In Fondren 104C, Humanities Librarian Rafia Mirza sits surrounded by figurines and posters of Kermit the Frog, Wall-E, Ms. Marvel, and the Powerpuff Girls.
As reflected in her choice of decoration, Mirza is interested in popular culture. In college, she studied pop culture, media, and the public memory at the State University of New York College at Buffalo. “I was really interested in ideas around public memory, and how we use popular culture to think about national identity,” she said. “When I started American Studies, I was studying action films and science fiction films, and sort of the ways in which we talk about who’s a part of the nation, who’s not a part of a nation, and how we sort of think about certain things. I was interested in not just external events but also ways in which we think about memory or talk about certain events because that shapes how people think of events.”
She chose American Studies because it combined historical and cultural studies. “For historical studies, you might look more at legal cases or historical events,” she said. “But in cultural studies, you look at that, but then also what’s the popular media of the time. For example, how are our films reflecting or talking about that? Cultural studies are in between the historical aspect but also the literature and film aspects.”
Originally, she wanted to be an American Studies professor, but her career plans changed due to the limited American Studies programs in the U.S. “I thought about what are the things that I like, that maybe I could do a different path,” she said. “A lot of [being an academic librarian] was very similar. I’d still be involved with the university and still do instruction. I’d still be able to do some research, but it would be a slightly broader field.”
Her fascination with pop culture is reflected in her work as a librarian.
For example, she has studied and written a paper on how female and male librarians are depicted in the media. “There is this one sort of popular culture representation of librarians,” she said. “People think about librarians as a very female-dominated profession. But then most pop culture depictions of librarians are men, right? So like Giles and a couple different movies.”
Beyond pop culture, Mirza is interested in digital humanities. Mirza defines the digital humanities (DH) as using computational methods to investigate a humanities question.
She got involved in digital humanities by wanting to find a way to use technology to help aid in research. “I got interested and involved in DH because I thought about these different ways of looking at and thinking about what you are studying and how you might visualize or analyze them,” she said. “There are interesting things you can do. That’s also the thing about digital humanities, like how you might play around with these different tools to look at or approach questions in a new way. And sometimes you’ll do stuff where it allows you to ask new questions, but you still have to think more and work with people to find an answer.”
Currently, she is working on the Digital Humanities Research Institute (DHRI). Applications for this summer program close on April 22. Click here to learn more.
Interview conducted by Author Wren Lee, SMU ’22 Creative Computation and Film and Media Arts Pre-Major and Fondren Library Marketing Department Student Assistant