From the Classroom


Partners in Research & Life

classroom quote

By Marion Blackburn

n campus, they teach separate courses at different times, both of them standout instructors at the College of Fine Arts and Communication. But after hours, their passion for ideas means sharing pen and ink more than your average married couple. Their research interest is gender and communication, with an emphasis on war and the military. As a result of their uncanny ability to work together, Prividera and Howard have a considerable track record of papers and awards, including the Outstanding Article Award from the National Communication Association’s Critical and Cultural Studies Division last November.

 Private Jessica Lynch
Private Lynch testifying to Congress

'When we talk about (Gulf War hero Private) Jessica Lynch, the media talk about her in a feminine way.
So we create a double bind for women in the military.
I hope what we’re bringing to the conversation is a more critical way to look at . . . our language usage for women and men in the military.'

-- Laura Prividera

The funny thing is, they never realized these shared interests until a few years into their marriage, when images from the Gulf wars inspired them to examine media coverage of women in combat.

Then again, there is very little that’s usual about their relationship, a romance that spans decades, campuses and cities.

After meeting as teenagers in upstate New York, they hardly gave each other a second thought. Over the years their paths crossed often and before long, sparks flew. They wed in 2000.

Prividera is associate professor and interim associate director of the School of Communication. Her courses include gender and communication, intercultural communication, interpersonal communication theory and introduction to communication.

Howard teaches argumentation, communication theory, communication and conflict, organizational communication and persuasion, among other topics.

He also has an unusual niche: a pilot since he was 16, he researches aviation communication—the conversations between pilots and air traffic controllers.

Finding a common interest

ogether, their combined curiosity has led to fascinating studies of gender and war. For a recent article, they spent their summer break sending drafts back and forth by e-mail—work they referred to as a “date.” Yet, they say, this mutual affection allows them to function as a single mind in two places. One has a general idea for an article and sets it out in a paragraph or outline. The other expands the idea or fills in details. Because of their different specialties, one provides content the other can’t. And because they have a shared vision, their sections fit together seamlessly.

In person, they spar good-naturedly about their work. When talk turns to their courtship, which began in the 1980s, they laugh over the unexpected turns that brought them together. The first time they met, instead of finding him charming, then-16-year-old Prividera found her future husband insufferable. Maybe it’s because he woke her up with a boisterous entrance after a night out with her cousin, ruining her good night’s sleep during a family visit.

“I was mortified,” Prividera remembers. “I thought he was a flake.” His response was also, well, measured: “I could never date a person like that,” he thought.

Like George Burns and Gracie Allen, they discovered a shared sense of humor, and a warm repartee took shape between them over the years that blossomed into romance. Still on separate paths, she became an accountant in Albany, N.Y., while he entered graduate school in communication at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

When Prividera realized she wanted to study interpersonal communication in the workplace—how everyday conversations affect the business climate—she turned to her old friend for advice. By this time he was teaching at Bowling Green and recommended its program to her. Together at last in the same location, their love grew and they married. They completed their PhDs at Bowling Green within a year of each other.

Saving Private Lynch

work together was a gamble but luck brought them to ECU in 2003 during a major expansion of the faculty in communication as part of its attaining college status along with fine arts.

“At this stage we didn’t know we had common research interests,” Howard says.

And so things might have continued, if not for a story that took the nation by storm that year. A U.S. convoy, including 19-year-old Private Jessica Lynch, was ambushed by Iraqis. Lynch was held hostage for several days and finally recovered during a rescue mission.

As they watched the news and analysis, their conversations at home turned more and more to the dramatically conflicting images used for men and women soldiers. These depictions fell into familiar archetypes: men were “warriors,” the strong, competitive and independent soldiers; women were “mothers” or “mistresses,” the fragile, nurturing ones more likely to place group welfare first.

Jessica Lynch was often portrayed in terms that robbed her of soldier status, they later wrote. For instance, she was often referred to in the media as “Jessica” rather than as Private Lynch. The resulting article—their first together—was published in 2004 in Women and Language under the title, Rescuing Patriarchy or Saving “Jessica Lynch:” The Rhetorical Construction of the American Woman Soldier.

“When we talk about Jessica Lynch, the media talk about her in a feminine way,” Prividera says. “So we create a double bind for women in the military. If we put people into traditional masculine and feminine molds, then what does that do to people’s perceptions of them as soldiers? I hope what we’re bringing to the conversation is a more critical way to look at our mediated representations and our language usage for women and men in the military.”

In 2006 they followed with two more articles on similar topics. Working together they found a perfect match. “I tend to be very big picture,” Howard says. “Laura is very detail oriented. She’s also very good with style and organizational structure.” Prividera agrees. “In many ways we are opposites, and that works really well in our writing,” she says. “We both know we’re aiming for a common purpose. We trust each other.”
In the end, Howard says, “Most people reading our articles presume it’s one person.”

Considering their subject matter, it’s natural to wonder about their own interpersonal communication, especially during the stressful process of writing an academic article. “It’s very challenging,” Howard says.

“Sometimes we do it well, sometimes we don’t,” Prividera notes. “But we do it better than most, I’d say,” Howard adds.

Laura Prividera, John Howard

Honored for teaching

n the classroom, they’ve notched many separate accomplishments, having won top teaching honors within a year of each other. They both received the UNC Board of Governors Distinguished Professor for Teaching Award, presented to six ECU faculty members each year. They also hold University Alumni Awards for Outstanding Teaching.

Howard is one of only a few scholars worldwide researching the conversations between pilots and air traffic controllers. Focusing on their exchanges may lead to safer air travel.

Teaching keeps him energized and hopeful. Indeed, his first stint was teaching political science at a prison. “I can’t imagine doing anything else that gives me so much satisfaction,” he says. “I see education as an opportunity for people to create change. They can change themselves, and they can change the world.”

These days, communication—sharing ideas and winning acceptance for them, and describing the world clearly—sits at the center of nearly everything, thanks to the rapid pace of information on the Internet and 24-hour news cycles. These are heady times for the field.

“There’s no better time to be a communication major than now,” Prividera says. “It’s a popular major across campuses nationwide. After all, we all want to be competent communicators. It’s the root of our lives; it’s the root of our identities. It’s the root of change. I can’t think of a more exciting profession.”