About Rebekah Fox, Ph.D.: Rebekah Fox is a Professor of Communication Studies at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Dr. Fox is a critical rhetorical scholar who does applied research in organizational communication, health communication, and free speech, among other areas. Two of her recent publications include “Feel Free to Agree: Promoting American Exceptionalism as Educational Ideology in the Texas Education Knowledge Standards,” co-authored with Ann Burnette, and “Pivoting in the Time of COVID-19: An in-Depth Case Study at the Nexus of Food Insecurity, Resilience, System Re-Organizing, and Caring for the Community,” co-authored with Joshua Frye.
Dr. Fox is also a Technical Specialist in Communication (THSP) for the United States Forest Service and has published several journal articles, white papers, and reports concerning communication issues relevant to wildland firefighting. In 2019, she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Service from Texas State University. Dr. Fox received her Ph.D. from Purdue University and her M.A. and B.A. from the University of Arkansas, all in communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in rhetorical criticism and begin to conduct research in the subdisciplines of organizational communication, health communication, and environmental communication?
[Dr. Rebekah Fox] I earned my B.A. and my M.A. from the University of Arkansas. When I was there, I took all the methods courses, and I loved learning about systematically approaching how to study something, particularly research design. I liked quantitative methods because the approach made sense to me. I liked math, and I could work those locks. But it was in the rhetoric and critical literature where I really thought the big moves were happening.
I was drawn to rhetorical criticism and, at the same time, I was intimidated by it. I realized that the literature in rhetorical and critical studies stood out to me as the type of work that could shift paradigms. It shifted the way I thought. I took film criticism with Tom Frentz where I learned about psychoanalysis, and I took myth and communication with Janice Rushing. Then I took free speech with Steve Smith, where I learned about the First Amendment and so much more about history and philosophy, particularly debate and civic engagement. I was very lucky in the way that I was being exposed to these particular perspectives through people whom I would consider some of the greats in those areas. That’s what really gave me a foundation.
After I graduated with my MA, I was basic course director for three years. A lot of people would consider that a small part of my background, but when your job is to help teach people how to teach the fundamentals of communication, you have an important task. I was really coming to terms with how to talk about the basic contribution of our discipline, how to refine that, and how to teach other people to say it. That seems basic, but it’s a really useful kind of thing. It’s why I encourage everybody to be a TA to this day – it’s powerful to grapple with the fundamentals through the process of teaching.
Then with a lot of encouragement I went on to get my Ph.D. at Purdue. When you go on to your graduate program, you take classes and you think, “This is the thing I want to do now.” I was studying the rhetoric of social movements with Charlie [Charles] Stewart, I was studying ethnography and critical perspectives with Robin Clair, and I took Kenneth Burke with Don Burks. He not only opened up Kenneth Burke’s scholarship to me, but also showed just how much of an impact this kind of work can have on you both personally and philosophically. That class was life changing and taught me how to see things in a different way.
I was also studying nursing and communication with Barbra Wall at that time and very importantly, not to be dismissed, I was studying organizational communication with Jennifer Ziegler. Purdue had a strong focus in organizational communication research at the time. I was a rhetorician and was studying critical theory and those kinds of things, but I realized that a lot of the work I wanted to do was at the intersection of organizational communication and social movements. I was looking at labor unions and anarchist collectives and trying to figure out what “organized voices” meant. I realized I needed to at least dip my toe in the area of studying organizational communication to be able to understand more about how collectives function.
I continue to work at those intersections. My dissertation brought together all those subject areas for me. In my dissertation I tried to introduce a theory of narrative exigence within communities of practice in nursing, which looking back was entirely too much to bite off as a young scholar. It’s also par for the course for how I ask questions — I’m going to go ask big questions to which people say, “I don’t know if you could ever get to an answer to that,” and I say, “Exactly, but I’m going to try.”
