About Carole Blair, Ph.D.: Carole Blair is Professor Emerita in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also served as Director of Graduate Studies and as a Faculty Fellow for the Institute of Arts and Humanities. An influential scholar in the field, Dr. Blair’s scholarship investigates the rhetoric of United States commemoration, exploring memorials, museums, and commemorative art. She has published dozens of essays and book chapters, including, “Mood of the Material: War Memory and Imagining Otherwise,” and is co-editor of the collected volume Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials.
Dr. Blair has served on the editorial boards of some of the field’s most acclaimed journals, including Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Quarterly Journal of Speech, and Text and Performance Quarterly, and was President of the National Communication Association in 2015. Dr. Blair received her B.A. and M.A. in Speech and Dramatic Arts from the University of Iowa and her Ph.D. in Speech Communication from the Pennsylvania State University. Prior to arriving at UNC, she was Director and Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, where she also worked as Director of the UC Davis Washington Center.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have a brief overview of your academic and professional career? How did you first become interested in rhetorical criticism and begin to study its connections with place and public memory?
[Dr. Carole Blair] Like many people of my generation, my career started with a bunch of one year-at-a time jobs, because there were hardly any tenure track jobs. The year I started looking for jobs in the academy, there was one tenure track job in the entire country that had the word rhetoric in it. Working in lots of places was actually great, because I met lots of people and got lots of really good encouragement from everybody I worked with. That part was fun but moving coast to coast four times puts a damper on your ability to work very well.
I was not particularly enamored with rhetorical criticism in graduate school. I took classes in it, because everybody did that, but I was much more interested in theory. I thought rhetorical criticism wasn’t really doing what it could do — that it wasn’t really commenting in serious ways on political discourses and other political aspects of culture. It was much more interested at the time in contributing to theory or refining theory, and yet it had almost no influence on theory whatsoever.
There was this pretense of making it more like social science in a very positivistic, old-fashioned way and it didn’t work. That isn’t what criticism should do, in my view, and I just thought it was mostly boring. I shouldn’t generalize like that because many of the things I read were very influential in my career over time, but it raised the questions, “Why do we have to contribute to theory all the time? Why can’t we make political commentary?” It is rhetoric after all. It has something to do with the mediation of a citizen and the state. It’s public discourse. It’s all of those things that should lead us in particular directions that aren’t necessarily always theoretical.
So, I didn’t get into criticism much. I did a few small things, but mostly I was working on theory. I was totally enamored of Michel Foucault, whom I encountered sort of late in graduate school but early enough that I could base my entire dissertation on his work. That was a huge influence on what I was interested in theoretically, too.
My career is a set of accidents. I think a lot of people probably say that, but it’s really true in my case. It wasn’t until my second “tour of duty” at UC Davis — I was a lecturer first and then left and then came back in a tenure track job — that I was approached by two students separately. They both had written, oddly enough, papers for different classes altogether the year before on the Vietnam War Memorial and the AIDS Quilt. I agreed to read them — they wanted advice on how to publish them.
The sad answer is, as was mostly the case at that point, if it didn’t have a really strong theoretical emphasis it wasn’t going to get published. Neither of them really did. They were smart papers, critically interesting, and also in wild disagreement with one another, and I disagreed with both of them too, from a different angle. They knew each other, but didn’t know each of them had written these papers. This was the first big accident. I said, “Well, why don’t we just all work on it together?”
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial piece [“Public Memorializing in Postmodernity: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial as Prototype”] was the one that emerged from that collaboration and it started me on a trajectory that I’ve never left – I’ve taken twists and turns but the question that kept popping up for me while we were working on that paper was, “Why is it that all of a sudden this memorial makes such a big splash in the United States? It was about Vietnam, which was a big thing, but, at the time, there was no national memorial for WWII, or WWI, or the Korean conflict, or any of this stuff. National commemoration of any variety was almost dead in the water in the US, and other countries too, so I’ve learned, and had been for 40-plus years at the time the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated. This led me to ask, “Why this and why now, and what’s going on with this interim period where there’s nothing?”
