Ask Me Another
While doing graduate work at the University of Kansas in the 1990s, Associate Professor of Rhetoric Stephanie Kelley-Romano got hooked on The X-Files, so much so that the TV show’s organizing myth, a belief in alien abduction, gave Kelley-Romano her dissertation topic.
Published in 2006, “Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives” drew from her 130 interviews with people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens. Collectively, she says, the stories represent an evolving myth similar to a religion.
What intrigued you about alien abduction stories?
I’ve always been interested in rhetoric around sudden and dramatic changes. How do you wake up one day and think you’ve been abducted by aliens? Or how do you wake up and think the Lord Jesus Christ has saved you?
Read more of the Stephanie Kelley-Romano interview.
Was it hard to find people who believe they’ve been abducted?
They are everywhere. A 1992 Roper poll suggested that 3.7 million Americans believe they’ve been abducted. Several Bates people have come by for my card because they have a relative who thinks they’ve been abducted.
So how is someone’s belief that they’ve been abducted like a religion?
In the narratives, you see people using their experience like a religion: for self-guidance on how to live or to achieve a sense of unity and transcendence. For example, if a person talks about being abducted because of their intelligence, that gives a sense of empowerment. Or if the narrative talks about extraterrestrials visiting Earth to help integrate humanity into the larger cosmic community, that puts the myth into the realm of religious communion.
You also argue that abduction narratives reflect fears about race and technology.
In many narratives, aliens that are gray — the mixture of black and white — occupy a lower status than aliens typically described as having nearly Nordic features. The gray aliens are often on Earth to start a hybrid race that can’t survive without nurturing from humans, because the aliens are overly reliant on technology and can’t nurture life. Alien narratives allow nonbelievers to talk about these issues too — isn’t it interesting that the top-grossing films of all time have to do with aliens or extraterrestrials?
What is your teaching approach?
Back at Kansas, I lectured, telling them a lot of things. Now I don’t lecture so much. In upper-level courses especially, I bring it to them: “What do you think?” While I believe that alien abduction is very much like a religion, I do not want to convince 15 students of that.
I want them to convince me otherwise.
But have we lost something when professors don’t lecture as often?
Definitely. I’m all for collaborative learning, but that combined with cultural relativism can be a train wreck. The bottom line is that I know a lot more about rhetoric than my students do. It’s my obligation to tell some of what I know in a way that models competence and excitement.
The study of rhetoric delves into political and social criticism — hot topics. How do you maintain a sense of fair play in the classroom?
In my classes, you can claim anything you want and if you can prove it, you will do well. If you can’t, you won’t. Some students get freaked out by that. They say, “Well, I feel that….” And I say, “I don’t care much about what you feel. I care what you can prove.” So even though I’m a hippy-dippy liberal feminist who researches alien abduction, I tend to have a conservative following. Conservative students know that in my classes, regardless of the topic, they are absolutely, positively safe.
You also bring students into your research.
After Victoria Westgate ’06 wrote her senior thesis on political cartoons and Hurricane Katrina, she and I co-authored “Drawing Disaster” in The Texas Speech Communication Journal and “Blaming Bush” in Journalism Studies. Nate Kellogg ’09 and I are writing on the Duke lacrosse case and the coverage in the school newspaper, The Chronicle.
Read any good books?
Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860, a study that includes captivity narratives. Everything from slave narratives to alien abduction narratives can be looked at through a similar rhetorical lens.
What’s compelling about the current presidential primary season?
I get excited about having 18-year-old students who don’t yet understand the symbolic functions of conventions or presidential speeches. They think the inaugural address is stupid. Some of this is due to the self-reflexity of shows like The Daily Show, which have exposed the deliberateness of political campaigns and the presidency. So our little happy myth that presidents run because they’re called has been shattered, and the office secularized and debased. What steps in to fill that void is another myth: That we are somehow smarter than people were 20 years ago. And I don’t think that’s true.