About Whitney Gent, Ph.D.: Whitney Gent is Assistant Professor in the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Dr. Gent’s research focuses on rhetorics of homelessness and poverty in the United States and has been published in leading communication journals such as Quarterly Journal of Speech, Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, and Communication Teacher. In 2018, she received the Stephen E. Lucas Debut Publication Award from the National Communication Association.
Dr. Gent is also an engaged public scholar and has worked in volunteer and professional capacities with organizations working to address homelessness, including as Communications Director for the National Homelessness Law Center. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Nebraska Omaha, Dr. Gent was Assistant Professor at Minnesota State University and a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin. She received her Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her M.A. in Communication & Culture from Indiana University – Bloomington, and her B.A. in Speech Communication from Drury University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in studying rhetorical criticism and popular culture as a way of understanding homelessness and poverty in the United States?
[Dr. Whitney Gent] My interest in rhetorical criticism and homelessness developed alongside one another. I became interested in issues related to poverty and rhetorical criticism as an undergraduate. I had no idea what rhetorical criticism was until I took the class, but I had a professor who really opened my eyes to seeing the world through lenses that I had never imagined were possible. I learned how to ask critical questions and think about language and communication in ways I never had before.
About the same time, I was becoming more and more interested in issues related to poverty. As an undergraduate, I did an internship at National Public Radio in DC, and this was the first time I had ever lived in a large city for any period of time, so it was the first time I was encountering visible homelessness and visible poverty. While many of my fellow interns were able to let that fade into the urban background, which is how most people cope with issues related to homelessness, I was unable to do that. I was bothered every single day on my way to work.
That said to me that perhaps I ought to try to do something about it. As a young idealist, what I decided I should do is join AmeriCorps and do a year of service in a homeless shelter. I had no idea what a life changing experience that was going to be for me. At the time, I was interested in homelessness, I wanted to do something about it, but I saw this as a side volunteer gig, not something that would guide my career.
When my AmeriCorps year was over I went to graduate school as I had planned to study rhetoric and other forms of communication, and my experiences working in the shelter just would not let me go. As it turned out, I could combine the two. I could study how we talk about and represent homelessness, and feel like I was doing something meaningful in the world that very few people were doing. My graduate school career helped me continue to do something about the social issue that really had a grab on my heart.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research on homelessness and poverty investigates both institutional discourses, like the rhetoric of policymakers and legislatures, as well as media discourses on homelessness found in popular culture. Are there key similarities or differences you would highlight between these rhetorics? Is there a larger political or cultural logic that your work identifies between these discourses?
[Dr. Whitney Gent] I liked this question because, honestly, I hadn’t thought about what the overlaps and similarities were between political rhetoric and media representations regarding homelessness. When I’m doing a project on political discourses or advocacy discourses, I tend to think about those differently than popular culture discourses. I think the reason for this is that it feels like a very different audience experience.
When you are watching a Hollywood film for entertainment purposes or even to learn a little bit, you are in a very different place to absorb messages as an audience member. You have different cues about what is true and not true, you are observing really cherry-picked stories that have lots of consistent details between them that are sending a very particular message about what it is to be homeless, who is homeless, etc.
In public policy discourses you run into a kind of jargon that doesn’t appear in those pop culture discourses. You aren’t going to be as familiar, necessarily, with all of the different institutional structures and programs that are at play. I’ve talked to policymakers before who say they don’t really care if the public understands the terms that they’re using, they just want people to do something about homelessness. That’s not to say that the language that they’re using isn’t important or doesn’t impact public discourse around homelessness. It means that the ways that that language or those representations impact a public are quite different because most policymakers are not envisioning your everyday person who is watching The Pursuit of Happiness, for example, as the primary audience for the policy they’re proposing related to homelessness. They’re speaking very differently.
I think there ought to be more overlap in these conversations. Part of the reason that I do what I do is I believe nothing substantial will change about homelessness in this country until we change the ways in which we talk about it. That’s both policymakers and whom they’re talking to, and filmmakers and how they’re talking to people. It’s about how your grassroots activists are having conversations with the people around them about what it means to be homeless and why we ought to do something about it.
I do think these discourses are connected to one another. For example, the idea that homeless people choose to be homeless comes out of a political policy discourse. Ronald Reagan said that in a national speech. People were paying attention to Reagan’s speech in the way that they would pay attention to any political speech that was televised and broadcast over the radio. That significantly impacted the ways that policymakers were thinking about what to do about homelessness. They were building shelters for people as opposed to thinking about getting people quickly into housing because they supposed that if people wanted to be homeless you could just give them an option for temporary shelter, and the rest of the time they could just do what they’re going to do.
Or, they thought that if people want to be homeless then they’re clearly not thinking straight so we need to retrain them. This led to policies where we put people through a bunch of different programs before they get to housing. That’s a policy impact of that statement.
