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.
The other AMS class I took that semester was a Documentary class with Bill Stott and JB Colson. Stott and Colson were completely the opposite of Crunden. They obviously knew their material well, but they gave us a lot of space to work. Partially it was the content of the course: they modeled for us an openness to other people’s perspectives and a delight in surprise that is the bread and butter of good documentarians. That class infected me with a love of documentary and nonfiction narrative that is still very strong in me today, and taught me the important skill of inductive research: being comfortable with not knowing where you are going while still moving forward, which is the other key skill of a good documentarian, and which is the habit of mind I cultivate as a researcher who must go into the field knowing only a little bit but trusting that something will come of it. I responded to their openness with a radical openness of my own, but also surprised myself by wanting less openness and more direction.
My final course that semester was an anthropology course called Narrative Culture, taught by Katie Stewart. There, I immersed myself in critical theory and cultural analysis framed in critical theory for the first time. We started the semester with many required books and a reading packet the size of a phone book. This she supplemented throughout the semester, threatening to crush us all in an avalanche of paper and abstractions. But I survived, and continued to draw from those readings throughout grad school and beyond. That was where I first read Foucault and learned the methods of critical discourse analysis that have been so central to my work ever since. Stewart’s performative approach to culture was also very influential. I came to see Stewart’s class located right in the middle between the other 2 classes: she delighted in teaching us to pay attention to details, but never claimed to already know all the details (and know what they meant) before the conversation started. Her seminar was a space of open inquiry that encouraged expansive thinking, but she also called BS on us if our thinking was sloppy or vague.
My style as both a teacher and scholar are informed by how I perceived and negotiated that dramatic juxtaposition of styles my first semester in the program. The drama continued to play out as I developed an interest in the American West that put me on a collision course with Bill Goetzmann, a person notorious for his antagonistic teaching style. But by the time I began working with him, I had already begun figuring out how to resist more like a tree in a river than a dam, and how to see constraints as an impetus for creativity instead of the death of it. Just as important was learning how to recognize and trust my own internal sense of both creativity and constraints as a guiding force.
To follow the tree-in-the-river metaphor one more step, if I had only worked with Goetzmann, I might have remained quite the crooked tree. Instead, I found a more productive balance by working with Jeff Meikle. I have vivid memories of returning from fieldwork trips and flipping through piles of photographs or binders of photographic proofs with Meikle (pre-digital). Whether he was looking at my pictures of new buildings made to look old, security cameras at the Mall of America, a factory that produced giant fiberglass animals, or finally tourists taking pictures at National Park scenic overlooks, Meikle always gave me just what I needed in those moments: a stance toward the work that simultaneously was demanding enough to help me see the value in what I had produced and open enough to give me the space to figure out what I thought about it over time instead of having to already know what I thought. He knew just how to affirm the work without containing it in a pre-existing box, and he knew how to push me further in my thinking without making me feel either like he already knew the answer or that I should already know the answer. That odd balance of rigorous openness is something I learned from Meikle and continue to practice with my own students today.
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?
1. Take advantage of the teaching opportunities afforded by the Department. Try to TA for as many professors as possible, and sit in on undergraduate classes whenever you can. I learned a lot from watching Meikle, Smith and Goetzmann teach their different undergraduate courses. Getting to work closely with them also gave me a glimpse into who they were as people, which helped me bridge the gap between my role as their grad student and my role as their future colleague. I am not sure what the opportunities for teaching are like there now, but when I was there in the early 1990s, we had the rare opportunity to not only be instructor of record for classes, but to design and teach our own classes within our specialization. When I was at UT AMS, I taught a course called Contemporary American West for 2 years, and doing that forced me to learn classroom management and discussion leadership skills that have carried with me. I still teach a course called Roadside America, which is similar to that course I first taught 20 years ago as a grad student at UT. The benefits are also very practical as well: In my job as Chair at a selective liberal arts college, I see a lot of CVs from grad students looking for work, and I hardly ever look twice at someone who has not taught their own course.
