Beyond the Ivory Tower: Interviews with Academics #2 with Abigail (Gail) De Kosnik

Gail portrait copy

Hey friends! This is the second in the series Beyond the Ivory Tower (see the first interview with Juana Maria Rodriguez here), which I started last year to add some colorful/creative outlets in my reading and writing-heavy PhD life at UC Berkeley while learning more about what it might mean for me to be in academia.  In it I interview (and draw portraits of) academics that I admire and respect 🙂 My hope is that it’ll demystify academia a bit as well, and can become a platform for featuring folks who are doing groundbreaking work within an academic environment where older cisgender heterosexual white men still make up the majority.

Professor Abigail De Kosnik, referred to by most of her students as Gail, is the first professor at Berkeley I Skyped with before deciding to join the TDPS department  and inspired me to accept the offer. She is an extremely intelligent and charismatic professor who many students (myself included) go to for great mentoring (she even won last year’s Graduate Assembly Faculty Mentor Award) . She’s a part of the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies and the Berkeley Center for New Media. Last semester I took her seminar “Theorizing Popular Culture and Social Media” where we discussed everything from Black Lives Matter twitter activism to Marxism to queer Asians clubbing in NYC to the racialization of labor in World of Warcraft!  Not only did I learn a lot about the fields of new media, cultural studies and more, but she showed us a great deal about how to improve our writing and to succeed in academia.

The following is her bio on the TDPS (Theater, Dance & Performance Studies) department page, but please read on to learn about how 9/11 changed her life and made her quit her job to pursue a PhD, the unfiltered truth about how academia is like “diving again and again and again in the same water,” how she views her life in three phases and other details of her life as an academic! 

Abigail De Kosnik is an Assistant Professor in the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM) and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies, and is an affiliated faculty member of Gender & Women’s Studies. She researches popular media, particularly digital media, film and television, and fan studies.  She is particularly interested in how issues of feminism, queerness, ethnicity, and transnationalism intersect with new media studies and performance studies.  She has published a number of essays in edited collections and journals such as Cinema Journal, Modern Drama, The International Journal of Communication, and Transformative Works and Cultures.  She co-edited The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).  Her courses include: History and Theory of New Media (one of the core required seminars for the Designated Emphasis in New Media), Sound Design (in one of the Digital Media Labs shared by TDPS, Film & Media, and Art Practice), Performance and Technology, and Performance and Television.  She is currently writing a book on the history of Internet fan fiction, based on an oral history project conducted during 2012-13, and she is the primary investigator on a digital humanities project called “Fan Data: Counting Archives and Networks.”  She is the co-organizer of the annual History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series.

Miyuki: When did you know that you were meant to be an academic?

Gail: My very first year of college, when I was a freshman at Stanford, I was in a very intensive 9-unit residential humanities program called Structured Liberal Education (SLE) and after my first or second semester I had both acted in a play on campus and I was loving that program which preceded chronologically from ancient India and ancient Greece to the 20th century. And I told the professors in the program that I was going to be a professor because that was the only place where you could combine the kind of work we were doing in the class with acting and they said that’s true. So I just really proceeded my whole undergraduate career and I also started a masters program early–I started it in my junior year so I could finish in four years instead of paying for an extra 5th year.  I really focused my whole undergraduate and masters life on the idea that I would get a PhD right after. But by the time I hit my last quarter, I was super burned out and I just knew I couldn’t do it and I also imagined myself being locked away in some library of the University of Chicago’s English program and never living as a 20-something person in the world, almost throwing away my youth on books–even though I loved books I always was just like, at this point in my life I have so much more to offer the world and so much more to learn that’s not in books!

