Alumni Spotlight: Interview with Professor Tai Neilson

As mentioned in a brief announcement last week, we are happy to announce that Dr. Tai Neilson (GMU Cultural Studies, 2017) has accepted a position as a Lecturer in Media in the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University in Australia. Current Cultural Studies PhD Student, Adam Proctor, took the time to conduct a brief interview with Neilson in order to reflect on his time at Mason and to hear about ongoing research.

Tell us about your new position. What will you be teaching?

My position is Lecturer in Media for the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. Macquarie is a large public university in Sydney’s Northern Suburbs with a very diverse student community. In Australia, Lecturer positions are equivalent to Assistant Professor in the US and my role is evenly split between research and teaching, with additional service requirements. This session I’m teaching in Media Cultures and Introduction to Digital Media, both of which are first year courses. In 2018, I’ll convene a News and Current Affairs course and will hopefully pick up a graduate seminar. I’m also supervising graduate student research.

As the acronym attests, MMCCS is a very diverse department in terms of staff expertise and student interests. This appears to be a part of the trend in the humanities toward providing diverse liberal art and interdisciplinary degrees. In MMCCS, there are almost 60 academic staff and nearly 10 professional staff members with specialized skills in media production and performance. The department is housed in the old Australian Film, Television and Radio School and has film, radio, music, dance, and performance studios. I’ll teach in the “future lab” news studio which runs a newsroom with remote cameras, a green screen, and editing desk. All of this supports the department’s commitment to integrating theory and practice.

What are your latest research and publication plans?

I’m working on a few different projects, some of which are based on my dissertation. First, I’m developing a journal article tentatively titled “Putting Unions Back in Digital Labor.” It draws on my dissertation research and focuses on the unionization of “digital-first” media companies including Vice Media, Gawker, and Salon. I argue that unions are absent from much of the scholarship on digital labor, because of the assumptions and commitments of the two most prevalent approaches: Castell’s information society approach and Marxist Autonomist approaches. I’ll present the paper at the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia conference in December where I’m looking forward to seeing CS alumni and current students Nayantara Sheoran Appleton, Katy Razzano, and Caroline West. A book proposal based on my dissertation is also in the works.

David Rheams, Lewes Levenberg and I are coediting a book on digital humanities research methods. We have received the chapters from our contributing authors that cover research methods from digital ethnography and photo stories to content analysis and digital game production. We’re working toward a full manuscript this year and think the book will be a great resource for students, emerging researchers, and instructors in the digital humanities. I also have a chapter in Gerd Beyer’s forthcoming book on heavy metal and film and plan to continue writing about music parallel to my work on digital media and journalism.

Could you share a favorite memory of your time at Cultural Studies for us? What will you miss the most? What is the biggest change since accepting your position?

Apart from learning from fantastic faculty and making a bunch of life-long friends, I’d have to say organizing the graduate student conference in 2013. We had a great group of organizers, some of which had run the conference before such as Lisa Daily, and others who went on to spearhead the conference in subsequent years, including Meg Fariello and Christine Rosenfeld. We had a great turn-out and keynote speaker. I felt like I achieved a lot through the conference and was able to contribute to the department.

Do you have any advice for colleagues regarding their time at Cultural Studies and/or on the job market?

There’s a lot of competing advice out there regarding the job market, but I can talk about my own experience. I think the three things that contributed to my success on the market were: 1) having substantial teaching experience; 2) having a record of published work and clear research trajectory; and, 3) I was able and willing to take a job outside of the US.

I won’t dwell on the first point, because most CS graduates tend to accrue plenty of teaching experience through necessity. Regarding the second point, one of my mentors told me I should aim to publish something (no matter how small) every year of the Ph.D. program and I more-or-less managed to do that. Think book reviews, graduate publications, online journals, edited volumes, and collaborations. I learned a lot in the publishing process, which culminated in a high-quality journal article just before going on the market. Consider how your dissertation can result in several publications and instigate new questions. Mine will hopefully result in two articles, a book chapter, and a book manuscript and has set me on a focused research trajectory. In research-active positions, we need to show that we’re producing publications with impact in the field and among a broader public.

Most people are unlikely to be as geographically mobile, but I applied for jobs in almost every continent and got interviews in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and in the US. Universities are undergoing changes across the globe, but attacks on the humanities and social sciences are particularly acute in the US. In addition to my geographical flexibility, I could move almost immediately to start a new job. I had my degree in hand before most of these interviews; I began applying for jobs before graduating, got my application material in order, and scored a few interviews, but I was more successful once I had the PhD. I hope some of my experience will be useful for those going onto the market, because it is a difficult process.