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Rebekah Bryer

PhD Candidate in Theatre and Drama

Rebekah Bryer

I have always been interested in what moments of history we remember, what stories are obfuscated, and what stories we tell ourselves to make the past make sense to us in the present moment.”

Rebekah Bryer is a PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama (IPTD) program in the School of Communication. Her research focuses on the various intersections of performance and public memory, particularly in American culture. Rebekah is the co-coordinator for the Public Humanities Colloquium at Northwestern and the current Public Humanities Graduate Assistant at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. She is also the recipient of a Mellon Interdisciplinary Cluster Fellowship.

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

My research looks at how public commemoration (think monuments, memorials, exhibits) in the United States performs American identity creation from the 19th century to the present day. For my dissertation project, I'm specifically looking at three monuments erected in the aftermath of the Civil War that were intended to commemorate liberty and freedom. I argue that these memorials actually create interactions that perpetuate white supremacy, the exact opposite of what many of these commemorations intended.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.

My family would always stop at National Park Service sites and memorial markers during road trips. As a kid, I was excited to stop at these places. I wanted to know why a statue had been placed somewhere or why a historic house had been saved. I have always been interested in what moments of history we remember, what stories are obfuscated, and what stories we tell ourselves to make the past make sense to us in the present moment.

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

At the moment, my research topic is very much in the news, which is both a blessing and a curse. Everyone has an opinion on monuments! I come at the topic from an interdisciplinary perspective that most wouldn't consider—theatre and performance studies combined with history, rhetoric, and memory studies—which makes my understanding of the topic different from other scholars and those outside academia. I have come to accept and relish that my ideas aren't what people expect, and I am ready to help them consider what performance adds to the debates over monuments.

How do you unwind after a long day?

I have been cross-stitching as a hobby for over five years and often end up stitching gifts for friends that you wouldn't expect on a piece of fabric. I've also started baking a lot more. My recent accomplishments include challah bread and lemon meringue pie!

What books are on your bedside table?

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight, Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, and Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman (which I'm re-reading).

What inspires you?

I am constantly inspired by my friends and my family. I'm originally from Maine and went to college and for a master's degree in Massachusetts, so moving to the Midwest was a scary prospect. Throughout this process, my closest friends and my family have reminded me that they are on my team and only a phone call away. That has given me the confidence to do my work when times are hard. I also find a lot of inspiration in this quote from the Talmud: "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." 

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?

I would tell my younger self that being called “bossy” is actually showing leadership skills. I would also say that your interests, which appear to be completely different areas, will make more sense to you if you combine them. 

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

I have advocated for graduate students to think about the public humanities since I started at Northwestern, starting with my work with Angela Tate, my co-coordinator of the Public Humanities Colloquium. Now that includes my assistantship at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, where I'm getting to help create programming to help fellow graduate students think about their work and engaging public audiences. An example of this in my own work is that I was recently published in the Washington Post’s Made By History blog about one of my case studies for my dissertation, the Freedmen's Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln. That monument has been at the center of a debate over whether it should stay up or come down. I did a public writing workshop with Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) this spring. With the encouragement of Ruth Curry, the CCE’s postdoctoral trainee, I pitched and successfully published the piece. It was incredibly rewarding to begin to share the work I’ve done while in graduate school with the general public and I’m excited to do more public writing in the future and to help other graduate students find their voices outside of academia.

Published: October 27, 2020

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