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Kimberly Alecia Singletary ’13 PhD

PhD in Rhetoric and Public Culture

Kimberly Alecia Singletary ’13 PhD

I had the privilege at Northwestern to take classes from some of the fiercest female professors I've ever met. The classes I took with them taught me that interdisciplinary work was imperative for producing strong, meaningful work.”

Dr. Kimberly Singletary is an instructional designer at Everspring, a technology and services company that partners with higher education institutions to deliver integrated online education solutions. She received her PhD in Communication Studies in 2013 from the School of Communication with a concentration in rhetoric and public culture. Her dissertation was titled "Blackness Personified: Images of U.S. Blackness in Contemporary German Public Culture."

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?

My work examines images of Americans of Color in contemporary German culture. In particular, I study how narratives about U.S. Blackness circulate and take root in countries far from U.S. shores. I focus on Germany because of its deep, shared history with the United States regarding politics, culture, and race.

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?

I started like many—if not most—PhD graduates: After a short post-doc in Germany, I came back to Chicago where I was an adjunct at multiple schools and later worked as a visiting assistant professor. However, I decided that for me, being a contingent faculty member was untenable for the long-term; it was exhausting and made it too difficult for me to do my research. I then took a position at an educational technology company, where I use my MA from Georgetown University's Communication, Culture, Technology program more in my day-to-day work than my PhD. The flip side is I have published more as an independent scholar in the past two years than I did as an adjunct faculty member over five years.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.

Growing up, I knew that unfounded, negative perceptions about Blackness often overshadowed who I was as a person. Before I came to Northwestern, I had worked abroad in England, Denmark, and Japan. I had done an exchange in Germany and completed a Fulbright research fellowship in Vienna, Austria. In every single one of those places—not to mention the countries I visited while living abroad—I had to push back against a negative perception of Blackness fueled by U.S. movies, television, music, and news reports. Even when people didn't understand much English, they were reading the images of U.S. Blackness they received, which had long and often hidden roots in racial bias. I decided to focus on the persuasiveness of images of Blackness to discuss how racism travels and takes root internationally, despite linguistic, social, and cultural differences.

What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?

The biggest mistake I made was keeping my identity as a scholar and my job inextricably intertwined. When we get the PhD, it can seem like the only way to be a "legitimate" scholar is to teach at a university or college. For me, that perception led to a lot of long, unhappy nights when I didn't get the job I wanted, or I encountered people who dismissed my work because I wasn't affiliated with a university full-time. Once I realized that what I needed to be a scholar was a working pencil and my brain, I was much happier. I was able to step away from academia to take on a different challenge and continue to publish my work as a "Saturday Scholar." I do my academic work on the weekends. I have time to focus on that work, unlike when I was teaching five classes at crazy hours, tutoring, and continuously applying for full-time academic jobs and fellowships.

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?

I had the privilege at Northwestern to take classes from some of the fiercest female professors I've ever met. They are brilliant, invested scholars in rhetoric, Asian American studies, African American studies, and performance studies. The classes I took with them taught me that interdisciplinary work was imperative for producing strong, meaningful work. They taught me that while my work is first and foremost, a rhetorical study of images, it is also a work deeply rooted in critical race theory and deeply connected to programs examining the multifaceted experiences of all People of Color.

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?

I love my research. I love the "Aha!" moments I still get when I make a connection I hadn't seen previously. I love talking with my colleagues about throughlines we see across our respective research interests. Yet, my research exists because racism exists. Simply put, it's a huge bummer to know that my work has traction because we are still succumbing to lazy modes of interpretation. We aren't pushing ourselves to see beyond easy stereotypes because it takes too much time—which is maybe .000024 seconds. While I love what I do, I recognize that illustrating how unconscious bias takes root in our favorite forms of pop culture wouldn't be necessary in a perfect world.

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?

I hope that people are encouraged to pay more attention to what they're seeing and circulating. My ultimate goal is to expand everyone's sense of empathy for People of Color. The world has enough sympathy. It's time for people to learn how to identify with others, so they can stop racial bias before it starts.

Why Northwestern?

Northwestern has an extremely strong Rhetoric and Public Culture program. It invested in helping me to do my work overseas, and the professors were willing to give me free rein to do that work.

How do you unwind after a long day?

I practice capoeira, a Brazilian martial art. I volunteer with an organization that provides mentoring and career advice for first-generation college students. I try to make at least one new recipe a week (sometimes though, it's beans and franks ‘cause it is literally the easiest thing in the universe to do).

What books are on your bedside table?

There are currently two towering piles of books in the front room, but I am currently reading A Hundred Suns by Karin Tanabe. N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy and a book of poetry called The Crown Ain't Worth Much by Hanif Abdurraqib are on deck.

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.

I recently signed a book contract with Peter Lang Press to turn my dissertation into a book. 

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

Honestly, I am most proud that I haven't given up even though I thought I would have to. Being a Woman of Color in academia is rough. We are more likely to leave the profession altogether because of discrimination, unrealistic tenure expectations compared to non-WOC colleagues, and an invisible workload that includes being a resource for marginalized students without ever receiving credit for that work. I am proud that although I left my first love—teaching— I am still doing work that matters. I am using my work to shine a light on some dark and uncomfortable truths. So, I think that's pretty dope.

Published: May 5, 2020


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