Today we share with you some insight from Dr. John Gronbeck-Tedesco, Assistant Professor of American Studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey. Dr. Gronbeck-Tedesco graduated from the department with a Ph.D. in 2009.
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?
The work I do right now evolved out of the nourishing range of experiences I enjoyed as an American Studies graduate student and temporary citizen of Austin, Texas. UT introduced me to an invigorating intellectual atmosphere where I could explore many facets of humanistic study. At first, the flexibility of American Studies can be frustratingly amorphous, with its oft-cited lack of consensus on the query, “What is American Studies?” (and outsiders’ persistent question, “What is it not?”) But as an interdisciplinary, malleable form of study, American Studies continually demands reinvention of itself through its refreshing breadth and creativity. The program allowed me to tailor my scholarly interests into a set of paradigms and methodologies that still govern my work today. Classes on Cuban history, the American Left, the African Diaspora, U.S. foreign relations, and on race and ethnicity in the United States helped me produce my own definition and working model of American Studies, which I took with me on the job market, inscribed onto syllabi, and crammed (if uncomfortably in parts!) into my dissertation cum book manuscript. American Studies at UT gave me the resources and peer/mentor support to travel to Cuba to conduct research and form a community of scholars and friends that continue to shape my personhood today. And Austin was a place where I politically matured by joining activist organizations that organize on behalf of immigrant rights, compulsions I keep up on a weekly basis in Queens, NY. UT American Studies is a thriving community that still dazzles on the ASA stage. I consider myself lucky to have been a part of it.
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?
Explore, explore, explore. Then write a manageable dissertation. It seems to me that through this exploration we develop an understanding of the scholarly domains to which we will ultimately contribute. It’s important to have a sense of where our work fits (in journals, departments, conferences) and where it doesn’t. The advantage of American Studies is that we can have several options in this respect. Having a good relationship with your mentors is also key. I have been in awe of my mentors’ capacity to tirelessly help me well beyond graduation.
I think the most important words of advice I can give is something that I did not learn until I was deep into my degree. That is to indulge in the vulnerability it takes to unmask and remake the hidden assumptions and understandings you carry into the program. This is intensely personal, much more than I realized until later. We are intimately invested in our knowledge production because it is inseparable from our profound sense of selfhood. Breaking down time-tested barriers and defense mechanisms is a discomfiting but unconditional part of the liberatory process of education. Knowing this at the outset, I think, is advantageous in graduate school.