Today, the Student Voice is chatting with Dr. Rick Cottle of the Textiles, Merchandising, and Design Program at MTSU — the only apparel design program of its kind at a public university in Tennessee. Dr. Cottle explains the current trends in the textile industry, offers advice for first-generation college students, and lets us in on his past as a professional waterskier!
Thanks for talking with the Student Voice today! Tell us a little bit about your background.
I grew up in central Georgia, and after high school I went to Auburn University and graduated in 1984 with a degree from the textile engineering department. I worked in the textile industry for many years, and I got an MBA while I was working for one particular company in textile sales. Then in 2008, MTSU asked me to teach their textiles class on a one-year temp basis, so I basically quit working in the industry and taught textiles on campus. Well, one year turned into two years and I asked them how I could continue teaching on a permanent basis, and they told me, “You have to get a Ph.D.” So in 2012, at 48 years old, I went back to school and got my Ph.D. in Integrated Textile and Apparel Science from Auburn University. After that, I spent a couple years teaching at different universities until MTSU had a full-time position open, and then I came back here! This is where I wanted to be.
What are some of your favorite things about MTSU?
My children basically grew up in Murfreesboro, and both my son and my daughter graduated from MTSU, so I’ve always been in touch with the faculty and staff at the school. It was a great honor when they offered to let me teach here the first time, and then an even greater honor when I was able to come back full-time!
Before you began teaching, what kinds of jobs did you have in the textile industry?
I worked in textile manufacturing for 10 or 15 years, from production jobs all the way up into management, and the rest of the time that I spent in the industry was spent in textile sales. That’s what brought us to the Middle Tennessee area originally; in 1993, I took the state of Tennessee as a sales territory, and I had it up until I began to teach at MTSU. So I’ve had jobs in many different areas of the industry, from manufacturing to marketing.
What originally sparked your interest in the textile industry?
It’s in my family. Both sets of my grandparents were lifelong manufacturing people, blue-collar workers in the textile industry down in Georgia and Alabama, and my father was as well. He spent about 45 years with the same textile company. At 16, I went to work in the mill too; that’s just what you did. Once I started working, I got really interested in the different textile processes, and I found out that Auburn University had a textile engineering program, so that felt like the next step. I got a scholarship through the co-op that let me work for a quarter and go to school for a quarter, so I got to learn both sides of the industry: the academic as well as the manufacturing side. Through that program, I became the first person in my family to ever go to college.
Do you think that hands-on learning experiences are beneficial to students?
Oh yes, absolutely. We don’t have a co-op in our program at MTSU, but we do have plenty of internships. We encourage every one of our students to do an internship, whether it’s in the retail, design, or marketing side of the apparel industry. My focus is more on the textile side of the industry, but we do have one of the best apparel design programs in the Southeast, and we’re the only public university in Tennessee that has such a program.
Would you encourage students across different majors to take a textiles or fashion merchandising class?
That’s actually one of the things I love to preach to students: the apparel industry is so important to people across all fields of study. Our program is housed in the DSepartment of Human Sciences, which essentially focuses on the study of humans: family science, child development, human nutrition, apparel design and interior design. We study the basic building blocks that make up each person’s daily life. Our relevance is reflected in the consumer economy. The number-one consumer good in the world is food, and right behind that, apparel. As the number-two consumer good in the world, apparel — from socks and underwear to high fashion and wedding gowns — helps to drive our global economy. Apparel branches into the business world through logistics and supply-chain management; we branch into psychology, by studying why people choose certain types of apparel; and we cover history, in looking at past fashions. The basic Textiles class is an awesome class, and Introduction to the fashion industry is another good one for non-majors, although it’s really an introduction to the apparel industry, which is about a lot more than runway shows. We also have minors in both Apparel Design and Fashion Merchandising that attract students across different majors.
So a student from a completely unrelated major — say biology, for example — could check out these classes and maybe pick up a minor?
Absolutely! We actually cover elements of biology in the study of textiles when we examine how different plants and animals produce different types of fiber, like getting silk from silkworms and wool from sheep. We also attract a lot of journalism students who are thinking about becoming fashion journalists, and want to get a minor in Fashion Merchandising to go with their journalism major. We connect with a broad number of programs across campus—even the Fermentation program! Dr. Tony Johnston of Fermentation Science is very interested in non-food fermentation; he and one of our professors, Dr. Rudd, along with another professor from the biology department, are working together now to develop a research program about natural dyes made from plants! Indigo, for example, is a plant that makes a natural blue dye that’s historically been used for blue jeans, but it has to be fermented before it can be used. So we’ve got a lot of crossover research going on now!
You talked earlier about being a first-generation college student; what lessons did you learn from that experience that you’d like to impart to current first-generation students?
This isn’t exactly advice, but MTSU is one of the best universities in the state of Tennessee for first-generation college students because they provide so much support in advising and student services. That’s really a big deal to a first-generation student, because you don’t have anyone in your family to give you direction and help you navigate the college process. I didn’t have anyone in my family who could give me advice on college, and I had to rely on advisors and mentors at my university. MTSU has really worked on developing that kind of support system, and first-generation college students need to utilize those resources. The experience of a second- or third-generation college student is very different. Like when my kids went off to college, I said “Here’s the deal: you’re probably going to hate your first roommate, but even if you have problems and they do quirky things, it’s going to be okay!” (laughs) But a first-generation student might think “God this is awful, I need to move out halfway through the first semester.” You just don’t have any previous experience to fall back on when you encounter different situations, so you really need to utilize student services and your advisors.
Time for a few fun questions! What was the best excuse you ever had for skipping class?
Playing golf! I’ll never forget it: I woke up one morning and asked my roommate, “Scott, you going to your eight-o’-clock?”. “Nah.” “Me either; you going to your nine-o’-clock?” He said, “Well, I really need to go to that one.” I said, “Aw, come on man, let’s go play golf!” Which was not the best advice in the world, but we did it and we graduated anyway, so it all worked out.
Name a TV show or movie that reflects your college experience.
Well, when I went back to school at 48 years old to get my Ph.D., that was when the Big Bang Theory was at its peak, and that show got me through my Ph.D. program!
That’s great! Final question: what’s something about you that your students don’t know?
I was a professional water skier! I skied on the Auburn water ski team for four years, and then skied in water ski shows for a while during college, and earned money doing it! The pay wasn’t too good, but I sure had a lot of fun. I still have all my jump skis and wet boards, but I sold my boat four years ago. When I get another one, though, I might get back into it! I still love the water.