Student Spotlight: John Carl Baker Defends his Dissertation

John Carl Baker defended his dissertation entitled "A Dual Catastrophe: Mass Culture and Nuclear Terror During the Transition to Neoliberalism" and worked with Alison Landsberg, Hugh Gusterson, and Denise Albanese.  Here is a short interview with John conducted by Christine Rosenfeld in which he reflects on his time here at Mason.  CONGRATULATIONS JOHN!!!!


How have your research interests changed from the time you began the PhD program to now, and in which direction do you envision your work moving upon graduating?

When I entered the program, I was basically a popular music buff with an ancillary interest in Cold War culture. I wasn’t hell-bent on continuing my popular music studies, but it took awhile before I pivoted away completely from my previous interests. I spent the first year floundering around for something new to study and experimenting with different theoretical approaches. Things didn’t really click until I took Research Methods and began seriously examining late Cold War culture and dipping my toe into an analytical framework informed by historical materialism. The addition of political economy to my research was a critical one that basically set me on the path to the final dissertation project. It also signaled a major departure from my earlier academic work: if you had asked me as an incoming student whether I was interested in political economy, the answer would have been a resounding “No.” Nevertheless, it’s become a constant feature of my work and I plan on continuing my research into political economy and culture after graduation. I’m increasingly interested in the mythology of the post-WWII “golden age” of capitalism and its continuing influence on American political discourse. I think we’ve seen an increase of “Fordist nostalgia” in recent years, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession. This nostalgia’s discursive power is evident in formations like the Bernie Sanders campaign and, more ominously, in the white identity politics of Donald Trump. The ambivalence of this mythology fascinates me, so I’m currently outlining a project that will analyze its place in contemporary U.S. social movements and mass culture.

What kinds of professional development did you pursue while a student and which do you think will best position you to get the job you want: publishing, presenting, teaching, service in the department, engagement in non-university service projects, acquiring particular research skills?

I didn’t have much university teaching experience when I arrived, but I will graduate having taught multiple sections of seven different courses in three academic programs. That kind of experience and flexibility is very attractive to search committees. Many job applications now require teaching materials in the first round of submissions, so it’s a good idea to have a well-rounded portfolio before you go on the job market. In my case, I’m indebted to the Honors College for allowing me to design courses directly related to my dissertation research. Not all PhD students get that experience, so I would advise seizing the opportunity if it presents itself.

It’s difficult to say how much service matters on the job market, but it certainly can’t hurt your chances to take a leading role in departmental affairs. I was a member of the admissions committee, served as SOC treasurer, and helped plan two of our annual conferences. Such things are impressive notches on your CV, but more importantly they give you direct experience with the bureaucratic innards of the modern university. If you plan on spending your life in and around higher education, you can only benefit from familiarizing yourself with its many arcane systems.

As research goes, our program is truly top-notch and luckily based in an area where extensive travel isn’t necessary for maintaining a fulfilling scholarly life. One of the best conferences I’ve ever attended was the 2015 meeting of the Labor and Working Class History Association, which was held down the road at Georgetown. My dissertation has been immeasurably improved by conference feedback, so I would encourage students to put their research out there as soon as possible. It can be frightening to present provisional findings before an audience of experts, but in my experience conference audiences are thoughtful and forgiving. And you can’t beat conferences for networking, so stick around and meet some people.


What is one of your best memories from your time in the PhD program in Cultural Studies?

It’s difficult to choose one, but I’m tempted to say Crystal Bartolovich’s colloquium talk back in 2011. Like many of us, I was already a fan of her scholarship but I was absolutely blown away by the presentation. Obviously it was well researched and persuasively argued, but I had no idea she would be such a captivating speaker. You could just tell she was having a fantastic time – something that is, unfortunately, atypical for academic presentations. I remember thinking that her talk encapsulated the best aspects of cultural studies. It was respectful but critical of popular culture, informed by political economy but not economistic, theoretical without being obscurantist. Plus, she was genuinely enjoying herself! I’m not one to throw the word “inspiring” around, but her talk reminded me that scholarship can be provocative, rigorous, and fun all at the same time. Definitely something to remember when you’re editing your dissertation for the 37th time!