Angela Ray ’86 garners national writing awards and teaching honors as communication studies professor at Northwestern University
By William A. Bowden
After spending nine years as a university press editor, helping make over 100 academic books better by polishing the grammar and clarity of other writers, Angela Ray ’86 decided it was high time to move around to the author’s side of the table.
“I went back to school for my doctorate because I had been helping other people make their books better, and I got a handle on what a good book would be like,” she said. “I wanted to do the research and writing myself.”
That was the motive that prompted Ray to begin a Ph.D. in speech-communication at the University of Minnesota in 1996, a degree she completed in 2001. It also led eventually to her current position as associate professor of communication studies and Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University.
In 2005 she published her book, The Lyceum and Public Culture in the Nineteenth-Century United States (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press). Her editor’s training, combined with her research and writing work ethic, paid off with five national book awards, including recognition in rhetoric and communication from the National Communication Association, the Rhetoric Society of America, and the American Forensic Association.
All of this isn’t exactly what Ray had in mind when she arrived at Transylvania from Grayson County, Ky., in the fall of 1982. In fact, she had planned since childhood to attend medical school and become a physician. But after volunteer work in a Lexington hospital during the summer after her first year at Transylvania gave her qualms about becoming a doctor, she reconsidered her goals.
As it turned out, Ray completed a chemistry major, which was her pre-med path, in spite of having changing career thoughts. But it was her English major that became the academic focus and led to her present position.
“The faculty in the Transylvania English department were very encouraging of me and my interests,” Ray said. “I began to see possibilities for types of work that transcended anything I had known about before.”
English professor Tay Fizdale urged Ray to apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities undergraduate summer fellowship, which she won. She spent the summer after her junior year at Harvard University in the English program, where her confidence received a boost as she studied with students drawn from around the country.
“I found I was very well prepared to do the work everyone else was doing,” she said. “In fact, I was a little ahead of the game compared with some of my peers. My Harvard professor was impressed with my Transylvania education and encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright award.”
Ray had also taken quite a few drama classes at Transylvania, including a May term course co-taught by drama professor Ann Kilkelly and art professor Jack Girard that included art museums and theater performances in Washington, D.C., and New York City. When she won the Fulbright, she chose to pursue a master’s degree in drama and theater studies at the University of London.
“There were people in my Fulbright program from all over the world,” Ray recalled. “It was a very dynamic environment. I saw 63 plays in nine months.”
When she returned to the United States in 1987, she had two degrees in three different fields, plus a degree of uncertainty as to her career. She decided to follow her boyfriend at the time (now her husband, Harold Gulley) to the University of Georgia, where he had an assistant professorship in geography. She began her editing career there, working one year for the UGA Press before getting married and moving to Oshkosh, Wisc. Eight years of freelance editing followed, conducted in those pre-Internet days by mail and telephone with six different university presses.
At this point Ray decided to return to school and pursue her Ph.D. in an area that would prove to be the basis for her current teaching and writing career.
“I edited two books in the field of rhetorical studies within six months, and that was my introduction to rhetoric as a discipline,” she said. “My drama courses had given me an appreciation for the performative dimension of human experience, and I had always enjoyed textural analysis. It looked like the field of rhetoric was involved with both of those.”
As a freshly minted Ph.D., Ray taught first at the University of Memphis from 2001-03, then joined the Northwestern faculty.
Her work at Northwestern focuses on rhetorical criticism and history, with special interests including popular lecturing in the nineteenth-century United States and women’s rhetoric. Her book about the institution of the lyceum focuses on the development of networks for popular lecturing from 1826 up until about 1880, especially in the 1850s-70s era.
A lyceum can be either an auditorium where lectures take place or an organization devoted to the propagation of popular lecturing. Ray’s work stresses the latter, with a further focus on the overall culture in which public lectures took place as well as the kinds of audiences to whom the speeches were directed.
“A celebrity culture arose around certain public speakers who would travel around the country and give lectures in town after town, oftentimes in very small communities,” Ray said. “A successful lyceum lecturer in the 1870s could be earning $20,000 a year at a time when the President of the United States was making $25,000.”
Anna Dickinson, a women’s rights activist and an eloquent and persuasive public speaker, was one of those celebrities.
“While traveling in the West, she once rode a mule up Pike’s Peak,” Ray said. “The mule was later exhibited as ‘The Mule that Carried Anna Dickinson up Pike’s Peak.’ It was news across the country when the mule died. I see precursors of the kind of celebrity we’re familiar with today back in the lyceum period.”
Another very popular and formidable lecturer was Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became an abolitionist leader known for his dazzling oratory. In spite of the imposing visage captured in photographs of Douglass, Ray pointed to a lesser-appreciated fact of his rhetorical style—his humor.
“Frederick Douglass was actually very funny,” she said. “He could imitate a white racist preacher as part of his lecture. In this way, he would poke fun at racism, inviting the audience to poke fun with him. He had jokes where, if you laughed, you were aligning yourself more with him and his position.”
Ray said the lyceum lectures were historically non-partisan, but that changed over time.
“There was a sense that the lyceum should be a place set apart from partisanship and politics,” she said. “There was a lot of controversy over whether someone should speak on a hot-button issue of the day. The closer you get to the Civil War, however, that idea dissipates, and controversy becomes something that draws people in.”
One example of that phenomenon was a lecture titled “Whited Sepulchers” that Dickinson gave about polygamy in Salt Lake City that included her take on how that concept may exist elsewhere, but not be defined as such.
“She claimed that polygamy was a symptom of a larger problem of women’s subordination common throughout the world,” Ray said. “Her words were, ‘In Salt Lake City, they call it religion; in New York, Boston or Philadelphia, they call it “a young man sowing his wild oats,”…the underlying theory…in regard to the proper place and subordination of women, whereon this whole system of polygamy is reared, is precisely the same in Salt Lake that it is in London, Paris, New York, Boston or Philadelphia.’
“Dickinson would mention the place where she was speaking in the last phrase,” Ray said, “which would irritate the journalists (reporting on the speech), who were quite comfortable with attacks on the Mormons but riled at the moral condemnation of their own cities.”
Ray is at work on another book that will focus on popular education in the early nineteenth century, especially debating clubs where ordinary people studied and learned together. Her teaching continues to be very fulfilling.
“I enjoy introducing students to ideas and texts that are new to them, seeing them engage with the text, and then become interested in it themselves,” she said. “They become more thoughtful than they might have been, so I feel I’m making a contribution.”
Looking back on her career decisions thus far, and especially her current teaching position, Ray believes Transylvania provided her with an excellent foundation.
“A good undergraduate education prepares you to be adaptable, because you don’t know what life will bring,” she said. “At the ceremony for a teaching award I received in 2010, I was asked to talk about influences. I mentioned courses I had with (mathematics professor) David Shannon. He presented challenges, and expected us to rise to them. I try to model that kind of behavior in my own students.
“I’m grateful for the kind of education I had at Transylvania that pushed me to think more deeply and broadly than I had before.”