AHA Member Spotlight: Mark Bernhardt
Mark Bernhardt is a professor at Jackson State University. He lives in Clinton, Mississippi, and has been a member since 2005.
Alma maters: BA, University of California, Berkeley, 1999; MA, California State University, Sacramento, 2001; PhD, University of California, Riverside, 2006
Fields of interest: journalism, film, television, gender, sexuality, American West
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
My interest in learning about history began as I browsed through my great aunt’s encyclopedia set when I was young. Inspiring history teachers in junior high and high school (Steve Rayburn and Jody Wara) led me to consider it as a career. Several phenomenal history professors (Kerwin Klein, Anthony Adamthwaite, and Kathleen Cairns) sparked my interest in some of the fields of study I chose to focus on—media history, and specifically portrayals of the American West in film and television. Jackson State University offered me the opportunity to join its department, where I have now had the pleasure of teaching students for the last 12 years.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
I appreciate that Jackson, Mississippi, is centrally located in the south. It is convenient being within a day’s drive of so many major cities—New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville, St. Louis, and Houston. As an avid baseball fan, it is especially nice that the Astros, Rangers, Cardinals, and Braves are all just a weekend trip away. Mississippi itself has a lot of great places to visit, including the Gulf coast, Natchez, Vicksburg, the sites along the Mississippi Blues Trail, and the Mississippi Freedom Trail’s historical sites relating to the Civil Rights Movement.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am working on a book manuscript that examines the messages 1950s sitcoms disseminated that both alleviated lingering concerns about poverty following the traumatic national experience with the Great Depression and opposed Soviet claims attributing poverty to racial and gender oppression. Generally sitcoms reflected the dominant perception that the United States had become a nation of middle-class citizens. The portrayals of those left behind characterized their financial struggles as resulting from personal shortcomings, including incompetence as a family provider, poor judgment selecting a spouse, or cultural backwardness, and not systemic issues, such as failed political policy, gender inequality, or racism. At the same time, I have been writing about contemporary portrayals of the American West. This has included looking at conquest mythology, the US-Mexico border, the Western genre, and Latinx stereotypes in Breaking Bad, as well as analyzing visions of the American West seen in David Lynch’s original and sequel Twin Peaks series, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s Westworld, Jenji Kohan’s Weeds, and Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy and Mayans M.C.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
My interests have evolved since graduate school, taking me in new research directions. While at first my work built on what I had done as a student, examining how newspaper coverage of wars and high-profile murder cases revealed the ways in which race, gender, and class intersectionality shaped people’s lives in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I eventually shifted my focus to other media forms. I became interested in looking at constructions of racial and gender identity in film characters, specifically in movies about the American West. More recently I have turned to television, returning to issues of intersectionality while also continuing analysis of identity construction.
What do you value most about the history discipline?
What I value most about the discipline is that there are so many ways in which we can study the past. This array of approaches and methodologies available to historians provides us with many different options for fostering interest in what we do. I use films extensively in my courses as primary sources, discussing with students how the filmmakers engaged with the issues of their time. This aspect of my courses always proves popular. In my research, newspaper illustrations, television shows, movies, and music have served as my gateways for exploring history and conversations about my work with students have inspired them to think about different types of source material they might be interested in using. Over the years I have supervised student research projects that have used photographs, artwork, comic books, and baseball as the tools for their study, helping students to find what it is that most interests them. Everyone’s personal interests can be the basis for historical study.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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