me the truth.
You would, wouldn't you? You married a woman, and that's
what you want. But now, what am I?
Knox: Half your battle with cancer will be psychological.
You've got to focus on the long-term goal. [. . .]
Rebekah: I'm not even the woman my husband married.
Knox: No physical change could make me leave my wife.
doctors and patients shake hands, hug, look each other in the
eyes, stare into space, back-pat, and draw back. They seek to
connect and be understood--and to remain true to the characters
they've created and the things they initially thought would
be important to say. "With this project, we not only got
the chance to build the character, we got to BE the person,"
writes one student. "It really was interesting to try to
figure out how to respond as a character to an outside force."
- My students'
responses to this project were overwhelmingly positive, and
several reported that they gained keener eyes for evaluating
their own interactions with real-life doctors. And it is, of
course, exciting to see students learning to respond eloquently
and true-to-character in the face of any andall "outside
force[s]." They see the high stakes of rhetorical power
while--just as in working their way through this rhetoric and
composition course--their own rhetorical powers are taking shape.