Lawrence Prelli, professor of communications at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), was chosen by the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) as the 2020 recipient of the Lindberg Award.
The Lindberg Award was established in 1986 in recognition of Professor Gary Lindberg of the English Department for his exceptional skills as a scholar and teacher. The annual award strives to recognize other outstanding scholar-teachers within COLA. The award also carries a $5,000 stipend.
Michele Dillon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said the review committee had difficulty choosing a recipient among the college’s “committed and accomplished faculty,” but Prelli stood out in particular because of his “pioneering scholarship,” “long record of consistent teaching excellence” and “dedication to students.”
However, Prelli’s original career path was not in communications. Prelli explained that he originally went into his undergraduate studies with interests in political science, history and philosophy. He also graduated with a political science degree from the State University of New York at Brockport. Nevertheless, it was during this time that Prelli was first introduced to the field of communications.
Prelli credits Floyd Anderson, whose public speaking class he took during his undergraduate studies, as one of the main influences for his communications career. Prelli and Anderson maintain a connection to this day and have co-authored several papers together. Prelli also highlighted Donald Cushman who “basically recruited [him]” into the communications graduate program at the State University of New York at Albany after reading a paper Prelli had submitted to the university’s Rhetoric and Communication Honors Conference. An annual award in Cushman’s name would be instituted during Prelli’s time on the committee of the National Communication Association.
“I’ve been enormously lucky throughout my entire education to have some really excellent teachers who took an interest in me,” said Prelli.
Prelli has gained recognition in the communication arts for pioneering the field of science rhetoric with his 1989 study; “A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse.” Prelli explained that science rhetoric focuses on the “study of science communication, not as information giving, but as persuasion.” This includes examining what types of persuasion is being used based on the audience that is being addressed.
Prelli has also been an early supporter of examining visual rhetoric. One example of visual rhetoric can be how the “arrangement [of a space] can shape the attitudes of those who go to these places.” He explained, “You walk into a cathedral and you’re leaving the world of everyday life. You’re transported attitudinally and you behave in a different way due in part to the rhetoric of the place.”
The rhetoric of display is the main focus of the book Prelli is currently working on, tentatively titled “Three Civil War Memorials.” The book focuses on the statues of Union General and President Ulysses Grant, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Prelli studies the initial ceremonies of the statues’ unveiling to see what message the memorials were meant to communicate.
Robert E. Lee’s statue was meant to portray the Civil War’s southern cause as noble, according to Prelli. “The parades, rituals and enactments at these sites made clear who was boss racially in the community,” he said. “You’re not going to see black people in these photographs.”
However, the attitudes around these monuments have shifted due to the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred this summer. Many confederate monuments have been taken down due to public outcry. The Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia, has become a center for protestors who have decorated it with protest slogans and projected images of “BLM” and George Floyd onto its surface. Prelli asserts that the protestors’ actions are also an example of the rhetoric of display as they are “[reframing] the meaning of the initial statue” to present their grievances.
“How we remember the past is a rhetorical function of how we find ourselves through memorials, memoirs or other forms of communication,” said Prelli. “How we try to resolve the tension of what we should remember about the past and what we try to forget. You’re always going to have tension between them.”
Prelli also noted that in the United States and abroad there is starting to be a shift in how different communities understand themselves and each other.
“We’re coming to a point now that this effort to obtain identification among ourselves as members of a political community can’t be bought by scapegoating another. It can’t be achieved through division, but that’s how it has always been achieved,” he said.
In addition to scholarly achievements, the Lindberg award also recognizes excellence in teaching. Prelli was driven to teach because of his scholarship but found that many students also shared his areas of interest. Prelli’s students have also turned him into a more effective communicator. He recalled that much of the “conceptual spine” of his 2006 book “Rhetorics of Display” was worked out during seminars. Several students are acknowledged in the book for their contributions.
However, Prelli believes that one of the most fulfilling aspects of teaching is helping students learn how to think critically and not accept mainstream attitudes. “That doesn’t mean we want them to be skeptics about everything,” said Prelli. “The idea to make sure that what you believe is worthy of your belief and the attitudes you hold are worthy of holding.
As part of the award, Prelli will also be delivering the Lindberg Lecture, “Civil War Memorials, Counter-Memorials and Reinventing Public Memories,” on Thursday, March 25, 2021, from 1:00-2:00 PM (Zoom link).
Photo courtesy of the University of New Hampshire