About Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock, Ph.D.: Dr. Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock is Professor and Director of Performance Studies in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. A widely acclaimed researcher, performer and educator, Dr. Scott-Pollock’s scholarship has been honored with multiple Top Ethnographic Book Awards from the National Communication Association, most recently for Embodied Performance as Applied Research Art and Pedagogy, which was also recognized with the Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance Studies.
Dr. Scott-Pollock’s performances and films include Gazed At: Stories of a Mortal Body, which was an Official Selection for live stage performance at the 2020 Cucalorus Film Festival. Her teaching was recognized with the 2021 IDEA Engagement Award for inclusion, diversity, equity and access, and the 2019 Donald H. Ecroyd Award for Outstanding Teaching in Higher Education. Prior to joining the faculty at UNC Wilmington, Dr. Scott-Pollock received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Maine, where she was a Presidential Teaching Fellow.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in performance studies and disability studies?
[Dr. Scott-Pollock] My interest in performance studies was guided by my English professor. I was in a traveling reader’s theater troupe all throughout my undergraduate degree. I did regular staged performances as well, but I loved traveling. We went all through Europe and the United States performing different novels that had been adapted into chamber theater productions. I went to him because I had taken a lot of different classes with him as well as traveled with him, so he knew me well.
I said, “I’m planning to go to law school, could you write me a recommendation?” He said, “I could, but I really don’t think you’ll be happy as a lawyer. You have a deep sense of justice. When you think things aren’t fair you don’t let it go. I really feel like you’re going to get tired in law. I don’t think that’s the way to pursue justice and the better world that I know you want in your life from all the conversations I’ve had with you.” He said, “You’re a great story teller, you command a stage really well, but you’re also academic, you’re theoretical.”
Plus, I have an atypical gait. I have Cerebral Palsy, which meant that, in the mainstream theater I was doing in Boston, I wasn’t getting a lot of roles, and when I did get roles they would make it so the entire production centered around me standing still, because they didn’t want the audience to see my limp. This is around 1998-2002, so we weren’t really embracing different sorts of bodies on stage at that point.
This was a way for me to be able to be a teacher, which I was, to pursue justice the way I loved to. I was a writer, I was a performer, and he said, “Performance studies takes what you love about English and what you love about communication and puts it together with theater. It’s all of your loves. I really think you should apply for graduate school.”
I am a first-generation college student. My dad was a factory worker, my mom was a stay at home mom, and I had a huge scholarship to attend this private, liberal arts college. I didn’t have very much debt and I was petrified of it. I told him I didn’t think I wanted to get into debt. He said, “No, graduate school is free. They pay you to go.” I decided that sounded like a pretty good deal if that could happen.
He told me about Kristin Langellier at Maine. I’m from Maine so it didn’t feel really far away–it was still in New England where I had been my whole life. I started my Master’s degree there, looking at performance studies and storytelling and narrative, with Kristin Langellier as my master’s thesis advisor. They were starting a pilot PhD program, and she invited me to be their first graduate student. There was funding there, so it felt really secure that I would have funding as long as I needed to be there. I accepted that offer, and went down the path I’m on.
My interest in disability comes from atypical embodiment. What it means to live through a body is really where my questions have been my whole life, because people always want the story of why my body moves the way it does. We were always encouraged at the University of Maine to take that time to answer a question you have about the world, because that’s what research does, and, if it’s important to you, you won’t lose interest. Bodies and how we understand them is what matters to me. So, for about twenty years now, I’ve been studying atypical embodiment and how we make sense of it through stories.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research has been widely recognized for its use of ethnographic methods. For those readers who might be unfamiliar with this form of research, could you describe what performance ethnography is and how you view its importance to understanding performance and its relationship with ability?
[Dr. Scott-Pollock] Performance ethnography is a form of critical ethnography. It’s important to first talk about what ethnography is from an anthropological standpoint and what it was before we moved to critical ethnography as D. Soyini Madison and Dwight Conquergood have defined it, as well as many others.
