All About Dr. Steve Klien

So, when folks consult “experts” in American politics, political scientists and historians tend to be the go-to specialists.  What can a rhetorician bring to the table? A little background on me might shed some light.

I am currently Associate Professor of Communication Studies, and Chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Division of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.  As a member of the Communication Studies Department faculty, I teach courses in political communication, rhetorical theory and criticism, media studies, and communication research. Two of the current staples of my teaching responsibilities are courses entitled “Communication, Politics, and Citizenship” (an introduction to political communication and rhetorical studies), and “Critical Analysis of Messages” (a course in the rhetorical criticism of public address, which I teach in a Learning Community with Chris Whitt on “The American Presidency in Times of Crisis”).

My primary professional identity is as a teacher at a small, residential liberal arts college. By and large, my students possess the potential to understand and engage the political world, but most don’t, for several reasons. Many feel disaffected by and cynical of American politics. They fail to see the relevance of the political gamesmanship they observe in the media for their daily lives. And they tend to either accept much of what they consume in the media uncritically, or reject it out of hand as inherently illegitimate. These attitudes generally stem from a lack of serious education prior to college, either in politics and civics and/or in media literacy. They also stem, I believe, from patterns of practices in political rhetoric and media that actually provide a disincentive for critical engagement, by privileging passive spectator consumption of spectacle rather than active citizen agency in public discourse. Part of my vocation as a teacher — and, subsequently, a mission for this blog — is to engage these conditions in order to demystify the world of political communication and provide tools and perspectives for engaging this stuff with a critical sensibility.

This teaching mission is consistent with my scholarship as a critic of political rhetoric. My research program emphasizes the constitution of political identity and agency in contemporary mediated political discourse — in other words, answering the question “how do mediated public messages encourage audiences to perceive their political identity in ways that promote, or impede, active involvement in public life?” The foci of my critical work occasionally varies, but most frequently involves popular media with political content.  I completed my Ph.D. in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, specializing in rhetorical studies and political communication. My dissertation examined the constitution of public character and conservative ideology by the campaign rhetoric of the 1996 Republican presidential primary candidates.

My interests have evolved to include popular media, especially conservative political commentary and popular war films. For instance, I have published critical research on the construction of citizenship in the movie Black Hawk Down and the interplay of conservative ideology and gender identity in the rhetoric of Ann Coulter, and a forthcoming essay examines the use of ideological diatribe by Bill O’Reilly concerning the alleged “War on Christmas.” What all of these projects share in common is an intense interest in the ways that public words and media representations construct what political scientist Murray Edelman called the “political spectacle,” and how that spectacle constitutes our political reality in ways that guide how we perceive and act within it as citizens.

Currently, I serve Augustana College as a division chair as well as a committed academic adviser and an active contributor to recent campus policy initiatives. During my free time, I try to serve my community as an occasional political commentator for local media. I am frequently called upon to provide expert analysis on election campaigns and other prominent state and national political events.  Samples of this commentary can be seen at my YouTube channel.  I also serve as a lay worship leader for the local Unitarian church and as a Cub Scout volunteer leader. I am, of course, most proud of my role as a father and husband of two grade-school-age kids — not the stuff of political expertise, to be sure, but my highest priority nonetheless.

Thus, my commitment to my family and my community provides additional motivation for my engagement with political communication — because the discussion and action that takes place in the political world affects the daily lives of my neighbors, my friends, and my family, and thus demands my attention and engagement.

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