So I went and joined a startup company in Silicon Valley and it ended up being really successful for a time and I got promoted and promoted, and by the time 2001 came along I was running a subsidiary of the Washington Post company. That was amazing for me at that age to be given a whole profit and loss statement of my own, which meant that I was called the chief operating officer but it was like being the president of a company but when it’s a subsidiary you’re not really the president because you still report to the board of the parent company. But to have that level of responsibility and to have progressed so far in the business world so quickly was such a miracle–it was the kind of job that people kill for at a time in life when hardly anyone gets that opportunity. Lots of room to grow, tons of money, you know? And by that time, I was SO unhappy in the job and I was traveling probably three weeks out of four, it was very very stressful and stressful on issues that I didn’t care about. Like constant budget meetings, and then 9/11 happened and I was living in New York. I wasn’t physically in New York–I was traveling for work and at the Oakland Airport at 6 in the morning when all of a sudden all the flights were delayed.  I went and got in line for a bagel and I noticed that all the TV screens were white. Well if you ever look at a blank screen you know that a blank screen is black. But all the screens were white. When I walked up to one of the public TV screens, I heard Peter Jennings say that the World Trade Center had collapsed–the first one. So I ran out of the airport and I got in one of the last cabs leaving–which left with like five people in it–and we listened to the collapse of the second tower on the radio in the cab.

I was on the phone with my number 2 and number 3 people in the car and I had a company wide call as soon as I got back to my apartment and I told everybody to close up and go home. It was an unprecedented natural disaster and by the way, it was a tutoring company where we had centers all over the country in cities so our people would recruit great college students from the local universities. In NY it was Columbia and NYU and in Atlanta it was Emory, you know, really great kids. So these were wealthy students served by super great kids with super great GPAs and we interviewed them at length and trained them hugely. They were awesome college students.

Well we started getting calls within an hour of the World Trade Center, saying “any Arab tutors, they didn’t want coming to their houses.” And several of our centers go those calls from parents. So on the company call I said, close the center but also zero-tolerance for racism. Fire those parents! They’re not going to be our clients anymore. So it was such a big moment.

But that day I realized I had to quit my job because I realized you can’t work for money. You can’t go on and on doing the same thing you’re doing just because you’re doing it. That life has to be a thoughtful project in which you actually try to do the things that you always meant to do.  And so I had always thought at this job that I would give myself the retirement gift of a PhD. That when I retired, if I could afford to retire at 50, I’d get a PhD for fun and that would be my gift to myself. And after 9/11, I realized that was the wrong approach. Anything you mean to do one day, you should try to do today if you can do it.

Miyuki: How old were you then?

Gail: I was 28. So  it was very hard to quit and they offered me all kinds of great things to stay and I said no, this is what I’m doing and I was just lucky. I got into Northwestern. They let me do a PhD in comparative literary studies with my home department not in a language department but in radio and television and film because I knew I was going to write a dissertation on digital media. So that was a great school that let me do that and had great affordances. So that was when I knew for sure–it took something worldwide big.

Miyuki: Did you have family around you throughout the process of having the high-paying job and then deciding to go pursue your PhD?

Gail: Well my partner Benjamin and I did a couple years of long-distance with me in NY and him in SF because of my job. Actually he had just agreed to move to NY which he was really resisting and the job paid me enough money to incent him to move and he finally agreed and I had signed the lease on the Lower East Side and I called those people on 9/12 and I said I’m really sorry I need to back out and they were on their rooftop watching the smoke so they totally let me out of the lease which never ever happens. So it was really Benjamin and my oldest friend in the world who I knew from elementary school because I was reluctant to quit because that’s ridiculous–it’s somebody’s dream job and I was walking away from it and just when I was wavering my oldest friend in the world called and the only thing she said was “Gail, you have to quit your job!” and she almost hung up after, there wasn’t much else she was trying to tell me but she had that moment of realization too, that if anything is going to cause you to change your life, today is that day. So between her and Benjamin I felt like I had enough support and signs to go ahead with that.

Miyuki: Is Benjamin an artist?

Gail: He was a programmer for many years and he quit two years ago and started his MFA at CCA. He’d always been making art all along but he made a big move.

