Alumni Spotlight: Robert Gehl Gets Tenure

Congratulations Robert Gehl for getting tenure at the University of Utah!  Find below a brief interview to learn more about Rob, his research, and also his advice for current Cultural Studies students.  

And be sure to check out Rob's latest book, Reverse Engineering Social Media


1. What is the most recent research and/or book that you have been working on? How does it relate to Cultural Studies and what research methods do you use and why? 

My recent work has been on what I'm calling "alternative social media." These are social media sites in which you can do all the things you'd expect -- friending, sharing media, liking, blogging. What makes them alternative is that they are built as a critical response to corporate social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. There's a lot of criticisms of corporate social media, specifically in terms of their political economies. They rely on user labor to constitute them and they are constantly being tweaked to guide our attention to marketing messages. Not to mention they are one half of the two-headed surveillance beast -- the other half being state surveillance.

Makers of alternative social media do more than just criticize corporate social media; they are doing the pragmatic work of building better social media. Their efforts are complex, sometimes contradictory, but if it weren't for them, we might imagine that "social media" only means giving away our intimate lives and friendship in exchange for the privilege of being profiled by marketers. I see their work as activism, working towards media justice; as such, it is closely tied to the concerns of Cultural Studies. 

As for methods, what I gained from Cultural Studies at Mason is the need to pay serious attention to my object of study and let it tell me what methods to bring to bear on it. In the case of social media (corporate and alternative), I need to study underlying software and network architectures, histories of software engineering, and people use networked software systems in their day-to-day lives. Lately I've been doing more of what might be called "digital ethnography" or at the very least participant observation -- I'm trying to learn how makers of alternative social media conceive of their own work and how it relates to corporate social media, and I'm doing so through interviews, observation, and long-term participation.


2. Thinking about your own publishing, teaching, presenting, and service contributions, what would you say are the most important areas for current and recently graduated PhD students to develop, and how does this change once hired at a university?  

I can mostly speak to being a professor, since that's what I do. I should preface that by saying that a PhD in Cultural Studies can be used a wide range of careers, and that the academic job market is rough enough that you ought to keep your options open.

With that said: for better or worse, publishing is the most important area to work on. I work at a research university, so publications were the key to my tenure bid. But even at non-research schools, publishing is privileged. For example, regional state schools in the US are increasing their emphasis on research in order to move up the various ranking systems. And even teaching-focused, small liberal arts schools give profs teaching release if they publish. So I would suggest that any current PhD students work on getting journal articles, book chapters, and even books sent to publishers. Most fundamental is writing -- writing, writing, writing. Write every day. You can't really control reviewers but you can control your writing. Do not wait for "inspiration." Do not wait for huge blocks of time. These things do not ever come. Just write -- 20 minutes here, 10 minutes there. It all adds up. 

The rest of the tenure tripod (teaching and service) are of course important. Their importance in relation to publishing will vary based on the local culture of the institution you work for. The best course is to talk to everyone you can about expectations vis a vis teaching and service. Learn what worked for those who got tenure (or long-term contracts).


3. You work in a Communication Department, so what advice can you give current Cultural Studies students about how to make their CS training and research skills applicable to non-CS programs? 

Fortunately, my department has a cultural studies emphasis. It also has a media studies emphasis. I was hired to fit into both. I haven't had to do much explaining about who I am or what I do, so that's nice!

So based on my admittedly limited experience, I would suggest articulating your area of research into another field, so you can say, "I do cultural studies and X" (history, literature, anthropology, media studies, communication, etc). At Mason, you can use your field statements to do that -- in one, claim an area of study and learn everything you can about that field, and in the other, claim a methodology and learn that inside and out. A lot of times, humanities fields have a critical or cultural component -- cultural history, cultural anthropology, critical media studies, etc. Learn what that is called and you can speak part of the other field's language.

The one thing to always maintain, no matter what program you're in, is your political commitments. This is something that I think Cultural Studies gives us and so many other fields and disciplines do not. We aren't afraid to take apart social phenomena and put them back together in new ways meant to achieve justice. The trick is to do so within the confines of whatever field you find yourself in. You might do this overtly, or you can be a virus and slowly infect from within. Either way, don't lose that edge.

I'd also suggest applying to jobs with a shotgun rather than a sniper rifle. What I mean by that (now that I think of it) violent metaphor is that you ought to apply to everything you remotely feel qualified for, and apply in regions of the US (or world) you might not have imagined yourself working in. This means watching many different fields for jobs. The job market is such that you have to take such an approach and see what sticks.


4. What is the next research project you will be working on and how does it relate to past research you've completed?

My work on alternative social media has taken me to an interesting place: the Dark Web, Web sites that are accessible only with special routing software such as Tor, i2p, Freenet, or OpenNIC. These systems are largely associated with illegitimated activities such as drug or gun markets. But they also have fascinating experiments with social media. Using social media on the Dark Web as a window, I'm trying to get at the bigger significance of the Dark Web as it relates to the so-called "Clear Web." I have one paper on this topic (in New Media and Society) and will be presenting work on a Critical/Cultural Studies panel at the National Communication Association this fall.



By Christine Rosenfeld