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Spotlight on Harriette Kevill-Davies: PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Public Culture

Created: February 11, 2019

Harriette Kevill-Davis is a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric and Public Culture program at the School of Communication. Her primary interest is in artifacts created for and marketed to children, particularly boys, and the ways in which they bring children into political projects to mold them into a particular kind of citizen. Her work focuses on the United States during the Truman era of the Cold War. In addition, she is currently a graduate associate in the Searle Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My work focuses on the ways in which toys, trading cards, books, and other items marketed to children (especially boys) invoked rhetoric of militarism, nuclear and technological supremacy, fear, and victimization in the United States during the early Cold War period. I think about how the visual, verbal, and sensorial aspects of toys may have instilled certain ideals and values about national identity and citizenship.

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
I have had an indirect route to Northwestern, beginning in London where I did two undergrad programs, via the University of Chicago's Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS). A huge surprise during my time in undergrad was discovering that I was drawn to researching World War I romantic fiction, which ultimately led me to my interest in how things that are ephemeral and often seen as "throwaway" can transmit social and political messages in subtle (and sometimes less subtle) ways. 

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
In the field of rhetoric, I admire scholars of the rhetoric of the Cold War, particularly Ned O'Gorman and Kevin Hamilton. Their work on the visual rhetoric of nuclear science has had a big impact on the direction my research has taken. In childhood studies, I very much admire Robin Bernstein, whose work on race and childhood innocence really shifted my thinking.  

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
I believe my work can begin to build bridges across interdisciplinary fields. Through focusing on political rhetoric and children, it is possible to start considering how children are brought into their identities and biases. The knowledge of the ways that children can be political actors can play a large role in how we interact with children. In turn, this allows us to consider the ways in which adults behave and view themselves politically.

Why Northwestern?
I wanted to come to a university where I would be able to do interdisciplinary work. Northwestern’s rhetoric and public culture program allows me to do just that. This interdisciplinary work allows me to find inspiration in many areas of research and consider my archive from multiple points of view. The rhetoric and public culture faculty were also a big factor in my decision to apply to Northwestern. I also love Chicago and have really relished the opportunity to live here while carrying out my work. 

What books are on your bedside table?
Currently on my bedside table are, some children's books from the 1950s (which I'm thinking about for work), Eleanor Cameron's The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, Disney's Our Friend the Atom, and two books on atomic science by John Llewellyn. Next to those are a couple of catalogs of exhibitions of Soviet Art, and the dark British spoof, Discovering Scarfolk.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an Egyptologist. When I was 4, I told my parents that I would visit the pyramids one day (after seeing them on television). In response, my parents told me I could visit them when I was 12, presumably thinking I'd forget all about it. I didn't forget, and eventually I did get to Egypt. In the intervening years I read tomes of Ancient Egyptian grammar and took evening classes in how to write grammatically correct sentences in hieroglyphs. I am still fascinated by all things Ancient Egyptian.

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I am currently a graduate associate in the Searle Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Being able to assist in setting up and running the program has been an exciting new adventure for me. While helping to put together and run seminars has been somewhat daunting, it is extremely rewarding and has helped to grow my confidence.

Interested in learning more about Harriette's work? Click here to visit her website.