Miyuki: When do you struggle? I feel like you’re very bubbly, effervescent…

Gail: I’m going to be really real and just say that this is an interesting question for me about my struggle. Because I really feel so lucky and also so empowered in my life. If you just think for two seconds about what other people are going through, I’ve had a very good set of circumstances and set of abilities that have combined to give me a life filled with joy. All my dreams have come true. I can literally say that. So I’m 43, and I set out a lot of goals for myself to accomplish in what I call Phase One of my life which just ended, that ended when I turned 43. Up until my 42nd year was Phase One.

Miyuki: Because you got tenure?

Gail: Mhmm, I got tenure, I married Benjamin, we have our dream house, I have the dream job for me–I mean all my dreams have come true. That’s been at a real cost–all the work that went into that is like more than I can describe. But the real interesting thing is, all your dreams come true and now I’m in Phase Two. Phase Two will be shorter, and Phase Three even shorter, but Phase Two is all about really using what you have and it takes a long time to refine all of your talents into skills. And it takes a long time to also develop the ability to concentrate and focus. The ability to self-motivate and put in the work. The ability to edit yourself and to see a writing project through from the very beginning to the very end. It takes such a long time to make yourself into that tool that you want yourself to be. So then the next step is to actually do those things. To actually realize the kind of virtual projects that have just lived in your head for so long.

So first of all I want to say, that’s such a rare position to be in. Almost every other person I know is not dealing with these questions. Almost everyone I know is in some kind of morass for many circumstances–they’re in painful marriages, they’re getting divorced, their children have issues, their parents have issues, they’re financially not stable, their job is precarious, they have an illness or their partner does, or they’re just sad or depressed or they just don’t like their jobs very much. Their kids are back talking a lot or something. So even if it’s not crisis, a lot of people that I know are not on the very edge of self-actualization that I feel like I’m really at all the time. Every day I wake up and I ask myself, how can I further my own mission in this world today?

So, I’ll say that what I struggle with is fulfilling my mission every single day. That it’s very hard and taxing on the body, I don’t do enough yoga–I binge on yoga on vacations. It’s very hard to cook and eat the right things and to sleep the right amount. Just the basics of taking care of your physical and emotional self to be above the line and you have to do that because as soon as you fall below the line, you can’t realize your mission the same way every day. There’s that, and there’s the sheer quantity of things that I do. And those are the things that I struggle with, and then a minor struggle is that there are only a few mentors I can ask about this–not very many people. Many many people don’t understand this struggle. They’re just dealing with totally different and much more concrete things. So that’s interesting to realize the almost cost of all your dreams coming true. Sadly most people’s dreams don’t come true like that for them.

Miyuki: Right, I mean for most people uncertainty is just the name of the game, but it feels like for you, when you set a goal for yourself, you can be pretty certain that you’ll achieve it.  With your daily goal to further your mission in the world, do you feel like there’s a constant need to move to the next thing and to keep building and building in this progressive way?  

Gail: I wish that our job were like that. I actually love it when you can put a journal article to bed but our job isn’t very linear. It’s very circular, spiral staircase-y.  It’s even more like diving again and again and again in the same water. So our job is such that fulfilling the mission every day means looking at the same pool of water that has seemingly no bottom, and being okay to dive into it today. It’s not linear at all and I wish it were a boat sailing to that destination you’re certain of. But fulfilling the mission for me is like this week: it’s Wednesday. I have until Sunday to wrap up on four essays. Some of them are done to the point where I can submit them. And they still might not get accepted. Journal space is hard to come by. But for me, it’s like constantly writing, constantly thinking about four projects, constantly going from one screen to another screen to another.  One window to another window to another window. Now I’m going to think about Halberstam’s idea of technology and gender, now I’m going to think about soap operas and serialization more broadly, and how that’s manifesting on prime time television right now, now I’m going to think about Filipino karaoke and how that plays into global economies of labor and cultural performance, you know? And so every day for this week I’m going to be thinking about those things. And then I’m going to stop thinking about them and then when I get feedback from editors, I’m going to start thinking about them again.