That question launched it. I kept looking at new things like the Civil Right Memorial, which came very soon after the Vietnam memorial, the Astronauts Memorial, the US Navy Memorial, which had been put on hold for decades, all kinds of different and interesting projects. I kept getting drawn back to the question, “Why is this such a big thing now and why wasn’t it before?” I kept returning to that question, and I couldn’t answer it or hope to without going back in time more to the beginning of the 20th century when national commemoration was a big thing.
It just basically died off in the early 1940s, which was a strange time for it to die. There are lots of reasons it died and lots of reasons it came back, and all of those have to do with very complicated cultural and artistic issues. I’m still trying to answer that question but I think I have some answers at least.
Now, in the middle of all of this, I ended up with a husband [Bill Balthrop] who is also a rhetorician. He was coming off years and years of administration and wanted to get back into research. So, I gave him an audition [laughs] and we started working on this project. I had enormous curiosity about what happened with US national commemoration when it was basically exported to Europe in the wake of WWII. The same thing had happened after WWI. Everybody knows about Normandy and maybe other WWII cemeteries and monuments abroad, but the WWI project, which was the largest US commemorative project in the history of the country at the time, basically set the model for that.
The expatriation of commemoration partly explains the near-absence of commemorative sites in the US during that interim period, but it also is interesting in its own right. It’s very complicated stuff. At that point in time, I had almost no knowledge of WWI which makes me pretty much an average citizen of the US, I think. But it was actually fortuitous timing because there was a looking ahead, especially in Europe, toward a couple of big anniversaries — the 90th and 100th anniversaries of that war. People were beginning to write about it again, especially in Europe but some in the US as well, and really rethink a bunch of the truisms about WWI: misconceptions that it was all about trenches and blood and being totally unnecessary. It was really a great time to come into this, when people were really changing their views about this war.
I was still focused mostly on the commemoration part, but you have to learn something about the event. I learned a lot and I’m still learning. I think if we ever manage to write this book about the WWI sites, then we can go back to the original question [about the absence in mid-century of commemoration in the United States], but we haven’t gotten there yet. We’re working on it though. Little pieces over time we’ve written about commemoration both internationally and inside the US – where there’s not much, basically until recently it’s been limited to the Tomb of the Unknowns. There is, under construction still, a WWI focused memorial in Washington DC very near the White House. I’m hoping to see it soon. Most of the US WWI commemoration is in Europe and the UK, though. That’s where our trajectory is right now. It’s continuing even though I’ve retired — maybe especially because I’ve retired.
It’s been a fun journey so far, and I’m really grateful to Rick and Marsha for giving me this happy accident way back in 1991, which seems like several lifetimes ago.
[MastersinCommunications.com] A major focus of your research has been applying a rhetorical perspective to understanding commemorative sites like memorials and museums — what you call “places of public memory.” Your scholarship investigates a range of different material sites including commemorative sites of the US Civil Rights Movement and war memorials. How has your research led you to think about the relationship between rhetoric, memory, and place? How do you see rhetoric and public memory, respectively, as critical to understanding the significance of sites like memorials and museums?
[Dr. Carole Blair] The second question is easier to answer. It strikes me as almost impossible to get a handle on sites like this unless you take some kind of cue from public memory work, and there’s a lot of it. It really had a boom of its own in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s interdisciplinary and I think it’s really important in helping people understand how these places socialize people politically, how they come to understand particular events in particular sorts of ways that may not even be historically accurate in a lot of cases–they’re certainly never complete. When I first started reading it, the public memory literature struck me as deeply rhetorical, even though almost no one used that term. I would talk to people about what public memory was at panels, and people would say, “That’s what I already do, but we’re rhetoricians.” They were kind of right. It was a natural thing, in a way.
