The importance of closing gates and opening minds

on June 30 | in Featured | by

Lori Joseph
Lori Joseph, associate professor of communication studies, wound up two major projects this spring: her stint as chair of the faculty and her film about western women ranchers.

What inspired you to exhange corporate for academic life?

I was the director of public relations for a large physician-owned clinic in Billings, Montana. We merged with a neighboring hospital, and I handled much of the communication for that merger. It was an emotionally charged time and my task—trying to communicate potentially life-changing information to diverse groups, all of whom had differing levels of knowledge about the process—was sometimes daunting. When the dust settled, I was offered a staff position with the larger organization, but I decided that it was time to fulfill my dream of returning to school. I learned a lot about management, communication, and organizational culture through my experience at the clinic, and I wanted to know more about it from an academic perspective. I decided to focus on health communication and organizational communication. My early scholarship addressed emotional labor (looking at how many occupations require a certain emotional response in order to perform one’s job adequately). Although that is still a thread in my research, I now focus on individual narratives of work, modeled on the work of Studs Terkel.

One of your research interests is looking at women who work in male-dominated occupations. What sparked that interest?

My former sister-in-law is a deputy sheriff. I was always fascinated by the challenges she faced as a female deputy in the men’s jail and how she communicated her authority without a weapon. This sparked my interest in thinking about how women navigate traditionally male occupations. I coupled this with my interest in the narrative method and it seemed natural to start collecting the stories of women in nontraditional occupations. In the 2003-04 academic year, Stephanie Stender ’04 and I interviewed five women for a fifteen-minute film.

I wanted to continue collecting and filming women’s work narratives, but I wasn’t sure which occupation to explore. In 2005 I was visiting the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, when I saw the exhibition Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women by western photographer Barbara Van Cleve. I knew I had to find a way to bring the stories of female ranchers to film. Two wonderful things happened after that: my mother-in-law put me in touch with rancher Bill Brown, who employed a woman, Glenda Reynolds, as his ranch hand; and I found out that my mother-in-law’s husband knew Barbara Van Cleve and her late father, Spike Van Cleve, a western writer of some note. Bill Brown and Barbara Van Cleve helped me gain entrée into the world of ranching in eastern Montana.

My first film, One Helluva Hand, is the story of two female ranchers in eastern Montana: Glenda Reynolds and Teddy Robertson. I worked with my longtime friend, cinematographer Jim Abel, who owns Out in the Cold Productions in Billings. He donated his talent, time, and equipment to make the first film, and Jack Gauer, owner of VIP Editing in Billings, donated most of his editing time.

We found that many viewers were drawn to Glenda because she is so compelling. We decided to make a longer film with her as the central character but also include other ranchers and Montanans (a novelist, literature professor, and photographer) to give the film more depth. We received a $10,000 grant from the Greater Montana Grant Foundation in 2009 to help with editing and traveling. We edited the film this May.

What did you learn from your filmmaking experience?

I learned that all the women I interviewed share a deep passion for the land and a great desire to be caretakers for animals, especially cattle and horses. No matter what the barriers are—lack of money or land ownership, sexism—they find a way to be part of a ranching enterprise. They create strategies that allow them to continue doing the work they love. For example, they all talked about working harder than everyone around them in order to neutralize any questions about their ability; most found it advantageous to work in isolated places, both socially and geographically; a few built support networks; and all focused on their responsibility to the animals and to the connection they felt with the land.

I also learned to carry a belt or rope when traveling on a ranch, just in case I couldn’t close the barbed wire gates. Nothing angers a rancher more than a closed gate left open.

You will be finishing up a two-year term as chair of the faculty at the end of this academic year. Can you comment on your experience?

I’ve learned that an academic organization is very different from a corporation, even a nonprofit. In academia the lines of power and authority many times are blurred or invisible. This can make getting things done more difficult; however, it also has the potential to empower various members of the organization, despite their official titles. As chair, I focused on trying to represent the varied interests and concerns of faculty. It is sometimes difficult to put aside your own perspective and represent a viewpoint that you may not agree with, but I felt it was my obligation to try to do that. I know that being chair of the faculty is viewed as a stressful and time-consuming position; however, I have been mentored to believe that service to your organization is critical to personal and organizational success. I also believe strongly in building bridges across campus and with the Board of Trustees.

You have been at Hollins since 2000. How have you changed as a teacher?

I’ve become a bit stricter, a bit more formal. But that could be age as well! I use electronic media in my classroom more. And I’m a bit more willing to admit I don’t have all the answers.

Is there a student success story that is memorable?

That depends on how one defines success. Vandhana “Vandy” Ramadurai ’08 is finishing her Ph.D. at Texas A&M in health communication. In addition to her graduate work, Vandy started a feminist radio station there. Several of my students have simply found a place in the world that suits them—whether it is with a career, family, or continuing education. They are happy. To me that is success. And many are part of this very tight-knit Hollins community. I am Facebook friends with many of my former students, and the love they have for Hollins and their Hollins peers is inspiring.

What do you like best about being a professor?

Teaching and exploring new ways to teach. I consistently introduce new topics into my classes to allow students to apply concepts and theories to current events. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, my Organizational Communication class analyzed the dense governmental and organizational structures and systems in place and the effect they had on crisis communication. Recently, we studied the Toyota recall response. And my students keep me young. I am constantly learning new things about the world from them—they enrich my life, and for that I am grateful.

Lori Joseph received a B.A. from Montana State University-Billings and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Kansas.

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