Paul L. Robertson, Ph.D.
Robertson's research interests are in constructions of Appalachian identity (and more broadly Southern identity) in literature, popular culture and mass media.
Paul L. Robertson, Ph.D., was born and raised in a rural southwestern Virginia community and his scholarly and academic interests gravitate toward that socio-regional construct. He received his B.A. in English from VCU, his M.A. in English and Appalachian studies from Appalachian State University, and his Ph.D. in Media, Art and Text from VCU. Along the way, Robertson spent more than a decade working in archives and special collections, first at Appalachian State University and later at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and was involved in a number of audiovisual digitization projects—everything from old broadcasts of Southern stock car racing to folksong field recordings. In keeping with his scholarly fixation on regional representation in media, Robertson has been adjunct teaching English courses, with a Southern/Appalachian focus, at VCU for several years. He’s also taught at Virginia State University, near the home he shares with his spouse in Petersburg.
Q&A with Dr. Robertson
Where did you grow up? Can you tell us a little about your educational journey?
Hardy, Virginia—a small rural community in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My educational journey has been both fraught and complicated. I'm a high school dropout who spent several years working various jobs during the day and taking community college night classes. VCU then accepted me as an undergraduate student and I received my B.A. in English after three years of study. Later I attended Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, where I earned master's degrees in both English and Appalachian Studies. I then returned to VCU for a Ph.D. in the Media, Art and Text (MATX) program. My big educational decision was whether to commit myself to continued work as an archives and special collections person, or to pursue literature and media studies (and teaching). The latter won out, although the former remains very important to me and I try to make it an integral part of both my scholarship and my teaching.
When did you first fall in love with your field of study? What made you decide to work in academia?
I've been lucky in that for as long as I can remember I wanted to study literature. The Southern/Appalachian orientation came later, probably because it's an identity (an ascription) that never set easy with me, personally. To be honest, it still doesn't. I wanted to understand the impulses for regional identification, and how it interacts with class and race in our national discourse. Basically, I've tried to turn attempts at understanding myself, and contemplating the specific community I'm from, into a career. More generally, I decided to work in academia for the sense of purpose. There's also a bit of stubbornness and spite involved--I'm not sure there's much of an expectation that someone with my background and personal history would end up a college professor. But primarily, I absolutely love teaching and I love deep scholarship.
"I get palpably excited in class discussion when a student introduces a line of thinking or a connection that I've never considered or encountered previously. Nothing is too interpretively ‘out there’ in class discussions, and I have to stress this to my students. Synthesis can be limitless."
Can you explain the focus of your research?
I'm primarily interested in constructions of Appalachian identity (and more broadly Southern identity) in literature, popular culture and mass media. Even more specifically, I focus on how these constructed identities appear in U.S. subcultures and in eschatological ("end-of-the-world") discourse. I tend to gravitate towards documentary films, dystopian movies and comic books as media subjects.
What attracted you to VCU? What are you most excited about in regards to VCU and Richmond?
My affinity for VCU goes back decades. It's really the only school I wanted to attend as an undergraduate. Even though I'm a humanities academic, I love how the art school seems to diffuse into all aspects of academic life at VCU. In other words, VCU allows for a sense of interdisciplinarity that I've not seen at any other college or university. VCU does not intellectually fence-in students or faculty. I'm most excited about VCU students. There's a curiosity and a creativity there that is quite unique.
Can you talk a little about your teaching philosophy? What do you most like about teaching?
Students describe me as "laid back," but that doesn't mean I'm an easy or uncommitted instructor. I don't like straightforward lectures and I wince whenever I use PowerPoint. I like to introduce students to new ideas, new intellectual constructs, and then have them take it from there. I know it's a teaching cliche, but I sincerely feel like I learn just as much from my students as they do from me. I get palpably excited in class discussion when a student introduces a line of thinking or a connection that I've never considered or encountered previously. Nothing is too interpretively "out there" in class discussions, and I have to stress this to my students. Synthesis can be limitless. I'm a literature instructor, but that doesn't mean we won't end up connecting a late 19th-century novel to a contemporary advertising campaign, or to some viral social media discourse from earlier in the week.
Can you tell us either a quirky fact about yourself or some of your hobbies?
I've had a succession of rat terriers since I was a child. My current dogs make frequent appearances (audibly and visually) in my Zoom lectures. I love football (soccer) and am a hardcore Celtic FC (Glasgow, Scotland) supporter. Students know it's a match day if I'm wearing a jersey. My home is a historic 200-year-old house that I am near-constantly working to keep from reclamation by nature.