ASHR Interview: Caroline Koons on Harmony and Rhetoric

In this latest ASHR interview, I speak with PhD Student Caroline Koons (Pennsylvania State University). Caroline studies the intersections of music and politics through a rhetorical lens. Her current research focuses on the uptake, circulation, and appropriations of popular American songs as they interact with religion, war, race, gender, and labor. Her writing on the “Battle Hymn” is published in the Southern Journal of Communication. She currently teaches Effective Speech and served as Editorial Assistant for Rhetoric & Public Affairs from 2013-2015.

Jordan Loveridge: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview, Caroline! To start, can you tell me about how you became interested in the history of rhetoric? What initially drew you to the field, and how would you describe your main research areas?

Caroline Koons: I was fascinated by history for most of my life, largely because it was so easy to get lost in the stories that people tell and pass on to others. In college I had a freshman seminar in rhetoric and politics, and talking to the professor (Dr. Jean Dehart), I expressed irritation with not being able to choose between writing, history, and communication. She suggested, much to my eternal gratitude, that rhetoric might be a field where I could do all three together. I liked it so much that I decided to pursue graduate school in rhetoric where I discovered I could fold in another one of my passions: music. Initially I was a straight up public-address person but I had a hard time ignoring the sound of people’s voices as a component in their ability to persuade and the songs that often accompanied platform orations. I started out with a seminar paper tracing the change in the Battle Hymn of the Republic and ended up expanding into my thesis and first publication. Since then I’ve taken a deep dive into sonic rhetoric and its immense overlaps throughout the history of rhetoric.

JL: Very interesting! As a scholar interested in rhetoric and sensation, this sounds like a fascinating topic. Given that music remains such a staple of modern rhetoric (as you note), how do you find yourself making historical connections? Why does the history of rhetoric matter today, especially from the point of view of your topic?

CK: In order to have something to say about the present or future, we have to have some sense of the past. For rhetoricians in particular it is important to study history as a thread that lives in the present. I’m constantly frustrated in my own research by the texts that were not preserved or recorded, lost to the passage of time despite another author in history referencing it as formative in their own thoughts. Rhetorical history isn’t just about preservation or recovery (though those are incredibly important acts as well) but also about how that history informs the present and future. Very few ideas are completely original. Knowing what has been said or acted upon can help inform a different perspective on the moment in which we live and spark connections that might otherwise go unnoticed.

JL: What are your current research projects? Do they relate to or build from your previous work?

CK: My dissertation is front and center for the next year or so. I’m focusing on harmony, particularly how we use it in discourse to minimize dissent or disagreement in favor of one dominant narrative. Think, for example, of the phrase “racial harmony.” More often than not, this phrase is used by white (usually male) speakers of power to shut down protests and legitimate complaints that challenge the status quo. When we look at the musical versions of the word harmony though, it requires variety both in the moment and over time to bring a melody to life and beauty. Why, then, is the discursive version so different from the musical, and when and why did that divergence take place? Are there folks who talk, sing, or show harmony as a civic virtue with variety, and if so how do those arguments challenge or inform the debates in which they take place? In particular I’m looking at images and songs from moments in U.S. history in which national identity is being formed or reformed to see how harmony is leveraged to enable or quash dissent.

I’m also working on an essay about the Pythagorean women’s rhetoric of harmonia. They were originally what inspired my dissertation, but the project has wandered away from them. Within the frame of feminist historiography, I’m interested in how women of prominence within the Pythagorean communities of fifth and sixth centuries B. C. E. wrote and spoke about harmony’s civic and musical practices in everyday life. These writings mainly take the form of letters, and historians have disputed whether or not they were actually written by women. The connections they forge between cosmos, music, math, and the individual’s daily practice, though supposedly written by and for women, have lessons for rhetoricians regardless of age and gender. (NB: Readers can hear Caroline present on harmonia at the upcoming RSA conference in Minneapolis, Session H15: (Re)Inventing Feminist Historiography).

JL: What do you like best about ASHR? Why should someone become involved with the organization?

CK: I love the inviting nature of ASHR. As a graduate student starting out in the field, ASHR was a welcoming place for newcomers to explore, challenge, and improve my own ideas. I personally have found ASHR to be a great organization to connect with scholars at all stages of their careers and get to know people. ASHR panels at conferences are some of my favorite because the questions asked are thought-provoking and immensely helpful. Often the discussions from a panel will carry over into an ongoing conversation that outlasts the conference. The ASHR participants on twitter are particularly great: forwarding articles or comments that may be interesting to one another or sharing bits of humor or text that someone else might find interesting. History of rhetoric doesn’t have to be ancient or early American; there’s a lot of history to rhetoric that can and should be explored.

JL: Finally, my favorite question: Who is one of your favorite figures from the history of rhetoric, and why?

CK: Pythagoras. He’s not usually considered a rhetorician, but he absolutely should be. His teachings combined speech, sound, mathematics, and cosmos that had an immense impact on a number of folks who are the go-to foundation of the discipline, like Plato and Aristotle. The Pythagoreans are absolutely fascinating. They have a lot to say about how people go about getting along and our obligations towards one another, emphasizing listening as equally (if not more) important with speaking.


About the Interviewer: Jordan Loveridge is Assistant Professor of Communication and English at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He earned his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Arizona State University, focusing specifically on medieval rhetoric. His work appears in venues such as Philosophy and RhetoricCommunity Literacy Journal, and Advances in the History of Rhetoric.