Category Archives: Research

Science and Health Communication during COVID-19


This post is co-written by Charlotte Armstrong from the Centre for Bioengineering & Biotechnology, who also works with the Royal Canadian Institute for Science (RCI Science), UWaterloo English‘s Devon Moriarty (PhD candidate), Dr. Ashley Mehlenbacher, and Dr. Brad Mehlenbacher, who all specialize in rhetorical theory and science communication.

Prof. Jennifer Harris posed several questions to us and we attempt to answer those questions here. Overall, our sense is that in the midst of this tragic crisis, it is too soon to have a good grasp on the full range of issues we are facing in the communication of science. However, rhetorical studies in science, health, and medicine, and broader studies of science communication and the allied field of technical communication have important lessons for us to consider.

Jennifer Harris asked: We’re in this moment where more people than ever before are trying to parse information about science. Have you noticed trends?

Uncertainty is perhaps the most obvious trend, and although it serves an important function, it can also be deeply discomforting. Consider, for example, the question of whether or not we should wear masks and, if we should, when we should wear a mask and what kind of mask.  The answer is: it’s complicated.

Researchers and media are hurriedly attempting to make sense of this particular moment in history, how we got here, if there have been other moments like this, what mistakes were made and what can we learn from them. The last 25 years have numerous events we can turn to for lessons and guidelines, including the anthrax attacks of 2001, SARS in 2003, and the Ebola epidemic in 2014. In all these cases, we have seen complex interactions between governments, scientific and medical researchers and practitioners, industry and business sectors, and citizens from multiple nations around the globe.

As well, studies of how news organizations and journalists generate health news suggest that it’s a complex process with multiple influences ranging from the sociology of media institutions through to the day-to-day processes of practicing journalists. For instance, we know news organizations report less science- and health-related news if they haven’t devoted specific resources to news coverage in those areas, they tend to publish more personal angles on health news (for example, about spread through religious organizations or through their children’s schools), and importantly, news tends to cover topics of interest to readers based on proximity and geographic relevance, a pattern that appears to have played out in terms of COVID-19, where news stories were reporting on the virus in Wuhan, China, as early as December, 2019, but North Americans were generally seemingly unprepared for its arrival here until mid-March, 2020, even after the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a Pandemic. Conversely, once the virus arrived here, some media content was being collected hurriedly, and this heightens uncertainty, as studies of avian influenza in Australia and studies of Ebola in Guana have shown us.

Finally, a trend we’ve noticed is that scientific information and its complex relationship to society is being discussed. Discussions are especially notable around matters of socioeconomic disparity, for example. What does it mean for essential workers who are paid minimum or near-minimum wage to be risking their lives for the continued functioning of our communities, our economies, etc.? We’re also starting to have important conversations about racism, structural inequality, and the elevated risk that marginalized people face from COVID-19.

JH: There’s a joke circulating online, a graph charting the increase of people consulting graphs. How important has our ability to convey and interpret this information become?

Being able to interpret and, importantly, vet information presented to us in graphs or charts was important before COVID-19 (hence the development of fields that study visual, media, and computational literacies), but the immediacy and proximity of the data to our lives renders that importance more clearly.

Scientific visualizations of data are not just simplified versions of numerical symbols; rather, they are meant to persuade readers to adopt a particular position towards something, often doing so in more vivid and memorable ways than text. In this way, visual representations of data also have the potential to oversimplify, exaggerate, or minimize if they are not viewed in relation to other narrative features such as practices for collecting, representing, and interpreting data, and methods of labelling, captioning, or framing graphics. Thus, it is useful to examine the complexity of visuals. For example, one might note that visualizations of the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths reported globally are growing both in terms of the exponential spread of the virus and also because of increases in testing.

In addition to static scientific visualizations, animated graphs and videos are being shared widely by social media as well. Many examples of these types of visuals can be found in the news (for example, Forbes), via university institutions (see data collected by Johns Hopkins University and reported by CBC News), on, and on visualization companies’ websites (for example, Flourish Studio’s active cases by country visualization). Notable Canadian science communicators such as Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown of asapSCIENCE have also produced wonderful video material on how COVID-19 works biologically, and Henry Reich of Minute Physics has shown us how we can tell if we’re beating the coronavirus spread.

