After working in the restaurant business and as a car rental agent, gas station attendant and more, an East Tennessee State University graduate student in history is making a name for himself in the relatively new academic field of pop culture studies.
Ensley Guffey, who calls himself an “academic late bloomer” who started college at age 36, is on track to graduate this spring with his M.A. in history. But he isn’t just studying politics, social movements, wars and other historic happenings – he’s studying how these things are reflected in film, television, fiction, and even comics.
According to ETSU Professor of History Dr. Daryl Carter, it is somewhat rare for graduate students to have scholarly materials published. Guffey, however, has recently written two book chapters on the subject of “Farscape,” the Australian and American science fiction series produced by Jim Henson Productions and Hallmark Entertainment. These chapters, included in The Worlds of Farscape: Essays on the Groundbreaking Television Series, which was edited by Sherry Ginn and published by McFarland and Co. last summer, were “War and Peace by Woody Allen, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wormhole Weapon” and “‘Winona has been very reliable’: Female Gendering of Weapons in Fiction and Fact.” He has written essays on historical aspects of Marvel’s “The Avengers,” “Breaking Bad” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that have also been published in other academic readers and journals.
In addition, Guffey and his wife, K. Dale Koontz, are the authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, which will be published in May and is available for preorder now. Guffey describes Wanna Cook? as a non-academic, episode-by-episode companion guide to the popular series on AMC.
It was Koontz, in fact, who actually introduced her husband to the field of popular culture studies. The attorney and instructor of communication, drama and business law at Cleveland Community College in their hometown of Shelby, N.C., had given academic presentations and written a book on the work of Joss Whedon, best known as the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Her husband soon followed suit.
“I’d always been a fan and enjoyed the shows, but hadn’t really made the connection that there were people out there studying it and that it was becoming an accepted area of academic study,” Guffey said.
It was the work of pop culture historian Dr. Elwood Watson that drew Guffey to ETSU for his graduate studies. “The historical study of popular culture is a fairly new area,” he said, “and Dr. Watson laid the groundwork for it to be recognized at ETSU as a significant field of study. He’s given me the freedom and encouragement to go and do all that I do.
“ETSU is a fantastic place if you want to study history. The professor/student ratio is great, and the range of specializations and interests among faculty is amazing. The history program’s going to grow and do some really fun stuff in coming years.”
Guffey also says he enjoys being part of a cohort of graduate students who have gone through the program together, forming connections and a network of peers. He also participates in the ETSU chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the national history honor society.
In addition to his studies and writing, Guffey has curated the current exhibit at ETSU’s Reece Museum, “Four Color Culture: Comic Books and American History, 1938-2014,” which chronicles American history as depicted in comic books over the past 76 years, covering World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Civil Rights Movement, the campaign for LGBT equality, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and more.
The exhibit opened March 1 in conjunction with ETSUCon, the university’s second annual comic and anime convention, and continues through April 12. A reception in honor of Guffey and the exhibit will be held at the museum Thursday, March 20, from 5-7 p.m., at the same time as the reception for the ETSU Master of Fine Arts Group Exhibition.Guffey worked with Atomic Comics of Johnson City in putting the exhibit together, crediting the staff there for their “generosity in loaning some nice, rare issues to the Reece Museum for this event.”