Assistant Professor Chelsea Milbourne Wins ACLS Fellowship

Dr. Chelsea Milbourne, Assistant Professor with the English Department and Director of the Technical and Professional Communication certificate program, was awarded a fellowship for the 2018-19 academic year through the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). This fellowship will allow her to further her research next year and complete her current book project called The Utility of Wonder: Spectacle, Gender, and Public Science Rhetoric in 18th Century Great Britain.

As recent recipients of the the Technical and Professional Communication Certificate, English students Han Choi and Rebecca Gates were excited to sit down with Milbourne to hear more about the wonderful opportunity and her interesting field of study.  

Interview Conducted by Han Choi and Rebecca Gates

The ACLS is a national organization that funds research for scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and Milbourne is one of about 70 fellowship recipients for the coming year. During her fellowship, she will be expanding on research she began in her dissertation, all centered around this essential question: “how do we make science more accessible to public audiences?” This covers everything from cultivating interest, finding educational opportunities, and giving the public the agency they need to have a voice in science issues in public policy.

Milbourne found an interest in this specialized topic in graduate school, when she discovered the field of rhetorical composition and technical communication. This field allowed her to merge her two major interests she had cultivated since her time as an undergraduate: English studies and science.

To explore this topic, Milbourne goes all the way back to the eighteenth century, exploring the history of public science to find modern day solutions and strategies. In the eighteenth century, Milbourne explained, women became increasingly interested in scientific endeavors, participating in events like microscope parties and hot air balloon ascensions. They would even test out air pump chambers by placing a bird in a vacuum and studying its struggle to breathe!

As middle- and upper-class women became more and more interested in the wonder of scientific endeavor, the gender divide in the scientific community became increasingly apparent. Milbourne commented that when women would attend scientific presentations, their presence “almost became more spectacular in a negative sense than the objects on display.” People became concerned that the presence of women, as well as the working class, in scientific innovation and endeavor would vulgarize the field.

This brings us to the present, when the exploration of science and technology by amateurs is often downgraded to “child’s play” while the serious scientific work is protected from the public’s “vulgarizing” capacity. In her book, Milbourne will be demonstrating the deep history of some of the stereotypes and methodologies found in the field of public science in the eighteenth century. With this research, we will be able to better understand the foundations on which our public scientific debates currently rest.

Milbourne has demonstrated, not just in our conversation but also in the many classes we have taken with her, the importance of engagement with science and technology for all, not just the experts. Placing boundaries on scientific endeavor because of gender, race, or economic or social status ends up hurting society as a whole, as citizens that feel informed and empowered are able to more meaningfully contribute to our public discourse. We can’t wait to see the strong research Milbourne does with this fellowship and we are sure we speak for the faculty and students of the English Department when we say we are incredibly proud of her achievement!  

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