In the Spotlight: Professor Bryan McCann, Department of Communication Studies
Graduate Faculty Spotlight, August 2017
1. What factors influenced your decision to work at LSU?
I was intrigued by the composition of the Department of Communication Studies, and especially by the convergence of rhetorical studies and performance studies. I have often tried to orient my work both in the classroom and in writing, and in terms of community work depending on my location. As someone who is personally and academically interested in the politics of race and criminal justice, I saw an opportunity to contribute and intervene in meaningful ways here in Louisiana.
2. What is your primary research area of interest in Communication Studies?
In the Department of Communication Studies, I am a rhetorical critic who is interested in the internal dynamics of interests in knowing what makes a form of communication effective or noneffective. For myself and a lot of figures in my field, the critique of rhetoric can also function as a form of social critique, whereas the ways we talk about matters of controversy tells us something about the world we live in. In my work, I think through the social entailments of how we frame controversies and use rhetoric as a heuristic to ask socially relevant questions.
My body of research is primarily about the racialized body of politics and criminal justice in the United States. Looking at speeches from the 1980s-1990s, we see that most of the associated discourses were racially charged. As you follow the study of rhetoric, you find that it’s persuasive and there are important social consequences to that.
Black criminality as a discourse changed dramatically after slavery. The South needed new ways to exploit unpaid black labor, so we have this transition from the image of the subservient, ignorant slave who needed civilization on the plantation to the ravenous, hypersexual masculine figure. The transition helped rationalize the increased policing and incarceration of black community members.
In The Mark of Criminality, I tell a relatively familiar story of the 1980s and 1990s in a more complex way. Politics does not always present itself as clear-cut and dry, and the fact that gangsta rap conspired a vitriolic response from people in power tells us the message is working. The “war-on-crime” era was a culturally messy period, but you also had incredibly successful figures and artists who retooled black masculinity and criminality.
The bigger takeaway is that at a fundamental level, criminality is rhetorical. The acts we label as “criminal” have real consequences-- whether theft, drug dealing, or murder-- but coding these acts as criminal at both a legal and cultural level is rhetorical. And when something is rhetorical, it is slippery and malleable, so we learn more about our history and our present as we examine this more.
My involvement ranges from advising graduate students to teaching graduate seminars. I am extremely committed to the professionalization of graduate students who want to pursue a career in academia. Graduate students should be advocates for themselves through graduate student organizations, summer institutes, and graduate assistantships. There are many ways for graduate students to take the lead, so I try to help facilitate that through various groups and assistance.
In addition to being intrinsically excited to train students in my discipline to develop great projects and to be professionalized, I am equally passionate about doing what I can to cultivate a culture where people are willing to advocate when necessary.
When graduate students can employ what they are thinking with precision, they have a better sense of their rights and their role in the community, and what types of issues should be addressed. Universities and colleges are unique due to their tradition of shared governance. Everyone who works here has a voice in how that university functions- whether in regard to threats of academic freedom, compensation, benefits, or the campus climate.