Whitney Phillips, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies (CRS), has followed a different path than most academics to get into a tenure-track position at a top communication and rhetoric program.
She holds degrees in philosophy, creative writing, and English, with the last of those heavily focused on folklore and digital culture.
Despite, or more likely because of, taking what many would call a non-traditional path through her academic career, Phillips is an extremely prolific writer and scholar, with three academic books under her belt, multiple book chapters, countless public-oriented interviews, a public-facing Wired column, and frequent speaking appearances and workshops.
Her newest book, “You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape,” co-authored with writing partner Ryan Milner, is scheduled to be released in March—sort of. The book has actually been out for months now, released digitally last year by her urging so that it could be useful during the minefield of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories in 2020.
“We were worried that the book was not going to be able to be helpful in the way that we wanted it to be if we waited another year before anybody ever saw it,” says Phillips. “I mean, because people need to understand why this is happening and how far back it goes and what you need to understand about the information ecosystem. And to their credit, and I only have good things to say about MIT Press; they said yeah, okay. So they published the whole thing online with sort of the belief that it’s better for it to be out in the world, even if this ultimately impacts sales down the road.”
In addition to all of her publications and journalistic engagement, Phillips teaches classes on subjects like the 2020 election, cross-cultural monster narratives, and public debate and controversy. She describes the classes she teaches as direct extensions of her research, allowing her to constantly continue engaging with these subject matters and connect with students who are active participants in the communities she studies.
“There’s such an integration between how I approach my teaching and what I’m talking about with teaching and how that informs how I think about research, and it means that I’m in this headspace where I’m always engaging with these topics,” she says. “And my students, and I tell this to them regularly, they help me do my job so much, and I hope that I can give them as much as they give to me. It’s a really fascinating opportunity to learn from them—you teach them, but you also learn a great deal from them. And, you know, having that open line of communication has been critical.”
During our interview, Phillips told us about a conversation she had when she was early in her academic career that has impacted the way that she sees her work and her responsibility to the students she works with.
“When I was young and encountering some of the barriers academia can have, a very well-known academic said he saw his job as a senior scholar to be pushing those doors open just a little bit so a few more misfits could make their way in,” she says. “And then he said that my job as one of those misfits was then to do the same, to try to push against doors. That was the bargain he made for me in 2011: that if he created space for me, that I was going to need to try to create space for others.”
Although she was careful to say many times that what worked for her may not work for others and that the path she took is not necessarily any better than the more traditional route, Phillips does show other academic misfits that success can come from doing things a little bit differently.
“These kinds of conversations are important because when I was coming up in grad school, I didn’t have any models to look towards other than staying on one particular path,” she says. “You accomplish certain things, you check off certain boxes. And if you deviate from that at all, you don’t get to be here. But it’s increasingly clear, especially now, in 2021, that there are multiple ways of being an academic. We need to create more space for more kinds and iterations of academic-ness.”
While Phillips says she has no regrets about the path that she took to get where she is now, she does attribute a lot of it to luck and to finding a welcoming community at Syracuse University.
“I feel extraordinarily lucky that I ended up in this position,” she says. “I absolutely adore CRS. I am so grateful for my colleagues. The students in CRS have been amazing, and I regularly reflect on the fact that it could have gone a different way. You know, having a nontraditional approach, there’s a lot of benefit to that because you get to write your own course. But the downside of that is that it’s hard to find an institutional place. And I got really lucky and ended up here. I can’t imagine ending up somewhere better.”