When I finished at Purdue, I took a position in the [Richard L. Roudebush] VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, where I was a health services research and development postdoctoral fellow. We were in the R&D department at the VA, and I continued to study nurses. I used social network analysis to study the social factors that influenced the infection and transmission of MRSA, the staph infection, C. diff [Clostridioides difficile, a common infection affecting hospitals] and other infectious diseases acquired inside of hospitals. We had epidemiological data but we didn’t have as much information (at the time) about the social factors influencing transmission, so that’s what I studied when I was there. However, the most important thing to emerge from that fellowship came from the fact that I carpooled to the VA every day with a fellow Purdue graduate, Dr. Kathy Abrahamson, who is “my friend who is a doctor-nurse.” (She is a nurse, and she has a Ph.D. in Sociology.) We would talk through new ideas during the commute, and we’ve published quite a bit of that work over the years.
I did that for a year, and then I decided I missed the classroom. I took the Assistant Professorship here at Texas State in 2009, and last year, in 2021, I got the full professorship.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research is both applied and multidisciplinary in nature; you have published scholarship on subjects ranging from how firefighters communicate in crisis situations, to communication in nursing, to issues of free speech and the ideological rhetoric of educational curriculum. Could you elaborate on your research process and how it applies across your diverse areas of study?
[Dr. Rebekah Fox] When I’m approaching a topic area — fire, nursing, educational curricula, food waste, politics, whatever type of communication I’m looking at — I don’t think of it as using a particular lens. I’m a combination of my training in all of the areas that I mentioned and I’m going to bring all of that to the moment.
Some of the best insights I’ve been able to bring are during times when I’ve applied literature that does not seem like it’s supposed to apply in a certain situation. That’s sometimes where I get the best results. For example, I’m working on a piece right now about “hyper-narration” — I don’t like that language yet, it’s a placeholder for when I can really figure it out. I associate it with critical health research, organizational communication, and narrative, but I came to the idea while writing up a lesson from a winching accident that resulted in a firefighter almost losing his hand.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What have been some of the rewards and challenges that have come with conducting scholarship across many different areas of communication studies and using it to address a variety of real-world problems? Are there certain key themes or driving commitments that you see as uniting the different areas of your research?
[Dr. Rebekah Fox] I tell people that I’m a critical rhetorician in the field. That’s academic language. Sometimes that gives people enough that it gets them into the ballpark and they know the literature I should know, and get a sense of my approach. I use qualitative methods, specifically interviewing and participant observation methods, and I have a healthy respect for ethnographic work. When I say “critical rhetorician in the field,” I mean two things. Sometimes, I’m literally in the field or on the side of a mountain. Sometimes, I mean I’m engaging in these other applied conversations, in these other areas of applied discourse. That’s a slightly different way to talk about it. There are lots of different books out right now about text in the field and what it means to do rhetoric in the field, and I think that’s the best language I have for what I do.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that my job fundamentally is to help people recognize how communication and specifically language creates their social realities and that many of the tensions in those realities are being managed, or propped up, or resisted, or torn down, through rhetoric. How is rhetoric managing or hiding or revealing or challenging those tensions?
In Don Burks’ classes on Kenneth Burke at Purdue, we would deal with extremely powerful philosophical concepts, but Don always reminded us, and this is an exact quote, “Our job is to help young people make sense when they speak.” It’s so “simple” that many scholars in the field would balk at the idea (“We don’t just do public speaking!”). But there’s a lot more bound up in the quote. You can take it literally and it makes sense for communication studies, or you can see the potential in the interpretation of each component — how it applies to our jobs, our relationship to our young students, how we emphasize sensemaking, and the practice of speaking.
I think that we lose sight of that sometimes, but that’s one of my commitments: sometimes with firefighters and sometimes with nurses or other people, trying to help them understand, “Here’s how your language is functioning.” They will say, “Well, I didn’t mean it like that.” Well, yeah, but that’s what you’re doing when you use that language.” Helping people understand that, I think, is a primary commitment.
