Professors turn interests into niche knowledge


Although largely known as an agricultural and engineering school, several of Mississippi State University professors boast expertise in unusual fields.

Kevin Williams, associate professor of communication, is an expert in the importance and the cultural influence of superheroes. He has also been broadening his expertise recently by studying the field of video game psychology.

Williams said superheroes are as important to American pop culture as Hercules was to Greeks and Romans.

“It seemed like these (superheroes) were huge modern day myths,” Williams said.

Williams said Americans tend to dwell on Greek and Roman mythology rather than seeing the stories we create for what they truly are.

“People in the future may view Superman as we see Hercules,” Williams said.

There has been much research on how movies and television are related to real-life violence. Williams said there has been so much research that researchers became fatigued and believed they had collected all the information that could be collected. This triggered his studies of video game psychology.

Video games are more interactive than television. In violent television shows or movies, the viewer is simply experiencing what Williams called “passive violence.” In violent video games, the player is creating and participating in the violence.




Williams studies all the variables that enrich the gaming experience. He also looks at the different ways people can get more and more into the gaming experience, such as personal avatars and 3-D televisions.

Williams said people are taken aback when he mentions he studies superheroes and video games. He said he feels his studies are just as important as all the more “serious” stuff.

“A lot of people have a view of academia that we have to study supremely serious fields,” Williams said. “Really, I’m just kind of studying stuff that interests people.”

When engaging in conversations with other academics, they are not dismissive.

Williams said he urges students to explore all the fun topics of study to choose from.

“I encourage students not to dismiss an interest of theirs just because it is not a topic of academia,” Williams said. “It does not have to be a boring life as a scholar.”

MSU is also home to Phyllis Miller, associate professor of the Apparel, Textiles and Merchandising Program in the School of Human Sciences. Along with her career as a professor, Miller is also an expert in clothing selection for the elderly.

She said designing clothing for the elderly is more like solving a problem while doing something she loves.

“I really love functional design,” Miller said. “It is really fun to design something that has purpose to it.”

To be successful in this field, she said three things must be done.

First, the researcher must observe the people for whom they will design clothing. She mentioned that, for her, the elderly and handicapped people have very similar clothing needs. During her observations, she determines what problems the subjects have and brainstorms ways to make life a little easier through clothing.

Next, she asks the individuals questions regarding what they do or do not like and what is easy or difficult for them. The third step, which she said is one of the most important, is to listen to what they say in response.

One problem Miller addressed was a girl in a wheelchair who found it hard to put on pants. As an alternative, Miller turned all her pants into skirts with zippers on them.

She said once she gathers the information, she tests the alternatives. In testing, she either finds or makes garments that fit the criteria she needs. Then she takes them to the person to try out and use.

Miller said people are very interested when they hear about her expertise.

“People are fascinated because they feel this is something that is very useful and necessary,” she said.

The funniest reaction by anyone when told of her expertise, Miller said, took place when she applied for a job at a Catholic college. The workers there felt her work in clothing selection for the elderly was a calling from God.

She said her expertise will always be important because there will always be elderly people.

“This is more and more important as time goes on because the elderly population is increasing,” Miller said.

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