Ethnography was this idea that mostly white, European and American scholars would travel to some distant, far away land and observe people who were very exotic from a distance and not get emotionally and socially involved in any way that would remove their “objective lens,” as they saw it. Of course, we know that all interpretation of others is subjective and that’s how we look at it from a critical standpoint, but that wasn’t the idea at the beginning of the social scientific movement toward ethnographic methods, where we would go into a culture observing, understanding, and participating but always preserving that outsider status so that you could be seen as an objective observer of these people and an interpreter for others. You would spend all this time in another culture and then you would go home and write up the story of these people as you understood it. They most likely would never see what you wrote.
In the late 1980s to early 1990s, Dwight Conquergood at Northwestern University said we don’t need to travel to exotic lands. Instead, he went down the street to a building called “Big Red,” which was a low-income housing area. He got an apartment there, and he moved in and immersed himself in the culture, and he said, “I’m not just here to observe these people and report back. I’m here to work with these people in a participatory manner in order to not only tell their story but advocate for them and make sure it’s the story they want told. This idea of collaborating with our research participants to make their lives better, to get the messages they want out to others, is where performance ethnography emerges from.
While we can publish articles and hopefully publish accessible books that people can read, another way to do that is to allow our participants to help us craft a script or to craft a show. Sometimes they can perform in it, and sometimes they might opt not to, depending on what the goals are and what they want. That’s a way for people to see it, to understand it, and to have that access they might not ordinarily have. Academics read academic articles. There’s a way that a performance can reach many different people. I’ve had children under the age of 10 in my audiences for my performances about living with disabilities, living with memory loss, as well as my most recent piece on living with seizure disorders, as well as, in graduate school, when I had an adapted script on bulimia.
So, there’s all these different ways to have these conversations and performance ethnography creates an artifact to share with audiences that is accessible beyond the academy to share with audiences with a guided talk that processes how stigma works and how we can combat that to create a more inclusive, better world.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to your academic writing, you are an accomplished performer and write and direct for both the stage and screen. For example, your performance “Gazed At: Stories of a Mortal Body” was an Official Selection for a live stage performance at the 2020 Cucalorus Film Festival, and your film Memories That Matter: Elders’ Memories of Love and Loss was an Official Selection for the National Communication Association’s 2015 Film Festival.
How do you understand the relationship between your creative practice and your academic research? Do you think the way that performance studies embraces creative work as a form of academic scholarship provides a valuable model for other subdisciplines in communication?
[Dr. Scott-Pollock] I think it is so important that we don’t become so fixated on the theoretical and methodological models that we use to create knowledge that we decide there’s a whole group of society – the majority of society – that can just not access what we’re saying. I deeply value narrative analysis, I value the methods I’ve been taught. I work with existential phenomenology as well as thematic, dialogic, performance ethnographic, and autoethnographic methods. While I write for academic audiences and explore theory and methods at a deep level, I also want to make sure that I’m making a climate where we can start talking about our discoveries as academics with everyone, in ways everyone can grasp and understand.
I’ve had so many people watch “Gazed At.” I was the most well-attended livestream show there. People from all over the world, who have no knowledge of me as a professor or me as a narrative researcher or ethnographer, were interested because what they did know is that story matters. I want to know more about what it means to embrace this body that I’m in, as well as this idea of the fear that comes from losing our memories. What is it that you want to be able to communicate to the world? What part of humanity do we still have even when our language is gone, even when our ability to recognize others is gone? What is still there that we can embrace and value, instead of mourn?
I want to have those conversations and I can do that with other academics in my writing, but I can do that with a whole room full of people who are just coming to see a film or performance. Those conversations can be every bit as complex and profound because we’re talking about what it means to be human and make sense of it. If those are the questions we’re asking to try to make a better world, then we need to be talking to people other than ourselves. I really think that the model should be, “What was the finding? What did we learn about being human? Let’s make sure we can communicate that to others.”
