Last week, the Department of American Studies had the pleasure of featuring the work of six exceptional undergraduates at the first annual Undergraduate Honors Symposium. The students presented their thesis projects, with topics ranging from resource extraction policy to the American coming-of-age narrative. These projects take the form of thesis papers as well as websites, documentary theater pieces, and novellas.
The evening began with a presentation by Miriam Anderson on hydraulic fracturing. Miriam offered a charming and funny visual presentation on the natural gas industry and its detractors set to the words of Dr. Seuss‘ The Lorax. Miriam also shared her website, which explains the economic and environmental impacts of the fracking process from multiple perspectives. Miriam was followed by Julie Reitzi, who discussed the drug war in Ciudad Juarez, focusing on the involvement and responses of women and youth. Julie’s presentation provided perspective on a much talked about issue, and she shared striking images of women and youth who are both implicated in and responding to the violence and poverty in the city, including Las Guerreras, a group of women on pink motorcycles who distribute food and other supplies to impoverished neighborhoods. Rounding out the first half of the night was Kelli Schultz, who described her ambitious documentary theater project, “Our TEKS,” which is a play based on the controversy surrounding recent changes to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills by the Texas Board of Education. Kelli discussed her process and inspiration for creating the play, which draws on circus imagery and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. For more information on Kelli’s production, check out our post last week, and head on over to the Winship building April 30 or May 1 at 8pm.
The second half of the evening featured presentations by David Juarez, Alexandria Chambers, and Laci Thompson. David led off the second half with a description of his project on Jack Kerouac’s early years of devising fantasy sports games, which David reads as early writing exercises for the budding Beat writer. David shared a number of images and score sheets from these whimsical and impressively detailed games, illustrating the way that the young Kerouac exercised control over a life that was often depicted as lacking it. Alex Chambers followed David’s presentation with a discussion of American boy’s choir schools, focusing on two in particular: the St. Thomas Choir School in New York City and the American Boy Choir School in Princeton, New Jersey. Alex’s thesis project took the form of a novella that introduces the choirboy school upbringing into the American coming-of-age discourse, and she shared a wickedly funny selection from the beginning of her novella. The final speaker of the evening was Laci Thompson, whose eloquent presentation described the multiple representations of the night in Western thought and literature. Laci’s thesis centers on the unique contributions of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith to this discourse of the night, and Laci ended her presentation with a strong call for academics to own their passions and to “have more fun,” because that is what rock music like Patti Smith’s is, first and foremost, all about.
The evening of presentations was a fabulous success. It was wonderful to be able to chat with the presenters in group discussion and in one-on-one conversations afterward. I was particularly struck by the range of topics and formats represented by these thesis projects. One of the particular strengths of American Studies scholarship is the way it encourages both innovative themes and innovative forms, and both were on display at this event. It is clear that these senior AMS students are headed toward greater and greater things, and the Department should be proud to call them alumni.
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