A Word With Kristin Swenson, communication and media studies professor

Photo by Francie Wilson. 

AUDREY DAVENPORT | amdavenp@butler.edu | OPINION COLUMNIST

Editor’s Note: questions have been slightly edited for clarity

The Butler experience is a combination of different factors — classes, events, friends — but surely a very important one is the professors. Beyond standing at the front of their classrooms or staring at you from a computer screen, they have phenomenal insights that all students should be aware of. “A Word With” is a weekly series that highlights some of the professors who make the Butler experience what it is.

As a second semester senior, I was nervous to take Kristin Swenson’s Gender in Communication course. As a chemistry and French double major, I had never taken a class focused on gender before. But now I realize that this was a key course that had been missing from my education at Butler. 

Swenson makes the subject matter in her classes interesting, approachable and engaging. In this interview, she talks about becoming who we are meant to become as well as how that can continuously change throughout our lifetimes. Butler students: take any class taught by Swenson. Her passion, dedication and desire makes students feel heard and build a community around her.  

Where are you from, where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

I was born in Pennsylvania and my mom got pregnant with me when she was a sophomore in college. And she did not get married. So, when I was four and a half we hopped in the car and we drove out to California. So, I grew up in southern California. My grandparents and aunts and uncles are there, so we go back to visit all the time. I think that it was the right environment for me, it was all I knew. And I miss the beach. But to be honest, I didn’t really understand community until I went to college — I also went to college in California, at a place called the University of Redlands. It was interesting, I sort of had to go to college first and then the Midwest to really experience a strong sense of community that I didn’t quite experience in California.

Looking back, what do you feel was lacking from that “community” feel?

I think because everything was so spread out, and public transportation in southern California back then was not, quote, ‘a thing.’ It was a car culture. And when you’re young and don’t have a car, or when you’re older and you’re always driving places, you just don’t have the immediacy of the community right there.

Do you have any strong memories from high school?

I worked. So, I worked at a berry farm for a while. And then I worked at the Buena Park mall and I worked as a waitress. I have always had a strong sense of work; I started working when I was 15. I think that it was instilled in me by my mother, but also it was self-motivated. It was a different time. We have Uber and Lyft now, but when I was growing up we were so looking forward to being able to drive.

Was there anyone that you really looked up to growing up?

I looked up to family members and things like that, but I was really putting a lot of hopes and dreams on the college experience. I was really looking forward to that sense of independence and learning things and kind of being away from home. I was really looking forward to college, it was always going to be my next step.

How did you decide to go to the University of Redlands?

They had a great study abroad program. I knew I wanted to travel. And during their orientation, we found out that during study abroad your tuition dollars would follow you, so it didn’t cost any more money. And they had a Salzburg program in Austria, so I went to Salzburg my junior year. And it was very much like Butler too, which I think was why I wanted to work at Butler. It was small, community-oriented. There were people from all over. A friend from New York, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, so all my friends were from somewhere else. So that was also really appealing too.

How was your experience in Austria?

It was awesome. We would take classes together and they would bring in teachers. But it also meant that when we were taking art history we were hopping on a bus and going to Munich and Vienna. One thing I like to share with my students and advisees is that if you have the opportunity to study abroad, do it now. Because later in life with work and commitments, it becomes harder and harder to travel and experience different cultures, you know, it’s living through experience.

Do you feel like you brought a lot of that experience back with you?

I think like many students that I talk to when they get back from studying abroad, they develop a travel lust. A desire to go and explore things. So that certainly happened and still happens. And it really opened up the world to me.

Was high school or college around the time you started getting into gender studies?

As an undergrad I was a major in English professional writing and a minor in sociology. And I had this fabulous teacher in sociology. And I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but when you know things and you’re taught the vocabulary that is able to explore all those things that you had an inkling about. That’s sort of what happened to me. 

So my professor taught me about gender studies and feminism and gave me the vocabulary. And I think that happens to a lot of people during college. We learn a vocabulary and that vocabulary opens up new worlds to us. I was certainly super interested in gender studies and I was raised by a single mom, so that makes sense that feminism was something that was important to me. 

And I remember taking a class in college about building allies and the difficulty of that. And I remember it was a class of five people, including a woman from Hawaii who was super interested in advocating for Hawaiian rights and sovereignty. So there were five of us, and the five of us talking about the difficulties of common goals but independent goals and the challenges of forming those alliances in social movements. It was really palpable at that time, with difficulties and excitements.

Was it the kind of class where you wanted to go out and change the world? Or did it stay in the back of your mind as you went through life?

I certainly spent a lot of time thinking about the type of life that I wanted to live. And I actually wrote something for the school newspaper at the time talking about how I have all this great education and knowledge, but the last thing I wanted to do was go wear pantyhose and work in a cube. 

It’s funny because it’s so dated, but this was in the early nineties and there were no jobs when I graduated. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I didn’t want to be in school. I needed a break. And I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Everyone told me that now was not the time to get a job in journalism and that I should go back to school, but I didn’t want to. I eventually moved to Missouri, and so I worked as an admissions counselor for a private women’s college. And I just thought that my interest in feminism, that makes sense that I would be interested as an admissions counselor at a women’s college. And it was a great job because I was independent and I had an office and I got to travel. The west coast was my territory. And so I did that for a couple of years.

