Student Spotlight: Richard Otten Defends His Dissertation

Student Spotlight: Richard Otten Defends His Dissertation

Richard Otten defended his dissertation entitled "Manufacturing Charm City: The Socio-Semiotics of Baltimore's Decline" and worked with Dr. Roger Lancaster, Dr. Hugh Gusterson, and Dr. Tim Gibson. Christine Rosenfeld conducted a short exchange with Richard in which he reflects on his time at Mason.


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?

The objects of my research interests have remained essentially the same, or perhaps they have come back around to me again, but I have learned to approach them with proper rigor. Initially, I had some misgivings about our department’s both/and approach to the old cultural studies versus political economy debates. I arrived at Mason with interests in studying masculinity and popular culture, and these interests were neither political nor economic. Now I understand how reactionarily politically efficacious such assumptions can be, so that an object’s apolitical appearance should suggest that it is doing some heavy ideological lifting. Over and over again, I realize that the objects that draw my critical attention are rarely particularly interesting in and of themselves; they are interesting because they are symptomatic of larger sociohistorical dynamics that must themselves be understood first. To study men and masculinity, for example, is ultimately to study patriarchy. The details of masculinity, as fascinating as they can be, tell us less about men than they tell us about men’s hegemonic and superordinate dispositions within patriarchal ideology, particularly if some individual men do not seem to benefit much from them. 

At the same time, urban studies had been kind of a guilty pleasure for me for some time, and that feeling became stronger as I struggled to square that field with my other fields of interest, until Tim Gibson encouraged me to synthesize my interests in popular culture and the urban into a single field. The result was a baggy monster of a field statement, but a useful one! I realized that urban spaces provide their own kind of mediation, fields of hypersignificaiton that are not sufficiently examined, and there I found the point of entry for my dissertation and the publishable scholarship that will spin out of it. Within the next year, Manufacturing Charm City: The socio-semiotics of Baltimore’s decline will be a manuscript in the hands of a publisher, and several of its strands and scions will have public lives of their own.

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?

All of the above(!), but I have always been a teacher first and a scholar second, so the production of scholarship is my primary mode of professional development. I filled in for Tim in a couple of Communication courses, and “Media Criticism” is one of the best classes I have ever taught anywhere, but I was already an adjunct instructor at Anne Arundel Community College when I began in this program, and I still am. Although I have been thus far frustrated in my efforts to secure a full-time position at AACC or elsewhere, I have been able to apply what I have learned in the program directly to the curricula of my courses. My “Masculinities” field statement led directly to the creation of an “Introduction to Masculinity Studies” course, and my involvement in AACC’s Gender & Sexuality Studies program has enabled me to teach “Introduction to LGBT Studies” and to join our Social Justice Collaborative. In turn, that collaborative is launching a “Social Justice for Baltimore” initiative next year, which will enable me to divide my “Popular Culture in America” syllabus into one unit that will introduce students to various scholarly perspectives on pop culture and a second unit that will follow directly from my dissertation. Considering the close relationship between the “Introduction to American Studies” course that I began teaching last year and my M.A. work, I feel very fortunate that my current pedagogy emerges so naturally from my graduate studies.

Certainly, I hope that all of this professional development will qualify me to demobilize from the reserve army of academic labor very soon.

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

I will take with me many great memories – from my classes, my independent studies with Tim and with Roger Lancaster, my dissertation defense itself, and many extracurricular moments shared with my colleagues – but my best memory will always be the time that Lauren Berlant asked me for advice. The scene was our SOC conference years ago, when the theme was “Manufacturing Happiness,” and Berlant was our keynote speaker. I presented a paper that argued that indie film requires a new pharmacological metaphor, because indie film is a cannabinoid, not an opiate, of the people, one that heightens the audience’s awareness of the inequities of the world rather than dulling its senses, yet indie films do not inspire the audience to do anything about it. I was very anxious, having slapped the paper together in the forty-eight hours before the conference without even bringing in Jameson or anybody else who could have easily supported my assertions. Perhaps comic relief was needed in the middle of the long day of panels, and Rob Gehl made a spectacle of us both by reading the paper over my shoulder and guffawing at lines I had not gotten to yet, but the paper went over very well. When I retook my seat in the crowd for the final panel before the keynote, a cluster of folks came over to congratulate me, and I was startled when Berlant joined them. She told me that she was really impressed that I was probably further along than her on a line of thought she had only begun to pursue, and she asked if I would take a look at a blog entry she had recently posted and tell her what I thought of it.

Obviously, I was flattered to distraction. After reading her post, I emailed her to tell her that I thought she needed to provide more concrete details to help me understand precisely what object she was examining before I could help her theorize an analysis of it. She declined to provide such details, but the ability to recover from the hangover that follows the giddy hopes of future collaboration that a conference can produce was not the only lesson that I learned from this interaction with such an estimable scholar. I also gained a lot of confidence in my own object-oriented critical skills.