With respect to the significance of policy discourse for popular culture, we can think about how these representations circulate in television shows such as CSI, in news media, and in films that portray homeless characters. These notions that homeless people want to be homeless, that they are somehow dangerous, that there’s something wrong with their thought processes, are all rooted in these sentiments of the Reagan administration about what it means to be homeless. This is a form of actual “trickle down” that came out of the Reagan administration; it’s really trickled down to pop culture and the kinds of conversations, thoughts, and ideas that people have as a result of watching those media pieces and engaging in popular culture that represents homelessness as a choice.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You discuss the importance of changing how we communicate homelessness as important. People recently have been advocating for, rather than using the word homelessness, using the terms unhoused or houseless. Could you discuss your communicative choice to continue to use the word homelessness to discuss this issue?
[Dr. Whitney Gent] It seems to be in some ways the choice du jour to talk about houselessness instead of homelessness. I don’t want to be dismissive of it, because I understand the rhetorical choice some people are making there. They’re trying to make a distinction between someone who lacks stable shelter and someone who doesn’t have a place in the world. I get that and, at the same time, I think there’s a lot of value for continuing to use the word homeless for at least two reasons.
First, that is the term that most people still understand. When I talk about a homeless person a very particular image comes to mind. It’s the rhetorics and representations that create that image that I’m interested in. The second reason I continue to use the word homeless over houseless is that I’m not sure I buy that houselessness takes away the implication that there is a lack of belonging. I think that the experience of homelessness or houselessness is one that does generally remove a sense of community belonging.
So, while I understand the effort to remove stigma by using a different term, I don’t think it’s actually successful because it hasn’t, at least to date, shifted people’s ideas about the experiences of homelessness/houselessness or the conditions of homelessness/houselessness. I’m not yet convinced that the change of terms accomplishes much. If someone who is experiencing houselessness prefers to be referred to as houseless rather than homeless, or have their experience described in that way, that absolutely ought to be respected. However, in terms of describing the social phenomenon and analyzing the rhetorics and representations that shape our ideas about it, I stick to the term homelessness because that is still what the majority of people in the United States understand that problem to be.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In your recent article, “‘Not in My Back Yard’: Democratic Rhetoric in Spatial Gatekeeping,” you explore the apparent paradox of how democratic forms of community engagement are often leveraged toward the exclusion of vulnerable and marginalized houseless people, working from a controversy over housing provisions in Boulder, Colorado. Could you explore how democracy operates as a means of exclusion in these contexts?
[Dr. Whitney Gent] Very good people living in a democracy fight for their democratic rights, often at the expense of others’ democratic rights. We see this in lots of democratic areas not related to homelessness. A good example of this would be in fighting for freedom of religion or freedom of expression. Oftentimes, that struggle is to the exclusion of people who do not agree with that group’s viewpoints.
In cases like the one in Boulder that I explore in this article, I’m interested in how people pushing for things like government transparency and inclusion and participation — all of these things that sound so good and are important to a healthy democracy — get used to excluding entire populations of people. How can calling for inclusion and participation exclude people? It seems like it shouldn’t work that way, but functionally it does all the time.
The people in Boulder whom I analyzed for the sake of this article were making great arguments like, “We should participate in the decision-making processes on where the housing for these homeless people is located,” and “We should be included in the public meetings about this, and there should be more public meetings.” But if you really listen to the arguments that they’re making, they wanted to be decision makers in this process, but they weren’t actually willing to include people experiencing homelessness themselves.
This is another example of when the people who are loudest or have the most privilege can assert claims to these particular kinds of democratic rights while forgetting there are entire populations who are not receiving those rights at the moment and would be included in those discourses if they were.
That’s one way that exclusion is happening, but what can also happen here is a kind of redirection. When what we’re supposed to be talking about is how to best serve people experiencing homelessness in our community, the conversation instead becomes about whether the government is being forthcoming enough with details or the right people are being included in the decision making.
One of the public meetings I analyzed for this article devolved very quickly into people literally yelling at the public housing group that was trying to create permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. The folks who were doing the speaking at the front of the room — the group trying to house people — were very much silenced by the group that believed that they ought to have the power. Rather than a dialogue, it became a shouting match of demands for rights.
While that group may be demanding due process and inclusion in decision-making, they’re distracting from the issue at hand and failing to include the most directly impacted members of their community and they’re doing it to halt a process that would bring housing and inclusion and belonging to a group of people who need it in their community.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How does understanding these paradoxical moments of invoking democracy reframe our understanding of what is required to address poverty and homelessness within the democratic context?