So you’re in Missouri and you have this job, at what point did you start thinking maybe that you wanted to go back to school?

Well, so after I did the admissions counselor thing for a couple of years, I worked as an editor for the University of Missouri for instructional guides, like auto-mechanical guides. And then I was thinking that I wanted to go into public relations or be some type of writer. So I thought that maybe I would go back to school, because I was ready to and maybe do something in PR. So I did. 

I went to school, took my first PR class and decided that I didn’t want to do that. But then I got really interested in rhetoric and rhetorical studies and this idea that language and symbols and visuals create meaning — and who are we and who can we become and what are the limits of that. So I started getting really interested in those questions. My love of narrative and stories played into it as well. I always loved to read fiction and fictional accounts of identity are ones where people change and grow. And I was always interested in ‘what are the possibilities for that growth’ and ‘what are the limits of that growth.’ And ‘how does rhetoric and language and culture function to allow or to limit who we are.’

Do you feel as though your research and classes have informed how you view things outside of academia? And what would you say has been one of the more impactful realizations?

Yes. I think by learning about feminism and reading theory and philosophy that I began to realize that we can make certain choices and as long as we are thoughtful about those choices and are ethical in our relationships to others that we can create the way we want to live even though there are other external pressures and things we have to do. But I can make choices, fortunately with all my privilege, of what the job looks like in certain ways. I think that one thing I learned about myself is that I really value relationships more than I value money. For me, I love what I do. I get to teach a subject matter that I am passionate about, but I also love the people that I work and interact with. That gives me meaning and energy and makes me feel alive. And to be able to do that is a real gift.

So, when you’re talking about relationships that have really meant a lot to you, do you feel now that you have a role model of sorts?

I hope to always be growing in that way. It’s interesting because I keep coming back to this question of who are my role models, and I mean there are the big role models in the world, but I don’t know them. So, I find that I admire various aspects of different people. So instead of just one person I think that there’s many people and I admire certain aspects about them.

Do you think you have to know the role model personally for them to be influential?

I think it depends on what the role model’s purpose is. And for me, I recognize the complexities of life and nobody is perfect, so there may be role models for parenting or role models for work or for other aspects. But it’s a tough question. I can admire people’s work, but the role model thing is more difficult. And I think mentors are good. Because you can change mentors too, so I think for me, at this point in my life, mentors are more influential. In which ways am I growing and how can I grow. Who can offer me some advice because they’ve been there, too, type of thing.

Did you have strong mentors in graduate school?

I did. I went to the University of Minnesota. And there was this really top woman academic who really paved the way of bringing the writings of women into the discipline. And I thought she was the one that I wanted to study with. And then of course I met her, and we didn’t mesh well —  and that’s okay because I still admired her greatly and her work and took all her classes. But I chose to have someone else be my dissertation advisor. So I think it’s also being open to the fact that you can admire people and what they have done for your field, and also appreciate that and let them know that, but also recognize that you can have really great relationships and really strong mentors who aren’t that person, and that’s okay.

So, after you wrapped up your masters, you went PhD after that?

Yep, I got my PhD at the University of Minnesota. It was challenging and interesting and hard and competitive and tearful. But it was also exhilarating and wonderful to have the time to study and read and discuss with people who were also interested. I pursued the PhD for academia and I wanted to research and teach.

And what questions were you looking to research?

I think the same type of questions. Who are we and who are we becoming, and how is all of that informed? So, my master’s thesis was about teenage diaries and how teenagers construct their own sense of identity. And then my dissertation was about advertisements of lifestyle drugs like depression ads and ADD ads and was looking at, ‘what are these advertisements telling us about who we are and how we should be?’ And all my work sort of intersects gender issues and issues of becoming and then also issues of work.

Then after your PhD were you looking for teaching jobs?

Yeah, so during your last year of PhD school you start hitting the market. So I had three job offers, and I picked Butler because I walked on campus and it felt like a community and the campus was beautiful. And so it felt like a real community. And it reminded me of my undergraduate. And it was in undergraduate college that I got excited about learning. I didn’t have the best grades, but I got excited about learning and learned how to learn.

You mentioned the idea of becoming a lot, do you ever feel like there will be a point in your life where you are a fully formed human being?

I hope not. Because we’re always all growing and changing. We can’t help it. Even if we aren’t conscious of it our bodies are changing. And I think that’s what life is — learning, growing and becoming over and over and over again.

Do you think that gender classes should be required for students to take across the board?

Yes, especially in the disciplines that aren’t necessarily interdisciplinary — like maybe the hard science or the business school. It’s really important to integrate the study of gender and intersectionality. And hopefully Butler’s core curriculum has done a little bit of that. So, we now have social justice and diversity as part of the university core requirement. And hopefully students will be introduced to these ideas then. 

A lot of folks in the gender studies program and other interdisciplinary folks across campus have worked really hard to push it and to make it happen. We live in a multifaceted world with a whole host of intersectional identities and the world is a big complex, nuanced place. And the more skills we have in recognizing that my perspective isn’t everyone’s perspective I think the better we can be in whatever job we do. And be more fulfilled as a human being.

Do you feel as though campus has changed a lot since you have been here?

I think that students are more open now than maybe previous generations to concepts and ideas of gender. I think it will continue, with things like social media and knowing that there are protests. The world has become smaller and I think that we are all now more aware. 

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