Now, I have rethought, rethought and rethought the relationships among these things – rhetoric, memory and place – and each of them is a tremendously complicated concept. The memory studies work is a good background; it’s background music for what I’m doing – but the literature on place has been much more influential in a way. There’s just much better work for a much longer period of time on place, in geography and art and other disciplines. Memory studies hasn’t cohered into serious theoretical commitments, I think, which is frustrating to me, because it could. That’s one of the downsides of being an interdisciplinary scholar. Trying to develop that kind of theory is just not going to be satisfying to a bunch of people who think they study the same thing you do.
Even if, as a rhetorician, you don’t study monuments and memorials and cemeteries, I think they’re intrinsically related to each other. If we go way back into rhetorical history, memoria was one of the five canons of rhetoric. They thought about it differently than we do now, but it was tied so closely to what rhetoricians did in ancient times. That fell away, but it’s still useful to go back and think about why they thought it was so important and why we think – differently though – about why it’s important in any sort of rhetorical adventure.
As for place, I think any memory studies scholar in the world, whether they think of themselves as historians or psychologists or whomever, would agree that material objects are crucial to any kind of memory — whether it’s individual, personal memory, or more shared, social, collective, public memory. Why do people collect things where they go? Why do people have photographs of important things and people in their lives? Objects generate that recognition of memory that’s really crucial to selfhood and collectives and many other things. I don’t doubt that the relationships are much larger than any work that I do, but that’s the limitation of any kind of academic project. You can’t do it all.
Greg Dickinson, Brian Ott and I took a shot at trying to put them all together [in the introduction to Places of Public Memory]. It’s imperfect, but it was a compass for us and some other people. It gets cited a lot, at least, though some people don’t like it, which is okay too. I think of those relationships as much larger than anything I actually work on on a day-to-day basis in research.
[MastersinCommunications.com] An important theoretical contribution of your work on memorials and museums has been developing an understanding of the materiality of rhetoric and the rhetorical importance of the material. For those who might be less familiar with rhetoric as a discipline, can you discuss what it means to think about rhetoric as material and how this perspective shapes your approach to rhetorical criticism?
[Dr. Carole Blair] Let’s just take the 20th century. During the first, say, third to maybe half of the 20th century, rhetoricians thought of rhetoric as public discourse, usually political. And that it was strategic discourse. So a lot of people studied political campaigns, they studied governance documents, they studied presidential speeches, all of this stuff. All of it was important to study, but there’s a limited viewpoint of rhetoric when it’s thought of as strategic. Sometimes, as Kenneth Burke noted for us all during his long career in the middle part of the century, sometimes people are strategic and don’t get what they want, and sometimes they get a lot of things they definitely didn’t want. We can’t just think of rhetoric as purposeful, or that it succeeds or fails on the basis of whether it achieves a strategic intention.
Things started broadening out and in a way that followed Kenneth Burke into whole domains of symbolism, and that was sort of how rhetoric came to be seen, and like any theoretical position it too had limitations. When rhetoricians used notions of symbolicity as their starting point, it was always referencing away from discourse or whatever object of study they were looking at. That’s because symbols are all about meaning, but meaning does not reside in the symbols, it resides in a context of use that is hard to get ahold of just with a symbol model.
The early work I did with the monuments and memorials stuff had taught me a lesson. I had to, at first, in the early part of my career, talk about these things as texts or discourses because it was the only way I could make myself understood to rhetoricians. But I also knew better. I knew that they often incorporated texts, but they aren’t themselves texts. So what are they? They’re objects. They’re places. They’re material stuff out there that somehow exerts influence on people just by being there. That’s what led me into the materiality issues. That, and talking to other colleagues. A bunch of people, especially in English, were starting to talk about material rhetorics, so I did too, and I was thinking a lot about that.
It changed the focus. Even if you’re thinking about political speech, if you think of it as material primarily and not primarily or exclusively symbolic or strategic, you’re going to focus on different things sometimes. You are likely to be way more context influenced, and focused on the material conditions of discourse. Particular discourses or other objects — you’re going to think of them as a precious commodity. Foucault comes into my thinking about this. He helps us see that discourse is rare. Everything is never said. All the capacities of language, all the capacities of all of our symbol systems, are never fully utilized. As a result, the things that influence what gets said matter. What doesn’t get said matters too.
