Carnegie Mellon University
September 28, 2016

Student Profile: Alex Helberg, MA in Rhetoric

MA in Rhetoric Graduate Accepted into CMU's Ph.D. Program

Alex Helberg, a recent Carnegie Mellon Master of Arts in Rhetoric graduate, is one of only three students who were accepted into CMU’s Ph.D. in Rhetoric program.

Fueled by a passion for teaching, Helberg sought out CMU’s MA in Rhetoric program for its wide range of courses that reflect the university’s intellectual diversity and multi-methodological approaches to rhetoric.

“CMU’s MA in Rhetoric has offerings in rhetoric and composition as well as rhetorical theory, discourse analysis, rhetoric and public engagement, and even the option to take professional writing courses,” said Helberg.

Life as a MA in Rhetoric Student at CMU

The MA in Rhetoric program allowed Helberg to explore his interest in researching the rhetoric of social movements through several digital humanities projects. For instance, he examined the rhetoric of Men's Rights Activists (MRAs) on Reddit and their response to the manifesto of Elliot Rodger, the man behind the shooting rampage that took place near the University of California Santa Barbara in 2014.

According to Helberg, numerous media analysts said Rodger's manifesto was being linked to some of the more misogynistic bands of MRAs. Helberg wanted to see what the MRA’s online response looked like directly after the shooting took place.

“I used online data collection methods to gather a corpus of all the talk/text from the Men’s Rights subreddit in the timespan of the week before the shooting to the week after in order to see what changed,” said Helberg. “With the help of David Kaufer and Suguru Ishizaki's extremely useful digital humanities tool, Docuscope, I analyzed all of the text and found that while the MRAs attempted to completely distance themselves from Rodger in the week following the shooting, their discourse both before and after the event contained a great deal of rhetorical similarity to the "rationale" for Rodger's actions as outlined in his manifesto.”

Surprisingly, both Rodger and the MRA community tended to frame their experiences as "victim narratives," Helberg explains, in which they cast themselves as casualties in an increasingly feminist culture.

Helberg also worked as a research assistant to Linda Flower, professor of English, where he learned ethnographic research methods like how to conduct critical incident interviews. This procedure helps identify behaviors, decisions, and information that lead to a critical incident.

He also worked closely with Flower as a teaching assistant for the "Literacy: Educational Theory and Community Practice" course, which teaches CMU students about competing theoretical notions of what it means to be literate.

The course works jointly with the community literacy project, the Decision Makers program, which matches Pittsburgh’s inner city teenagers with college mentors. Helberg served as the program’s assistant coordinator and mentored both high school and university students to plan a course of action for their transition into adult life.

“Linda's research and service work is refreshingly socially-conscious and community-oriented, which was incredibly influential in helping me figure out the type of scholarship I'd like to do,” said Helberg.

As a MA in Rhetoric student, Helberg also enjoyed being a part of a small cohort.

“I got to know all of the other MA in Rhetoric students pretty well,” said Helberg. “We were all close and non-competitive. It was really helpful to have that kind of solidarity with the people with whom you work closely.”

Come fall 2016, Helberg looks forward to getting back into the classroom, as well as teaching for the first time, “76-101: Interpretation and Argument,” the required English course for all Carnegie Mellon undergraduates.

Join our collaborative and interdisciplinary MA in Rhetoric program and see for yourself how it prepares you for specialized doctoral study.

By Amanda King