Introductory Blog – Gavin Brookes

This is the second time I have been a part of CASS, which means that this is the second time I’ve written one of these introductory blog pieces. I first worked in CASS in 2016, on an eight-month project with Paul Baker where we looked at  the feedback that patients gave about the NHS in England. This was a really fun project to work on – I enjoyed being a part of CASS and working with Paul and made some great friends in the Centre with whom I’m still in contact to this day. Since leaving CASS in October 2016, I completed my PhD in Applied Linguistics in the School of English at the University of Nottingham, which examined the ways that people with diabetes and eating disorders construct their illnesses and identities in online support groups. Following my PhD, I stayed in the School of English at Nottingham, working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School’s Professional Communication research and consultancy unit.

As you might have guessed from the topic of my doctoral project and my previous activity with CASS, my main research interests are in the areas of corpus linguistics and health communication. I am therefore very excited to return to the Centre now, with its new focus on the application of corpora to the study of health communication. I’m currently working on a new project within the Centre, Representations of Obesity in the News, which explores the ways that obesity and people affected by obesity are represented in the media, focussing in particular on news articles and readers’ responses. I’m very excited to be working on this important project. Obesity is a growing and seemingly ever-topical public health concern, not just in the UK but globally. However, the media’s treatment of the issue can often be stigmatising, making it quite deserving of scrutiny! Yet, our aim in this project isn’t just to take the media to task, but to eventually work with media outlets to advise them on how to cover obesity in a way that is more balanced and informative and, crucially, less stigmatising for people who are affected by it. In this project, we’re also working with obesity charities and campaign groups, which provides a great opportunity to make sure that the focus of our research is not just fit for academic journals but is relevant to people affected by this issue and so can be applied in the ‘real world’, as it were.

So, to finish on more of a personal note, the things I said about myself the last time I wrote one of these blog posts  are still true ; I still like walking, I still travel lots, I still read fantasy and science fiction, I still do pub quizzes, my football team are still rubbish and I don’t think I’ve changed that much since the photo used in that piece was taken… Most of all, though, it still excites me to be a part of CASS and I am absolutely delighted to be back.

 

CASS goes to the Wellcome Trust!

Earlier this month I represented CASS in a workshop, hosted by the Wellcome Trust, which was designed to explore the language surrounding patient data. The remit of this workshop was to report back to the Trust on what might be the best ways to communicate to patients about their data, their rights respecting their data, and issues surrounding privacy and anonymity. The workshop comprised nine participants who all communicated with the public as part of their jobs, including journalists, bloggers, a speech writer, a poet, and a linguist (no prizes for guessing who the latter was…). On a personal note, I had prepared for this event from the perspective of a researcher of health communication. However, the backgrounds of the other participants meant that I realised very quickly that my role in this event would not be so specific, so niche, but was instead much broader, as “the linguist” or even “the academic”.

Our remit was to come up with a vocabulary for communication about patient data that would be easier for patients to understand. As it turned out, this wasn’t too difficult, since most of the language surrounding patient data is waffly at its best, and overly-technical and incomprehensible at its worst. One of the most notable recommendations we made concerned the phrase ‘patient data’ itself, which we thought might carry connotations of science and research, and perhaps disengage the public, and so recommended that the phrase ‘patient health information’ might sound less technical and more 14876085_10154608287875070_1645281813_otransparent. We undertook a series of tasks which ranged from sticking post-it notes on whiteboards and windows, to role play exercises and editing official documents and newspaper articles. What struck me, and what the diversity of these tasks demonstrated particularly well, was how the suitability of our suggested terms could only really be assessed once we took the words off the post-it notes and inserted them into real-life communicative situations, such as medical consultations, patient information leaflets, newspaper articles, and even talk shows.

The most powerful message I took away from the workshop was that close consideration of linguistic choices in the rhetoric surrounding health is vital for health care providers to improve the ways that they communicate with the public. To this end, as a collection of methods that facilitate the analysis of large amounts of authentic language data in and across a variety of texts and contexts, corpus linguistics has an important role to play in providing such knowledge in the future. Corpus linguistic studies of health-related communication are currently small in number, but continue to grow apace. Although the health-related research that is being undertaken within CASS, such as Beyond the Checkbox and Metaphor in End of Life Care, go some way to showcasing the rich fruits that corpus-based studies of health communication can bear, there is still a long way to go. In particular, future projects in this area should strive to engage consumers of health research not only in terms of our findings, but also the (corpus) methods that we have used to get there.