A lot of the popular criticism about space talked about this. People would complain, for example, about stuffing the Washington Mall too full of commemorative sites because they would detract from one another. They were looking for that principle of rarity there. They wanted the Mall to be less populous because it gave more importance to the pieces that were there. That was never a popular stance, not in the recent history of the US. There’s always this political battle over space and what to put in it. When we figure out what to commemorate, the next question is, “How are we going to frame it to make it something that matters to people?”
These are exactly the kinds of trajectories that take off from a material position rather than a symbolic one. The bottom line is, you don’t have rhetoric at all unless you think of it first as material because anything that’s not said in a symbolic vehicle doesn’t count as rhetorical. It may be in your head, but if it’s not articulated in some way it’s not rhetorical. It cannot have influence. It cannot make an impact or have an effect. What’s in my head doesn’t have very much effect on anyone, most days.
The things that are out there, materialized, are the things that matter to us. Or we choose to ignore them, or argue against them, or dismiss them, in all kinds of ways. It really matters what that core concept of rhetoric is. Again, I don’t want to dismiss anything that comes from the strategy center or the symbolic center of the discipline, but I think we do have to go beyond that sometimes, or some of us have to because of what we study. It really changes the dynamic of questioning more than anything else. I don’t like thinking of things as rhetorical approaches. I like thinking of them as projects of questioning in particular ways. How you conceptualize rhetoric is going to force you into particular kinds of patterns of question asking.
[MastersinCommunications.com] When you began arguing for the importance of rhetoric’s materiality, this involved challenging many of the major approaches to rhetoric being practiced in the field at that time. How have you seen material rhetorical scholarship and its influence within rhetorical criticism develop since your initial engagements with these ideas in the ‘80s and ‘90s?
[Dr. Carole Blair] There’s tons of scholarship that deals with rhetoric materially now. It doesn’t just come from the work that I’ve done or the other people I was talking with in the 1990s. It’s come from outside too. It comes from Actor Network Theory and other kinds of projects that are more materially based. Visual rhetoric is no longer visual rhetoric. It’s now multimodal rhetoric. People are talking about sound in addition to visuality — anything sensate — which I appreciate. I understand how hard it is, because we still don’t have very good languages to speak about what we’re trying to discuss.
Just as the trajectory of public memory scholarship in the field, the materiality of rhetoric as an area of study has really taken off. It’s big. I’m not crediting myself at all with that. I think it’s partly because people think it’s fun –”Oh, I can write about what I saw on vacation.” It isn’t quite that easy. People say, “Wow, you can do that?” and I say, “Yeah, but it’s a heck of a lot of work, and you can’t do it in a library.” Of course, I’m not dismissing library work. I spend a lot of time there and in archives.
There’s a lot of writing on place in recent rhetorical literature. That certainly was never true in the middle part of the century or before. I think there was one essay in the early 1970s on Nazi architecture — mostly about plans, because much of it was never built. Though, some of it was built, and it was hideous, because its purpose was to inspire awe of the Nazi regime. Also, as visual criticism starts moving in a strong direction, that also channels some of the energy into this. After all, visuals are material, whether they’re film or whether they’re paintings or photographs.
Overall, material scholarship has gotten kind of big out there. The new materialisms in general, while I don’t agree with everything in those theories, have really provoked some useful commentary and questioning.
[MastersinCommunications.com] War memorials have occupied a prominent place in your research, especially those commemorating the World Wars. What in particular about the rhetoric of war memorials captured your interest and has sustained your attention throughout your career?
[Dr. Carole Blair] If you want to study US commemoration, wars are a big thing. That’s the simplest, most pragmatic answer. The US has been really interested for most of its history — except for that one part in the middle of the twentieth century that I mentioned before — in commemorating its wars, often in big ways. We’re back to that again now.