I’m also a bit of a day walker [a vampire who can walk in the daylight.] When you do this type of work – typical fire assignments are 16 days, I’m spending a lot of time in the field. When I go, sometimes people are welcoming, and sometimes people say, “Oh you’re an academic.” For a lot of academics, I’m not theoretical enough, and for a lot of applied folks I’m too academic. I’m in the middle. This has been challenging, but I’ve learned it’s a great place to be.
You have to think about where you are and who your audience is. It’s about thinking through those things and being comfortable being uncomfortable in that position in the middle where you are a little bit of both and not a purist in either one. You’re also privy to the conversations on both sides. I know my scholarship is better because of what I do in the field and what I take to the field draws from the broad foundation I’ve developed in academia.
[MastersinCommunications.com] One of the longest running engagements of your scholarship has been the study of communication in nursing, which you have examined in the context of the U.S. nursing shortage. Are there certain key insights or important findings that you would highlight from this aspect of your scholarship?
[Dr. Rebekah Fox] The main thing I continue to say about nursing concerns the nursing shortage. My dissertation had to do with the factors related to the nursing shortage and how they impact what we’re going to do to address it. The most consistent takeaway from my work is that we won’t begin to make a dent in the problem of the U.S. nursing shortage until we do a better job listening to nurses and taking into account what their daily work is like.
There are a lot of powerful voices in that discourse: hospital administrators, insurance providers, other medical professionals, families, etc. There are a lot of different groups out there and at the center of it are nurses, and yet they are often silenced and marginalized and their perspectives are co-opted and commodified into other people’s perspectives.
[MastersinCommunications.com] More recently, you have become involved in researching the communication practices of wildland firefighters. In 2015, you became a certified Wildland Firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, and you have worked with Austin Travis County Wildfire Commission on communication and educational outreach campaigns aimed at promoting awareness about wildfires and fire safety and preparedness. What first inspired your interest in firefighter communication?
[Dr. Rebekah Fox] This is a question that academics and firefighters ask a lot. How did you get into this? It started at Purdue, though I did have an interest in wildland firefighting and particularly forest ecology and management before that. At Purdue, I took a class called Power and Control in Organizations — a very critical class on how organizations function. Particularly, we were looking at how organizations exert control over employees in the accident investigation process. Traditionally, to put it roughly, organizations don’t want to take a lot of responsibility and they’re trying to figure out ways to scapegoat. This class was looking at that process and the professor I had, Jennifer Ziegler, was working on fire at that time. This would’ve been around 2005.
In 2003 there was a major fire called the Cramer Fire on the Salmon River in Idaho. That fire changed how the Forest Service treated accidents during fires to an intense blame culture. “Who messed up? We’re going to fire them, not only that, but if a firefighter were to die in a fire, we’re going to hold people criminally responsible for their deaths.” It was a really bad direction. A lot of people left fire and a lot of really terrible things happened as a result of that.
As the grad students in this class, we used the Cramer Fire as a case study for the whole semester to learn about theories and ideas of power and control in organizations. Everyone in that class wrote about the Cramer fire, then we all presented our work at the International Association of Wildland Fire conference that year. We’re on this panel talking about Cramer and these fire managers, people who have been in fire management leadership for years and years, came to our presentations and asked, “Why are all these midwestern graduate students so interested in figuring out what happened in Cramer?” Some people there listened to my presentation. At that time, I was looking at the Swiss Cheese Model of accident investigation and how language was being used in the model to train our thinking in unproductive ways. I was critiquing a beloved model, and they were very interested, suspicious, and curious.
From that I got an opportunity to participate in a staff ride and write a white paper about the communication atmosphere in firefighting three years after Cramer. I just kept saying yes to opportunities. People would hear me speak about a topic and say, “Hey, will you come talk to my forest about that kind of communication?” I kept saying yes. “Yes, what do you want me to talk about?” That’s very classic for me, too. That’s something that really opened a lot of doors for me, though. I’m going to say yes even when I’m scared.
After that, I worked with Jennifer Ziegler and a full research team on a USDA grant to study radio communication, because one of the things that I realized was that if I was going to do work with wildland firefighters, I need to know what they learned. How did we train them? How do you do that?
