Faculty Research: Dr. Jeff Meikle participates in workshop: “Import/Export: Postwar Design and Industry in East Asia”

One of the most exciting aspects about UT’s American Studies department is its expansive reach: our faculty and students live and work in all corners of the globe, whether volunteering in the Peace Corps or presenting innovative research and projects in far-flung locales.

This past September, Dr. Jeff Meikle participated in a series of workshops and seminars hosted by the new M+ Museum for Visual Culture in Hong Kong, along with four designers and design scholars from Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, and Korea. Under the theme “Import/Export: Postwar Design and Industry in East Asia,” designers and scholars spent two days advising museum curators on collecting strategies in product design.

These scholars also gave presentations and participated in round table discussions at separate events in Hong Kong and across the border in Shenzhen in mainland China, a city of 12-15 million where many products on the American market are manufactured. In Hong Kong on Sept. 11, Dr. Meikle lectured on “Researching Industrial Design and Plastics in the U.S.: A Methodological and Conceptual Case Study,” and in Shenzhen on Sept 13, he participated in a roundtable discussion on “Taking Histories Forward.”

See some photos from the event below:

Five(ish) Questions: A Conversation with Dr. Susie Pak (St. John’s University)

Dr. Susie Pak, a historian from St. John’s University in New York, is coming to campus next week to discuss her recent book, Gentleman Bankers: The World of J.P. Morgan, “a study of the complex web of financial, social, and political relationships among Wall Street’s aristocracy in the early twentieth century.” During her talk, she’ll address how her use of network analysis allowed her to understand Morgan and his world and, in particular, “the challenges and rewards of studying historical networks from archival sources.” This week, we spoke to Dr. Pak about how her interests led her to Morgan, and where they’re going to take her in the future.

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What is your scholarly background and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

I went to graduate school because I wanted to understand the historical persistence of racism, particularly as it related to the history of Asians in the United States. If history is the study of change over time, why and how does racism endure? At Cornell, I completed a comprehensive study of Asian American historiography (1850 onward) where I wrote about one important expression of racism that is a dominant theme in the literature, particularly after 1950—the characterization of Asian as foreign to and different from American. For my dissertation, I chose two topics central to Asian American history—immigration and empire—because they were two subjects in which foreign and domestic issues were also inextricably linked. Unexpectedly, this project generated another set of questions about the relationship between race, empire, and capital. That is how I arrived at the study of J.P. Morgan. To me, trajectory of the project speaks to the way in which history is also the study of relationships and connections, and it is an example of how those ties should be broadly defined because the answer to the question may reside far beyond one’s initial scope of interest.

What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

In general, historical research is a combination of discovery, translation, and analysis because historical evidence is, by nature, incomplete. I have spent so many years in archives that they are like a second home, but the research for Gentlemen Bankers required another level of endurance. Two projects in particular—the translation of the Morgan syndicate books and the creation of the geographic maps—stand out because they were very experimental and their analysis involved many separate steps over the period of several years. Though they turned out to be quite important to answering the book’s question about the relationship between Anglo-American and German Jewish bankers, there was no guarantee they would be useful, but the process of translating them had to be done if even just to test my assumptions about how the Morgans’ networks were organized.

The study of these particular sources also created many other different kinds of problems, and in order to address them, I had to learn skills in new content domains that I had not learned or even thought to learn, such as statistics, ArcGIS, social network analysis, and economics. After many years, the process of doing this research taught me how to look at a piece of qualitative data and translate it into quantitative form, which has fundamentally changed the way that I see, understand, and interact with historical evidence. This is also something I never planned or anticipated, but now it has become part of the way that I think. Much of my lecture will talk about the process of analyzing these primary sources.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

As a historian, I am not trying to formulate contemporary political or economic policy, but I can see how the stories in Gentlemen Bankers would resonate with current issues, such as the government regulation of finance, the importance of trust in business, and the persistence of economic inequality. For example, the book argues that economic agents are not separate from their society. Their relations, including those that create cooperation and trust, are not confined to the boundaries of the financial world. This would suggest that fundamental reform of economic inequality is also dependent upon substantive social change. Yet because society seems to change very slowly, it is often discounted as a variable in economic analysis—“Ceterus paribus”. What if the relationship to the variable “holding things constant” or “all things being equal” is actually what we should be investigating? And how would we do that given the fragmentary nature of much qualitative historical evidence? The book offers a historical example of an investigation into these kinds of questions.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

My work draws from many different fields ranging from economic history to comparative literature to sociology to cultural studies. I have too many heroes to mention, but I can say I am most inspired by work that investigates the history of the normal (narratives we take for granted and do not question), and I tend to be drawn to work that explains the process of analysis and the nature of the evidence in great detail. These days there are few things that impress me more than when someone has a good research question and systematically and rigorously collects diverse evidence in a transparent fashion.