War memory has been very strong. Until relatively recently, I would say in the 1980s and 1990s, most US commemoration was about wars or sometimes major political figures like presidents. If you go to Capitol Hill, you see a lot of statues of former Congress people, Congressmen mostly. It wasn’t really until fairly recently that you got a much broader sweep of culture that’s encompassed in commemoration. So, if you want to study commemoration in the 20th century, you’d better be interested in some wars because that’s it for an awfully long time.
Even the major figures who are commemorated, if you think of Washington DC as sort of the symbolic center of the US, are associated with wars in some way. The four presidents: Washington, Jefferson, who was not in the war but helped write the founding documents and the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln, and then Roosevelt. Those are the four major presidential monuments in the United States, period, end of story. There are others, but they’re not nearly as prominent or as well-located. Pretty much everything has been about wars.
Some people account for why WWI memory isn’t strong in the US by saying WWII overshadowed it. That’s not true in a lot of other countries at all, including some of our European allies. It also makes no sense because you would think that it also would’ve overshadowed the Civil War, but in this country, no way. There are these easy mantra answers to things that don’t really work and they are often placed into real abeyance by international experience, especially with the World Wars.
People think about wars differently in different countries. Some of them don’t think very much about WWI at all, like us, while some do a lot. The Ukrainians have been thinking a lot lately about WWI, because the first time they declared themselves independent as a country was in 1917 during the war when the Bolshevik Revolution happened, which potentially left them free from Russian domination. It didn’t last. It lasted about two years, but from what I understand from reading, it’s big in Ukrainian memory. Of course, WWII is the crux of everything here because NATO wouldn’t have existed without WWII, the need for it wouldn’t have, though it traces back to the first World War, too. Now NATO is a player without being a player. Everything depends on them playing a role of support in Ukraine.
The war memories in all of these countries are wildly different but most of the NATO members are at least pretty much on board with supporting Ukraine in lots of different ways including militarily, and without that Ukraine would have gone the way of the dodo in February. The ongoing problems we have internationally are very much related to how we think about the past.
For example, my husband Bill Balthrop and I went to the Museum of the Armies in Paris a number of years ago for the first time, and they have a World Wars exhibit in which they date the World Wars from 1870 to 1945. They see this as purely about German aggression in France. The Franco-Prussian war started in 1870 and ended in 1871, then there’s a pause and there’s WWI, which is again about the German invasion of France and other countries. Then, WWII, of course, when the Germans are at it again.
They see the World Wars through that lens, while we don’t. We had zero involvement in the Franco-Prussian war. The interwar period, what we call that, they just think of as the pause between two World Wars. They don’t even think of them as separable. Seeing how other countries think about each other in addition to their interconnected pasts is really fascinating. Without studying war commemoration, it’s almost impossible to see that.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there particular insights or experiences from your work that you have found yourself returning to, or that have felt especially salient, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war? How do you understand the production of war memory as shaping our relationship to war in the present?
[Dr. Carole Blair] A reviewer on a recent essay we were working on asked us to connect WWI memory with Ukraine. To which we responded, “This is impossible, you understand. It’s so complicated.” We finally got off the hook on that with the editors, who agreed it was impossible to try to do that without a whole different paper.
Still, the thing that just kept nagging at me after Ukraine was invaded in February was the reaction of, especially the Belgians, to the WWI invasion. They were a neutral country in 1914. The only real agreement they had was with England to support the sovereignty of Belgium, which they did. It was like this monster was preying on this comparatively defenseless nation. It seemed monstrous to the world. There was a lot of propaganda that came mostly from the British about the “rape of Belgium,” which is a terribly gendered thing, but it was about the defenseless being abused by the big monster strongman. It was insidious in the US, that propaganda, for most of the war. I don’t think it really took propaganda for people to see that, though. The public reaction was, “Gosh, why do the Germans have to pick on Belgium, for God’s sake?”