I do a lot of radio programs in the NC area. I think I’ve done six or seven now, and what’s so important there is to make sure people understand the theory without knowing the theory. What do we now know about what it means to be human? Jargon can shut people down. They aren’t there for an academic talk. I think the reason why I get invited back so often is they say, “You make this so accessible and I have a tangible understanding I didn’t have before.”
All of us, across disciplines, should be asking, what am I teaching about media, about health care, about persuasion, that every person moving through space with other people can have a more enriched, knowledgeable, and accessible experience if they know? How can we communicate that, whether it’s through a radio talk, an op-ed, up on stage, or an article for a nonacademic journal? We need to make sure we’re sharing this with others. If we don’t, and it’s only getting shared with other academics and our students, then we’re missing an opportunity, because higher education just isn’t accessible to as many people.
[MastersinCommunications.com] One of your more recent publications is the autoethnographic book chapter, “There’s No Center Without the Margins—Revealing Compulsory Performance to Achieve Audience Empathy,” where you make the argument that the stigmatization of disability stems from an attempt to deny or control our fears of our own mortality and contrast this with the concept of hyper-embodiment. Could you tell us a little bit more about these ideas and how they have informed your research?
[Dr. Julie-Ann Scott-Pollock] These are the center of my message, not only for communication studies, but for the world when it comes to disabled bodies and how we interact with disabled bodies. That particular chapter of the book is a moment in time when I was coming home from my first academic conference. I was newly dating my now-husband, and we went out to dinner. He’s a physicist and he desperately wanted to understand what it is I do. He said, “I can tell it’s really important. I can tell that people respond really well to it. I’ve been captivated when I come to your talks, but I don’t really understand what you do.”
We had a whole conversation that night that was about performance ethnography. How we make meaning through our interactions with other people, that these interactions aren’t just conveying meaning to other people but are creating meaning. In that moment we’re struggling to make sense of who we are, who others are, and what culture is. I said that one thing I’ve learned about being a disabled body, about living through a disabled body, is that people are constantly wanting to understand my story of what happened to me but it’s not really because they care about me. It’s more about, “I want to know how this happened so I can know if it can happen to me or anyone I care about.” There’s this idea that you’re fragile, you’re in pain, you’re mortal and dying, but I’m not. As this other able-bodied person who is normal, or who is called normal, I’m fine and I just need your story to figure out how to not be like you. So there’s this idea of piling all the mortality and vulnerability that comes from living in human flesh onto these bodies that we’ve marked as not normal.
That’s really the definition of disability. Disabled is a body that’s not normal; however it’s diagnosed or characterized, we’ve decided that all these other people are unmarked and normal and you people over here are diagnosed as abnormal and in need of accommodations and management in ways other bodies aren’t.
We all know that every body is mortal. Every body is breaking down. You could leave this interview with me right now, not see a bus coming, and you could suddenly join my disabled status if you make it through the bus of course. You could say there’s a spectrum and we’re all somewhere between gold medal Olympic athlete and dead. You could say dead is the ultimate disability. You’re severely disabled at that point, and we’re all going to get there eventually. The question is, can we embrace that all of our bodies are somewhere on this ability spectrum and we move back and forth with injuries, with illness, with age, instead of deciding we’ll just pile all this fear on these bodies we deemed abnormal. What if instead, we make a world where everything flexes around our changing bodies, so we know that we’ll be valued and included as long as we’re here no matter how our embodiment changes?
That fear people have concerns what it means to no longer be valued. What does it mean to no longer be included? To be told, “Sorry, you can’t make a living here, because your body is too disruptive. We’re going to make it so you no longer have an ability to earn money, you no longer have an ability to go into places you want to because we’ve decided we’re not going to make this place accessible to you through the body you’re in? What if, instead, we said, “Our bodies will inevitably change, there’s no way around it?”
If we can embrace that our bodies will inevitably change and plan together as a culture to make the world more accessible no matter what body we’re in, then disability isn’t so scary, because we know we’re still going to have a place and connections that are valued no matter how our bodies change over time.