JH: Where do you think we could be doing better in relation to science communication right now?

There is some incredible science communication happening right now. Ed Yong’s work at The Atlantic has been excellent. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is regularly sharing updates through Twitter (as @CPHO_Canada). Another outstanding example is Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia and expert in infectious disease, who has demonstrated such phronesis (moral prudence/practical wisdom), arete (virtue or moral excellence), and eunoia (goodwill toward her audience) that she has a fan club on Twitter (@bonniehenryfans) and her communication approach is much-discussed in the press.

Among research scientists, too, scientific communication has played a central role in the COVID-19 response. These scientists are engaging in rapid and open research and we see an increase in access to COVID-19 related information (see, for example, Taylor & Francis’s COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus Content Online). Advocacy and consideration for research and researchers has generally been high. The research community is under tremendous pressure to provide expertise and media coverage (often on subjects that are not their field), take part in COVID-19 response committees, attend many departmental meetings, adjust curriculums for online platforms, and continue to adapt their research.

They have families at home and are being tasked with a tremendous amount of increased work and responsibility. And, most importantly, they are human and deserve empathy and respect as much as we all do during this difficult time. Experts are being asked to increase their science communication outreach at an extraordinarily difficult time. The stress of being asked to give impossible answers takes its toll.

Part of the difficulty with this pandemic is that there is a lot of good, clearly communicated scientific information out there, but the ways that we engage with media significantly impacts what kinds of science communication we even encounter in the first place, and whether or not we find it credible. Misinformation can circulate rapidly through social media streams, where even discerning users can be fooled or confused. Such was the case with the viral tweet about hand sanitizer (pictured) written by someone claiming to be a scientist; while the claim that hand sanitizer has no impact on the coronavirus was quickly debunked by numerous sources, it’s likely that many individuals continue to be misinformed (not to mention that individuals may have changed their hygiene habits or missed out on buying sanitizer at the store before being corrected). Filter bubbles as designed by our online behavior and social media circles, and our frequenting of comfortable ideological echo chambers, can not only limit the kinds of sources and information that we encounter, but also give us a false sense of confidence as to being accurately informed. Relatedly, Celeste M. Condit has looked at public health officials’ communications during the Ebola crisis, revealing that political orientations can significantly influence how audiences perceive the credibility of public health establishments, their officials, and their claims. This is to say that we all play a role in effective science communication. It is our duty as rhetorical citizens to be critical information consumers and distributors, taking care to check claims and our own biases so that we don’t become unwilling participants in misinformation campaigns.

As communication experts, we can also contribute to good science communication by getting more involved in our own communities. Kirk St. Amant provides an overview of instructional and informational materials that communications professionals can create for the benefit of organizations and individuals navigating the COVID-19 crisis. Producing accessible and accurate local resources might take the form of grocery shopping checklists for stores to distribute that are designed to prepare individuals to stay at home for long periods while preventing empty shelves from bizarre panic-buying (that is, individuals won’t need a stockpile of toilet paper but are likely to need canned foods). Such interventions can cater to the expectations and needs of the local situation and assist in reducing the strain on over-extended essential services.

JH: We talk about teachable moments–what we can and can’t take from particular events. What do you see coming out of this as a teachable moment?

Universities must communicate and collaborate openly so that researchers can connect and communicate their research to colleagues in other disciplines so that everyone can work together. Government officials, scientists and medical experts (both in the lab and on the front lines), media spokespersons and citizens must collaborate in new and creative ways, largely online and under pressure.

To this end, scientists and health experts have been hurriedly working to generate research that answers fundamental questions about how the virus works, spreads, is monitored and tested for, and reported since it first appeared, yet science communication about the disease, its symptoms, characteristics, and strategies for limiting its spread have spilled across communication channels that involve nations, government priorities and political administrations, social practices and definitions of community, socioeconomic issues, healthcare systems and resources, and definitions of individual responsibility and accountability.

