Genna Reeves-DeArmond is an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University in the Department of Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design. Based in Manhattan, Kansas, Genna studies the historical and cultural aspects of material culture. Her studies have spanned many different fields from anthropology to philosophy, pop culture, and museum studies. You can find more information about here research in her portfolio here.
Interview conducted by: Tiffany Chan
Edited by: Morgan Moore and Tiffany Chan
Cover Image provided by Genna Reeves-DeArmond
Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field of work/study?
I was originally a psychology major and wanted to open my own therapy practice. I met a friend in the dorms as an undergraduate during my freshman year. She was majoring in fashion merchandising. I knew previously that fashion design was an option, but wasn’t that into sewing. I didn’t know that there were so many other options in the industry or how to pursue them. This was at a time when talk therapy was being largely replaced by instant medication in psychology and I no longer felt that I fit into that field. I changed my major knowing that I had always been interested in the ways people think and learn. The degree program included courses that provided a diverse overview of the fashion industry. One of those classes was fashion history. I had always been interested in history and then took that class. It sparked something in me that blended how people experience the world, history, and beautiful objects. I knew then that I had found my calling and worked full speed ahead to finish that degree and enter a more specialized graduate degree program.
After changing my major, I took the initiative to find an internship that was specifically applicable to historic dress. All the other students were doing fashion merchandising internships in retail (which made sense for them), but I wanted to secure something directly related to my intended area of future study. I found an internship at the Santa Fe Opera as a Costume Stock and Rental Assistant. This confirmed my interest in the field. I pursued my master’s degree at Colorado State University in historic dress and textiles. My thesis—and first formal research project—involved tracing the history of historic dress and textiles research. Even in research, it’s important to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going. Researchers engage in this to know what is necessary and relevant to study.
I then pursued my doctoral degree at Oregon State University in historic and cultural dress. I was employed as a graduate teaching assistant and taught a cross-cultural aspects of dress course with full responsibility. My dissertation focused upon the role of costume and dress artifact displays in understanding historical events within the museum setting. That is, how do museum visitors make sense of history or personally relate to it using dress objects? I used Titanic museums as a case study to investigate how the 1912 sinking of the famous ship has been incorporated into popular culture and movie portrayals, such as the 1997 Titanic film and museum displays, to promote an understanding of history. After completing my doctoral degree, I was hired as an instructor at Oregon State University to continue teaching the cross-cultural aspects of dress course for one year. I continued to apply for tenure-track jobs and was hired as an instructor by Kansas State University a year later to teach courses in history of dress, retailing, and Adobe Creative Suite for fashion marketing. This was a unique set-up, because I taught from a distance via a video conferencing system, but the students were physically present in the classroom. A tenure-track position became available in this department when I began my employment as an instructor, and I applied. I was thrilled to receive the position and continue at K-State the following year with a new on-campus position.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?
The biggest challenges I face at my job are frequent mental shifts and work-life balance. Being a tenure-track professor presents a unique variety of challenges, because there are so many hats you wear, so to speak, with the job. I constantly change gears throughout the day. One hour I might be a teacher, another a committee chair, and another a faculty member representing [the department] at a faculty meeting. It is difficult to find long chunks of time to gather my thoughts and be prepared for the next task. It also means that I work very long hours. This is compounded by largely being a perfectionist, so I spend much more time on a task to make sure that every little detail is right (including course lectures). Some of the best advice I have received as a faculty member is to learn to say no, to protect your time. It has taken awhile, but I think I am finally starting to get the hang of it. Another one of my challenges is writing concisely. Academic writing often requires a brevity that is not part of my inherent writing style. I need to write in detail first and then go back and cut content.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?
The greatest rewards of my job are helping students to learn, grow, and become more independent in their thinking. The process of nurturing a student through the learning of an unfamiliar topic and then watching them take ownership of their education is exciting. There is always that “lightbulb” moment where a student is visibly aware of their increased knowledge and can plow forward with the completion of a task. I love witnessing those moments and helping them to reach those moments. I also love getting to travel and present at conferences with others in my field—and often those in related fields. It is energizing to exchange knowledge and figure out how the pieces of everyone’s research fit together in the body of knowledge that is formed via academia.
I am motivated by a personal drive to succeed and excel. I knew I always wanted to be a career-oriented woman and feel fortunate to have achieved that goal. As I already mentioned, I am motivated and energized by the discovery of new information and knowledge; that is, being able to look at an issue from a totally new and different perspective. I like to examine the world around me and being a professor engaged in research allows me to do this on a formal level. Because I value the discovery of new information and am a historian, I am inspired by periods in history when major innovation was taking place. I am completely in love with the 1910’s decade in Western/European history (specifically, the history surrounding Titanic), because there was such a grand sense of optimism and curiosity to which I can relate.
Q: Were there ever moments throughout your career when you doubted yourself/what you were doing? How did those moments resolve?
