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Analyzing the future

Doctoral student combines experience as investigator with love of rhetorical analysis

Sarah Jackson Young / Courtesy photo

Graduating doctoral student Sarah Jackson Young studies surveillance and background investigations using rhetorical analysis. She argues that when a person feels "surveilled," their behavior changes — sometimes negatively. "That is one way I think surveillance works against us," Young said. "It’s harder to take chances when we know others are watching. Realizing the consequences of surveillance, and then overcoming them, takes you to a better creative space."

April 29, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

A former government contractor, Sarah Jackson Young is earning a Ph.D. in English (Writing, Rhetorics and Literacies) from Arizona State University this spring. The Kansas City native combines her experience as an investigator with a love of rhetorical analysis to inform her academic interests in surveillance studies, background investigations and the use of the internet for surveillance.

Young recently defended her dissertation, “The Rhetoric of Surveillance in Post-Snowden Background Investigation Policy Reform" in which she argued that congressional changes to background-check procedures have consequences for both national security and social justice.

She has also published articles on the topic in prominent journals: “Slipping through the cracks: Background investigations after Snowden” in Surveillance & Society (2017) and “Literacies for Surveillance: Social Network Sites and Background Investigations” in Media and Communication (2015).

We sat down with Young to get her “read” on what’s next.

Question: What was your "aha" moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? 

Answer: I was working as an investigator for about 10 years, and in June 2013, Edward Snowden relayed a large amount of classified information to journalists. Congress was quick to attribute one cause of these disclosures to a faulty background investigation. I knew then that rhetorical analysis could help break down security policies dealing with classified information and interrogate the belief that we can assign identities to others to predict the future, but I wasn't sure exactly how to do it. After I met my committee member [Professor in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences] Greg Wise who studies surveillance, though, I knew that was the direction I wanted to go.

Q: What's something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: When you're teaching, it takes practice to be human. No, seriously. When I first started teaching and researching, I thought I needed to be who others thought I should be, or some version of a flawless Hollywood leading lady. I was scared to take creative chances and felt comforted by a PowerPoint. My husband told me though, to just "be human" (his version of "just be yourself") with all the flaws and mess that comes with that. And as silly as it sounds, it wasn't until I started to be myself — and understand my likes and dislikes — that I really started to understand the real excitement that comes from researching and from helping students write and see their everyday lives in new ways. That is one way I think surveillance works against us. It’s harder to take chances when we know others are watching. Realizing the consequences of surveillance, and then overcoming them, takes you to a better creative space.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU for my PhD because I wanted to work with [Associate Professor of English] Peter Goggin and research issues of surveillance. I felt I had the freedom and mentorship here to explore the areas I wanted to see. It's been awesome. My committee members [Professor of English] Shirley Rose and Greg Wise were great, too. Do I have to leave?

Q: What's the best piece of advice you'd give to those still in school?

A: Be the student and learn what your area of specialty wants you to know, but make the leap to be the scholar that tells the field what you want it to know. Also, you'll finish comps/prospectus/dissertation/conference paper/publication/everything you think you should do/etc. in the right time that works for you. Don't compare yourself to others. When have you ever let yourself down?

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I liked my TA office. I could get work accomplished in a supportive atmosphere amongst friends. And I liked the Starbucks in Palo Verde East on the way into campus from Lot 59. Coffee. Lots of coffee.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm going to break the rules I set for myself and challenge myself to take risks. Like, I might eat cereal and stay up past 10:30 p.m. on a school night. But also, I'm going to keep researching surveillance and teaching.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I'd probably try to start some type of sustainable program for free child care in Arizona, especially for students. I keep thinking of a class 10 years ago when the professor asked how the economy would change if child care was free, and I think about all my students who have struggled to find child care. It is a real issue when people can't work or go to school because they can't find someone to watch their children. I think that would really change people's lives.

The Department of English is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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