The only reason was that they had a strategy to get to Paris. That was the only way for the “Schlieffen Plan” to work. It didn’t work in WWI as it turns out, but it did work well for the Germans in WWII. It just has this same kind of feel to it: big monstrous countries picking on defenseless ones. There’s a long history of that in the world; it’s called imperialism and colonialism.
When you just go in to start devastating another country, it always kind of looks the same. What do you get from that? Let’s say Russia won. They’d have a ruined new property on their hands. Same with Belgium. The Belgians were very plucky and they rebuilt and the Ukrainians are doing the same already. It felt bad to me because of what I’ve seen and talked to people about in Western European countries.
In fact, a friend of ours whom we met during our project used to work at one of the US cemeteries is Belgian and is really knowledgeable about that war. We were talking by email, a pleasant exchange, and he said, “I hope you can come to Belgium this summer, but he corrected himself in the email and said, “I mean, please come to Russia in Belgium.” It’s not very far from anybody’s mind. Those memories filter in as analogues, at least in the sense of a structure of feeling about it, though they’re never perfect, for what’s going on.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In 1994, you co-authored the influential and controversial piece “Disciplining the Feminine” in Quarterly Journal of Speech, in which you critiqued the exclusionary writing and publishing practices of scholarly journals as expressive of a masculinist ideology. How do you reflect on the legacy of this work today, especially in the context of recent movements to make the communication discipline more inclusive? Do you feel as though significant progress has been made in the politics of the field, or do you see communication as a discipline still struggling with many of the same dynamics you critique in this piece?
[Dr. Carole Blair] Yes, there’s been progress. I don’t attribute most of that or even a little bit of that to “Disciplining the Feminine,” although it was controversial, so people were talking about it a lot at the time. In terms of the practices of publishing and writing in the field, it probably had some small effect on how people did that work. It’s very rare for my students who are publishing, or my friends who are publishing, or in my own experience, to see reviewers now be plainly vicious as the reviewers we critique in that essay were for no particularly good reason other than structural sexism. People are nicer to each other, so we could say there’s at least a cosmetic change.
This applies pretty equally across different trajectories of power. It was never limited to women, and we tried to make that pretty clear in the pieces. People of color, LGBTQ people, all kinds of different marginalized groups or groups who aren’t centered, have felt the effects of things just like this a lot of time and they continue to. That’s what’s depressing to me. Even following controversy of that magnitude, and it felt pretty big, I think that the changes have mostly been cosmetic.
If you get down to cases of what’s really important about influence — and “Disciplining the Feminine” was read across disciplinary borders to a degree that surprised me — and if you peruse the back of any journal article, any book, and look at who gets cited, most of the time it is white men who we presume are cisgendered, though we don’t always know. It is still just impossible to read a list of references and not notice that. Those are structural issues. Citation counts and all of these things that are supposed to be measurements of someone’s productivity and influence in a field matter in ways that have effects on people. I don’t see a lot of that as having changed that much.
I’d like to think the changes have been more than cosmetic. I look at a lot of the controversies that have happened on particular university campuses like my own. People would say that renaming buildings and taking down a confederate statue is only symbolic. They have a point. It doesn’t get to the heart of what the problems are, but to call it only symbolic misses the fact that symbolism matters and you’d better take it seriously. I know kids who lived in the Aycock dorm [named after former governor and white supremacist George B. Aycock] and talked about how embarrassed they were to say that person’s name.
We have a boatload of buildings that should probably be renamed. Those are only symbolic gestures, though. They don’t change how people are treated on an everyday basis and how it is that big, feudal organizations like universities treat people whom they don’t see as central. I don’t think we have seen much structural change. There are more women at universities than there used to be, there are more people of color at universities, there are more openly gay, lesbian and trans people in universities, but, whether or not they have anything like equity is very questionable.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you might give to students who are interested in rhetoric, place, and public memory who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Carole Blair] Those are two quite different questions. People who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in communication versus the people who are interested in rhetoric and place and public memory overlap to a certain degree but not entirely. I have not encouraged students, surprisingly enough, to pursue the kind of projects that I do. Partly, because a lot of them aren’t interested in them anyway, which is fine, but it also is impractical at some level for graduate students to do this kind of work. Unless the place is easily accessible and local, it’s darn near impossible. There are resources of time and money that really stand in the way of people doing that. Even early on when I was doing some of this work, I was spending a lot of my assistant professor salary on research because a lot of it wasn’t in California.