Whether this moment in history is ultimately viewed as a series of catastrophic errors and missteps or as a moment when humans rose up collectively, globally, to battle an invisible, deadly enemy has yet to be determined.

Dr. Jay Dolmage on Disability Rights in a Pandemic

Twitter Stone

UWaterloo English professor Dr. Jay Dolmage is an expert in Disability Studies, author of three books on the subject (Disability Rhetoric, Academic Ableism, and Disabled Upon Arrival), and founder of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies. This week, he shared his thoughts on Disability Rights and COVID-19 for the article “As pandemic deepens, disabled people fear falling through the cracks ‘like the unseen’” in The Record.

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Local Black History: Meet Major Harding

Queen's Bush Marker
As part of Black History Month, Words in Place is publishing profiles of forgotten figures from local Black History. Today’s subject is Major Harding, another resident of the Queen’s Bush settlement.

Before arriving in Queen’s Bush, the life of Major Harding was hardly uneventful. Born in Virginia, he resided in Nashville, Tennessee, the property of William Harding, a member of the largest slave-holding family in Nashville. The Hardings had arrived in Nashville from Virginia in the early nineteenth century, and were somewhat unusual, refusing to employ overseers and managing their lands themselves. For whatever reason, Major Jones, as he was then known, was allowed to purchase himself from the Harding family in 1833:

David Harding, Davidson County, to Tennessee Assembly, 1833

To the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee now in Session

The Petition of David Morris Harding a citizen of the county of Davidson & State aforsaid

Represents to your Honorable body that he is at this time in possession of a certain negro man named Major who was formerly the property of the late William Harding the Brother of your Petitioner—that his said Brother in his lifetime had designed and intended to emancipate slave Major in consequences of his long and faithful services—but that his intentions were frustrated by the death of his said Brother who died suddenly and without having made a Will—After his death, in making distribution of his property said slave was distributed to the Wife of my said Brother, and she being willing that said slave might be enabled to obtain his freedom as his master had intended agreed that as he had been valued to her at the sum of Four Hundred Dollars your Petitioner, might take him at that price, with a view to secure him his freedom—Your Petitioner states to your honorable honot that the said slave has paid to him the said sum of Four Hundred Dollars, and he is now desirous that he may be emancipated, and he represents that said Slave Major, is about Thirty five years old, that he has been a most valuable and faithful slave, that he is strictly honest, sober, and industrious, and in fact a man of uncommonly good character for a man of his color, and your petitioner entertains no doubt that if emancipated he will make, an orderly and respectable Citizen, wherefore he prays your Honorable Body to pass an act emancipating said slave Major and as in duty bound he will ever pray &c.

David M. Harding
September 27th, 1833

Somehow, it feels like we have only half the story. Clearly William Harding’s wife was not willing to fulfill her husband’s promise. Nor was David Harding bound to do so, yet he appears to have invested significant time and effort in securing Major’s freedom. Like most who held legal title to those enslaved, the Hardings protected their investments: African American fugitive Henry Thomas recounted an uncomfortable meeting in the 1830s with another Harding brother, William Giles Harding, who had travelled all the way from Nashville to Buffalo hoping to recapture a fugitive from slavery. Freeing a productive worker such as Major constituted a financial loss. Moreover, $400 was less than a trusted individual such as Major Jones would have been valued at on the Tennessee market, where the base was probably closer to $600.

So what made Major exceptional? After all, many enslaved people were capable of earning the money necessary to secure their purchase; few were allowed the time to do so. Like an estimated 10% of those Harding enslaved, Major was classified as “mulatto.” But William Harding was not Major’s father, as they were of an age. (This does not, of course, discount the possibility of fraternal relations.) Ultimately, unless more research in the extensive Harding archives turns up an answer, we will never know.

How Major raised the money is another issue: he may have borrowed it, he may have made an arrangement with William. This would have been made more difficult by the fact that Major was supporting his free family. By his own account, he was married in 1820 to a free woman, Maria. Maria’s free status would ensure their children were born free, as status was conveyed through the mother. The 1840 Census of Nashville for Major Jones accords with the children Major Harding would bring to Canada (though there may have been a son, also named Major Jones, who remained in the US and was enumerated in the 1870 Census).