My tricks for keeping a kind of destination in mind is to have for example a publication venue, which can be a book/university press, or it can be a blog, or it can be a journal. When I keep in mind where this writing’s going to land, and a title for it so I know the name of the project and I know where I’m trying to place it, that helps me keep it focused and keep me focused. But I know that those things can change and change and change. The title can change, the destination I don’t know for sure and I definitely don’t know when but I put deadlines to stuff and sometimes they’re externally imposed deadlines like with special issues of journals. Those things help you pretend there’s a destination.

Miyuki: What about slowing down–what are the things that spark joy along the way?

Gail: Yeahh! Every day joy comes mostly from the teaching side. And that’s why I teach. It’s because that’s the guaranteed joy part of my day. The research side is like, when’s the guaranteed joy? To be really honest, I’m not sure I should tell you guys some of these things because I do think the pain is immense.

Miyuki: This is exactly what I need to share with readers though!

Gail: Yeah true–well the psychological and even often physical pain of thinking and sitting and thinking and reading and thinking and writing so much, it is SO painful. But the joy of that–this is going to sound really strange–sometimes I’ll read something that I wrote a while ago and it’ll be like reading it for the first time. And that is REAL JOY. When I’m far away from a piece that’s already published and that I’ve forgotten the argument for, then I can read it and myself be surprised at the turns that the argument take, and all the theorists I’m referring to and how I’m reading their work. I can be so surprised and so pleased and so much like, “WOW look at what earlier me did! She did all this great thinking and all this great writing.” But I can’t appreciate that from the inside of an essay or a chapter. There is sometimes with the book, for the first time during the three months I was writing the words and not just editing, I did achieve this incredible sense of transcendence, enlightenment and flow and that was the only time I’ve ever felt that while I was writing. That in the moment of typing on my machine, I was thinking, there’s just a little voice in the back that’s like “this is all coming out right now.” It was the feeling of just channeling, but I will say that I wrote and rewrote my book eight times.  Like I’ve told you, I’ve thrown away a hundred pages at a time of that book so there is maybe this place you can get to after you’ve been with a project for so many years, where you can almost rewrite it by heart. But that’s only happened with that one project. Probably because every other project is shorter and not something I’ve been living with as long as the book. The book, when it comes out this summer, I’ll have been living with it–if I date it to the beginning of my PhD–for 14 years! It’s like my adolescent child–it’s almost a grown up.

Miyuki: I want to touch on what people stereotype as the academic institution.  When you’re dealing with people in new media, a field that’s so hetero white male, do you feel like you have to show up with even more articulate writing so people really pay attention to you? Or do you feel like you have street cred because of your work experience you had?

Gail: Work experience that’s not academic has zero street cred. That just helps me manage my time and run committees and meetings, and manage GSRs (graduate student researchers). But the problem with the academy, even in the humanities, even when people are hiring for diversity consciously, is a kind of cultural entrenchment in certain ways of doing things, certain topics that seem recognizable and stuff that isn’t in the culture right now seems illegible to the majority of any campus unit and then, when it’s time to review that person’s work, if they just can’t recognize it as work, they can’t evaluate the quality of it. It’s very hard for them to learn new paradigms even though when they hire junior faculty, they’re usually hiring junior faculty that are doing really new things.

So it’s a bit of a catch-22 for the assistant professor who wants to be very innovative and at the same time has to be recognizable to the culture that’s on the ground. And of course, I think that a lot of junior faculty’s mission is to found a new culture at the university, prioritize diversity and equity and inclusion. And I try to do work like that through the Color of New Media working group and through the work that I publish, and through my individual mentoring and admissions, who I try to recruit to our campus and to our programs. I think that a lot of people are in that effort and we will see the paradigms shift, but right now, we’re in a weird moment where there’s still a couple generations who are senior faculty that whether they’re malicious or not–most of them are not malicious–it’s just hard for them to recognize the new and to acknowledge that that has a place. It’s just so different than just writing about novels and plays and phenomena that are very easily tagged. Their tags are older tags and junior faculty tries to introduce a lot of new tags and the senior faculty has to be able to be on board with those, before they can really tenure them. That’s the challenge right now in our generation. In 2025 I hope that it will be a different set of challenges.