I have had one student who has done something very similar to what I do, and have one now, but the problem is about trying to travel and take time away and have the money to subsist in those circumstances. You can study public memory and place in all kinds of ways except that intersection.
Whether someone should go to graduate school in communication is a whole different question. It’s a big question in perhaps anything other than STEM. All I can say is, you better have lots of backup options for careers. This again is a structural problem. It’s also a political problem now more than it ever has been, with particular groups of people who hold positions of authority in states and the US government who don’t believe that education is a public good or that it should be.
I thought finding a tenure track job was hard when I did it the first couple of times. It’s way harder now because jobs, if they come about at all, are usually not tenure track. It’s become a rarity for a new job to be tenure track. That condemns people. If you really want to teach at a university, you may end up teaching at five in order to survive. You may teach 10 courses a semester across different schools. We used to refer to this in California as the freeway faculty, which is a clever little saying but a dreadful existence.
I keep suggesting to students: make a career plan for what you really want, what you’ll tolerate, and what you won’t tolerate. All of those are based on different considerations, but, without that planning in advance, I don’t think it’s possible to suggest that people pursue PhDs in anything really. The rewards are becoming smaller and the jobs are becoming more difficult as legislatures and states start interfering with what can be said in a classroom and what and how people can research. It’s become, in my view, intolerable. I wasn’t part of the great retirement from UNC this past year. I was part of the great resignation.
Yes, I took retirement because I was old enough, but I quit because I didn’t want to be part of this anymore. I want to do the research, I like teaching, and I’m still working with graduate students, but the perpetual self-questioning about what you can say in a classroom or a piece of research without fear, it’s become impossible. It isn’t impossible everywhere. But to the degree that states have politicized universities which they have done in many places, it becomes an intolerant atmosphere to work in. It makes it a whole lot less enjoyable.
I think that pursuing advanced degrees is a good in itself. It gives you skills and advanced capacities you wouldn’t have otherwise, and that’s true for any of us. But you have to realize that it may not be the best career choice if you have aspirations to live very comfortably, for example, or have a lot of kids, or all of these things that are real considerations in our lives and have to have influence on our careers.
If you want to go to graduate school, go for your own edification. Hope an academic career might come of it, but don’t demand that of yourself. It’s not very pleasant to talk about, but the university has increasingly become a difficult place to work. Even those of us who are privileged enough to be tenured, full professors, it’s still a climate of fear. I am not usually a fearful person. I don’t like being one, and I also don’t want to be in constant conflict with people. When any legislator gets in a fight with a faculty member, you know who is going to win because they always do. It’s not a place for the faint hearted, that’s for sure.
I want to end somewhere sunny, though. I wouldn’t trade in my education for anything or the years I’ve spent continuing to pursue that. A life of research and teaching is still that: learning, and education. As my parents used to say, no one can take it away from you, and that’s true. They can take away your income, but they can’t take that. The more education the better, in terms of resourcefulness, and opening up an expanse of possibility. It may just not be in the area people expect or necessarily want. I’m hearing from graduate students more and more that they have backup plans, which is smart.
I don’t want to be all doomsday about it, because political fortunes change over time, sometimes so quickly it’s mind wrenching and heart wrenching. I think things will swing back. I think the question is how far buried universities will be when that happens. I think in many respects we’ve never recovered from the Great Recession in 2008 and now we’re probably going to have another one. Today it’s not all about money. It’s about what you can say. Still, getting a graduate education is a good thing to do, and you do open up possibilities for yourself, even ones you may not have thought about.
Thank you, Dr. Blair, for sharing your insights on rhetoric, commemoration, and developments in the field of communication with us!