Three Questions with Ryan Skinnell, Assistant Professor at San José State University
Three Questions is an initiative to share the value that our faculty, students, and others in the UNT community derive from using the Unique Collections at UNT Libraries.
How important are Unique Collections in your teaching, learning or research?
The Unique Collections have become very important to my research, learning, and teaching. I first started working in UNT’s Rare Books and Archives when I was researching for a book that I am finishing about the history of writing instruction in normal schools. The archival materials about UNT’s early history, including course catalogs and administrative materials, were really crucial to the success of that project. In the process of doing that research, I also started to think about the pedagogical value of students working with those materials, but I didn’t have a clear plan for bringing UNT’s Special Collections into my courses. Then, a few years ago I got involved in a project with some of my colleagues, Gabriel Cervantes, Dahlia Porter, and Kelly Wisecup. The project involved researching ways that bureaucracy structures human knowledge. For instance, we were curious about how bureaucratic forms, like taxonomies or membership applications, shape how human beings think and act. During the course of that project, we started to work with Special Collections librarians to curate a special exhibit to display some of our findings. For the exhibit, called “Bureaucracy: A Love Story,” we drew materials from the Rare Books and Archives collections that illustrated bureaucratic knowledge. Part of the process involved describing the materials for the physical exhibit and for an online exhibit (https://exhibits.library.unt.edu/bureaucracy-love-story/). Dr. Porter and I thought it was a good chance to design assignments for courses we were teaching in Fall 2014 to get students into the Special Collections to do research on the materials we selected and contribute to the special exhibit. All the students participated and really did amazing work.
How have Unique Collections changed the way you approach your research, teaching or learning?
I suppose the biggest change has been my attitude toward to separation of my research and from students’ research. That is, I’ve always conceived of my research as somewhat different from the kinds of research I want students to do in my classes. Mostly this is because my research is pretty specialized and the research I assign tends to be much more generally applicable. But working with students on the bureaucracy exhibit pushed me to rethink that separation and whether it is even useful.
What do you want others to know about your research?
As I said, my research is relatively specialized—I study the history of writing instruction in American colleges and universities and have related research in bureaucracy and institutional rhetoric—basically how institutions use language like boilerplate to accomplish goals. At a glance, these areas of study are pretty dry, and in fact, it is not uncommon for people to call the things I study boring. What I tell those people, and what I want others to know, is that boring things are worth studying because they are boring. If studying bureaucracy has taught me anything, it is that boring things are only boring because they are so common as to be taken for granted. As a result, boring things can set limits on the things we think, the ways we act, and the values we hold. What I hope my research does is bring those things back into view so we can decide if we really think those limits are good or necessary.
Ryan Skinnell is an assistant professor of Rhetoric and Composition in the Department of English at San José State University. He was formerly an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of North Texas, where he taught courses in the rhetoric and writing concentration. While he was at UNT, he also taught a “writing for publication” faculty seminar in Islamabad, Pakistan as part of partnership between the University of North Texas and the National University of Modern Languages-Islamabad. He is the co-editor of What We Wish We’d Known: Negotiating Graduate School (Fountainhead Press, 2015), and his monograph, Conceding Composition: An Alternative History of Composition’s Institutional Fortunes, is forthcoming with Utah State University Press.