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Summer 09: Great Expectations - Q and A with Laura Roselle

Laura Roselle speaks with The Magazine of Elon writer Kristin Simonetti '05 about research, teaching and her life outside of Elon.

Nearly two decades ago, Laura Roselle, professor of political science, was completing her graduate studies and beginning her career as a teacher-scholar, focusing on the interaction of media and politics in Russia before, during and after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, she is an internationally recognized expert on the relationships between communications, politics and international studies, and she recently was named Elon’s 2009 Distinguished Scholar. In this interview excerpt and the attached videos, Roselle speaks about why she was drawn to studying the Soviet Union and political communication, how her research is relevant to current events and gives a glimpse into her life outside the academic arena.

What particularly about Soviet policy and its relationship to media interested you as a potential research area?

I found it fascinating how important communication systems are to structuring politics and structuring what people think about politics, and so the control that the Soviet government had over media was fascinating to me. Then, as I was in graduate school watching Mikhail Gorbachev and Glasnost, I began understanding that shifts in how the use of media can affect politics were really at the heart of everything. That was the most interesting thing to me: how media and communications structure how we think about what is a problem, how we go about shaping policy options and then choosing which policies we want. It’s all about how you communicate ideas.

Why at that time, and now, was it important to talk about media and politics?

One of the areas where I think international relations needs more work, and people need to pursue really interesting questions in, is in the area of how politics and how international relations is communicated. It’s not only about how leaders have a particular policy and try to legitimize it, or to try to construct messages to gain support for it. But it’s about the structure of the international system itself.

We had a bipolar Cold War system where you had two superpowers, you had this sort of set system, and that system is gone. Now, what you have, is a debate about what kind of world we live in right now. Is it a unipolar system where the United States is sort of this dominant power that has its reach all over the world? Is it hegemonic, as some would say? Or is it a multipolar system where you have regional groupings? Or is it some other kind of system where you have state actors and non-state actors. If you step back, way back, and look, we’re in a state of transition in the international system.

My argument would be that the system we become is not inevitable, it’s created. And it’s created in part by what political leaders or political actors say now, how they say it, through what medium they say it. So we’re back to communication again – it’s all about communication.

Why pursue teaching instead of public policy or a government career?

I think partly it was that I like the freedom of setting my own agenda and doing what I want to do. I think the other thing was being realistic, for me, as a woman, to try to balance things in my life. I knew I wanted children, I had my first daughter when I was in graduate school. There are people who are really good and could do it all, but I’m not one of them. There are people who can do an 80 hour week and have kids and be able to function. I think it was a conscious decision to try to have a life that was balanced in that way, and knowing my limitations.

What do you do to get away from the job?

I think being a professor is who I am, in a way. The way I think – when I relax, I’ll read things that people think are work, but they’re really just interesting to me. Or I’ll do things out in the community, I’ll sit there and analyze data, which some people would be like, “Well, that has nothing to do with your work.” Well, no, it doesn’t, but it’s the way I think and I am, and I enjoy it, the puzzles. I think that’s something people don’t understand about professors. They think, “Oh, you have the summer off, what are you going to do? Nothing?” I work every day on something, seven days a week. It’s not often that I don’t do anything at all, even if it’s just sitting and thinking about a project or puzzling through about where I would go for this, that, or some other thing, or going online for a bit to look at Russia Today, the new English-language, government-sponsored Web site. I always do something.

But in terms of other things I enjoy – because I don’t make that separation – I love gardening, I love to be outside. I like going to the mountains with my husband, going to the beach and taking some books to read.

What has it been like to be a successful woman in a male-dominated field?

That’s a good question. Political science has been dominated by men, international relations has been dominated by men, professorships – if you look at how many professorships that are held by women, that’s an area that has been dominated by men. You look at this award, the (Elon University) Distinguished Scholar Award, and it’s been dominated by men, too.

I think about Stanford – I was very fortunate to have been at Stanford when I was at there with the people I was with. It was collaborative and collegial, and there were a number of us who had children by then and had found a way to balance things. At graduate schools at other colleges, if you were female, there was no way you were going to have a baby, because people would think you were not serious. I think that we’ve made some progress over time, but anyone who thinks that everything is equal and everything is the same is so wrong. It’s just not. There’s more work to be done.

When did you feel that you’d “arrived” in your field?

First, I had to understand that there are lots of different places to shine. There are lots of different niches and areas, and you have to find where your interests and what you do fits within the field. It takes a long time, I think, and it’s not easy for graduate students or young faculty to figure out, “Where does my work fit?” “Where do I belong?” “What conferences should I go to?” “What international organizations should I belong to?” Things like that. If you try to fit where you don’t belong, or you try to fit where there’s not that mesh, it can be really frustrating.

For me, the International Studies Association, when I found the International Communication section of that organization, it was like, “Oh, this is where I’m supposed to be!” People thought what I was doing was interesting, and I thought what they were doing was extremely fascinating. The people were just nice, they were the people I wanted to be with. They were ready to offer help, and they were ready to be collaborative. So, really, being asked to be on the executive board, then being asked to be the president of the section, I think that, to me, that was the best moment. The “Wow, this is really cool, I’m really honored to do this” moment. It seemed like, not only was this big and international, but it’s where I fit.


Kristin Simonetti,
8/10/2009 11:31 AM