That’s what hyper-embodiment is. Hyper-embodiment is to embrace the fact that your body is mortal and inescapably breaking down. That’s okay, because you can plan for that breaking down and create a culture where you can break down and still have a beautiful, connected life, because we’ve shifted this idea that a broken body – a body that’s breaking down – should be marginalized, stigmatized, feared, put away because they don’t have a place within our culture. We can get to that place through telling our stories, through becoming more comfortable with the bodies we’re in and the bodies others are in.
While I center on disability, it’s the same thing when we look at other marginalized bodies. We can say, “Let’s not marginalize and fear bodies that have been rejected, let’s not reject bodies due to their sexuality, let’s not reject bodies because of their race, let’s not reject bodies due to their size.” We can understand that a lot of that rejection comes from fear, from this desire for us to be included, and therefore to reject those whom we perceive as other than ourselves and say, “They’re not me.” If we recognize these things we can, instead, get to the point where we’re at ease with the differences around us.
I’ve found through listening to other people’s stories how much more deep and complex my understanding of them is. From growing at ease over years in cultural spaces where people were hospitalized for bulimia, where people were hospitalized for memory loss, I’ve reached the point where I can be in those spaces with them and not be uncomfortable or afraid, understanding that all of our bodies are vulnerable, all of our bodies are changing, all of our bodies are open to having different kinds of experiences and struggles. I know that I’ve been able to become more at ease through narrative research and the ethnographic sharing of space, and I think all of us can become hyper-embodied through this method of deep listening to one another.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As you mention, this chapter, “There’s No Center Without the Margins—Revealing Compulsory Performance to Achieve Audience Empathy,” is grounded in your own experiences as a graduate student, and set over a conversation between you and your partner at a local bar. Why was it important for you to return to this particular moment in order to work through these ideas? What do you think this narrative captures that a less dialogic presentation might have overlooked?
[Dr. Scott-Pollock] What I really wanted to do was chronicle that the research that we do stems from the questions that we have about the spaces that we’re in. In the chapter, there’s this tension because we were graduate students and were kind of broke. This pub had just opened and the two owners were about our age and in deep debt and trying to make it work, and the woman, who was part of this married couple, really wanted it to be a pub for older people…We weren’t the aesthetic she wanted.
There was this tension back and forth. As I was listening to her, I thought, “Well, we really need to remember where we are, who we are, and remember her story.” With a lot of the other graduate students there was about to be a confrontation, and her husband had to come over and tell us how happy he was we were there and pull her away because she was sort of trying to bully us out of our table to get us to leave.
Because I’m a performance ethnographer and because stories matter, I remember thinking that she must have had some scary encounters when she was working down the street at a bar with undergrads, with people pawing at her, trying to get things off her trays, and how stressful that was. She had a much more vulnerable position there as a beautiful waitress than her husband did as the guy behind the bar with big muscles that people weren’t going to mess with. His comfort with us stemmed from the fact that students had never been scary to him like they had been to her. I thought about how, if we were able to do a performance ethnography of this bar and their stories and have us all come out and explain why we’re feeling this tension, how much more connected we could be: how this co-owner wouldn’t be demonized like she was being if we could take a moment to listen.
It was a mundane day. It’s funny, because I was talking to my husband and he said, “I kind of remember it, but I don’t really remember it.” It wasn’t this significant moment for him like it was for me. Explaining what I did to him and his physics friends deeply mattered to me, when in some ways it was just another interesting conversation at the bar for him.
I think it’s important when we’re doing autoethnographic work that not everything has to be this monumental event where somebody died or had a relationship fall apart or a terrible experience. It doesn’t have to be super significant for it to really matter to how we became who we are. I’m committed throughout my research to not always going to the really traumatic event but to trace how meaning and identity are forming in the mundane conversations. I try really hard to be able to show that. That’s why my book has me in a graduate seminar one day, or at an academic conference, or at the bar with my partner: to say, who we are as researchers is formed as much in the mundane as in the extraordinary.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are also the director of a number of performance companies, including the UNCW Storytellers, Hawk Tale Players, and Just Us: Performance Troupe for Social Justice. Could you tell us a little bit about your directorial work and how you became involved with these different groups? Are there important differences between the type of work they perform or the aims of their productions?