What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

I am very interested in the study of crime, including financial crime, and I am working on a paper right now on the 1980s Savings & Loan Crisis with Jana Diesner, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign where I am a research fellow for the next year. Our study incorporates the use of text and social network analysis to study the structure of social and economic networks using historical, digital open-source data. In the long term, it will form part of manuscript project on the history of banking in the United States.

One impetus for the project had to do with the changing nature of historical data. It is not just that I want to avoid the pain of handcoding thousands of pages of archival data because I am sure that will still happen, but one hundred years from now, historians will not be searching through the papers of banks and individuals as I did in Gentlemen Bankers. Much of the data will be stored electronically. If we are to be prepared for the future study of history and also teach it to our students, we must engage with new technology and to understand how future historical data will be stored, archived, and accessed.

Like Gentlemen Bankers, this project is very experimental and it requires a different kind of skillset and engagement with the field of computer science—text mining and natural language processing. We will be presenting part of our work at the American Historical Association in January 2015, and I am very interested to see how historians will respond to this kind of computer-assisted historical analysis. It is becoming more common in fields like literature, but I think it is still fairly new to the study of history. There’s a lot of math behind it and learning about the science has been like learning a new language.

Given your newest project, what do you think the role of the digital methodologies will be in the humanities, long term?

Theoretically speaking, digital methodologies are no different from non-digital methodologies in that they are both about critical thinking. What distinguishes them is the type of evidence with which they engage. The role of digital methodologies in the humanities thus depends on the kinds of research questions that are pursued by the field and also on the state of the evidence in those projects. For example, I could not use text mining to study the Morgan syndicate books, but maybe one day, the library will digitize all twelve books and optical character recognition software will become more common and future scholars will do just that, which would be very interesting.

As a question of pedagogy and professional development, it is fairly clear that unless one has some awareness of digital methodologies, it would be difficult to grasp the possibilities or opportunities or challenges they can offer to critical analysis. Future students could learn it more systematically, if the desire is present in their graduate schools to implement those types of courses as part of the curriculum, or they could go about in the very organic, haphazard way I went about studying the social science methodologies for Gentlemen Bankers. The disadvantage to the latter method is that it took much longer (and it was a process fraught with anxiety), but the advantage is that it was entirely driven by the research question and the process of figuring out how to answer the question became an integral part of the process of learning. For future projects, it was not just the answer to the question but figuring out how to answer the question that was valuable in the long term.

In one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

American Studies is interdisciplinary.

Announcement: Texas Book Fest

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This weekend is Austin’s annual Texas Book Festival, and we here at AMS :: ATX would like to point to some people you might like to see while you’re at the Capitol this weekend.

First and foremost is our very own Steve Hoelscher, who will be talking about Reading Magnum, the book he edited celebrating the history and archive of the Magnum photographic agency, the latter of which is now part of the collection at the Harry Ransom Center, at 3:30 on Sunday. You can find more info about Dr. Hoelscher’s book here. Info on the talk can be found here.

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With the rest of your weekend, here’s some other stuff to seek out:

Saturday

At 10:00 AM, check out Adan Medrano, who will discuss Texas-Mexican American cuisine, or go hear Douglas Brinkley, John Dean, and Luke Nichter talk Richard Nixon’s presidency.

At 11:00 AM, Charles Blow talks his memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones, while Tiphanie Yanique and Jess Row discuss Constructing Racial Identity in a globalized world at 11:30.

At 1:00 PM, Austinite Austin Kleon and Joshua Wolf Shenk have A Conversation on Creativity, while Ofir Touche Gafla and Jeff VanderMeer discuss science fiction in The Stuff of Stars at 1:45.

At 2:00 PM, novelist Elizabeth Crook talks Monday, Monday, her novelization of the Texas Tower Sniper.

At 3:00 PM, S.C. Gwynne discusses his new biography of Stonewall Jackson and Francis Fukuyama talks the development of political institutions and his new book Political Order, Political Decay.

At 4:00, Josh Ostergaard maps baseball onto American politics and culture in Let’s Play Ball, while Robert Bryce and Russell Gold talk the future of energy technology in Here Comes the Boom. 

Sunday 

11:15 AM, Tim Lane talks comics and his new book Lonesome Go.

12:00 PM, Adam Rogers discusses The Science of Booze.

At 1:30 PM, Luara Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer talk their book An Artist’s Library, their Library as Incubator Project and how to build strong relationships between artists and libraries.

At 2:15 PM, Michael Ruhlman tells of the many ways to cook an egg.

At 3:30, members of the cast and crew of the movie Boyhood, including director Richard Linklater and star Ellar Coltrane, come together to talk spending twelve years making a movie.