To answer these questions, you have to go back to being an ethnographer. Don’t just go and observe a class, take the class. I wanted to become certified at that time so I could understand more about what the training was — how they were initiated into a career in wildland firefighting from the first day. That’s what prompted me to get that certification and then I took the arduous physical — we call it the Pack Test — where you have to qualify physically and receive a red card that says you can be called up as a Type II Wildland Firefighter, which is the designation for the most basic level of wildland firefighter. You’re pretty much trained in the basics and how to go dig line. That was my first entrance into it, but that same year I also went through the Structural Volunteer Program based in Kyle, TX.
I loved my experience learning through these certification programs. When else in my life am I going to be learning about pumps, hoses, and drip torch mix? It was all new, and I wanted to know everything about it. But I also recognized we didn’t talk very much about communication and we didn’t even have a radio in our classroom. When I would talk to firefighters, I noticed they didn’t want to talk on the radio. If you look at the big serious accident reports, they’ll cite communication failures and yet we didn’t do anything to really talk about communication in those classes. Which means we’re definitely sending a mixed message: “It’s the most important thing, (but at the same time) you’ll just pick it up on-the-job.”
My research team spent a lot of time interviewing firefighters across the nation about how they learned to talk on the radio and what their best practices were. That first article [“Cultivating a Reluctance to Simplify: Exploring the Radio Communication Context in Wildland Firefighting”] that came out was an important one for taking a snapshot of where we were in the Forest Service when it came to training people in radio communication.
A different team of researchers and I began to research the communication of high reliability organizing (HRO). HRO had been around for a while, as have various critiques of it, but to our knowledge, no one had tried to identify a “communication of.” We asked what it sounded like when people were thinking through the different mindfulness components. We looked at this really awesome data set. We had 74 fire managers who had been in fire for over 30 years, so we considered them fairly resilient in the system, practicing this notion of resilient mindfulness to be safe for that long. We were trying to figure out what they sounded like when practicing those principles.
For example, one component of HRO is to be preoccupied with failure. But what is the “communication of preoccupation,” or what does it sound like when people are thinking in that way? This is an example of a time when a rhetorical background (tropes, genres, etc.) really made a difference. That was the second big fire project, “Voices from the Field: Wildland Fire Managers and High-Reliability Organizing Mindfulness.”
[MastersinCommunications.com] Can you describe your experience working as a firefighter and conducting research in crisis situations?
[Dr. Rebekah Fox] I take two different kinds of fire assignments. If there’s a fatality or near miss or another “unintended outcome,” the US Forest Service forms a team so we can do a large-scale learning analysis. I’ve worked on fatality helicopter crashes over the years, but this process can be used for all types of unintended outcomes. I’ll be on a team for 6-10 days, while we interview everyone that was involved in the accident, conduct site visits to the location of the accident, and gather other information.
My job is mainly to write a narrative of what happened, which we consider a “composite story.” It’s creative nonfiction. For example, I’ll take bits and pieces of an interview with an Incident Commander, and bits and pieces of information from the helicopter manager, and other firefighters and weave them together into a story that’s not just one perspective but all of their perspectives. They have a chance to do perception checking, where we read the narrative and talk about what works and doesn’t work, and then I distill lessons from that story about what we can transfer to other people so they might learn from that story.
During really long fire seasons, like they get in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, when those fires go on and on for months, I can get on the ground in the region and I’m pre-positioned for events as they unfold. They’ll say, “This is where you’ll be headquartered,” and I’ll get dispatched to anything that happens. This is the second type of assignment. They’ll tell me, “Go find out what happened when that bulldozer went off the side of the mountain,” and then I’ll get another call, and be dispatched somewhere else. We are more like mobile, ground safety crews at that point.
I can be on the ground within a day of an incident. I was at a fire during the summer of 2021, which was horrific. Several vehicles were burned over in a narrow escape. The driver of a water tender had all of the dials in his vehicle melting, and he was in there sucking in noxious gas, so he decides he’s going to bail out of the vehicle. But, of course, there’s a huge fire, so he ends up having to jump on an engine that was driving by to escape the fire. It’s the thing that nightmares are made of, but he lived.
