NCA Inside & Out

Robin Jensen

5 Questions With...Robin Jensen

February 14, 2019

Robin E. Jensen is Professor of Communication at the University of Utah. Jensen studies historical and contemporary discourses concerning health, science, sex, and gender, with current research dedicated to exploring the emergence, uses, and evolutions of chemical rhetoric among diverse disciplinary and lay communities in and over time. Jensen is the author of Infertility: Tracing the History of a Transformative Term (2016; The Penn State University Press), which was awarded the 2017 NCA Winans-Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address, and the Outstanding Book Award from the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language and Gender (OSCLG); and Dirty Words: The Rhetoric of Public Sex Education, 1870-1924 (2010; University of Illinois Press), which won the 2015 Health Communication Division’s Distinguished Book Award. Jensen is also the recipient of the 2015 NCA Karl R. Wallace Memorial Award and the 2015 New Investigator Award from NCA’s Rhetorical and Communication Theory Division.

  1. What is your current research focus, and can you share something interesting or exciting you’ve come across recently?
    In the process of writing my last book, Infertility: Tracing the History of a Transformative Term, I became fascinated by the chemical rhetoric employed in a number of different historical moments to validate specific explanations for reproductive problems and medical treatments. Since then, I have put together a Chemical Rhetoric Group with my graduate students at the University of Utah and set my sights on delineating how--and to what ends--the rhetoric of chemistry has developed in technical, public, and lay spheres of discourse over the last 200 years or so. I want to account for how foundational chemical terms such as energy or matter came to be, what they mean in specific contexts, and what they have allowed people to do by way of argumentation. Last summer, I traveled to the Science History Institute in Philadelphia to explore the extensive archival collections held there on the history of chemistry. Some of artifacts that I found there and find inherently important to the history of chemical science are the notes of women and minority students taking university chemistry classes in the mid- to late-19th century and early 20th century. These notes provide insight into how chemistry was navigated in educational contexts by those who were generally not anticipated to be the instructor's audience. I can't wait to think further about those notes--some of which also have accompanying photographs of their authors--and their rhetorical, historical, and material significance.
  2. Can you tell us about some of your most inspiring mentors in the Communication discipline, and how they have influenced your journey thus far?
    I've been fortunate to have had a number of amazing formal and informal advisors over the years. I never would have made it out of the grad school gates without my graduate advisor, Cara A. Finnegan. As anyone who has ever read her work knows, she creates beautiful, intricate arguments about how rhetoric creates meaning, and she has a long track record of guiding her students in that direction as well. At the informal mentoring level, I must join many others in calling out Celeste M. Condit for inspiring my research trajectory, both subject matter-wise with the rhetoric of science and medicine, and methodologically by triangulating research through rhetorical, critical, and qualitative orientations. Recently, I needed to ask Celeste for yet another endorsement, in this case a recommendation letter for a fellowship. I apologized for imposing on her in this way again and ended my email of request with something along the lines of "I am in your debt." Her response to me provides some insight into why she has been able to lead so many emerging scholars toward academic success over the years. Celeste explained that she saw no "debt" on my end. Instead, she trusted that I would "pay her support" forward to other scholars in the months and years to come. In this way, she showed me how to be the kind of scholar that the field requires for its propagation and healthy evolution. 
  3. How does your research apply to everyday life and current conversations and events?
    Much of my research explores social issues and controversies that have persisted over long time periods. My first book focused on the earliest public debates about the creation of public sex education programs in the United States, and those debates and their topoi certainly persist, albeit in different forms, today. My next book traced how reproductive health has been defined by science and mainstream media in key historical moments and over time. The goal with that project was to explicate how contemporary conceptualizations of "infertility" are the product of historical narratives that have, more often than not, been disproven by science but nonetheless persist at mainstream and lay levels. The turn to chemical rhetoric in my most recent research is less focused on a specific social problem and seeks to understand how chemistry functions as an inventional resource for many different types of arguments concerning everything from public health, to environmental sustainability, to the public understanding of science.
  4. What advice do you have for young or new scholars getting started in the Communication discipline?
    Find existing scholarship that inspires you and addresses significant social problems through the lens of communication. Figure out where that scholarship leaves off — both theoretically and contextually — and take that as your own jumping-off point. Always read the discussion section; that's where the next steps are. Aim for rigor in all research endeavors. Give conference presentations using an extemporaneous style. Prioritize that revise-and-resubmit over (almost) everything else, and do not be discouraged by rejection. Begin all reviews with positive feedback. Cite and support those you admire.   
  5. What are some of your professional goals for the next five years?
    I'd love to see the Chemical Rhetoric Group's work become solidified into a broader, interdisciplinary project that scholars can embrace on their own terms and thereby extend. I have two different books that I would like to write; one provides a foundation for this larger chemical rhetoric project, and another explores the contributions of three overlooked women to the field of fertility studies. That's probably more than I can do in five years, but I'll take this opportunity to be idealistic.
  6. What books by Communication colleagues are on your to-read list for 2019?
    Oh, this is a great question. I always get so excited about reading books set to come out in the new year. This year, the top of my reading list includes:
  • Jeffrey A. Bennett's Managing Diabetes: The Cultural Politics of Disease (2019; NYU Press)
  • Bethany Johnson and Margaret M. Quinlan's You're Doing It Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise (2019; Rutgers University Press)
  • Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher's Science Communication Online: Engaging Experts and Publics on the Internet (2019; Ohio State University Press)