[Dr. Whitney Gent] I think I can confidently say that understanding how these kinds of arguments get leveraged against marginalized communities — like people experiencing homelessness — is key to learning how to address those things when they come up. I do not think we will eliminate these arguments from occurring. People love to assert their rights and they have a right to do so in the United States.
The thing is, individual rights are not always compatible with other people’s claims to individual rights. I think we could do with some democratic education that talks about collective rights versus individual rights as a goal of democracy, but what I am more directly interested in is what people experiencing homelessness do or say, what their advocates can do or say, when these arguments inevitably arise. I’m working on an article about that now.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have also worked in a number of publicly engaged capacities on issues of homelessness and poverty. For example, you served as a volunteer communication consultant for Partners for Housing, and as a member of the board of directors for the grassroots homeless advocacy organization Operation Welcome Home, in addition to authoring public-facing scholarship and speaking with the media. How do you understand your role as a public scholar, and how have your experiences volunteering and working with organizations addressing poverty and homelessness informed your research?
[Dr. Whitney Gent] I think one of the things that draws me to rhetorical studies is that I get to study real world discourses that have very material impacts on people, and try to figure out how to make actual change in those discourses to make people’s lives better. Throughout my career I have worked as a volunteer, as a staff member, and as a scholar to try to figure out what these discourses are, what the best way is to help people who are experiencing homelessness, and what the root causes of homelessness are.
I worked as a communication professional in a policy organization in Washington DC to try to address homelessness at the federal level. I’ve also worked in multiple homeless day centers in different cities in the United States. I think this helps to shape the scholarly work I do by giving me a perspective that you just don’t get if all you’re doing is reading government documents and books by other people about homelessness. It puts me in conversation with people who are experiencing homelessness, with policy makers, and with advocates who have been working on these issues for a long time. This allows me to have an understanding of actually existing rhetoric around homelessness and helps me figure out what some of the trends are in the way that people want to talk about housing, homelessness, and poverty.
I’d like to provide two examples. First, when I was working at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty [which is now the National Homelessness Law Center], we were working very hard to try to get to talk more often about a human right to housing. One of the attorneys at the organization had already been working on this for years when I arrived in 2009. He has continued to work on this, and when we catch up with one another I learn about the many different ways he’s seen that change come to fruition.
This inspires me to track that as a form of policy rhetoric and to think in deep ways about the implications of using human rights as a frame to think about housing. Our discussions help me consider whether that will be compelling to broader audiences or whether that’s only compelling to a policy making audience. Those conversations and relationships prompt me to further inquire into actually existing rhetorics.
Another example of this is Housing First. Housing First is, for those who are not familiar, an approach to housing homeless people where you essentially just give someone experiencing homelessness housing without prerequisites. It is subsidized in that you have to pay 30% of your income toward that housing, but if you have zero income that means that housing is coming to you for free. Housing First is controversial in some communities because it feels like a free lunch or something someone has not earned.
Housing First is a policy that had its origins in a pilot project in New York City more than 25 years ago. Now, it is the way that almost all local communities around the country work to address chronic homelessness. The chronic part is important because Housing First aims to address long term or repetitive homelessness.
For me, hearing about that early on while doing policy work, I became intrigued about how people would respond to this, how it would circulate, and how we would go from one man’s idea about how we might address homelessness to making it a possibility nationally and globally. That is a rhetorical situation, a situation for a scholar like me to investigate not just for myself, but to also be able to share an example of a successful initiative with activists and advocates who are doing this work. If we can understand how that happened, then we can gather some clues as to how to succeed in advocating for policy change in the future.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Another of your recent publications appeared in Communication Teacher in which you argue for introducing rhetorical criticism to students as “detective work” aimed at solving interpretive mysteries. Could you provide us with a background on this approach to teaching rhetorical criticism? Do you think that conceiving of rhetoric as mystery, in this way, has important value for how rhetorical scholars approach criticism, in addition to its pedagogical significance for students?
[Dr. Whitney Gent] The concept of thinking about rhetorical critics as “meaning detectives” is not my own. It comes from Barry Brummett. I have embraced this wholeheartedly with students because I find it is a metaphor that makes sense to them. One way that I’ve described rhetorical criticism is to compare it to how you’re taught to analyze poetry in your high school English class. You have markers and highlighters, and you look at the piece of paper, and you highlight themes, and you circle the interesting words, and you go back through and try to see what’s going on that you didn’t see the first time around.
To me, that’s the process of rhetorical criticism, except I aim my highlighters and markers at the world. It’s about digging for the deeper meanings that are not necessarily apparent to everyone on the surface or that first read through. When I’m teaching my students a mystery approach to criticism, I ask them to start from the existing message and untangle how we got there.
