Five Questions with Jessica Kurr

Jessica Kurr
November 9, 2021

Jessica A. Kurr (she/her/hers) is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. Dr. Kurr researches rhetoric and argumentation, focusing on interactions between individuals and institutions related to economic, political, and LGBTQ issues. Kurr is currently working on a book-length project examining how political institutions have advocated for or campaigned against trans and queer issues. In addition, she is working on projects exploring the role institutions, such as the Federal Reserve, have in debates over economic policy. Kurr is a co-editor of Speech and Debate as Civic Education, which makes the case for the benefits of speech and debate education. 

1. You completed your Ph.D. in 2017 and joined the faculty at Northeastern as a Postdoctoral Teaching Associate in 2018. Could you talk a bit about your experience working as a postdoc and how that’s helped you as an early career scholar?

Adapting to a new institution in a new city in a brand new role is quite an odd challenge. While you are most likely familiar with your graduate program’s department and university, it can be eye opening how different other organizations do things, especially one that does not have a graduate program. One thing I quickly realized is that figuring out how to set up my own schedule, deadlines, and routines would become the most important thing I could do. As a graduate student, your department or graduate school might have specific deadlines for different things, so part of the planning is not done by you. However, as a postdoc, you’re responsible for your own writing and your own teaching. Adjusting to a new university and new city, while also stepping into the light as your own scholar and not being directed by an adviser, is a challenging experience. But I think if you set up the perspective for it, it really can shed light on topics you had already been researching. Seeing and hearing how different people work or what their default assumptions are about Communication is really eye opening and helps you think about your research in new ways.

2. You were one of the editors of Speech and Debate as Civic Education and have been active in the speech and debate community. What do you think are the benefits of speech and debate? 

I always thought one of the interesting parts of the National Communication Association, and a lot of our field, were the roots it had in public speaking and, by extension, collegiate debating. The plethora of research, from environmental communication to interpersonal communication to media studies, and the variety we have in the field is analogous to the benefits from speech and debate. In essence, participating and teaching speech and debate can easily allow someone to be a “jack of all topics.” That perspective is the heart of a solid humanities or liberal arts education. When I debated in college, topics ranged from United States policy in the Middle East to agricultural subsidies. What connected them, of course, was the method of debating and the practice of researching and constructing arguments. But I see even more benefits when teaching my debate class. Students in my fall semester class are interested in debating how to implement a social model of disability, the extent to which a tax on meat consumption would be ethical or desirable, and whether social media should be able to censor voices, among other topics. My background in speech and debate allows me to help students on all of these projects because I have either learned about them through my own research, or am able to quickly learn about them because of the skills I learned from debating. Along with learning about this wide variety of topics, speech and debate students come to understand the perspective of others and the reasoning behind it, which helps them become better advocates for themselves and the issues they care about. This is why I regularly teach and work with the Women’s Debate Institute, even though I do not have any formal coaching obligations. Being able to see students learn about a variety of topics and how to advocate for themselves is simply amazing.

3. You have various scholarly projects focusing on the Federal Reserve. What drew you to research the Federal Reserve? 

As an undergraduate, I majored in Finance and Actuarial Mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh. Understanding how to use mathematics to model human activity fascinated me. Unfortunately, I went to college during the Great Recession, so my ability to find a job in that area was nonexistent. However, because of my participation in speech and debate, I was able to attend graduate school at Baylor University and help coach the debate team. While I had taken a few undergraduate Communication classes, I did not have nearly the background of other students in my cohort. Researching economics issues allowed me to “catch up” on a lot of foundational work in rhetoric, philosophy, and related areas I needed to understand my courses. Because I was already very knowledgeable about finance and economics, the angle provided me a way to get through graduate school. Outside of convenience, though, communicating about economics quickly fascinated me. It is an odd topic because people are familiar with parts of it but tend not to understand the background, and there’s odd jargon used by experts in the field. All of that makes trying to figure out statements, speeches, and media coverage quite the puzzle. When I looked at the history of the Federal Reserve, the role between the chair and the organization struck me as very weird. Here, you had arguably one of the most important people in the economy but a lot of the reason people paid attention to them was because of their position and their authority, which became an extension of the organization. Theoretically, I thought the Fed was unique in terms of how we typically think about acts of communication and that thread continued to other projects.

4. You’ve looked at trans and queer issues by focusing on “institutional rhetorics.” What does that mean and how does it help explain the current political and social focus on trans and queer rights? 

When I was writing my dissertation, I knew I had to figure out a way to explain all the case studies I was exploring. At some point, focusing on institutional ethos became the way forward. That eventually led me to think about institutional rhetorics more broadly. Because I had always wanted to write about trans and queer issues but never had the opportunity to do so (due either to time or mentor availability), that provided an important motivation for me. Additionally, I began looking at that topic in early 2016 (while dissertating and planning my eventual transition). At the time, local and state governments began pushing transphobic bathroom bills. Given my focus on institutional rhetorics, a lightbulb in my head lit up. I began writing about institutional rhetorics as a way to explain the connection that individuals had with the institutions they represented and the transference of agency and authority between the two in both directions. The way I explain this to my family is to describe how the reputation of the organization helps the person speaking for the organization, and how the person speaking in turn will shape the organization’s reputation. For trans and queer rights, this line of inquiry inspired a variety of research projects. That early lightbulb made me think about Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s speech announcing the lawsuit against North Carolina and its bathroom bill and how that related to the Obama administration’s relatively “quiet” positions on trans rights. Then, of course, on the flip side, you had the exact opposite type of statements and actions emanating from the following administration. For trans and queer issues, a popular strategy amongst organizations and individuals is to post supportive messages, put up signs, etc. While these signs of solidarity have some benefit (one often overstated), where this becomes more important is when we consider what actions are being taken by the rhetor in these cases. The Obama administration changed a variety of bureaucratic policies, behind the scenes, to be more trans-accepting. However, the administration did not really promote these actions. Comparatively, the Biden administration voiced support for trans rights in early 2021 in response to the plethora of transphobic bills targeting trans children across various states. But there has not been much “action” beyond that. Institutional rhetorics help provide some explanation about why these strategies are generally considered ineffective or insufficient. A combination of action and visible support is necessary, but it is rare to find someone engaging in both.

5. You’ve also been active on trans rights issues and have served on committees at both Penn State and Northeastern. What advice do you have for graduate students or early career faculty looking to support equity and inclusion on their campuses? 

I have done a variety of equity- and inclusion-related service, both inside and outside the discipline of Communication. Each situation is wildly different. For example, at Penn State, I helped work on reviewing whether an insurance policy switch met the trans-inclusive guidelines set by the university. Another project involved helping the university set up how to help students who transitioned while attending school there, which oddly required a lot of discussion with people in IT as they had to manually alter how some software took in information (my understanding is the software company did not do this by default, so I had to tell the IT people what the software should do and they would figure out how to make that happen). I also found myself helping to set up workshops or reviewing other policy documents for best practices. And, I gave talks to allies and moderated discussions with other trans students. Thankfully, my debate background helped me to be a comfortable speaker. But I do wish I had said “No” more often. Given my other teaching and research commitments, I think I said “yes” to service requests far more than I should have. But it can be very difficult to say “no” about work that you believe is needed and might help a group you think is being actively discriminated against. But remembering that you are not alone and not the only one who can do this service is very important. Sometimes the community may be small, and everyone might be tired, but I find comfort in knowing not everything is on my shoulders. That perspective, that it is okay to ask for help and support and get others to do the work, is one that can both help sustain the necessary service and also protect oneself.

Watch a video with additional insights from Jessica Kurr!