Today, we offer another post in our recurring “Alumni Voices” feature from Bob Bednar, who graduated with a Ph.D. from the department in 1997.
How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?
In some ways, what I am doing now is totally different from what I did in my time at UT, but in other ways, I feel the continuity. I am now Chair of Communication Studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, where I teach critical media studies and work mostly in the interdisciplinary fields of visual culture, material culture studies, memory studies, trauma studies, and automobility studies. My training at UT AMS was focused almost entirely on cultural history. Even in grad school, I was always drawn to contemporary culture, and within that, to material, visual, and spatial cultures, so I focused my energies “outside” instead of in the archive. I always felt supported by the faculty for this approach, but I also knew that each of my mentors focused on the archive, so it was up to me to figure out my methodology. I sometimes complained back then about the lack of guidance, but ultimately, that process of having to figure it out on my own in a challenging and supportive scholarly community was the greatest gift the program gave me. Just the other day a student working on an undergraduate CommStudies Capstone project who read a recent article of mine on roadside crash shrines asked me the question: “This article covers so much ground. How do you know where to start when you are entering a new field of inquiry?” I had a ready answer, because it is something I have been doing since my time at UT.
I didn’t learn how to talk about this until several years after I was finished, but the most important thing I learned in the AMS PhD program at UT was to figure out my own way of balancing creativity with constraint. The three classes I took my first semester became figures in this process that I still think about today.
I was required to take a core class in recent AMS scholarship taught by Bob Crunden. Crunden was a force to be reckoned with—someone who reveled in showing us how much he knew and how little we knew. I reckoned with him the only way I knew how to deal with people like him while I was in my twenties: I butted heads with him and worked hard trying to show him he was wrong. At one point it degenerated into Crunden and I trading charges of “You are an a–hole” across the seminar table, but we always buried the hatchet over pints in the Texas Tavern after class, and I couldn’t help feeling extremely attached the A I got in that class.