I was there within probably 12 hours of when that happened to him. I was interviewing him, and I said, “I see that you burnt your hand but I hear you burnt your ear, too.” He reached up to touch that area by his ear and he pulled off a section of his ear. I took him to the medical tent. It happened so fast. This wasn’t the only time that someone realized they were injured during an interview with me. The adrenaline starts to wear off and things set in.
Sometimes I’m on the ground before a critical incident support management team or CISM team can get there, and people are in a bad spot. Or, they had been offered CISM, but didn’t think they needed it. I’m trying to get a story, but I’m the first human who is in front of someone who has gone through a terrible thing. If you want to talk about drawing on all of your resources and communication training, while all of that is, I hope, still within me, the number one thing is to be a human in front of another human — to say, “We can talk about the story later. Have you taken your boots off since it happened? Do you have blisters? Do you need me to help you get a phone charger to help you call your wife?”
There is no point in what we’re doing if we run over people in the process. The document we can produce is never more important than the person. The product that we could come up with, this “lessons learned” document, is not going to mean anything if the person is retraumatized in the process of telling us their story. It’s really about being able to think on your feet. It’s hard to train people to be a human in front of a human, but that’s the number one thing.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In your recent article with Ann Burnette, “Teaching Free Speech Across the Communication Studies Curriculum,” you call for a more robust emphasis on the freedom of speech and expression in communication curriculums. For those who might be less familiar with free speech scholarship, could you discuss this area of communication studies, touching on its role in your own research and why you believe it needs to be a more central focus of communication curricula?
[Dr. Rebekah Fox] The right we have to debate all of our other rights is from the First Amendment. We need more scholars who are interested in going into the area of free speech.
I think some barriers exist because people think you need to understand the law and they “couldn’t possibly study all the relevant court cases,” etc. But we need more people who are interested in helping to secure the fundamental right of being able to express things, and not being fearful of the controversy that accompanies that discussion. As you saw in the piece we wrote about teaching free speech across the curriculum, there are aspects of free speech involved in everything we do, and we would be doing free speech a disservice if we don’t think of it as fundamental.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you would give students who are interested in doing the kind of applied, multidisciplinary research that we have discussed and are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication studies?
[Dr. Rebekah Fox] I haven’t heard anybody who regretted getting the M.A. It’s two years, it’s something that will separate people’s vitas, and open doors. The Ph.D. is different, you have to think through what you want to do with that and the commitment involved, and whether it’s worth it. For an M.A. though, there’s clear value: the more time you’re in the classroom exposing yourself to what it means to study communication, the more useful you’re going to be.
The second piece of advice I would give is a firefighting principle. Whenever people are laying out operations and establishing a plan for how they’re going to approach a mission, one thing you hear is “you have to go slow to go fast.” What that means is you have to plan carefully so that the moment you have to move quickly you can do so smoothly. That’s something that matters for how we think about research design. The more thoughtful you are in how you set something up, the better it’s going to be later.
It’s a mind frame about taking prudent steps at the beginning in order to make things easier even though there’s a lot of things that push against that. Rushing, feeling like we’re always behind, means that we often don’t take those very prudent steps up front, and we end up with poor work in the end. For a lot of graduate students what I really just said is do a literature review, and really think through what everybody else said before you have something worth saying. Don’t skip over the discipline in trying to understand the conversation before you contribute to it.
Finally, don’t be afraid to take risks. As I discussed, many of my opportunities came from saying yes to things, even when that was intimidating. Say yes to the scary things and follow it with a notion of permanent criticism. Know when you’ve messed up and be honest about the lessons that you’ve learned. I’ve not always been successful, and I’ve had to be thoughtful about that. It’s important to learn the hard lessons sometimes and integrate those things along the way.
Thank you, Dr. Fox, for your insights on multidisciplinary research, firefighter communication, organizational rhetoric, and more!
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.