Joe Gantt is the Director of Speech/Debate at Lewis & Clark College. The 2021-2022 academic year will be his seventeenth year as a director and tenth at Lewis & Clark. Joe has been involved with speech and debate for over twenty-five years, with competition and coaching experience at both the high school and college level. He also teaches classes in the Rhetoric & Media Studies department, focusing on argumentation, political rhetoric and rhetorical theory.
An Interview with Joe Gantt
What path did you take to being a professor at LC?
I went to college at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX which is also where I’m from. I had a brief stopover at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT as the Director of Forensics. Then, I taught at Texas Tech. It was great to work at my alma mater but I had always dreamed of working in the Pacific Northwest and Lewis & Clark was in my mind, that if I could teach there that’d be really great. I’d always had teaching sections of 300/400 people at a time and I longed to be able to have the student and faculty interactions that you can have in 20-25 person classes and to be able to work with students who are great, fantastic, and intellectually curious. So when this job opened up I moved! It was a big adjustment moving from Texas to Portland and moving from a school with 30,000 people to 2,000 but it’s been a great experience.
How did you get into Rhetoric?
I actually started as an economics major in college and then realized I wasn’t very good at math. I took public speaking my first semester and ended up joining the debate team, still not knowing what I wanted to do in college from a major standpoint. As I started to get to know my coaches who were communication faculty members, they started to get me interested in argumentation theory as a way of becoming a better debater. and I fell in love with the idea of analyzing and critiquing the strategy of a speech. From there I learned about political communication, debating, and argumentation theory as foundations to my academic perspective.
What do you specialize in? What are you passionate about?
Argumentation obviously. As Director of Forensics, I have a dual role that is half faculty, half administrator and while the two roles are separate, they also go hand in hand. My coaching informs my teaching, my teaching informs my coaching. Argumentation theory and the traditional approach to rhetoric are important to my academic interests. Political communication and political rhetoric are also things that I am very passionate about. Part of that is that I am also a veteran of political campaigns and I’ve seen how different rhetorical components play in. Even when people don’t actually realize they are performing rhetoric, they are performing rhetoric, and I think it’s a unique place for our department where rhetoric & media come together.
What is your favorite class to teach?
Campaign Rhetoric. It merges rhetoric and media studies and we usually teach it in fall of election years so it literally changes by the day. The rules get written and broken on a daily basis, as we saw in the 2016 election.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
When I was a young young child, it was definitely astronaut. For a long time, I thought that I would become an attorney. Through the end of high school because of debate and then college, I always seemed on track to go into law. I found that I get a lot enjoyment out of teaching others to make the arguments instead of making the arguments myself. I feel that through my education I’ve been empowered and it’s about empowering to teach others to have their voices heard. That’s a lot more satisfying than hearing my own voice.
Has anything surprised you about LC or about Portland?
People look at Portland and they think Portlandia first and foremost. And you know, it’s not. There are moments of that. Stereotypes are stereotypes and they persist even where there’s just a kernel of truth to them. One of the things that has surprised me about LC is how close the faculty is and how collegial and how well we get along. I have never been around a group of faculty colleagues that I enjoy as much as I enjoy the people I work with in RHMS. I don’t have a negative word to say. It’s a place where I think it’s a concerted, strong group of professionals who want to succeed and want to see their colleagues succeed and want to see their students succeed.
How do you explain RHMS to others?
It is difficult. Through the history of this discipline it’s been trying to figure out a way to package what we do and explain what we do. I say Rhetoric is the art of making possible in someone’s mind what was not possible before. It’s the art of persuasion yes, but it’s also the art of creating possibilities where there were none. And I think that we see that both from a purely traditional rhetorical standpoint but you also see it in media that it’s about creating ideas out of nothing. and inventing ideas and being able to transfer those ideas through rhetoric and through the communication process to others…
Outside of LC and RHMS, what are your hobbies?
I’m a political junkie on top of being a rhetoric person so I spend a lot of my free time looking at polls and speeches - but that’s fun for me. I like to be active, playing tennis and soccer. I also am an avid board game fan. I really like to play strategy games. My favorite board game is Diplomacy. Of course, I love spending time with my family and my kids.
Describe the RHMS department in three words.
Dedicated to students.
What’s one super power you wish you had?
I have been asked for predictions so many times in my life that it’d definitely be seeing the future so I could atone for all of the bad predictions in my life.