Research Spotlight: Carolyn Skinner

March 3, 2020

Research Spotlight: Carolyn Skinner

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Each month, the Communications Team reaches out to members of the Department of English faculty and asks them to elaborate on a current research or creative project they are working on or have recently completed. For this month, we asked Associate Professor Carolyn Skinner about her research on the rhetorical reception of historical arguments regarding gender.   

In your own words, as the expert that you are, can you explain your project?

I am studying the rhetorical reception of physician Edward H. Clarke’s book Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for the Girls (1873). Clarke’s book, which argued that women risked their health by pursuing extended education, participated in the late-nineteenth-century US’s turn toward the sciences and professions as sources of knowledge for public decision-making. Analyzing how public and professional readers responded to Sex in Education can tell us much about rhetorical success and failure, about the construction of gender, about the discourses of professionalism and about the role of the audience in shaping a text’s meaning. Because women participated in the book’s reception, my research also explores how women were involved in determining the rhetorical values that would be associated with professional discourse in the public sphere.

Now, could you shorten this description into one sentence that uses accessible language?

I am studying the ways readers responded to the book Sex in Education to see how people in the US in the late 1800s tried to shape the effects of that book, including women’s access to college education and science’s role in public decision-making.

In what ways is your research significant? 

This project explores a lot of questions that are fundamental to how rhetoric works—in this case, how words exchanged among people lead to changes in what people think and do. It asks what makes a rhetorical act a success or a failure. For example, Sex in Education was very popular, so by one measure it succeeded, but the book resulted in very little change in the rates at which women went to college, so it seems not to have succeeded in actually persuading many readers. This mixture of success and failure makes Sex in Education an interesting case study for examining what counts as rhetorical effectiveness. I’m also exploring how words are used to tell people how men and women ought to act and how professions like medicine and education claimed authority as they were emerging as the professions we recognize today. Finally, I’m examining how a text’s meaning changes over time as different readers understand it differently in their contexts. For example, readers in the 1870s argued over the book’s claim that women should not pursue extended education, while readers in the 1980s treated the book as an example of the kinds of opposition women had to overcome in the past. My field (historical women’s rhetoric) has not paid as much attention to the reception of texts as it has to the production of texts, but I think attending to reception can help us more fully account for how rhetoric works, including women’s involvement in the history of texts and ideas. 

Are you working with any colleagues or collaborators?

No, but I do benefit from the feedback I’ve been receiving on this work in progress from my writing group.

Is the project being funded or supported by any individuals or organizations that you would like us to acknowledge?


Where do you see this project going in the future?

I’m still in the process of researching how members of the professions (mostly medicine and education, but possibly also psychology and sociology) responded to Sex in Education. The professions were just beginning to solidify as professions around this time, so I’m especially curious about how they used the debate around this book to assert their authority.

What's next for you? What would you like to work on once this project is completed?

I’m really interested in how scientific/professional rhetoric became important in how we make decisions, because we didn’t always rely on them they way we do today. And most people don’t realize how involved women were in promoting (and trying to prevent) this shift. So even though I’m still in the middle of this project, I think there is quite a bit more in this area to explore.

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