Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. David Gillota

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Pioneer Spotlight
September 19, 2014
Dr. David Gillota

Dr. David Gillota, assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, arrived at the university in fall 2008. He teaches Black Literature in America, American Literature since the Civil War, American Humor and Freshman Composition I and II. This fall, he is teaching Thematic Studies in Literature, a course focusing on satire. In the past, he has also taught Introduction to Ethnic Studies and Race and Gender in American Film.

Gillota received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fla., in 2008, specializing in contemporary American literature and humor.

His critically-acclaimed book “Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America” was published last year by Rutgers University Press. He has also published essays on American humor in the “Journal of Popular Film and Television” and “Journal of Popular Culture.” An article he recently wrote, “Black Nerds: New Direction in African American Humor,” was recently published in “Studies in American Humor,” the journal of the American Humor Studies Association.

What do you enjoy most about teaching your courses?

I am very passionate about the subject matter that I teach. Issues of American culture and American identity are always at the forefront of my mind, so it is very exciting to me that I get to talk about these issues every day with my students.

How has your research impacted your teaching?

Since coming to Platteville in 2008, my research has, in some ways, broadened to include multimedia, such as film, television and stand-up comedy. In particular, I am interested in the ways in which race and ethnicity are represented and constructed in American popular culture. Consequently, I teach a broad range of courses in American literature, film and ethnic studies.

What types of readings do you focus on in your courses?

In most of my literature courses, I include a mixture of American ethnic literature and traditional American literature. I want students to think in more complex ways about the world around them and to think about America as a place where there are many voices participating in the conversation.

What qualities do your students possess that have impressed you the most?

I have found that most of the students at Platteville are remarkably open and willing to talk about a variety of ideas. I can walk into an introductory literature class that is comprised mostly of engineering and criminal justice majors and start discussing issues of racial representation, and they’re like, “Okay, let’s do it.  Let’s talk about that!” Even if it is not directly related to their major, the students here are ready to dive into almost any conversation.

How do you hope your classes help prepare students for their careers and life?

In the upper-level courses, a lot of my students are English or English education majors, so the goal is to introduce them to the basics of literary analysis and literary history that they will need one day in their own classrooms. Beyond that, I like to think that my courses help all of my students to refine their analytical skills and their writing skills because those skills will be important for any career. Most importantly, though, I want my students to have the tools to think deeply about their culture and about the world around them: to be active critics, rather than passive consumers, of their culture. 

In what ways do you hope your book “Ethnic Humor in Multiethnic America” impacts readers?

In my book, I analyze ethnic humor in contemporary popular culture using examples from television programs such as “South Park,” movies such as “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” and stand-up comedy such as the comedy used by Dave Chappelle. I examine how people from different ethnic groups use humor as a way to communicate with each other and explore how contemporary humorists are both reflections of and participants in national conversations about race and ethnicity. So I hope that readers of that book will come away with new insights about both American humor and American race relations.

What role does ethnic humor play?

As we know, there is increasing ethnic diversity in the United States. In the book, I investigated the way various humorists have responded to this increased diversity. I wanted to provide a fuller picture about the way that ethnic humor works across the multi-ethnic spectrum.

The underlying idea is that the things we find humor in that are related to ethnicity, diversity and multiculturalism tell us something much deeper about ourselves and our society. If we study ethnic humor closely and try to understand why we laugh at certain things, we can learn more about the way we think about race and ethnicity. Humor can tell us how we feel about things as a culture. It can be used as a way to stimulate conversation about ethnic issues that some people may be uncomfortable talking about.

How did you first become interested in humor as an academic topic?

I first became interested in humor as an academic topic through works by American novelists Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon and eventually included them in my dissertation with filmmaker Woody Allen and author Charles Johnson.

What do you hope readers take away with them after reading your article “Black Nerds: New Directions in African American Humor?”

That essay looks at African American humorists, such as Key and Peele, who don’t adhere to traditional ideas of black authenticity. I hope, then, that readers will come away with a more diverse vision of African American culture. I think people often refer to the so-called “African American community” as a homogenous group where everyone feels the same way, but by looking at these new humorists, we can get a vision of the African American community that is much more diverse and multi-faceted.

Interview conducted by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education.
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