For a full schedule with room assignments, check our the Texas Book Festival schedule here.

Grad research: Carrie Andersen featured on Fox 7 for boxing training

One of the greatest perks of living in Austin is the vast amount of opportunities to engage with the community off campus. To that end, a Ph.D. candidate in our department, Carrie Andersen, was recently featured on Fox 7 news for her training at a boxing gym in south Austin called Austin Boxing Babes. She can be seen throughout this clip working with another gym member holding boxing mitts.

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Carrie had this to say about the training process and its impact on her academic work:

It’s probably telling that I started boxing two days after I started studying for my qualifying exams. I needed to find a way to let my academic brain find some brief respite from the books for a few hours a night. Although I immediately realized it would be the hardest way I could spend my time – one hour of non-stop movement, strength-training, and boxing fundamentals is much easier than it sounds – I could not be more thrilled with training at this gym with other incredibly strong, supportive women.

Aside from the general health benefits of pretty hardcore physical training, boxing has supported my academic work in ways that I did not initially anticipate. I immediately found myself more focused and invigorated about my fields of interest as well as my own research. After I completed my exams, letting my mind wander away from my studies helped me build the theoretical scaffolding for my dissertation proposal: on more than a few occasions, I’d stop thinking about my work during training only to have an epiphany about my research on my drive home (even brief moments of distance from a project does wonders for thinking about ideas in new ways, as they say, and there’s no way anyone can think about a dissertation while someone’s throwing punches at you). So, needless to say, I’m thrilled to continue training for the ring and confronting the opportunities and challenges in my graduate work.

Announcement: Screening Blackness series continues next week

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One of our favorite things to do here at AMS :: ATX is to draw your attention to some of the great events happening around UT. This week was the first installment of the Screening Blackness series called “The Black Leading Lady: Olivia Pope and ABC’s Scandal.” Nicole Martin, PhD candidate in the Department of Theater and Dance, will be screening episodes of the hit ABC series Scandal and leading a discussion about key topics from each episode, including race, gender, and sexuality. Nicole sent along the following description of the event, which continues next Monday, October 20 at 12:00pm in the ISESE Gallery at the Warfield Center:

When Scandal premiered in April 2012, ABC became the first major network to feature a Black woman protagonist in a primetime drama in nearly forty years. The show follows Olivia Pope who, with her team of associates, manages the public relations crises of Washington D.C.’s elite while hiding her own illicit interracial affair with the President of the United States. Created by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice), Scandal is one of the highest rated dramas currently on television making Olivia Pope, arguably, one of the most influential figures for contemporary Black female representation.

Week one of the series, “Desirability and Sexuality: Scripting the Black Leading Lady” focused on the construction of Olivia Pope as a black woman protagonist through the lens of sexuality. Discussion centered on the visual and embodied markers of Olivia Pope’s subject position vis-à-vis elements of costuming, character interaction and narrative structure. Attending to the scriptive moments of the show revealed the series’ strategic navigation of race, gender, and sexuality. In particular, audiences addressed the “double-reading” that occurs when observing Olivia Pope’s relationship with the President. This “doubleness” simultaneously activates a long history of sexual violence against black women’s bodies while also challenging the tropes of black womanhood that continue to dominate mainstream television.

Week 2, October 20, 2014

“Navigating Patriarchy: Black Masculinity, White Masculinity and Black Womanhood.” Watch: “A Door Marked Exit” (Season 3, Episode 10). This week will interrogate the assertion of power through character navigation of patriarchy.

Week 3, October 27, 2014

“Toward Freedom: Black Feminisms and Black Female Representation.” Watch: “The Price of a Free and Fair Election” (Season 3, Episode 18). This week will consider how to write and read for resistance in representations of black female subjectivity.

The event is sponsored by the John L. Warfield Center For African and African American Studies. Hope to see you there!

Faculty Research: Dr. Nicole Guidotti-Hernández discusses MALS department on The Horn

Last month we shared some details about UT’s brand new Mexican American and Latino/a Studies department, chaired by our own Dr. Nicole Guidotti-Hernández. We share with you today a quick video with Texas Exes’ “The Horn,” a web series about new developments at UT, in which she opines on the value of interdisciplinarity within the department.

Take a look:

Announcement: Talk by “bad feminist” Roxane Gay

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On Monday, October 6 at 2:00pm in CAL 100, fiction writer, blogger and essayist Roxane Gay will show us just how empowering being a “bad feminist” can be.

Showing humility, humor, anger, love, eloquence, and plenty of wisdom, this daughter of Haitian immigrants, proud Midwesterner and Scrabble-playing Hunger-Games fanatic, is a badass critic redefining what it means to be a feminist for the messy, diverse world we live in.

Hope to see you there!