Each year, the Semiotic Society of America (SSA) features the Roberta Kevelson Award for best student paper presented at its annual meeting (if, in the award committee’s judgment, a paper has been submitted that is worthy of this award).
This year’s Kevelson Award recipient is John Tredinnick Rowe, a third-year Ph.D. student in medical studies at the University of Exeter Medical School’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health. Tredinnick Rowe delivered an outstanding presentation entitled “The Paradox of Giving: Insights into the Gift Economy”. A published version of his paper will become available in the forthcoming 2014 SSA Yearbook.
We asked Tredinnick Rowe a few questions and learned that, in addition to his being a bright, interdisciplinary thinker with great promise, his is no “ordinary” student story…
Please tell us a little about your background and what you currently do.
In addition to studying for my Ph.D., I live and work on my family farm in the west of Cornwall, UK, a region as far west and south as you can go in the British Isles. My family are mainly either involved in farming or in a medical profession – e.g. nurses, occupational therapists, a neuroscientist, etc. – so this has led me to having an interest in both medicine/biomedical issues and the natural environment and agriculture.
This may explain the rather circuitous route my education has taken. I started off in a bachelor’s in chemical engineering program as an undergraduate and then switched to a bachelor’s of science in environmental management, after which I started my Ph.D. in medical service innovation. Beyond academia and the farm, I enjoy trying to learn new languages and I am active in minority rights politics in Europe as well.
How did you come up with the idea for your SSA Annual Meeting paper and why does this topic interest you?
I came up with the idea in part by attending an International Semiotics Institute conference in Lithuania, which had the theme of Numanities (i.e., new humanities), which represents a drive to find new ways to use and integrate humanities into other contexts. This made me think about the integration of linguistics and socio-economics that I was working on in regard to some of my Ph.D. data. I then realised that I could extend my application of linguistics into semiotics within an socio-economic context.
Put simply, I wanted to illustrate how reviewing my observational data (ethnographic, in my case) with linguistic and semiotic analysis could deeply enrich my work on economics and innovation. This topic interests me as I was struck, when I started to study innovation science, by how much of a void there was in terms of historical authorship. Many of the problems and methods I encountered in the papers and textbooks on innovation I had read could have easily been explained through key sociological or classical scholars’ work, and yet these were absent. I found it stimulating to try to change this, albeit in a very small way.
How did you learn about semiotics?
My very first contact with semiotics was reading a book of my dad’s about Roland Barthes. My main exposure, however, came towards the end of my Ph.D. (I am very much a novice in this matter). I was searching for a framework to explain how to communicate the meaning and signification of natural environment use when I encountered eco-semiotics and, more broadly, the work of the Tartu-Moscow school. To discover the the works of Kalevi Kull, the von Uexkülls and Jesper Hoffmeyer was a moment of expansive clarity for me as it solved most of phenomena I had observed in my data that traditional social science had no meaningful way of explaining (to my limited knowledge).
…and the SSA conference? What was your experience there?
The SSA conference was wonderful. As a newcomer, it was an excellent to put faces to the papers that I had read. I feel that I made some great contacts there that can hopefully help me to continue in this line of work. It was also a joy to meet some of the people I made acquaintance with at the ISI conference in Lithuania earlier this year.
I also have a deepened respect for Farouk Seif, with regard to how much effort the conference must have taken to organise. I am eager to keep coming to the SSA conferences and hope to continue the contact with the people I met in the U.S. and also those from Europe.
Do you see yourself continuing to pursue work in semiotics?
I sure hope so! I have an interview soon for a post-doc that will try to explain visual imagination from both an artistic and a neuroscience perspective. I submitted an application to integrate the two themes using neuro-semiotics.
Of all the academic disciplines I have undertaken, semiotics fires my brain like nothing else; it makes working a pleasure. After the SSA conference, I felt a missionary zeal to try and find a way to reintegrate semiotics back in medical studies.
Can you tell us about your other interests and hobbies?
My spare time is usually spent doing farm work (depending on the season), reading, or target shooting.
What are your career goals? Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?
I have the highly pretentious and grandiose aspiration to have a career that improves people’s lives. It would be wonderful to get to that point as, prior to the Ph.D., I was working in supermarkets and frying fish for a living – which does have its merits but is not always overly stimulating. Regarding my plans for the next 5-10 years, my wife tells me that we are going to have children. So my plan is largely to try and hold onto my remaining sanity and hair.
The 2014 Kevelson Award Committee members are Gary Shank (Chair), Deborah Eicher-Catt, and Gilad Elbom.