Miyuki: Do you have thoughts on the fact that these diversity campaigns such as the Mellon or Ford Foundations, channel people of color from undergraduate into graduate school on a track? Does it feel like another type of neoliberal move, like “Okay, you’re being included, join the gang but you have to behave the way we’ve been behaving.”

Gail: I think those are all great points. We in performance studies think a lot more about what it is to perform to your audience and impression management and all that, so I think that we know when we’re performing, even if it’s in a grant application or to a room that looks a certain way.  First of all I don’t think anyone should go straight from undergrad to grad school because then they’re throwing their 20s away in libraries. But then again, for some people, that’s the right thing to do. For a lot of people it’s not.  The thing about neoliberalism is that it wants to have a lot of different boxes to put people in. It wants to be inclusive to the point that anyone can succeed at the job that it has, in the society that it provides. It doesn’t want to put up racial, gender or sexual orientation barriers there. It wants as many workers to be flexible as they can possibly be in this economy.

So if flexibility is really neoliberalism’s great ambition for the economy right now, then that really means performers. That means that a good worker in this economy has to be flexible enough to put on a vast range of performances at any given time. There is some benefit to neoliberal flexibility, of course it gets rid of those very stodgy work structures where you’re just waiting for the clock to run out. You just can’t work that way anymore in this economy. But it comes with a severe cost of precarity, any never knowing who you should be performing as right now. So you have to be a very deft performer, one who has a lot in their repertoire, and one who can pivot quickly from one persona to another persona.

Miyuki: That’s really great closing advice! But before we end, do you have any shows or movies you’ve been watching lately that you’re excited about that you’d like to share with readers?

Gail:  Yeah! I just recently finished Transparent Season 2, I’m watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which I’m really loving. It’s the only sitcom where there’s a Filipino guy as the main object of desire. I’m watching the sci-fi show called The Expanse which has great CG, and occasionally some plot. I’m watching this show called Into the Badlands, which I call kung fu-massa because it’s a hybrid between wuxia and 70s plantation-based exploitation films. so it’s a future in which there are no guns, but all of the power is concentrated into these large plantations, each of them run by a lord called a barron and they have ranks of fighters who are kung fu masters and below those are basically the slaves that pick the poppy, instead of cotton, and work the fields. I love it! It’s a super genre-bending show. I recommend it.

Miyuki: How do you have time to watch all of that while working on four articles?

Gail: You can make time!!

Thank you Gail for imparting your wisdom and sharing a little about the journey you’re on! 

Some links to Gail’s work and her social media: 

Interrogating “Free” Fan Labor

Google Scholar result page for Gail’s work

You can follow Gail on Twitter @De_Kosnik

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About Miyuki Baker

Miyuki is a resident of the place where circles overlap. As a queer, nomadic, multi-racial/lingual female mixed-media artist activist and healer, she uses common or discarded objects, personal anecdotes, public spaces and performance to make accessible art that brings non-mainstream identities and ideas into maximum visibility. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 2012, she traveled for 14 months as a Watson Fellow to fifteen countries documenting the intersections of art and activism in queer/trans communities in blog posts and self-published magazines while making performance art. The eight magazines Miyuki created on this trip (queerscribe.com) and their strong media following exemplify her illustration/graphic design, storytelling and people skills. Her work has been featured in several magazines such as Hyphen, Broken Pencil and Knik, blogs and radio shows, well-known for their interactive and eye-catching mixed media approach to activism that utilizes both online media and on-site performance and workshops. This fall she will begin the PhD program at UC Berkeley in Performance Studies. You can follow her travels at heymiyuki.wordpress.com and email her at heymiyuki@gmail.com

2 comments

  1. These interviews are so valuable, Miyuki! I’m so glad you’re doing them.

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