Kyle Riismandel is a 2010 graduate of GW's American Studies PhD program and is a cultural historian of cities, suburbs, media, and technology in recent American history. He is currently a Senior University Lecturer and Interim Director of the Law, Technology, and Culture Program in the Federated Department of History at the New Jersey Institute of Technology/Rutgers-Newark. We reached out to Kyle to feature him in our weekly alumni spotlight. Read what he has to say.
How did you become interested in researching the suburban crisis and why did you pick this topic for your upcoming book?
I tell my students when they are proposing research projects that they are always, in some way, about you—the questions you ask, the things you care about. That is also true of me. I grew up in the Jersey suburbs during the period covered in the book which left me with a lingering question: Why did privileged people seem so afraid of so many things (crime, the occult, nuclear power, video games)? When I got to GW, that was what I wanted to focus on in my research because the answer was personal, seemed relevant to contemporary culture and politics, and largely overlooked by scholars to that point.
If there’s one message that you want your readers to take away from your book, what is it?
The concept of productive victimization. I show how privileged people used their possible, and often legitimate, endangerment to become more powerful. I think this process is broadly applicable to recent American history from the version of conservatism that brought us the Trump presidency to successful writers and politicians decrying “cancel culture” from their mainstream media platforms.
I will also say that the book tries to make clear culture matters. I didn’t feel I could study American suburbs in a consumer culture without getting at what they read, saw, and thought including things like board games, TV movies, and informational VHS tapes and pamphlets for concerned parents which were prevalent but not often considered. People interact with a whole world of cultural texts, and researchers across disciplines have to grapple more directly with that.
What's the last book/article you read? What's next on your reading list?
This is almost a tease! Teaching full time means I don’t read too much that is not for class.
Non-work related: There Was a Light which is an oral history of the band Big Star and one of its founding members, Chris Bell. Can you imagine a middle-aged white guy interested in Big Star!?
Academic: Mary Rizzo, Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire. This is a really fascinating cultural history of Baltimore and an excellent example of how to do American Studies work.
Next up: Rick Perlstein, Reaganland
Did your time at GW inform your teaching style? If so, how?
There is no substitute for experience, but the Being student focused, empathetic, and still rigorous comes from my time at GW. I saw that you have to be fully prepared to be spontaneous and in the moment. I try to be fully present while in class and I can only do that if I know what the bleep I am talking about. The other essential thing I learned was taking seriously students and their ideas. The Dept. was very student focused and worked very hard to mentor and cultivate student learning. That is something I focus on every single day at my job.
My first time doing any teaching was as a TA and I was….not great. But, I was extremely lucky to have good role models and very talented colleagues. Watching and working with Terry Murphy, Chad Heap, Melani McAlister, and others gave me a real good idea of how to lecture, how to organize a class, run a discussion etc. And, my cohort of grad students were all really phenomenal people and teachers—Laurel Shire, Laura Cook, Julie Passanante Elman, Cameron Logan, Kevin Strait, Stephanie Ricker Schulte, Dave Kieran, Sandra Heard, Jeremy Hill. We spent a lot of time talking about the nuts and bolts of teaching, and I really learned so, so much from them (and still do!).
What advice would you give American Studies students?
Have a definition of what American Studies is because someone will ask you.
No research question is out of bounds or off-limits. That is the beauty of American Studies. You can approach traditional things from new angles and ask completely new questions no one else would ask.
Lastly, ask your instructors and colleagues questions and help. The faculty and alumni resources of the dept. are outstanding and are there for you to call on. Frankly, I did not ask for help often enough and got less out of my experience than I should have.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, there is a tendency to refer to college and grad school as not the “real world.” That is BS. As students you are working, managing personal and work responsibilities, and having important experiences. There is no other, mythical “real world.” This is it. This is your life so be present and experience it.
Be a good citizen at GW and wherever you end up. How you treat people matters. The great thing about American Studies at GW is that it avoids the cliches of academia by bringing in and cultivating not just smart people but good people.