Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Catherine Schryer

By Victoria Boyd, MPC 2014

Dr. Catherine Schryer has been an integral part of the Ryerson Professional Communication (ProCom) community since the inception of the School of Professional Communication. I chatted with the professor and Chair of ProCom about her research interests in genre theory and her advice for ProCom students interested in healthcare communications.

How is your research related to healthcare?

A lot of the research I’ve done is related to the ‘hidden curriculum’ in medicine. By that I mean the unacknowledged assumptions and practices happening within the healthcare system.

For example, case presentations—when a student presents his or her assessment of a medical case and recommendations for moving forward—are done throughout medical school. These presentations are very much guided by how healthcare problems are traditionally understood and how supervisors communicate with students to solve them. Case presentations are extremely important; they are a form of professionalization.

In my research, I found that a supervisor often interrupts a case presentation, making it difficult for the student to finish. What we learned from interviews is that students perceived the interruptions as constant and difficult to deal with, whereas physicians perceived the interruptions as teaching moments. In effect, supervisors were training students to interrupt others—the hidden curriculum in this instance. What makes this a significant finding is that this mode of communication subconsciously informs how students act when they become doctors. They are more likely to interrupt people, making the patient-doctor interaction stressful for patients.

Can you tell us about your work as a genre specialist?

In my early research, I reworked the notion of genre because I was interested in both what stayed the same and what changed in the structure of a text or event. In my work on recordkeeping at the Ontario Veterinary College, I redefined genres as a stabilized for now or stabilized enough site of social and ideological action. The stabilized for now was trying to encapsulate that text types are reoccurring events. They are stabilized enough so that people can say, for example, ‘this is a case presentation.’ At the same time, they are always in a state of flux. And genres are ideological; they reflect the values and beliefs of a community.

I changed this in later research by defining genres as constellations of strategies that we use to negotiate our way through time and space. I began to see events and text types as co-created by people working together. Like a piece of jazz music, everybody knows how to perform these kinds of events and there are strategies to perform them. This gives a sense of structure but, at the same time, you can never completely predict what kind of strategies people will bring into an interaction. And in fact, a genre—a text type or reoccurring event—will die if people don’t constantly renovate it. This is the theory behind genre theory.

When you’re not conducting research, what do you like to do in your free time?

I love going to the opera. Reading, of course. I also do embroidery. I find it very relaxing.

What advice would you give to ProCom students and alumni interested in healthcare communications?

Don’t be intimidated by medical language or research. Communication research is making a big difference in medicine. The healthcare industry is always looking for people who can communicate across fields.