2. Keep your eyes open for teaching opportunities in other Departments at UT and at other schools in Central Texas. I would not have the job I have now if I had not taken an entrepreneurial approach to faculty jobs outside of UT. When I was at UT, there was a 2-year limit on teaching in the department. As soon as my 2 years were up, I was bummed to give up my gig, but it gave me the impetus to look elsewhere for academic work. A semester later, I got an adjunct teaching position at my current school, Southwestern University, teaching First-Year Writing. With that experience under my belt, I was able to apply for another adjunct job in the English & Communication Studies Department at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin. I was there at the right time, as my colleague who had been teaching the entire Communication Studies curriculum left to take another job and I was right there to make the case for my own candidacy as his replacement for a Visiting Professor position. That crash course in teaching 8 new CommStudies preps in one year made me a credible applicant for the tenure-track replacement position at TLU, and my experience teaching the range of courses I taught at TLU while maintaining my scholarly agenda made me a credible applicant for the job I got at Southwestern. I am convinced that I would not be in CommStudies today if I had not built up my disciplinary credentials as a teacher in addition to my coursework in the PhD program.
3. If you are preparing to be a teacher/scholar, work to publish your work in whatever scholarly venue you can. If you can publish at top-tier journals, great, but if not, you simply must publish in a scholarly journal or at a university press to be a credible applicant in today’s academic job market. That is true not only for jobs at Research 1 institutions like UT but many other schools, including also many selective liberal arts schools like Southwestern. When I am looking at a pool of applicants for a tenure-track job, trying to judge whether someone is tenurable, I need to see evidence of a scholarly publishing record and agenda already in place. I guess the related advice is to keep your mind open to working as schools other than Research 1 institutions. UT socializes you to want what UT does well, to be a scholar first and a teacher second, but there are many other ways to be an academic, and the sooner you know which balance of teaching and scholarship works best for you, the better.
4. Take as many classes outside AMS as you can. Not only is moving in and out of other disciplinary spaces good to teach you the habits of mind necessary to do work that is multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and postdisciplinary, it also introduces you to the opposite way of thinking and doing: disciplinarity. When I was in grad school, we had some pretty heady conversations about the future of interdisciplinarity, and it always led me to think that we would be part of a new way of producing and teaching knowledge that would fundamentally transform higher education. In some ways that has come to pass, but in others not at all. The counterbalance for that kind of thinking was taking classes in other firmly established disciplines. For me, those were Anthropology, English, RTF, Art History, Architecture & Planning, and Geography. Being the lone interloper in a graduate seminar filled with people being disciplined to the norms of a particular discipline taught me just how persistent disciplinary thinking really is. Knowing those constraints and knowing how to negotiate them is crucial if you seek academic jobs after graduating. There are still relatively few AMS jobs. The other jobs I applied for were in at least six different disciplines. My experience in those different graduate seminars helped me know how to credibly frame my work for each different context.
Looking back now, it is hard for me to not see my pathway from American Studies into Communication Studies as inevitable, but I know that in grad school it was anything but. I could have ended up taking any number of different paths, including many that did not involve academia at all. So my final piece of advice is to do everything you can to know as much as you can about the many different paths you may be following or charting. Being flexible and open to external possibilities while also being clear about your own vision is a hard balance, but one worth building towards. In the end, I attribute whatever success I have had as a teacher/scholar to learning to balance creativity with constraint and being firm on goals while being flexible on the means of achieving them, which is something I learned how to do in the AMS program at UT.
Bob Bednar is Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he teaches media studies, visual communication, and critical/cultural studies. His work as an analyst, photographer, and theorist of critical visual communication focuses on the ways that people perform identities visually, materially and spatially in public landscapes. He has published a number of scholarly and popular articles on National Park snapshot photography practices and roadside crash shrines, and currently is completing a book on road trauma shrines titled Road Scars: Trauma, Memory, and Automobility. He started his MA in American Studies at UT in 1989 and completed his PhD in 1997, and taught in the Program from 1992-1994.