We’re pleased to share with you this conversation with Dr. Angie Maxwell, who received her Ph.D. from the Department of American Studies in 2008. Dr. Maxwell is the Diane D. Blair Professor of Southern Studies and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Her new book is The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness (UNC Press, 2014).
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?
I landed in a political science department which, at times, feels very far removed from my training and my natural curiosity. Data sets, hypotheses, and statistics software were not my tools in my days in Garrison Hall. But the questions I ask always percolate from my American Studies background—questions about identity and the imagined space of the South. I’ve just started a new book that considers the impact of what I’m calling “The Long Southern Strategy” on white southern distinctiveness. Whereas political scientists have seem consumed, at least so far, with locating the origin of southern realignment with the Republican Party in the second half of the 20th century, I see the shift as a movement that extends beyond the initial exodus of white male voters from the southern Democratic Party. And like most American Studies scholars, I’m fixated on the long term effects of an effort that was not limited to race-baiting, but rather a broader pitch of us vs. them, with the them being African Americans or working women or religious non-believers, etc. Professor Abzug once told a room of graduate students that American Studies folks circumambulate a question or an idea. They place it in the middle and then they look at it from every possible angle until they have enough perspective to say something useful. I’ve never forgotten that image, and it guides my interdisciplinary reading habit, which is, first and foremost, the most important demand of the discipline. American studies closes no doors, but seeks insight from any and all sources. My UT professors exemplified that in their teaching and their research, and I am still learning from their example.
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?
Three pieces of advice (solicited but not necessarily wise…) that I wish someone would have given me.
- Take classes outside of the humanities. I had the extreme good fortune of studying under such legends as Elspeth Rostow (LBJ School of Public Affairs), Roderick Hart (Communications), and Walter Dean Burnham (Government). The reading and the work stretched me intellectually and forced me to confront both methodological strengths and limitations. At their core, each discipline has a different take on proof and on the production of knowledge. The “truth,” as American Studies scholars know well is somewhere in the middle. But that becomes clearer the farther you wander from your intellectual home.
- Soak up your time with your professors. If they are in the American Studies department at UT, then they are the best in the business. They have put big ideas on paper. And that is not a small thing. Seek their advice, but don’t waste their time. Listen. Be open to criticism. Allow them to pick apart your ideas and then put you and your project back together. The finished project will be better than you could have imagined, and the process itself will sharpen your mind and amplify your scholarly voice. Thank them.
- Be kind to and supportive of your cohort. Celebrate their successes. Truly interdisciplinary thinkers are not as easy to find as it may seem when you have the luxury of being surrounded by them in graduate school. In fact, you may never “fit in” quite as well anywhere else. So no matter where you end up geographically, they will be your community, and you will rely on them as colleagues and need them as friends.