A Chat with Dr. Johanna Hartelius

Can you give me a rundown of your academic story?

I was born in Sweden. After I graduated high school year I went to the University of Göteborg for a year and I was studying Latin and Classics and I thought I wanted to be a classics professor. I also wanted to travel to the United States where I'd been with my family before and I got curious about the contexts in which the texts that I was reading and translating. So, I went to college at Macalester College in St Paul Minnesota. Started there in Fall of 99. I graduated there in 3 years with the degree in communication and minor in linguistics. And then I went to grad school right away. I went to the University of Texas at Austin for graduate school in this department, and I became very interested in rhetoric and power how do people use language to wield power into to orient themselves to other people. I finished my Master's here in 2004 and my PhD in 2008 and then I left here and took a tenure-track job at Northern Illinois University and was granted tenure and promotion there in 2013 but then I left there and I went to University of Pittsburgh instead and was granted tenure and promotion there in 2017 but I took this position.

Seems like you've been all over the place and received a bunch of offers to teach. How did you end up teaching at UT?

[laughs] I wouldn't say I had a bunch of offers from everywhere. I think that what happened was UT has long been the kind of institution where I want to work. It attracts a really diverse student body but at the same time a student body that is academically motivated and very culturally and civically engaged and so you can work with UT students at the undergraduate level and that was always really appealing to me. I think that the caliber of Faculty at UT is super appealing like just this is morning, Professor Stevenson I just started talking and it turned into this really inspiring conversation about human agency. So that kind of conversation happening is pretty exciting about UT.

Definitely. So, what are you going to be teaching this year?

Comm364K gender and communication. I’ll probably be teaching [it] most semesters, but I don’t want to speculate too far in advance.

Could you talk a little bit about the focus of your research?

I study digital rhetoric and I study rhetoric of expertise. So how people talk about what they know with the knowledge that they have as a form of knowing and how those forms of knowing are productive. That is how people make things in the process of constructing expertise so how people convince others that they know things but also how “that which is known” is kind of invented in the process of conviction. For example, I’ve been working on this book on the digital commons for a long time which is about what is expertise in the digital era. For example, one of the chapters is about the creative commons licenses. They are like an alternative to copyright. They’re ways that creators, writers, software programmers, photographers, musicians can take something that they have created like music or imagery or code or whatever and tag it with these Creative Commons licenses so that instead of it's an all rights reserved, it's some rights reserved but anyone can use it and so my question has been through that case study others what is expertise in that context.

Could you speak a little bit about the book you’re currently working on and its release date? 

It’s called The Gifting Logos: Expertise in the Digital Commons and it offers a theory on how people talk about their knowledge in a network environment. So, what does it mean to know things or what does it mean to make digital things in networked culture. The first chapter is about the Creative Commons. The second chapter is about the Wayback machine and the internet archive which is a way to store knowledge. What happens in a digital archive? Is that also a way to store the stuff of knowledge or how does it work? And then the last chapter is about a political movement that grew out of the open-access movement. It’s called the pirate party and they ran in Sweden in 2006 on the kind of political ideals that grow out of the open-access culture.

Are you still working on this book or do you currently have other projects you’re working on?

I have so many projects. This is the thing, at the beginning of projects you’re always completely enamored with them and they're so exciting so newness always appeals. I’m working on a book and I’m also working on a project about feelings of home and learning new things. So, the basic question that drives that project is. If you want to get students to learn, is it more effective to make them experience displacement (as in like out of your comfort zone), or is it more effective to make the students feel at home or in place in a kind of metaphorical home and is that where learning happens? Heidegger and other theorists of dread and fear say that displacement gives this feeling of fear and angst. So, is that conducive to learning or not is the question.

It’s interesting, I've heard people say that in order to grow or learn it's important to put yourselves in uncomfortable situations.

One of the responses I have heard people say when I bring this up is I guess it depends on what you're trying to learn. That might be true; I don't know. I like to start with something (something actually that I learned from several of my mentors here in this department and that they deserve credit for) start with an actual question rather than a question that you already have the answer to because an actual question will drive your enthusiasm and curiosity in a way that’s passionately authentic rather than kind of perfunctory. Go after something that turns your mind on.

Speaking to you personally, do you think that you perform better in Sweden or outside of your home?

Academically the United States is my home. Specifically, I think UT is my academic home. In personal ways, Sweden is my home. I was just there this summer with my family: my son and my husband. But I don't do my academic work there.

So, what advice would you offer to your current undergraduate students?

My advice for undergraduate students would be: Take this opportunity to explore subjects that are of interest to you even if they don't seem like they're going to immediately be applicable. So if you are curious about 14th century Bulgarian poetry and there's a class on that, take the time to take that class even if it seems like that class is never going to help you get a job or that class is never going to pay off. That is a very scary piece of advice to really absorb, I think, because when you hear it you’re thinking, “yeah but I really need a job and I really need for this to pay off.” If it feels too scary to follow my advice to take the time to be academically promiscuous, then then talk to someone at the University whether it’s a counselor, advisor, faculty member, or me. Talk about it and have them help you find the courage to do it because I think students here are very inundated with this message of everything you do has to count toward some eventual purpose and that's not untrue, but I think it makes you miss a lot of things and you do have a certain amount of time here and I think that part of that time is to discover things that you didn't know you could discover and that requires some uncertainty and ambiguity and exploration and that's part of what universities for. I know that it seems scary to do something that someone is going to call useless, but I say, put your bet on that anyway and if you need help just finding the courage then come talk to me.

Do you have a certain philosophy that you teach by?

I think I think really highly of students. I expect a lot from students because I think so highly of them. My philosophy is I don’t teach to the lowest common denominator because I think the highest one is completely doable.

Do you have any more professional goals that you have for the near future?

My main professional goal, other than getting this book out in print, is to just write better. I want to continue to write more insightful rhetorical scholarship and to just become a better scholar.

Thank you for your time; welcome to the department!

Thanks! I’m really happy to be here!

Faculty Member in Rhetoric, Language, and Political Communication