Some time following the birth of Rachel in Nashville around 1844, Major and his family relocated north, where in 1847 he and his son Robert appear on the Queen’s Bush petition under the name Harding. His son Robert later dated the relocation to 1850, raising the possibility they lived between Canada and the United States. There are a number of reasons the family may have taken the name Harding: it may have signaled their connection to Nashville to family and friends seeking them; it might have been a matter of gratitude; it might have been a matter of a legitimate claim to the patronymic. Ultimately, we will never know. But is under this name—occasionally misspelled—that they are recorded in the Queen’s Bush, and later in Kent County.

In all probability Harding did not arrive with savings, having used his earnings to purchase or pay off his freedom and support his family. Harding was clearly an ambitious and strategic man, bringing his son Robert with him to secure additional land. His story demonstrates how difficult it might be for men with families to establish themselves when deprived of resources. Unlike others, his family remained in Canada following the U. S. Civil War. Daughter Martha married Thomas Parks in 1864; N. Harding (possibly Nelson) may have married a woman named Jane; Robert Harding married first Cecilia Zebbs and then Elizabeth Travis; Rachel Harding married William Palmer in 1865.

Sources consulted
Census of Canada (1851, 1861, 1911); United States Census (1840, 1870);  Linda Brown-Kubisch, The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers, 1839-1865 (2004); Ridley Wills, II, The History of Belle Meade Mansion, Plantation and Stud (1991); Loren Schweninger, ed. The Southern Debate Over Slavery: Petitions to Southern legislatures, 1778-1864 (2001); Dan Walker et. al. The Marriage Registers of Upper Canada/Canada West (1995).

Author: Dr. Jennifer Harris, Department of English Language and Literature
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Local Black History: Meet Melissa Smith Hesson

As part of Black History Month, Words in Place is publishing profiles of forgotten figures from local Black History, beginning with Melissa Smith Hesson.

Melissa Smith, the organist of Guelph’s British Methodist Episcopal (BME) church, had ambitions. Journalism, public speaking, performance—she tried them all. The fact that she did not succeed as she might have says more about her era and the limited options for nineteenth-century Black Canadian women than it does about her ability. However, Smith’s desire for more, as well as her commitment to the church, was obviously part of a long family tradition.

Smith’s grandfather, Kentucky-born Henry Smith (1802-c1854), first arrived in Peel in 1844, though he had probably been in Canada for well over a decade. The 1851 Census lists Henry, his wife Margaret, and their seven Canadian-born children in Peel. Henry was by all accounts religious; in 1846 he was admitted on trial as a minister by the AME Church. By 1852, he was mentioned as “Bro. H. Smith” in the Voice of the Fugitive, where the following report was made:

we our committee to whom was referred the duty of examining brother Henry Smith for holy orders, have attended to the same; and beg leave respectfully to submit the following as the result of our labors; we believe brother Smith to be a very pious and upright man, but literally disqualified to be admitted a Deacon in the Church of God. We therefore recommend him to improve his mind by reading &c., one year longer. Cheerfully submitted by Wm. H. Jones, Edmund Crosby, and S.H. Brown

Reading between the lines it appears Smith suffered the fate of many raised in slavery: an insufficient education which impeded his ability to fulfill the duties of a Deacon, including those which relied on textual knowledge. Whether Smith reapplied is unknown; his busy household and the responsibility of supporting a family while also engaging in the back-breaking labour necessary to settling parts of the Queen’s Bush no doubt impeded his ability to study.

Smith’s children, however, do appear to have been educated. It is possible that at least two of his sons (Charles and John) served in the United States Civil War; Arthur, Melissa’s father, would not. In 1868 Arthur married Sophia Wilson, the daughter of Lloyd and Mary Ann “Polly” Wilson (identified as “mulatto” and American-born in 1861).

By 1871 Arthur and Sophia Smith were the parents of two children, and farming. A year earlier Guelph’s BME Church had been founded on Market Street. The Smiths would soon identify as members, as would Sophia’s brother Peter, a later resident of Essex Street. By 1874 Arthur and Sophia would have at least five children, including their daughter Melissa, born in Queen’s Bush.

