5 Questions with Department Chair Steven Hoelscher

One of the goals of AMS :: ATX is to connect you with all of the exciting things happening around the Department of American Studies. One way we hope to do this is by introducing you to some of the inspiring and accomplished people we are proud to call mentors and fellow scholars. In our “5 Questions” posts, we want to take a little time to talk with our faculty members about the many places they are coming from and why they do what they do.

Last week I sat down for our very first “5 Questions” talk with Dr. Steven Hoelscher, Chair of the Department of American Studies and Academic Curator for Photography at the Harry Ransom Center.

What is your academic background? How does this inform your work today?

My background, unlike a lot of people in this department, is in a traditional academic field, human geography and environmental geography. My undergrad majors were Geography and Environmental Science, and my MA and PhD were also in Geography. So, in that regard, I’m coming to American Studies after my formal education has been completed. I don’t see that as necessarily a hindrance to me as an American Studies scholar, but it makes me somewhat unusual. It also makes me unusual in the Geography world that I’m as committed to interdisciplinarity as I am to anything “geographical.” But it certainly informed my American Studies scholarship. Issues of landscape, space and place, are part of pretty much everything I do. So, for instance, I’m working on a book about the Magnum photography archive, and the chapter of my book, I believe, will be something called “Magnum’s Geographies Toward a Global Sense of Place.” That’s a very geographic concept with a rather nontraditional source material for geographers.

What has been your favorite project to work on?

I think in a lot of ways my favorite project was my first serious one, which was my dissertation that became my first book. What I liked about it was the challenge of learning how to do serious research, first of all, and being able to then successfully pull it off. That was a great learning experience for me.

But more specifically, what I liked about it was the combination of the ethnographic component and the archival component. I had a ton of archives that I worked through of the typical fashion: newspapers and letters and business records, photographs, and all that sort of thing. But the ethnography was really wonderful, and I spent a lot of time talking to literally over a hundred people over the course of five years. I got to know them very well, and I enjoyed that, just getting to know these people.

I lived close to my field site; it was an hour drive from where I lived, so it was easy to go down at a moment’s notice. I was writing about ethnic cultural performance, and the community I was writing about had performed a play in German written by Schiller since 1938. I was in the play for four concurrent years, and it was wonderful to go down for evening practices with the farmers and the people who worked at the local auto repair shop and the lawyers and the teachers and the busboys. We all were in this play together, and it was really fun to hear the different forms of German that people used, whether you were an immigrant from Germany, an immigrant from Switzerland, the third generation descendant of those immigrations, or someone like me who learned German in school and studied abroad. It was wonderful to learn the different ways that the language was put together.

What would you say are the projects or people that have inspired your work?

Well, again it depends on the sort of project. Right now I am working heavily in the area of photography, so I would say great photographers inspire me, in particular photographers who have been associated with Magnum, whether that’s Robert Capa or Inge Morath or Susan Meiselas or Sebastiao Salgado. What I admire about them is their commitment to showing and explaining the world as it is with a critical yet also humanist lens. There’s a deep sympathy and not mockery of the people and places they are photographing, and I deeply admire that.

Another set that has inspired me are my advisors over the years, my mentors in graduate school, especially Yi Fu Tuan, who I studied with at Wisconsin. Among the many things that he has inspired me to do is try to be the best writer I can with the best language that I can to the broadest audience that I can. He taught me that scholars need to communicate in language that is understandable to people outside the academy. Although for him English was a second language, he might be the most poetic writer of English that I have ever read.

Other people who’ve inspired me are good journalists and writers of the sort that you read in the New Yorker every week. I feel that so much of our work as American Studies scholars is to keep our fingers on the pulse of American culture, contemporary American Culture, even if we are writing about the past, and for me the best contemporary American writing is published in the New Yorker.

I would finally add scholars who, in my view, are asking important questions, are methodologically rigorous, and communicate the findings of their research in evocative ways. There are a number of people I would put on that list, but right now I would say historian/geographers like William Cronon is somebody whose work really speaks to me in profound ways.

How do you see your work fitting into larger conversations, either in American Studies or at large in contemporary society?

Of course, every time we work on any form of scholarship it’s always in dialogue with other scholars and issues that are current in society, even if it’s a historical project. So, it just depends on the particular project you’re asking about. If I look at my project on the Jim Crow South and tourism in Mississippi, it was very much in dialogue with people who have written about the Civil Rights movement, people who have written about cultural performance and racial ethnic identity, but also people who are concerned about contemporary issues of cultural memory and heritage. Whether you see the Confederate South as unbearably and obnoxiously racist or a part of your heritage depends on where you come from, and I was communicating with people who were writing about this and I could give examples of that for all my research. We always have to be connected, otherwise it’s pointless.

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

The most immediate one is the Magnum project. In brief, the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center received the archive from the New York office of Magnum Photos, which constitutes 200,000 photographs. These are amazing photographs that have shaped our collective understanding of the second half of the 20th century. You may not recognize the name Robert Capa, but surely you’ve seen the photograph of the soldiers in the water on Normandy on D-Day; that’s Robert Capa. You might not know the name Dennis Stock, but surely you’ve seen the photograph of James Dean walking in the rain in Times Square. I could go on. You’ve maybe not heard the name Susan Meiselas, but you’ve seen her photographs of El Salvador and Nicaragua during the conflicts in the late 70s and early 80s. So these are massively important photographs and no scholarship outside Magnum has ever been done on them because Magnum has kept a very close clamp on the release of these photographs. The fact that the archive is here now and I can do this work is a great opportunity.

But I would say a second research project that I’m working on is connected to my teaching in Vienna. I’m interested in questions of historical and cultural memory, and the title of this project, loosely, is “Monuments We’d Like to Forget.” I’m interested in the way in which memory and forgetfulness are a part of the Viennese landscape as they relate to the Nazi past. This is really interesting, because the official narrative of the Austrian Republic is that Austria was Hitler’s first victim, and this is a myth that is exploded by even the briefest glance at Austrian political history, where the state welcomed Hitler with open arms in 1938. It is an ambivalent past and this ambivalent past is still part of the landscape, and I hope that this becomes a book project within the next couple of years. I’ve written one paper, but I’d like it to be a book.

Bonus question: If you had to describe American Studies in a sentence, what would you say?

American Studies is the interdisciplinary study of American culture past and present from multiple and competing viewpoints over time.

Dr. Hoelscher has been with the Department of American Studies at UT since 2000. His books include Picturing Indians (winner of the 2009 Wisconsin Historical Society Book Award of Merit), Heritage on Stage, and Textures of Place (co-edited with Karen Till and Paul Adams).

2 comments on “5 Questions with Department Chair Steven Hoelscher

  1. [...] dispatch comes from Dr. Steve Hoelscher, who has spent this summer with photography in Germany, France, and [...]

  2. [...] start things off, we would like to present Postcards from Texas, a  project of Dr. Steven Hoelscher’s Fall 2012 Introduction to American Studies class. The Postcards project is a blog that features [...]

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