[Dr. Scott-Pollock] I was hired at University of North Carolina Wilmington to continue and update their applied learning storytelling program. It had been going on for a long time. [The person who was running it before me, Carole Tallant, wasn’t involved in the National Communication Association or the International Communication Association. She had completely removed herself from those areas in order to embrace the North Carolina Storytelling Guild.] It was in the southern tradition of folk tales and literary storytelling. She made a troupe that was traveling to elementary schools and sharing literary pieces. That’s all storytelling was at UNC Wilmington; it was only literary.
While I did begin my career in a chamber theater traveling story troupe in my undergrad, narratives of everyday life, ethnography, and culture is where my passion is. I wanted to keep the tradition of that storytelling troupe because it had been in the community for some time, but I wanted my students to understand ethnographic and autoethnographic performance methods too. I changed the literary troupe to embrace the performance ethnographic tradition of being world travelers, of being people who are coming into a space to understand and support, not to judge.
We go to Title I schools. We go to places where kids are in crisis. If the kids aren’t listening or the teacher is exhausted and she’s not feeling supportive, you don’t judge them. You figure out what you can do in that space to be what they need as an audience in that moment, and work on adapting your presentation, persuasion, and performance skills, rather than deciding, “This is a bad audience, so I’m not going to try too hard.”
With the literary group, we’ve run into different kinds of situations. During the pandemic we performed via Zoom for schools in much more rural parts of the county and beyond our county. We were very surprised when we performed a story about a little boy who liked to wear dresses and wanted to be a princess for Halloween. We performed this story in Hanover County countless times and it’s a favorite, but there it ended up in the local paper that we had a gay and trans agenda that we were bringing into the school, when the story isn’t even mentioning sexuality. He’s just a six-year-old dressing up for Halloween. While it was a bit overwhelming – it ended up in the Huffington Post and other places – it gave us an understanding that we need to be prepared for answering questions and understanding audiences.
It was good for my students, and we got a lot of thank-yous from other people in those communities who said, “You started a conversation that would never have been started without you, so thanks for doing this.” We’ve had local excitement too. The YWCA gave us an award for working to empower women and eliminate racism, and some of the local magazines have highlighted our work. So it’s good to know that the community we’re in is valuing what we’re doing.
There are ways, then, in which the UNCW Storytellers is an ethnographic troupe even though we’re doing literary performance. We have other troupes as well. My Hawk Tale Players do what can be considered interview-theater if you’re in a theater department, or an ethnographic, deep interview. We do life-history interviews and they adapt portions of those interviews to interactive monologues for students grades second through sixth to talk about the diversity of human experience and the stories we all live. Then we have the Just Us Troupe that tells stories of their encounters with social justice, to really look at that. Sometimes it’s unflattering. Sometimes they were a witness who didn’t really intervene or regret a moment in how they behaved, but they’re going to be different in the future. The goal is to talk about how social justice emerges in the daily stories we live.
My performance ethnography troupe adapts my own research to the stage. That’s where “Memories that Matter,” “Seizing; Personal Stories of Living with Seizures,” as well as “Cripping: A Performance Ethnography of Disability and Identity” have all come from. Students, for credit, will embody the script that I create from interviews as well as do the promotional work for those shows. Those are the different troupes, so they’re all getting at different things, although performance ethnography is at the core of all of them.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have received a number of awards for your teaching over the course of your career, most recently the Donald H. Ecroyd Award for Outstanding Teaching in Higher Education from the National Communication Association in 2019. Do you think of your teaching as significantly informed by your work in performance studies? Are their particular lessons or insights from the discipline that have impacted how you view your role as an educator?
[Dr. Scott-Pollock] At my core, I am a performance and narrative researcher. I think it’s so important to approach each classroom I’m in as a new culture that is forming, that is not going to be the culture that was before it or that’s coming later, and to be present and adapting to those students in that moment, for what they need, from where they’re at. What that means is that sometimes my performance autoethnographic troupe, or my performance ethnographic troupe, is at a place where they are ready to take more risks and do more complex work based on lived experiences that they’ve had. Other times, it’s new and it’s scary and they’re not ready and they’re very guarded. We meet there and say, “Where can we move from where we are?”