Before she was twenty Melissa Smith had distinguished herself as a correspondent for the Plaindealer, Detroit’s first black newspaper. Her letters are full of reports of local events. A typical entry follows:

Mrs. S. Venerable, of Guelph, spent a few days in Hamilton, during the Saengerfest last week.
Rev. J. O’Banyoun and Miss Lottie Bland, of Hamilton, were married at St. Paul’s AME church of Hamilton, Tuesday evening, by the pastor, Rev. Mr. Bell. A few of their most intimate friends were present. Mrs. Bell served refreshments, after which the happy couple left for Chatham, where they will make their home.
John Walden, of Preston, is in the city, visiting his brother Allen Walden who has been seriously ill for a few weeks.
Mrs. Hissin, of Guelph, was called to Dunville last week, to see her sick daughter, Mrs. M. Matthews.
Mr. Henry Lawson, of Toronto, spent Sunday with his parents in the city. We are all pleased to know that Mr. Lawson is getting along so nicely with his trade.
Mr. Richard Wind, a former Guelph boy, was married last Wednesday in Toronto.
Mrs. W. Smith, of Preston, was in the city visiting her mother-in-law, Mrs. Smith.
Mr. J. Spencer has been very ill for a few weeks but is recovering slowly.
A number of Guelph boys have gone to Toronto. It seems to be a famous place for boys wishing to marry, as all the boys that have gone from Guelph to Toronto have married Toronto ladies.

Smith’s comments are for the most part the standard gossipy social fare that one finds in small town newspapers of the era. The difference, of course, is that Guelph’s paper did not report on such activities within the black community, and its members were forced to look further afield if they wanted to see themselves represented in their normal day-to-day lives—in this case to the other side of the border. The Plaindealer was the closest all-black newspaper; moreover, Detroit was the closest US city, and as such a site of migration for black Canadian men seeking opportunities. As Smith observed, young men frequently relocated to larger cities in search of greater opportunities. As a young woman, she was not immune to the idea, subsequently writing “It has been wondered if the girls will meet the same fortune as the boys, as some of the girls are talking of going to Toronto.” In 1891 Smith made her own move:

Your former correspondent, Miss Melissa Smith, left on Monday last, for Hamilton, Ont., to join the Canadian Jubilee Company, and will be absent, if all goes well, about five months. We very much regret to lose Miss Smith from our social and church societies. She was organist of the B.M.E. church and Sunday school, and also secretary of the latter. She has a very fine soprano voice. Success to you Miss Smith.

Founded in Canada in 1879, the Canadian Jubilee Singers and Imperial Orchestra had toured England, the US and Canada in the 1880s, and provided a rare opportunity for black Canadian musicians and performers. Why Smith joined them for only five months is unknown; certainly she did not appear in subsequent mentions of their performances in the 1890s. Instead, we next hear of her in Guelph in 1893, speaking in a debate at the Collegiate Institute Literary society on the subject “Money is not as beneficial as love.”

Smith had to wait for love; perhaps because so many of the young men had relocated while she stayed with her parents, who by 1901 resided in Guelph, with Arthur trading farming for whitewashing. At least on Essex Street the family was close to the BME church with which they had such strong ties. Melissa, who lacked the education so many black female journalists of the era boasted, was employed as a milliner. Finally, on the last day of 1908, Melissa Smith married Samuel Hesson (Hisson), ten years her junior (the son of Henry and Sarah Jane). The couple appears to have moved back and forth between Detroit and Canada, with Samuel working as a teamster and porter. However, the match did not last, there were no surviving children, and by 1921 Melissa was living on her own at 17 Devonshire Street in Guelph, married but with no husband in the house, and employed as a grocer. Smith would die in June of 1893; her brother Arthur—still on Essex Street—reported her death. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Smith represents a generation of black women who desired more but were often thwarted by a lack of opportunity. Just as her grandfather appeared to have been held back within the church due to his lack of learning under slavery, Smith was held back in other ways.

