Student Spotlight: Mika'il A. Petin Defends his Dissertation

Mika'il A. Petin defended his dissertation entitled "I'm not an American: Sovereign Masculinity and Images of Black Muslim Men during the War on Terror" and worked with Dr. Jessica Scarlata, Dr. Timothy Gibson, Dr. Amal Amireh, and Dr. Mark HopsonEsma H. Celebioglu conducted a short interview with Mika'il 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?

My research interests have essentially remained the same. I was asked what my research interests were during my first semester, and my response was “race, ethnicity, identity, Muslims in America, and tolerance.” I had just written my Master’s thesis on progressive Islam––the reform movement within the global Muslim community to reconcile contemporary ideas, such as democracy, feminism, and liberalism, with religious doctrine. Once I began to work in my current role as associate director of African and African American Studies at George Mason University, my interests changed slightly from working so closely with Women and Gender Studies. Now, I focus more on constructions of Blackness and masculinities.


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 have a few answers for this question. First, my professional development at Mason truly started with my support role for Cynthia Fuchs, director of Film and Media Studies. I worked with her as a graduate assistant for one and a half years, and learned a lot about the institution.

Second, I have had a few opportunities to publish and teach over the years. Although, my one regret is that I did not attend more Cultural Studies Association conferences to network with more members from other institutions. I think the process of Cultural Studies graduate students becoming academicians is supposed to happen primarily through coursework, colloquia, and ongoing relationships with core faculty. If you speak with alumni who are on the market––or in their first jobs––Cultural Studies can necessitate constant defense from other disciplines. Even as more academicians are taking similar theoretical approaches. To begin to resolve some of that comes from engaging with the larger intellectual community. I think it is easy to forget that Mason is a microcosm of the cultural studies work happening in many other places.

Third, I took advantage of the colloquia that focused on professional development, but paired those sessions with the guidance of my faculty mentor, Rutledge Dennis, professor of Sociology. When I began the program in what seems like eons ago, I had a peer mentor. Unfortunately, we never connected after our initial conversation. So, I benefitted from my relationship with a faculty mentor. Early on, I presumed there wasn’t enough time to squeeze in class discussions on “How to be an employable academician” in graduate seminars. Nor was it the purpose of the courses to administer that type of advice. I encourage anyone who is not A.B.D. to find a faculty member––or administrator––to use as a sounding board, and to explain how the university functions, the publishing world, pitfalls of the job market, etc. It is not only invaluable, but imperative to know how our institution and the industry operate. Do not wait until it is time to graduate from Mason to find someone. We should all celebrate that our program is so much stronger now, and that there is a greater intentionality around producing graduates to lead the field.


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

It is all a blur now. I don’t have a single memory, but some of my dearest are from the interactions with peers outside of classrooms, and away from Mason. In particular, my cohort used to gather for lunch or dinner when we all lived in the region. We had great conversations, and truly felt like a family.

Contrastingly, one of my worst memories happened on the final day of my first fall semester. It was December and my classmates and I were to meet for dinner at Red, Hot, and Blue on Ox Road. As I crossed Patriot Circle to walk to my car which was parked behind the Recreation Athletic Center (RAC), I could hear brakes squeal as a car came to a complete stop. My back was turned, but I clearly hear a faint, “Nigger!” I stopped immediately and my back became stiff. With bags in both hands, I slowly turned around to see that the insult came from a blue Jeep Cherokee with what looked like two White college-aged men in the driver and passenger seats. There may have been more passengers in the back, but I couldn’t tell as the rear windows were tinted. “Nigger!” the passenger yelled again. Now, I am gradually making my way towards the Jeep. Twice I angrily yelled, “Why don’t you say it to my face!” but the truck sped off before I could do anything. I eventually made it to dinner, and though disturbed, went about my evening.

Without any rhyme or reason, I often wondered what may have happened if I had reached their truck. I took the spring the semester off, and really contemplated leaving Mason. The institution hadn’t done anything to me, but I needed clarity after spending the previous four and a half years in Texas without any issue. I didn’t share my incident with them, but Cynthia Fuchs and Roger Lancaster were instrumental in dissuading me from going elsewhere. More significantly, their confidence in me and that incident lit a fire in my belly that I would spend the remainder of my time at Mason refuting the prejudiced boy’s dreadful insult and reduction of my being. All this to say that my hooding on Thursday at Convocation and my degree conferral at Commencement on Saturday are the sweetest validations and the best repayments to Cynthia, Roger, and the Cultural Studies PhD program.