There are a couple of key moments of doubt that stand out to me. I doubted myself as a master’s student when I was trying to finish my thesis, because the project felt too large in scope to complete at a master’s level, especially with the time allotted. I resolved this issue by speaking with my thesis advisor. We decided to revise the scope of the project and brought on another committee member as a co-advisor to assist in monitoring these changes. It helped the process to run much more smoothly, and we went on to publish an article in an influential journal for the clothing and textiles discipline.
Another moment of doubt was finding a job after graduation. It took me almost 4 years to find a job in academia that I could honestly say was what I had hoped to find when I was pursuing my graduate degrees. I watched many other people I knew get jobs ahead of me—sometimes right out of their PhD and often shortly thereafter—and would often wonder what was wrong with me. I had to keep reminding myself that I had chosen a very specialized area of study and everyone else had their own areas of expertise, so it was an “apples and oranges” situation. It can be very competitive in the job market when searching for tenure-track positions. I committed myself to working as an instructor and serving in professional organizations to build my experience until that perfect job came along. That experience eventually landed me my dream job.
Q: What is one contentious issue in the art world that you are very passionate about?
I am passionate about promoting the legitimacy of looking at fashion from a variety of perspectives, including as art and a form of powerful non-verbal communication. Many individuals do not see fashion as art and do not believe that it belongs in an art museum (or any museum). This is, of course, a complex issue, because it means expanding the definition of art and art is often rooted in classical sensibilities. Fashion exhibitions around the world are setting record numbers for museum attendances, so it is also an issue of changing and expanding the definition of ‘museum.’ Some museums now include an entertainment-oriented descriptor in the title (such as the Titanic Museum Attractions in Branson, Missouri and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee).
Q: In your opinion, what is an under-researched topic in the field?
History often revolves around looking at primary sources and artifacts from a time period to form an interpretation. It is, of course, important to look at history from the perspective of the past. However, an under researched topic is how history is presented and reinterpreted for the education of modern audiences, particularly in the museum setting. As a dress historian, I believe it is important to study how dress is being used to interpret history. The public now has expectations of being entertained at a museum, but what does that mean for the representation of history? How can history be used to educate, but also entertain? And how can history be used to help individuals make personal connections to history?
A subset of this topic is the use of popular culture and fictional tellings of history in museums. Do they have a place in the museum, and how does that affect the visitors’ understanding of history? It is important to bridge the gap between what people see as entertainment through movies and what they see as history. For example, Rose and Jack were not real passengers aboard the Titanic, but they have come to represent Titanic’s history in popular culture. How can we bridge the gap between these entertaining characters and the actual history? And how can history be conveyed with the use of popular culture devices (such as movie characters) but still be accurate and honest?
Q: What advice would you give to your younger self/someone just starting in the field?
Take initiative! Don’t wait to be called upon. Seek out opportunities that fit your passions and goals. As an undergraduate, I had to find my own internship that would pertain to historic dress, because most of the department connections were associated with retail. I sought out my own connections and landed an internship that has influenced the trajectory of my career so much. Connected to that—network, network, network! Talk to as many people as you possibly can, because you never know how that person might mentor or influence your career in the future. Think critically of everything—research you read, work you produce, writing that you think has been edited enough. Always consider your work and the work of others to be a work in progress that can benefit from further analysis and critique. That is how knowledge is created. Actively seek critique. It can be difficult to have others criticize your work, but it is an important skill to graciously accept feedback about areas for improvement.
Q: If you had to address the general public, why is arts/art history education important for the average American?
I would want to communicate that the arts are not fluff; they are not insignificant. Much of why historic dress is discounted within the arts is because people think of clothing and dress as a mundane thing and it is taken for granted. We put it on every day and we don’t give much thought to the underlying meaning that is associated with it, but we are active in that meaning-making every day and are affected by the meaning-making that took place with those who came before us. Not only do we have a lot of underlying social psychology embedded in our dress, but there is also a lot of history that is layered into dress. The fact that one can find the meaning in those things, whether it is teaching someone how to learn it, or if you are just trying to know what happened in a time for the sake of knowledge, means that we are deeply connected to the past, present, and future through art.
Art assists in the development of critical thinking, because it is necessary to dissect this meaning and interpret it on both individual and global levels. It informs where society has been and where it is going. It teaches us the intricacies of human behavior and how to best interact with others. It can also be an outlet for emotional expression and development. Art represents our existence and zeitgeist in a visual way. To view and think about art is to continually develop and refine an understanding of the world around you.
Just for fun…
Q: Can you recommend a wine (any alcohol/cocktail) and cheese (any drunk food) to us?
I recommend a spicy bloody mary with green olives and a cheese plate with a variety of cheddars, hummus, cucumbers, and pita bread. A bonus if it’s at a bloody mary bar! It makes for a wonderful and relaxing weekend brunch.
Q: What do you do for self-care?
I like to take a bath or be out in nature. Often, that equates to sitting out on my deck after a long day of work under a starry night sky. I drink a protein shake everyday to make sure that I get what a need in the midst of many back to back commitments. I am also learning kickboxing with a personal trainer.