Crowbird Spotlight: Michelle McMullin

Research, teaching, and podcasts, oh my! If three words could summarize Crowbird Michelle McMullin’s time at Purdue, those would be it. Michelle is studying Rhetoric and Composition, with a focus on technical communication. She is interested in the ways public policy and public rhetoric inform each other. Her dissertation explores the HIV outbreak in southeast Indiana and how this public health crisis motivated state legislature to implement needle exchange programs.

Graphic detailing Michelle's dissertation on public policy after HIV outbreak in Indiana.
Michelle McMullin’s dissertation explores the intersection of public rhetoric and policy.

A lover of infrastructure, Michelle tries her best to reserve Thursdays and Fridays for writing her dissertation, and dedicates the rest of the week to other work. Last semester, she taught Business Writing and a Data Science Learning Community section of first-year writing. She has also served as a mentor for other PW instructors, and said, “My teaching gets better when I talk to others about their teaching.” This kind of collaborative conversation is Michelle’s favorite part of her job, and is why she is working toward a tenure track position at a university that values community engagement. As she said, “I think it’s important that research doesn’t just live in journals, but does real work in our communities.”

When asked about what she does in her free time, Michelle laughed and said she likes “to sleep and sometimes do laundry.” With her busy schedule, most of Michelle’s “free” time is taken up with research and listening to podcasts—two concepts that have more in common than one might think. Several of Michelle’s favorite podcasts are created by the McElroy family. Fans of their shows, such as My Brother and Me and The Adventure Zone (TAZ), recently managed to raise more than $48,000 in 72 hours in support of the Boys and Girls Club of West Virginia. The organization lost funding because they were serving LGBTQ+ kids.

Ever the academic, Michelle couldn’t help but analyze the experience through the lens of her research, saying, “as somebody interested in community building and public problem solving, this was fascinating.” She also noticed that audience members of the actual play podcast TAZ engage with the creators to inform the writing of the show. Based on audience interaction, the McElroy family continues to challenge hetero-normative gender representations and include queer characters in their storytelling. Michelle’s observations of this collaborative storytelling led her to a collaboration with fellow academic and TAZ fan Lee Hibbard on an article about queer representation in an actual play podcast community.

In December of 2015, Michelle became one of the first members of Crow, specializing in creating and sustaining Crow’s infrastructure. She recently finished a best practices article with Crow team leader Bradley Dilger. This isn’t the first project they’ve collaborated on; in fact, their overlapping interest in technical writing is what originally prompted Michelle to join the Crow team. In this ongoing study of our best practices, we are using data about our distributed work to evaluate and improve our collaborative methods. Michelle is leading this effort, developing a research design based on data we can collect from Basecamp, Google Drive and GitHub. From this data, supplemented with team interviews and discussions, we are identifying trends in participation, leadership, and efficiency. This mixed methods approach is allowing us to identify the best practices needed to make Crow sustainable.

Crow co-founder Shelley Staples said it best: “I have seen firsthand the application of Michelle’s research methods and the framework she uses in the work she is doing for Crow. She has been instrumental in mapping the networks of collaboration and communication that we use as part of our complex, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional team, and has identified specific aspects of our own technical communication that are effective and ineffective, leading to concrete changes within our team’s practices.”

Michelle has returned as a full-time Crowbird this spring, on research assistantship to help us wrap our Humanities Without Walls grant and kickstart outreach now that we have the Crow platform up and running. She is eager to continue her infrastructural work and begin mentoring undergraduate researchers from a new position.

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