As we all know now, I study homelessness. On my first day of a rhetorical criticism class, I ask the students to engage with me on different newspaper headlines related to homelessness, films related to homelessness, images they’ve likely seen like a panhandler on the side of a road. We look at all of these things together, and we say, “Okay, when we think about homelessness right now most of us come up with very similar images. All of these messages that we’re examining right now help us get to that image. They build on one another to create something that is consistently socially shared. These are clues to how we got there.” As we examine each of these clues, the student understands how threads are developed in these messages to create the socially shared image that we have now.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How might you compare the understanding of rhetoric as “mystery” with the understanding of rhetoric as an art form that you introduce in your piece “Validity and the Art of Rhetorical Criticism”? How do these pieces collectively lead us to understand the value of rhetorical criticism and its salient connections and distinctions with other forms of communication research, such as social scientific studies of communication?
[Dr. Whitney Gent] Art is fundamentally mysterious. When we look at a painting, we rarely know the artist’s intent. It is open to multiple interpretations. The reasons I might interpret a piece of art differently from you may not be immediately apparent to us. They’re rooted in our experiences. They are rooted in the discourses we have individually been exposed to. They are rooted in the ways we have been taught to individually approach art. Rhetoric is no different. The study of rhetoric is so beautiful because it allows for multiple interpretations. This is something that I teach to my students when talking about being “meaning detectives.” We are looking for clues to build a case or make an argument for a particular interpretation.
Because multiple interpretations can be valid, our job is to offer compelling cases using those clues to justify the argument that we’re making. In the same way, when we’re looking at a piece of art, multiple interpretations are possible and in fact encouraged. That’s the beauty of art. At the same time, not all interpretations feel equally valuable to us. You need to have some basis for the interpretation that you’re offering in order for it to be respected.
I don’t think at all that the idea of rhetoric as an art and rhetoric as mystery are incompatible. I think they have many of the same characteristics and allow us to think about interpretation in very similar ways. The mystery metaphor allows us to think about clues and uncovering. Art as a metaphor helps us to understand the production of rhetoric a little bit better — thinking about how an author, a speaker, or a creator might be thinking about portraying a particular message to their audience. To me, these ideas of art and mystery are really useful interlocking ideas, but I tend to use the mystery idea only with my students so as to not confuse them with multiple metaphors.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in rhetoric, the study of popular culture, and sociopolitical problems like homelessness and poverty, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication studies?
[Dr. Whitney Gent] My first piece of advice is to figure out what you want to do with your degree. Graduate school is hard and it takes a long time. Even a master’s program rather than a Ph.D. program will come with a lot of challenges: financial challenges, intellectual challenges, interpersonal challenges. Understanding why you’re going for the degree I think helps you have some stamina while you’re doing it and gives you guidance while you’re in the program. You don’t need to know in advance what you’re going to research, but figure out what you want to do with this degree before you get it.
I am of the opinion that you should have several ideas in mind for what you might do with your graduate degree when you start. When I went back to get my Ph.D. I told myself that I would only do it if I could come up with at least three jobs that weren’t professor jobs that I might like to do with the knowledge and skills that I’ve gained in the program.
I think for a master’s student that’s a good idea as well. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go get a master’s degree because you don’t know what else to do or because it seems like the natural next step. In order to succeed, you’ve got to have some internal and external motivation, and I think the internal motivation is linked to the drive to accomplish something beyond receiving a piece of paper.
Particularly, rhetoric has many practical implications. It is a practical study, although some might view it as theoretical. There are always pragmatic implications. Why do you want to study rhetoric? Do you want to change the ways people are addressing a particular issue in social justice? Do you want to rethink the way that the U.S. military is communicating about things like surveillance? Do you want to tackle big social problems, or do you just want to investigate argumentation theory for the sake of argumentation theory? All of these can be valid choices, but having an idea of why you’re there helps sustain your journey through a master’s program and, in the absence of that drive, it can be really difficult to keep going.
I want that to be inspirational, but I also want people to be really well prepared for what they’re walking into. You don’t know what graduate school is going to be like until you get there, but you can prepare yourself by understanding why you’re doing it before you get there. I think about the master’s students I advise on their master’s theses and how difficult it is to summon the motivation to work on a document that is that long if you don’t have a clear understanding of why you’re doing it. It’s really hard to get yourself over that finish line.
It can’t just be that you’re interested in something. It’s really easy to lose interest. What’s driving you? Why are you interested in getting this degree? Is it just to have the letters behind your name? Is it because you want to do something specific with this degree or information?
Everybody has their own reasons, but I do think it’s a bad idea to go into a master’s or a Ph.D. program just because you don’t know what else to do. You get more clarity as you go, so I don’t want to give the impression you have to understand it all as you’re starting. But I do think people need to be conscious about what their motivations are.
Thank you, Dr. Gent, for sharing your insights about homelessness, poverty, rhetorical criticism, pedagogy, 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.