Alumni Voices: Dr. Matt Hedstrom, Assistant Prof. of Religious Studies and American Studies at UVA

We are delighted to introduce a new regular blog series! Alumni Voices will feature words of wisdom from alumni of the American Studies program at UT about their experiences in graduate school, their current work, and advice about how we can get the most out of our time while students of American Studies.

Today, we kick off this feature with some insights from Dr. Matt Hedstrom, a professor in the department of Religious Studies and the program in American Studies at the University of Virginia. He graduated with a Ph.D. from UT in 2006, and his book, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century, will be released by Oxford University Press in October 2012.

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?

That’s a hard question, because everything I do is informed by my graduate education. For one thing, I only really learned to read and write as a graduate student. I mean that.  Bob Crunden talked about academic reading as akin to gutting a fish—learning to get quickly at the meat and discard the head and tail—a rather gruesome image that has nevertheless stayed with me. This is not just about efficiency but also about honing the ability to find what matters in an argument. In addition, many of my professors were incredibly insightful readers of student writing, Bill Stott most memorably. I try to write narrative and jargon-free prose as much as possible, following the examples of many of my professors at Texas. This reflects, perhaps, my affinity for history rather than cultural studies, though I don’t want to draw that line too hard and fast. More than anything, it reflects the style of writing I was taught at Texas, and I am grateful for it.

More substantively, the book based on my dissertation is just coming out now (The Rise of Liberal Religion)—so I have been immersed in my graduate research until very recently. Be careful what topic you choose—you’ll have to live with it for a long time!

But more broadly, the education I received in American Studies—partly because of the courses and mentors I sought out, and partly because of the nature of the department at the time—was largely one in US cultural history, and that’s still how I identify intellectually. I am interested in the mechanisms of culture, and I use fairly standard archive-based historical research to probe these questions. In my first book this meant looking at the history of libraries, book clubs, publishing, book advertising, and wartime reading programs to understand the dissemination and popularization of liberal religious sensibilities. I am beginning a new project on the role of race in the formation of liberal religion—both ideas and practices—from the late 19th through mid-20th centuries, again rooted in attention to the material and social mechanisms of cultural change. Late this summer I was able to get in the archives for this project, something I absolutely love.

UT American Studies provided a great education and opened many doors for me. I have been amazed and delighted by the high regard in which folks in the field hold our program—and rightly so. But I’ve also had to forge new paths and new relationships to make my way professionally. Once I found my interest in American religious history, I worked to get involved in the American Academy of Religion and to make contacts in the world of Religious Studies. I can say with certainly that I would not have the career I have now if I hadn’t done this as a graduate student and then during the two post-docs I held after leaving UT. I now have a dual appointment in American Studies and Religious Studies at UVa, but my “tenure home” is the department of Religious Studies. So I am a historian with an American Studies degree working to get tenure in a Religious Studies department. This is what happens when you get an interdisciplinary degree, and it can be an extra burden or hurdle as well as wonderfully stimulating intellectually.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

Here, I’ll make a Top Ten list:

1. Discipline yourself as a writer—this is the coin of the realm. Your success as a student and your career prospects will largely be determined by what and how well you write. And writing is a skill refined through constant practice. Try to write everyday.

2. Meet people. Academics can be introverts, but the most successful ones are the ones that have built solid personal and professional networks. Good networks provide both intellectual enrichment and professional opportunities. This doesn’t have to be crass—and if you come off as a user it will backfire. Just introduce yourself, at UT and elsewhere; offer to help others by reading a chapter or paper; go to the lectures and parties; talk to your professors.

3. Get a good class or two under your belt before you go on the market. The chance to teach in our department is a real asset. I have met fully funded graduate students from Ivy League schools who finished in 5 years having never taught a class, and they often have a hard time applying to teaching-heavy institutions.

4. Save your teaching evaluations and those few but special notes or emails from students that tell you how awesome you are. Then give these to your advisor so she or he can use them in a letter of reference.

5. Don’t pick a topic based on what’s trendy, but do learn how to speak about it in broad terms. Make sure your project has a strong who, what, where, when story—derived either from the archive or field work—and then keep working to place those stories in larger and larger frames. Those frames might tap into what’s trendy, or what a journal or editor or search committee wants. But your topic needs to come from your passions and curiosities alone.

6. Get connected to something at UT that gives you an additional skill set—at the Ransom Center, the Writing Center, in the digital humanities, an oral or public history project, something. Unless you get utterly swept away by this, don’t imagine it as your primary career or professional identity. But the ability to offer yourself as a 2-for-1 candidate can be extremely useful. When applying to a research university, you might not play up your experience teaching composition, but that could really matter to a liberal arts college. Likewise, some departments still sadly look askance at digital humanities, but others will love it. It’s nice to have these extras you can toggle on and off.

7. Get feedback on your writing as often as you can—and offer it to others. This might mean writing groups with students, pestering professors to read drafts, or finding fellow grad students elsewhere working on similar projects. Once someone has read your work and offered feedback, they have an investment in you and your success. That’s good.

8. Apply for every outside fellowship under the sun. Getting funded by someone other than your own department or institution is a real professional gold star.

9. Remember that with all the pressures of professionalization, funding, time-to-degree, and marketing of oneself to all kinds of audiences, pursuing a PhD in the humanities is about personal and intellectual formation as well as professional credentialing. The only reason to engage in this racket is because you’ve found something you love and you want to share it—otherwise it makes no practical sense. So keep focused on what you really care about. This is an idealistic, fanciful, privileged pursuit, as well as a really hard one. If you find the whole thing is making you miserable, have the courage to quit. Really. Otherwise, don’t let the bean-counters and strivers and bureaucrats ruin your dream.

10. Lastly, enjoy Austin! Eat, drink, be merry—you may never live in a nicer place.

Be sure to continue tuning in to AMS :: ATX for more wisdom from our alumni!

3 comments on “Alumni Voices: Dr. Matt Hedstrom, Assistant Prof. of Religious Studies and American Studies at UVA

  1. Fantastic words for wisdom. I too learned the craft of writing from Bill Stott and another fantastic professor Kurth Sprague, as well as many valuable lessons from Jeff Meikle and all of the excellent AMS faculty. I’ve been a newspaper journalist, a communications consultant for Fortune 500 companies, and built an advertising agency that works with some of the largest technology firms in the world. I couldn’t have done it without the firm foundation that came from the American Studies department at the University of Texas. I believe that a liberal arts education is the perfect preparation for today’s knowledge-based economy. You learn to think, collaborate and communicate ideas. I will always be grateful. Thank you and Hook’em!

  2. I also learned to write from Bob Crunden who was my graduate advisor and inspiration. Until I entered the American Studies program I thought I could write. Two weeks into my first class with Crunden I felt like I should hitch up my coveralls and head back to the farm. I survived, thrived and now look back on those years with thankfulness and gratitude.

  3. […] followed his excellent example. So, since Matt wrote a list in answer to this question for his blog post, I will once again follow his example here. I guess this is also my first piece of […]

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