Cultural Studies Examines the World with a Critical Eye

Posted: February 13, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

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Pop culture, technology, art and icons are fodder for scholarly examination in Mason’s Cultural Studies Program.

By Tara Laskowski

Take a look at the laundry list of research interests in Mason’s Cultural Studies Program: feminist science fiction, food and social status, human trafficking, the Latino identity in the United States, the spectacle of the daytime talk show.

Then check out the program’s graduates, who can boast of successful dissertations on such topics as the cultural meaning of women’s foundation garments, the rise of broadcasting in the 20th century and Canadian cinema.

Yet, even with these sexy topics – most of them engaged in understanding and criticizing existing power relations – the Cultural Studies Program is one of the most rigorous and academically-focused programs in the university.

Founded 11 years ago, this young program prepares its students for life in academia with a curriculum focused on theory, research and teaching. Broadly speaking, the program explores cultural practices of all kinds. Some of the topics studied are mass media representations, consumer culture, literary texts, objects of industrial production, practices of performance and display, oppositional subcultures and aspects of everyday life in both the present and the past.

Cultural Studies students have received Fulbright grants, published books and papers, presented at national and international conferences and snagged jobs at prestigious universities.

Roger Lancaster
Roger Lancaster

“We are honed on producing college professors,” says Roger Lancaster, director of the program for the past seven years. “We give students the training and tools for teaching and research.”

Practicing What They Teach

The program’s faculty is also standout, coming from disciplines across the university. More than 60 faculty members are associated with the program, including Paul Smith, whose internationally recognized work spans media, political economy and cultural theory; Margaret Yocum, a folklore expert; Denise Albanese, a professor of Shakespeare, feminist theory and science and technology studies; Dina Copelman, a historian; Roy Rosenzweig, a new media historian; and Gregory Guagnano, a sociologist.

Several Cultural Studies faculty members have won the College of Arts and Sciences Celebration of Scholarship Award: historian Lois Horton, anthropologist Linda Seligmann and philosopher Debra Bergoffen.

The program will be joined next year by renowned science studies scholar Hugh Gusterson, currently at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lancaster himself has been cited in many major media outlets because of his expertise in gender and sexuality, gay and lesbian studies and Marxism and critical theory. He is the author of “The Trouble with Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture.”

The program also hosts a conference each year with panelists and presenters from Mason and the larger academic community. This year’s conference draws a dozen notable scholars from around the country to examine the intersections of science and politics.

Peeling Back the Layers of Society

Katy Razzano
Cultural studies student Katy Razzano has published “Vulture Culture,” a look at daytime talk shows.
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Current PhD student Kathalene Razzano loves the Cultural Studies Program because it allows her to explore her unique research interests. Recently, Razzano and two colleagues published “Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows,” a book that analyzes these shows and their relation to important political, social and economic problems.

Delving into the spectacle that is “Montel,” “Dr. Phil” and “Ricki Lake,” Razzano, Christine Quail of the State University of New York College at Oneonta and Loubna Skalli of American University look at the way in which talk shows use expert knowledge, science and histrionics to present our culture back to us.

“It’s fun to watch these types of shows, but we hope what people take from our book is that they watch these shows differently,” she says. “Look for moments of rupture—moments where inequalities or double standards come through and comment on our society.”

Randa Kayyali shares Razzano’s enthusiasm for the program. “Cultural Studies brings together many disciplines and yet forms its own academic discipline by looking at the big picture and approaching research with a vigor and thoroughness that I find invigorating intellectually,” says Kayyali.

Kayyali is also a published author. Her book “The Arab Americans” provides an overview of Arab Americans’ immigration patterns, settlement, adaptation and assimilation for a general audience.

“There is not much literature aimed at the general adult reader on Arab Americans, but ever since 9/11, there has been so much talk about Arab Americans that, quite frankly, we could do with more actual information about the community,” she says. “The need for this book was clear to me, and I kept that in mind as I wrote.”

Other students choose to study cultures outside the United States. Donna Hope recently had published “Inna di Dancehall: Popular Culture and the Politics of Identity in Jamaica,” a study of Jamaican dancehall culture that focuses on issues of sexuality and gender, as well as violence.

Culture, Internationally

The Cultural Studies Program has been highly successful at attracting international students. “We’ve recruited from every continent except Australia and Antarctica,” says Lancaster.

In 2004, Vietnam native Buu Le was Mason’s oldest graduate at age 82. A colonel in the Vietnamese army and an engineer, Le spent 13 years in a concentration camp and came to the United States in 1992. He studied at Northern Virginia Community College and then Mason. Since graduating from the Cultural Studies Program, Le has returned to Vietnam to teach and work on opening a new university in his home province.

Whether from Fairfax or Taiwan, students agree that the Cultural Studies Program allows them to explore the world around them in unique ways. The program continues to strengthen, and Lancaster says he is proud of its continuing success.

Though there are several PhD programs in the country that provide cultural studies training in English, or anthropology or some other specific discipline, Mason’s program is one of the few to combine perspectives from the social sciences and the humanities in an interdisciplinary program.

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