Undergrad Research: Interview with Alyse Camus and Taj Bruno

We are so pleased today to feature an interview with Alyse Camus and Taj Bruno, two American Studies undergraduates who were recently awarded an honorable mention for the 2014 Dean’s Distinguished Graduates award. We sat down with Alyse and Taj last week to chat about their thesis research, their time in AMS, and their future plans.

In addition, Alyse and Taj will be presenting at the American Studies Undergraduate Honors Symposium this Thursday, April 17 at 5:30 in Burdine 214. Come by to hear about their theses, as well as those of another three stellar undergraduates. Details here.

NYPL

Alyse and Taj on a research trip to the New York Public Library

Tell us a little about your thesis project.

Taj: My thesis explores the relationship between the American Jewish community and the celebration of Christmas, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. What I’m really focusing on is the internal debate that emerged in the Jewish community regarding the permissibility of Jews taking part in Christmas celebrations and the controversy over that. I’ve looked at an article that was published in the Christian Century in 1939 by a Reformed rabbi who declared that it was absolutely wonderful for Jews to partake in Christmas and it was even a way to bolster the Jewish faith by Jews taking part in a religious practice that was in part derived from the Jewish faith. Another archive I’ve consulted is the Center for Jewish History in New York City and the New York Public Library.

Alyse: My thesis moves between two different departments, American Studies and Slavic Studies. I’m looking at Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was essentially the poet of the early Soviet Union but he also happened to be absolutely fascinated by America. In 1925 he came to America, really to New York and Chicago, did a cycle of poetry, and wrote a travelogue called, in translation, My Discovery of America. In scholarship this is essentially treated as a Soviet criticizing America as this terrible place simply because he was a Soviet and writing from the perspective of the Soviet Union. I’m trying to look at it more as Mayakovsky having valid critiques of America that were valid and identified by American and foreign observers around the same time. So I’m really trying to explore the unique relationship that Mayakovsky had with America before, during, and after his visit, and how his views shaped the Soviet Union’s early impressions of America. There aren’t a whole lot of Mayakovsky archives in America, so I’ve pulled mostly from the texts that he published and from a couple American newspapers–The Daily Worker was kind of responsible for promoting lectures he did while here, and Russkii Golos, a Russian language paper out of New Yorkpublished something about Mayakovsky almost every day of his trip, so it’s been really great to look back through those archives.

What has been a favorite class or assignment in American Studies that led you toward this project?

Taj: There was an American Studies class I took on amusement and understanding specific populations and amusement in America. We had a lot of liberty to choose the topics we wrote about, and I remember writing a paper on the Jewish American population and the relationship between Israel and America. I remember becoming inspired by the fascinating relationship that is ongoing between American and Israel and this helped me focus in on the Jewish American population in America and understand their history, their position, and the different things that they’ve gone through. My paper looked at Jewish American identity through the lens of advertising. It focused on the representation of Israel in American advertising regarding tourist culture.

Alyse: One of the earliest classes I took in American Studies was Intro to American Studies with Elizabeth Engelhardt and it was focused on masculinity and femininity in American culture. I had never really explored masculinity before and I had never heard American History explored from that perspective. I thought it was interesting to look at changing gender roles as not necessarily an explanation of cultural shifts, but just one of the many lenses you could look through. At the time it was just an exceptionally new concept for me. During her class I became really drawn to this time period of 1900 to World War II because there is just so much going on and it feels like almost everything is in a constant state of flux. Her class made me realize that there was so much going on at this time that I hadn’t ever considered and to me that was very eye opening.

What’s next? Where are you headed after graduating this spring?

Taj: For the past year or so I have been working at my parents’ medical device company in quality assurance, and while that sounds dry, it is actually pretty fascinating work. I make sure the company stays within the guidelines of both international and domestic standards. What that means in layman’s terms is that when foreign or domestic governments set out new or revised standards for selling the medical device in those countries, I make sure that the company complies with those regulations. It’s fascinating work and I’m able to readily apply my research skills to international business.

Alyse: Well, after I graduate I’m going to take some time off before pursuing a graduate program. I’ve been looking at everything from History to Comparative Literature and I’m just not quite sure yet which direction I want to take. So, I figure that taking a step back from everything will give me some much needed perspective and let me flesh out my options a little better. To do that, I’m going to move to Los Angeles with one of my friends while she works on her Master’s. To be honest, I’m not yet sure what I’m going to do once I’m there, but I’ve always been the kind of person who just figures it out as I go along. I have a lot of different interests and options so I’ll see where they happen to lead me. In all of the free time that I’ll have because I won’t have a thesis to write, I’m actually hoping to work on translating the poems Mayakovsky wrote while in America. Most of them have never been translated to English and there are 22 of them, so it’ll keep me busy!

Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis on Texas Tavola in the Old Country

Today we have a special treat for you: Dr. Randy Lewis has penned this fascinating account of a recent trip he took to Sicily to screen a documentary about Sicilians in East Texas. Enjoy his words and his photos – all the photographs are by him!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had a remarkable experience over spring break. Along with my partner, the anthropologist Circe Sturm, I headed to Sicily to screen an ethnographic film that we co-produced several years ago. Texas Tavola: A Taste of Sicily in the Lone Star State traces the migration of food, religion, and identity from Sicily to Texas, with a focus on the elaborate rituals associated with the tavola di San Giuseppe (the St. Joseph’s altar). The altar is not just a complex expression of religious devotion and folk creativity by women who prepare dozens of sculptural breads and desserts. It is also a holy banquet to feed the poor, a vegetarian feast for a crowd that can swell into the hundreds in Sicily and East Texas alike.

Bringing the film to Sicily was a long time coming. Although it had appeared at academic conferences and a number of universities in the US, a lack of subtitles had kept the film out of wide circulation in Italy. We were lucky that a graduate student at the University of Sienna, Maria Grazia Candido, decided to subtitle the film for her MA project, suddenly allowing it to find a new life in Italy. Would Sicilians recognize Sicilian-Americans as their own? Would they get past the Texas accents and oversized belt buckles to care about distant relatives they had never met? Would they be interested at all? That’s what we were here to discover.

Taking us hundreds of miles around the island, the screenings brought us to urban universities in wonderfully grand ballrooms, smaller cities filled with baroque architecture, and rural villages in the western countryside. I’m writing at greater length about this experience elsewhere, so for now I’ll simply describe the final screening in the western Sicilian town of Poggioreale.

Once a stately town with a concert hall, Poggioreale was destroyed by earthquake in 1968, languished in a corrupt rebuilding process for two decades, and finally rebuilt down the hill in a sad modernist parody of the original. The mayor had invited us to show our film in the modest town hall on the feast day of St. Joseph, when elaborate altars are set up in the towns of the surrounding valley. We were arriving at the same time as a group of Circe’s relatives who were visiting the Sicilian altars for the first time. Quite by accident, three generations of Sicilian-Texan women and one delightful fellow named Ross, most of whom had appeared in Texas Tavola, would be converging on their ancestral home while I shot a constant stream of video and photos.

We had a powerful screening in this final stop—for us as filmmakers and, I think, for our audience. What we had done was relatively simple: we had recorded the ancient rituals of a small town thriving in a faraway place. But for this small act of ethnographic attention to the improbable flow of global culture, the community was effusively grateful, presenting us bouquets of flowers, equally florid speeches, and a generous luncheon in a town with scant resources. The mayor spoke, the deputy mayor spoke, even the “baby mayor” spoke with impressive authority (he is a 12 year old who wears a tri-color sash to indicate his official role as a junior politician). The Sicilians marveled that Texans still constructed altars in the old ways, taking over an entire house to construct something that would last only a few days like some sort of mezzogiorno “Burning Man.” One bystander said what was happening in Texas was “like something from Sicily 200 years ago.” Old people cried and shook our hands like we had found a long lost relative, which, in a modest sense, we had.

Announcement: Ethnic and Third World Literatures Sequels Symposium This Week!

This Thursday and Friday at UT, Ethnic and Third World Literatures (E3W) and the Department of English will be hosting the 13th Annual Sequels Symposium. Sequels is an annual event that features E3W alumni and their recently published books. The symposium also includes graduate student panels, highlighting research that intersects with the work of our featured keynote speakers. This year’s guests are Dr.  Eve Dunbar and Dr. Kenneth Kidd. The symposium will feature keynote addresses by Dr. Dunbar and Dr. Kidd on Thursday evening at 7pm in the Eastwoods Room of the Texas Union. Panels will be held Friday from 8:30 to 3:30 in the Eastwoods Room.

E3W

Eve Dunbar graduated from UT in 2004.  She is currently Associate Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor in the Department of English at Vassar College, where she is also an active contributor to the Africana Studies, Women’s Studies, and American Culture programs.  Her areas of specialization include African American literature and cultural expression, black feminism, and theories of black diaspora. Kenneth Kidd graduated from UT in 1994.  He is currently a Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Florida. His areas of specialization include children’s literature studies, nineteenth- and twentieth century American literature, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and cultural studies.

Check out the full schedule here.

 

Announcement: Dr. Julia Mickenberg Comments on Civil Rights History in Life and Letters

Today we are happy to share some words from our very own Dr. Julia Mickenberg, who recently commented in an article in Life & Letters, the College of Liberal Arts Magazine, on a pivotal moment in civil rights history.

banner

Photo from the National Museum of American History

Dr. Mickenberg writes,

People don’t usually think about Louise Bryant, the radical bohemian journalist made famous in Warren Beatty’s film about the Russian Revolution, Reds, as a fighter for women’s rights. But, in fact, she was.

When she returned from Russia in 1918, after writing the sketches that would be published as Six Red Months in Russia, she stayed for several weeks at the National Woman’s Party (NWP) headquarters in Washington, DC. She got arrested and went to prison with several other NWP members for burning an effigy of President Woodrow Wilson, who had been a vocal opponent of women’s rights. Later, she spoke about the Russian Revolution at an event that other NWP members organized. Anti-suffragists, (known as the “antis”), who had for some time been insisting that woman suffrage was a Communist conspiracy, had a field day, announcing “Bolsheviki Meetings Arranged by Suffragists!”

