Professor Chat: Dr. Kern



The Quadrangle sat down with Dr. Rebecca Kern of the Communication Department to discuss her background in the advertising industry, life outside of teaching, her research and more for another “Professor Chat.”

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Photo by James O’Connor


Maya Astabie: I understand that you have worked in the advertising industry for many years? Please describe your transition from working in the industry to teaching advertising.

Dr. Rebecca Kern: Well, it’s kind of a weird transition actually. I was working in media planning for a really long time and I really loved research. At some point, and I don’t remember when exactly this point happened, it was a really long time ago, I became fascinated by why people did what they did and I think at some point I must have gotten a little burnt out from working in advertising. And, I decided on a whim that I was going to apply for a PhD. I only applied to one place, which is even weirder, and I was accepted and I went into it thinking I was going to get a PhD in advertising research. I didn’t end up doing a PhD in that at all. I did a PhD in communication and mass media but what I actually found is that I liked people’s connection to culture and what made people interested in culture and how they interacted with media and culture much better on a sort of bigger scale. It sort of was taking what I was already doing and sort of blew it up into bigger proportions. And, so, the teaching advertising part sort of came naturally because I had done that for so long. I had also adjunct-ed while I was getting my PhD in advertising departments. And, so when I went looking for jobs, since my background was in the ad industry, it’s very unusual to find a PhD who’s had background in the industry, that doesn’t happen very often. Most of the time people go right through and kind of do the sort of more scholarly track rather than sort of go and be a practitioner and go in and be a professor. And, so, having done both it kind of meant that I both do research and have this understanding of the industry in a kind of very specific way so I kind of apply both to everything that I do. I don’t see them as that different. I see advertising as just a piece of this over-arching work that I do kind of looking at culture and how people interact with it.


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Photo by James O’Connor

MA: I understand that you’re also doing research right now, can you please describe that a little bit?

RK: Wow. Okay, so I am kind of doing research in a bunch of differ areas. The research that I’m doing right now actually isn’t very advertising-based at all. Well, that’s not entirely true. It depends on what I’m doing. The main research project I’m working on right now is actually a project that looks at Facebook and mourning. And, it’s been sort of an on-going project. I’ve been working on it for probably…let’s say the last four years. It’s been a multi-faced project. I’ve been working with one other person and the whole project has basically focused on how people use Facebook as a place to mourn the deceased. And, really the idea is that mourning is about the living, right? It’s not about the dead. Except that we use and we practice the act of mourning the deceased in very unusual ways. We’ve started to go and use multi-media as a way to do that instead of in private or doing it in houses of worship or doing it in places that we might consider very sacred like a cemetery. Instead, we create memorial sites for them much like creating photo albums or condolence books. So, instead they become these digital, everlasting, kind of things online and so we recreate these memorials for them of who we remember them as and then people can then add to them. So, they’re not just done by one person. They are much larger; they are created by many people. And, they are constantly updated and there is dialogue. There is dialogue with other people. The dialogue is with the deceased; it is really not a dialogue in that case. We feel this obligation to write on people’s birthdays, anniversaries. It’s a very interesting reaction to and what’s been very interesting about it to us is to look at not only the phenomenon, but also how much this has happened, what kinds of things are actually on these pages. Looking at the motivations of why people do this. Why here? Why use multi-media and not do it in the traditional places that we do it? Why is this different? Why is this acceptable? Why do we feel like this is a way to tell the world that somebody has died? You know, why do we talk directly to the dead in a very public way, not in our heads, which we know people do. But why do people do this? Do they think that the deceased actually read it? And also noticing that there’s, in many cases, places where people talk very negatively about the deceased on these pages or get into fights with other people on these pages. Like they’re having a brawl at a funeral. And, so, it’s very interesting behavior and I’m really fascinated by behavior. I front that people’s behavior is just really bizarre and that media spaces and media environments really allow for us to change our behavior in ways that we would never do in other places necessarily. It’s almost like we all got drunk and just decided we would all do whatever we wanted. And, it’s just because there’s this sort of, I want to say veil of secrecy, but there isn’t because Facebook is very public and there really is no anonymity but people think there is. I’m not really sure where that line is. That’s what I’ve been working on for the last four years and I am going to continue to be working on that for the next couple of years. That’s my big project. I then also do smaller projects depending on numerous different things. Some of them are related to gender and sexuality. Most of my work deals with identity and community and how people find identity or work out their identities in different media landscapes or find community somehow through different platforms.


MA: Please talk about your life outside of teaching at Manhattan College.

