Expected Graduation: Spring 2011
Degree Objective: Ph.D. in Rhetorical Studies
Other Degrees: M.A. in Speech Communication; B.A. in Communication Studies
After four years of doctoral research at UGA, Nicole Hurt is unaccustomed to light reading. A rhetorical studies graduate student, Hurt brings a critical eye to understanding the meaning contained within media messages and popular discourse.
“I look at sets of texts or discourse and ask, ‘What does this encourage us to do? To see? To be?’” said Hurt. “What are the implications of this doing? This seeing? This being?”
Hurt mixes rhetorical studies, feminist theory and health communication to understand how texts construct social norms and behavior. Actively teaching and researching in the Institute for Women’s Studies has influenced her interdisciplinary approach to her research.
“Women’s studies encourages students to understand how different methodologies and approaches to research yield a variety of information about women’s lives,” she said.
Hurt became interested in women’s studies as a college sophomore after she presented a paper about Margaret Higgins Sanger, one of the birth control movement’s founders, at an undergraduate conference.
“That experience, while terrifying for me at the time, was a turning point. I realized that people cared about this type of work, and I realized that people cared about my work.”
After receiving a master’s in speech communication from Colorado State University, Hurt began her doctoral studies in UGA’s Speech Communication Department. Now she examines how popular discourse and media messages shape women’s health concerning their bodies, behaviors and experiences.
In one approach to her research, Hurt analyzes news coverage on women’s health issues like “baby brain,” a debunked side-effect of pregnancy that claimed pregnant women are more forgetful.
“While science does not provide compelling proof this condition exists, the ‘baby brain’ myth receives legitimatization through the science and its subsequent news coverage by misusing terms and making troubling assumptions, such as all women will experience pregnancy in the same way,” she said.
With her dissertation, Hurt is studying how women’s bodies are reproduced in public discourse by investigating three case studies related to women’s bodies and health: breast cancer advocacy, public breastfeeding and mammography.
For example, the mammography case study examines how women responded to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s suggestion that only women 50 or older should receive annual mammograms.
“Contrary to how women have responded to mammography guidelines in the past – which tended to be critical of the medical institution’s overzealous guidelines and abuse of mammography – women came out in droves to protest the Task Force’s suggestion, claiming that if they hadn’t had a mammogram in their 40s, they would be dead,” said Hurt.
In this case, Hurt claims the dominant media coverage relates women’s bodies with breast cancer.
“We see evidence here of women, at least those the media deemed worthy enough to cover, actively participating in discourses that frame the breasted body as dangerous and in need of intense monitoring,” she said.
In this manner, Hurt’s research provides insight into understanding how people’s bodies are understood through health and science discourse.
Along with her academic pursuits, Hurt has become an avid teacher since coming to UGA. She currently teaches feminism and public discourse in the Institute for Women’s Studies, and last year she participated in the Future Faculty Program to improve her understanding of teaching.
“I know that I will get better each year as I continue to learn more about how humans learn, study successful teachers, and troubleshoot problems with a supportive community,” she said.
Ultimately, Hurt hopes her scholarship and teaching will help empower people and allow them to take full control of their own decisions and lives.
“I want women to live lives in which they have more choices about who they can be and how they can act,” Hurt said. “In turn, I want that for men too.”
“I hope my work will break down some of the power that science and biology has in defining bodies, which will result in – I hope – giving people more control over their lives.”
Story and photography by Ben Benson