Recently at NCA I was honored that they decided to give my performance pedagogy the IDEA Engagement Award, which is for diversity, equity, and inclusion, because I do so much applied learning. I think the reason they were able to do that was because there’s an adaptability to my approach. They said, “We like that no matter who shows up, there’s not going to be casting, there’s not going to be any sort of weeding-out process, but you let whoever comes come and grow from wherever they are.” There’s always this balance. How can I make meaning, make identity, make culture, make understanding, with who is here and not mourn the performance that couldn’t happen because they aren’t someone else?
Sometimes a group is magical and the connection is magical, but every single group has their own magic, as cliche as that might sound. They have their own moment that is unique to them. I think performance tells us through the idea of performativity that we’re always in discourse and making the meanings that emerge from that discourse. We might struggle over those meanings, we might reiterate those meanings, we might dismantle them, we might be able to resurrect new ones. No matter what kind of meaning-making happens, we’re always working for people to become more open, to become more inclusive, to grow from where they are.
That means sometimes what might seem less profound than the troupe before or the class before can be extremely profound for where those students are now. I think that’s how we embrace that performativity looks different in every moment and is going to look different in every classroom.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice for students interested in performance studies or disability studies who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Scott-Pollock] I’m just rotating off of the Disability Studies Caucus as NCA leadership, and I’m now the chair of the Performance Studies Division. One thing I’ve been talking a lot to graduate students about is how we need as scholars in communication studies to be able to communicate across what is an extremely diverse discipline. My department is mostly marketing faculty and mostly rhetoricians. There aren’t a whole lot of people who do any sort of data collection like I do. There’s a couple, but in a department of 20, there’s maybe two of us.
I think it’s so important to be able to speak the language of the discipline. I’ve had to make sure as a performance researcher that I’m comfortable and can expand into teaching social science qualitative methods. Now, do I teach it from a critical, social justice lens? Well, I do everything from a critical, social justice lens, so, yes, I do. Similarly, I took a moment to take a quantitative methods course, not because any question I’ve ever answered has anything to do with quantitative methods, but because it means I can speak that language and contrast it for students so they see that I understand both and value both. In the same way, I’m not a rhetorician, but I can talk about the power of persuasion and can talk about why rhetoric is important.
I feel like it’s important to realize you might not know what kind of department you’ll be entering when you’re on the job market. There’s a good chance you’re going to end up needing to explain what you do in a way that people very distant from your area can understand and value. So make sure — even as we’re so immersed in performance because that’s what we do as performance scholars, and it’s important, and so much fun, and exhilarating — to remember we need to be able to relate it to all these different areas. Through coursework and through conversation, we can make those connections in ways that will never become ghettoized or misunderstood because we’re able to connect with the rest of the room.
With disability it’s the same thing. I’ve never seen a call for a disability studies scholar in comm, but they’re looking for identity scholars all the time. At my core, I’m a disabilities scholar, but as an identity scholar I understand intersectionality, sexuality and gender theory, and race theory, and I can talk about all of those things and their relationship with disability. If you’re able to do that, the amount of job calls you can apply to expands. Of course, I could never submit to a call for an identity job outside of my area, but being able to talk about these different areas makes you, as a scholar, much more relatable and provides opportunities for collaboration, for being able to be on different kinds of panels, and to have your disability lens included in conversations about diversity. This becomes much easier to do if we’re able to show the value of our work to how these other identity theorists have understood what it means to be human.
For both disability and performance scholars, I would say, we want to dive deeply into what we do, what our expertise is, and to celebrate that, but we need to make sure that, in our very diverse discipline, we’re able to speak a language that can draw others in and keep what we do connected to the rest of the field.
Thank you, Dr. Scott-Pollock, for sharing your passion and insight on performance studies, ability, and pedagogy!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.