RK: I don’t have a life outside of Manhattan College, (laughs), no. I do have a life. I will say that teaching is very much my life. You know, we spend a lot of time with our jobs as professors. We easily work 60 to 70 hours per week as professors between teaching, prepping classes, grading, doing scholarly research, attending meetings. I’m not sure people realize how much work goes into being a professor. But, we easily do. And, I do a lot of work from home. Now, is it the best job in the world? Absolutely, because I can do part of it in my pajamas. So, clearly, it’s great. But, I do it at night, sometimes at 11 o’clock and on weekends. When I am not doing that though, I sail, which I don’t know if a lot of people know that. I don’t own my own boat, but someday, you know, maybe I’ll get lucky. And, I live in Brooklyn. So, I have a nice little commute, but I like it when I leave because I am, like, not here. And, it’s nice because I am a bit of a “foodie” so living in Brooklyn is a nice thing. And, my wife is an amazing chef when she’s around. And, she’s also a bit of a “foodie” so we really enjoy going out and eating whatever we can find. And, we’re in Williamsburg so it’s even more “foodie” heaven. We have two dogs so we spend a lot of time with them and they’re a lot of fun. We travel as much as we can because we just need to get away. And, sometimes being a professor sometimes that helps because I have to go to conferences so I get to travel and I’ve gone to some pretty interesting places because of it, so, that’s been fun. Otherwise, media is my life. So, I do admit that I have a weakness for watching bad television and also just spending a lot of time doing crossword puzzles and things like that. So, my life outside of here is not incredibly interesting but…Oh, the one other thing that I would do if I had a lot more time is, I have an art degree. So, my undergraduate degree was in studio art and so I paint. And, while I was never going to be the next Picasso, my probably most relaxing thing do on the face of the planet is to sit down and just paint all day long. I never have the chance to do it enough because there’s not enough space to really do it but, if I could, I would just spend my whole day painting and doing nothing but with loud music playing. And, it’s something I hope to do a lot more of this summer because I could use it after getting tenure.

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Photo by James O’Connor


MA: What is your favorite TV show?

RK: Oh, it so varies from like week-to-week I have to say. It recently changes, because some of them just started to really annoy me. Is it okay if I have more than one? Good, because I am never able to pick just one; it is a common problem with me. Admittedly, I am kind of a PBS junkie. So, I tend to love series on PBS and I am constantly taping them. So, any of the series: “Downton Abby,” “Call the Midwife.” And, I also love period pieces so I like anything that’s related to that. Anything, you name it, I love them all. But, probably more popular television? If I could pick, my probably two favorite shows that are just ridiculous TV that I would just love to watch that just makes me feel giggly and happy inside are “Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family.” They just make me smile. I can watch reruns of those for hours because they are just ridiculous and stupid and I don’t care.

MA: What is your favorite restaurant?

RK: Momo, hands down.

MA: Do you have any advice for any aspiring ad men or ad women?

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Photo by James O’Connor

RK: Yes, my advice would be a couple of things. One, know the industry as much as you can. And, what I mean by that is know what’s going on, read up on it and get weekly information as much as you can. Network. It’s a very small industry. I mean, New York, I know it seems like the largest place in the world. And you think to yourself, there’s no way that everyone knows each other. Everybody knows each other. You never know who knows somebody. And, you meet one person, and you hit off with them. And, the next thing you know, they introduce you to somebody else and they introduce you to somebody else. Everybody knows somebody. The six degrees of separation in the ad world is insane! So, I recommend going to every event that you can. And, make nice with everyone that you can. You wouldn’t believe what kinds of experience you’ll get. I don’t think enough people do that. I think that people who do do that are already five steps ahead of everybody else. Do an internship if you can. Absolutely. And, be really careful with detail work. Detail work really matters. And, I mean this with everything. Spelling and grammar is a big deal because when you go to show them your work they actually care about that so much. You think it doesn’t matter, but they actually care. Because they are looking for all of those detail things because everything goes so quickly that they don’t necessarily have time for someone else to look it over. And, so it’s little things like that that will get you your first job. And, you’ll go enormously great places. Those are the top key things.

And, once you’re in, you move up quickly and it’s a pretty exciting place. The other thing I would say is, don’t necessarily think that you have to stay in New York to do it. There are so many places to go now in the US and abroad. I think that people still think that New York is the only place to be and everyone thinks thy need to stay here. And, I say if you’re going to do it, do it now when you’re young because New York is very expensive to live in. But, there are so many other places to go in the United States and so many great cities to live in with great agencies that are much cheaper and just as awesome that I almost say if you aren’t set on living here, don’t. You know, New York is a tough place to live. It’s fine in your 20s but you actually get tired. So, I’m like, go elsewhere! And, if you’re fluent in another language, and you feel like you want to do something multi-cultural or you have the opportunity to learn a second language. Particularly, Hispanic or Latino media, I really recommend going to Miami, Texas. You know, if you have the ability to speak any other language, go overseas. The opportunities there are huge. And, I think now is the time to do it. So, I would love to see more students want to go that route.