Originally from the southern side of the Golden State, by way of UC-Berkeley, Kristen Wilson arrives at UT-Austin with an investigative acumen, interests in film, foreign policy, and mid-20th century US-Germany connections, and a love for public educational institutions. For much more on Kristen’s background, her plans for graduate study, and a bold attempt to answer American Studies’ unanswerable question, keep on reading!
1) What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your teaching and research?
I’m originally from southern California, but I did my undergrad at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with a B.A. in English and American Studies. I applied to Berkeley as an English major with the intention to pursue investigative journalism, but along the way I found American Studies and fell into research rabbit holes that I never wanted to crawl out of. My drive remains similar—to piece together stories from any and every source I can find, and then to share those stories and the consequences they bear to the broader public. Before I came to UT, I took a gap year working as a writing tutor for the honors thesis program at Berkeley and working in prepared foods for Whole Foods.
2) Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work?
For my project, there seemed no better collection of people and resources than here in Austin. The culture of the department also struck me as remarkably supportive and open, both on a personal and academic level. Additionally, there’s something particularly special about public institutions that I can’t seem to get away from. It’s easy not to believe in anything nowadays, but the mission here seems clear, urgent, and essential.
3) What projects or people have inspired your work?
It’s difficult to name just a few, but I’ll make the attempt. Over the course of my time at Berkeley, I worked with Professor Kathleen Moran, Professor Michael Cohen, Professor Christine Palmer, Professor Andy Shanken, and Professor Justin Gomer on long-form projects that allowed me to develop a breath and depth of interests—I never once talked to one of them without receiving helpful advice or some measure of orientation, their own bodies of work encouraging me to take risks and pursue my interests, whatever they might be. I owe the inspiration for my current project to a visit to the German Museum of Film and Television in Berlin, an other-worldly experience that I hope to repeat at some point in the near future.
4) What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?
My hope is to develop a dissertation on the business and politics of exporting American films to Germany in the postwar period, looking at the relationships between the American State Department, the MPEA in Hollywood, the American Department of Defense, the West German film industry, and the West German government. I anticipate that the ultimate thrust of the project will be an analysis of the ways in which American culture was simultaneously commercialized and used as propaganda in the early period of the Cold War, all in the hopes of understanding something fundamental about the ways in which the United States uses culture abroad to accomplish political aims.
5) What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?
In my time here, I hope to engage in discussions with a broader community of scholars at all levels and improve my own work and the work of those around me in doing so; as much as I have to learn from faculty and the graduate students ahead of me, I hope to offer what I can to them and to the undergraduates passing through the department and university as a whole. If even one student leaves a better thinker and writer for my efforts, I’ll consider that aspect of my time here a success. Additionally, I would like to build myself up as a researcher and produce a dissertation that can be turned to some public use.
After I graduate, I see myself pursuing a career in academia or in another research setting; that said, it’s some time away and I’d let myself off the hook if something more compelling turned up.
Bonus Question: In your own words–what is American Studies?
I think this question might qualify as hazing, but I’ll give it my best go.
American Studies is an interdisciplinary approach to American history and culture, bringing a variety of academic methodologies and personal perspectives to the fore in order to better understand the reality of the lives of some segment of the American public or those affected by American governance and culture. Just about anything is fair game if you can find the sources to support academic investigation, and I’m fairly certain that’s how we all ended up here.