Does this mean that the anti-suffragists were right? Was woman suffrage a communist conspiracy? No, but the fact that women got the vote in “darkest Russia” before they did in the United States was a real spur to passage of the woman suffrage amendment, especially during a war in which democracy was at stake (the amendment finally passed after the war had ended, but Wilson wound up endorsing it earlier as a “war measure”). In Overman committee hearings – a 1919 red scare version of the more famous McCarthy hearing – Bryant emphasized the specifically feminist reasons why she found revolutionary Russia so appealing: “I have never been in a country where women were as free as they are in Russia and where they are treated not as females but as human beings…It is a very healthy country for a suffragist to go into.”

Those who promote significant social changes often are radicals. They ruffle feathers and they even make mistakes. Louise Bryant was mistaken in her romantic image of the “new Russia.” But she was right about woman suffrage as an essential basis for making women full human beings in the eyes of the state.

Check out the full article here, which also features comments from Jeremi Suri (History, LBJ School of Public Affairs), Terri E. Givens (Government), King Davis (African and African Diaspora Studies, Director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis), and John Hoberman (Germanic Studies).

Alumni Voices: Siva Vaidhyanathan Writes on Academia in the Neoliberal Age

image

Today, we offer to you a must-read about the value of academia in a neoliberal age. UT American Studies Ph.D. alumnus Siva Vaidhyanathan writes on his entry into higher education and “the calling” of education. We’ve pasted an excerpt below but be sure to read the whole piece here.

I explained that I was back in school to figure out how I could learn to write books. I had bigger and different questions in my head than my current writing outlet would accommodate. And while I had no interest in being a professor—it was the family business, and I had been running from it for years—I had also spent weeks making use of the office hours of professors who had written books I admired, like Stott. I needed a road map.

“Why don’t you apply to graduate school in American studies?” Stott suggested. I listed all my excuses. But Randy Newman’s piano seemed to taunt my objections as soon as I voiced them, rendering them harmless; what chance did a mundane litany of half-formed career complaints really stand against the day’s unlikely sound track of ordinary American strivers triumphing against formidable odds? I didn’t know it at the moment, but I had answered the calling.

Announcement: Julia Alvarez Speaks at UT Tonight!

Today! Acclaimed novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez will speak about her life and work with University of Texas at Austin professor, Dr. Jennifer M. Wilks, at 7:00 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium at Homer Rainey Hall. A book signing and reception will follow at the Harry Ransom Center. The event is sponsored by the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies (TILTS) as part of their “Reading Race in Literature and Film” series. It is also sponsored by the Harry Ransom Center, where Alvarez’s archive resides.

alvarez

Here is a little more about Alvarez from TILTS:

Alvarez was born in New York City but raised in the Dominican Republic until she was 10. In 1960 her family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic when it was discovered that her father was involved in a plot to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo. Much of Alvarez’s work is considered semi-autobiographical, drawing on her experiences as an immigrant and her bicultural identity. Alvarez’s unique experiences have shaped and infused her writing—from such award-winning novels as How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies to her poetry.

Seating is limited, so get there early! Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Foodways TX: Dispatches from the Annual Foodways TX Symposium

Image by Kelly Yandell

Image by Kelly Yandell

Last week, College Station played host to Foodways Texas’s Annual Symposium, centering on the theme “Farm to Market 2014.” In case you missed it – and we hope that this will serve as a call for you folks to attend the next! – enjoy this fascinating and detailed write-up of the symposium from Kelly Yandell. We’ve pasted an excerpt below that explains what the symposium offers; the full post detailing some of the conversations that occurred (and some more of her wonderful photos) can be found here.

We meet yearly in support of a greater academic archiving project run through the University of Texas to document the diverse cultures of Texas. In fact, Foodways Texas just became a permanent part of UT’s American Studies Department. The panels, talks, and discussions this year were centered on the topic of agriculture at the aptly titled Farm to Market 2014: 4th Annual Foodways Texas Symposium. This alone would have been enough to hold my attention for two days. And, the meals at the symposium would have been enough to justify the cost of admission had there been no discussions at all.

But the enduring draw of this event is the fascinating group of people that it brings together.  We are scholars, writers, farmers, ranchers, chefs, food lovers, entrepreneurs, photographers, scientists, and all manner of other professionals and people who simply love Texas, Texas food and foodways, and Texas history and cultures. This is not to say by any means that we all share the same point of view on some of these thorny agricultural topics.  In fact, with a group this diverse it is virtually guaranteed that our interests, backgrounds, and opinions will diverge. But the very convivial nature of the gathering ensures that we all seek each other out and use it as an opportunity to think, more so than to merely form opinions. The time limitations and the number of topics covered mean that we barely scratch the surface of the topics we approach; however, for many of us it is the first time we have ever considered the lives and businesses of some of our peers.