Sources consulted
Canadian Census  (1851, 1861, 1871, 1891, 1901, 1921);  The Voice of the Fugitive, 12 August 1852; The Voice of the Fugitive, 26 August 1852; United States Colored Troops records; Plaindealer, 8 August 1891; Plaindealer, 11 September, 1891; Plaindealer, 23 October 1891; Plaindealer, 10 January 1893; Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895 (2002); Detroit, Michigan, City Directory, 1909; Detroit, Michigan, City Directory, 1911.

Author: Dr. Jennifer Harris, Department of English Language and Literature
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Games book series from UWaterloo faculty and alumni

book series covers

Are you aware that UWaterloo English’s Dr. Neil Randall, and PhD alumnus Dr. Steve Wilcox are co-editors of the Palgrave series Games in Context? Books published in the series to date include Queerness in Play, Masculinities in Play, and Feminism in Play, the last co-edited by UWaterloo PhD alumna Emma Vossen. A description of the series follows:

Games are pervasive in contemporary life, intersecting with leisure, work, health, culture, history, technology, politics, industry, and beyond. These contexts span topics, cross disciplines, and bridge professions. Palgrave Games in Context situates games and play within such interdisciplinary and interprofessional contexts, resulting in accessible, applicable, and practical scholarship for students, researchers, game designers, and industry professionals. What does it mean to study, critique, and create games in context? This series eschews conventional classifications—such as academic discipline or game genre—and instead looks to practical, real-world situations to shape analysis and ground discussion. A single text might bring together professionals working in the field, critics, scholars, researchers, and designers. The result is a broad range of voices from a variety of disciplinary and professional backgrounds contributing to an accessible, practical series on the various and varied roles of games and play.

New faculty publication: Shakespeare’s Common Language

Congratulations to Dr. Alysia Kolentsis whose new book Shakespeare’s Common Language, from the Arden Shakespeare Studies in Language and Digital Methodologies, is now available for order. If you are thinking, “wait, didn’t I just see a post about a Shakespeare book from Dr. Kolentis?” you are right: that would probably be Shakespeare On Stage and Off , co-edited with another UWaterloo English Professor, Dr. Kenneth Graham.

A description of Shakespeare’s Common Language, from the press:
What can developments in contemporary linguistics and language theory reveal about Shakespeare’s language in the plays? Shakespeare’s Common Language demonstrates how methods borrowed from language criticism can illuminate the surprising expressive force of Shakespeare’s common words. With chapters focused on different approaches based in language theory, the book analyses language change in Coriolanus; discourse analysis in Troilus and Cressida; pragmatics in Richard II; and various aspects of grammar in As You Like It. In mapping the tools of linguistics and language theory onto the study of literature, and employing finely-grained close readings of dialogue, Shakespeare’s Common Language frames a methodology that offers a fresh approach to reading dramatic language.

Dr. Acheson’s book makes news!


Shakespeare and Milton are in the news–really, Shakespeare and Milton are in the news–and it is all due to the scholarship and connections facilitated by the new edited book, Early Modern Marginalia from UWaterloo English’s Dr. Katherine Acheson. The bare essentials are as follows: Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren, whose essay is in the volume, was reading the other chapters, including one by Penn State professor Claire Bourne about a seventeenth-century annotated folio of Shakespeare’s work. In reviewing the images included in her chapter, he recognized the handwriting as that of John Milton. With Bourne’s permission, he blogged about the possibility, and fellow Milton scholars weighed in–and concurred. As The Guardian writes:

It has always been known that Shakespeare was a huge influence on Milton – in his poem On Shakespeare, Milton calls him a “son of Memory” and “great heir of fame”, writing of how “Thou in our wonder and astonishment / Hast built thyself a live-long monument.”

“But this allows us to see the encounter happening,” said Scott-Warren. “It shows you the firsthand encounter between two great writers, which you don’t often get to see, especially in this period. A lot of that kind of evidence is lost, so that’s really exciting.”

The Washington Post, The Guardian, and others, have all reported on the find, and Bource and Scott-Warren are planning a series of co-authored articles.