Alumni Voices: Dr. Carolyn de la Peña, Director of the UC Davis Humanities Institute and Prof. of American Studies

Today, we feature some words of wisdom from Dr. Carolyn de la Peña, currently director of the University of California at Davis Humanities Institute and Professor of American Studies. Her books include The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American (2003)  and Empty Pleasures: The Story of  The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda (2010). She graduated with a Ph.D. in American Studies from UT in 2001.

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?

Right now I oversee a large staff and work on grant proposals and events and am an advocate for humanities funding and research. In my own research I’m looking for ways that I can work with scientists and nutritionists on questions of health, technology, and the body. So much of my brain space is taken up thinking about the humanities at large–all of the disciplines and interdisciplines that comprise it and how it differs in important ways from the sciences and social sciences. I didn’t do these things at UT in our smallish program. At UT I was very interested in defining American Studies (what are our methods? why can’t we have a real theory class? how are we different then NYU?). I really wished that the program would give me more direction–have a more “inky” stamp to put on my work and my approach. Now I’m less interested in defining AMS, or worrying about whether my work fits in American Studies, and more interested in just being a humanist and working with different methodologies depending on the research or administrative problem I’m tacking.

While I didn’t learn these things in any organized way at UT, I do think the skills I learned in AMS at UT have helped me be comfortable working across disciplines and taking chances in my research–and imagining new ways that we could work within the humanities and getting funders and other administrators excited about those possibilities. At UT, while I was worrying about methods and theory and having anxiety about whether our way of doing AMS fit with “the” way of doing AMS, I was at the same time reading in history, urban studies, and women and gender studies in my exams. And I was working across several fields in my dissertation. So I guess I’d say that I worried too much when I was a student about what kind of American Studies I was doing, and should have better understood that the strength of the program was that it didn’t tackle that question and pin down an answer. By letting us be kind-of-historians, or kind-of literature scholars or kind-of-media scholars it made us comfortable with cross-disciplinary thinking. I think for a lot of us in my generation this helped us get jobs in a variety of programs (media studies, english, history, religious studies) and then take on early leadership roles in expanding those fields and connecting disciplines in our own universities. Because no one gave us a real map we had to learn to make (and re-make) our own.

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?

Appreciate the brilliance of your friends in the program and work hard never to let go of those connections you make during your time there. These are the people who shape your thinking and call you on your BS in your dissertation concepts and slog through your first, second, and third drafts. You may have an advisor who really engages (I did), and that’s fantastic. But don’t forget that it’s the people in that program with you who are really going to help you make your way while you’re in grad school and while you’re trying to establish yourself as a junior scholar. I’ll always be grateful that I went to UT when I did, and I can point to so many specific ways that my friends in my cohort, then, are largely responsible for my successes now.

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