This month, AMS : ATX brings you a twist on our world-famous “5 Questions” series. Rather than interviewing the established professors and scholars of UT’s American Studies department or the graduates of the AMS PhD program, we have decided to focus on those brave souls at the beginning of their American Studies scholarly journey: the first-year graduate students in UT’s AMS doctoral program. Why do people pick up from steady jobs and loving communities across the country and move to sweltering Austin, Texas, for a chance to read hundreds of books, write thousands of words, and teach undergraduates about…American Studies? How do these folks define “American Studies,” and why is this the field for them?
We posed these questions, among others, to Zoya Brumberg, who has come to UT from Providence, RI by way of Chicago, IL. In this first installment of “5 Questions with First-Years,” Brumberg discusses her academic and personal background, her scholarly interest in the human curation of natural landscapes, folklore, the American West, and her conviction that personal hobbies are a site of profound creative, scholarly possibility.
1) What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your teaching and research?
I grew up in Providence, RI, got my BA in Russian and Art Studio from Mount Holyoke College, and received my MA in the interdisciplinary program Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I moved around a lot between schools, trying different things. I was living and working in Chicago before I began at UT; I worked at two different high end lingerie stores until I got an editing job, all while trying to continue working on my writing, traveling, reading, and adventuring.
One of the best things about receiving my MA from an art school is that it gave me the chance to teach and collaborate with really creative people and explore new ways of thinking, learning, and communicating. My main goal with research is to try to marry the theoretical and historical content of my work with artful forms of writing and presentation that capture the spirit of what I’m trying to say with my research and the ideas that go into it. I try to use creative writing, sensual experiences, performance, and curatorial projects while teaching and in my own written work.
2) Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work?
I am interested in the literature, history, and landscapes of the West and was immediately attracted to the way that the American Studies program at UT is very much tied to local history and resources. My work deals with museological viewing rituals and the curation of natural landscapes in the context of state and national parks and wilderness preserves and human-made landscapes within wilderness areas. The interdisciplinary nature of American Studies, the academic environment and faculty at UT’s American Studies program, and the American- and Texas-historical resources available on campus and beyond are extremely conducive to the projects I want to pursue.
3) What projects or people have inspired these interests?
I’m really drawn to the sorts of literature and exhibitions that come from people’s personal projects and hobbies, and I try to apply these more creative methodologies to my work. Traveling, collecting, photographing, and hand-mapping are more difficult to grasp than analytically laid-out concepts in books, but they are just as integral to my research as traditional texts. Driving up Route 1 on the California coast through Big Sur, visiting the City Museum in St. Louis and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, road-tripping and hiking and exploring have been major sensual inspirations to my work.
The person who got me going on my current project is Perry Eberhart, a social worker and journalist who was also a Colorado history enthusiast, anthropologist, environmental activist, and outdoorsman who wrote a number of guides to Colorado ghost and mining towns, folklore, and landscapes from the 1950s–’80s. His work blurs the lines between how-tos and history and has been influential to both Colorado history-writing and outdoor adventure guides. His books helped me to experience wild-like spaces through historical and folkloric knowledge, as well as learn history by exploring it physically.
Recently I have been reading a lot of Wallace Stegner and Rebecca Solnit and am really inspired by the way that they combine the art of writing with history-telling. Additionally, my thesis advisors from SAIC, Shawn Michelle Smith and Joseph Grigely, really encouraged me to explore a multitude of avenues for collecting research and articulating what I found and inspired me to continue on that path.
4) What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?
I don’t want to fence myself in too much with this one…I am really excited to explore Texas/Western history and folklore through the landscapes surrounding me here and the resources available in the Briscoe and Ransom collections. I’m hoping to take some trips out to West Texas to explore the ways that the region’s largest parks are “curated,” how their histories are articulated, and what is left of the human structures and influences on the landscape that shaped and defined it before the parks were set aside as “wilderness.”
5) What are your goals for graduate school, and–if you dare– for after you graduate?
Obviously, I am going to get a tenure-track position at a well-respected university located in a very cool, not-too-expensive small city. But really I just want to write, and explore, and write some more, and hope that the work I do reaches people in an enjoyable, or at least palatable, way. Looking at the history of parks, of the articulation of natural history, forces the people engaging with those histories to question the dichotomy between human and natural spaces. I want my work to help people see nature not as something in a specially reserved park but as a part of human (and other living thing) experiences, to question land and water as property, to look critically at their own consumption, to enjoy “wilderness areas” as human spaces and human spaces as part of a global nature. If the whole academia thing doesn’t work out, I would love to confuse and depress children by doing educational programming for the National Park Service or something.
Bonus: How would you define American Studies?
Stay tuned for more interviews with first-years in the weeks to come!