Undergrad Research: Interview with Alyse Camus and Taj Bruno

We are so pleased today to feature an interview with Alyse Camus and Taj Bruno, two American Studies undergraduates who were recently awarded an honorable mention for the 2014 Dean’s Distinguished Graduates award. We sat down with Alyse and Taj last week to chat about their thesis research, their time in AMS, and their future plans.

In addition, Alyse and Taj will be presenting at the American Studies Undergraduate Honors Symposium this Thursday, April 17 at 5:30 in Burdine 214. Come by to hear about their theses, as well as those of another three stellar undergraduates. Details here.


Alyse and Taj on a research trip to the New York Public Library

Tell us a little about your thesis project.

Taj: My thesis explores the relationship between the American Jewish community and the celebration of Christmas, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. What I’m really focusing on is the internal debate that emerged in the Jewish community regarding the permissibility of Jews taking part in Christmas celebrations and the controversy over that. I’ve looked at an article that was published in the Christian Century in 1939 by a Reformed rabbi who declared that it was absolutely wonderful for Jews to partake in Christmas and it was even a way to bolster the Jewish faith by Jews taking part in a religious practice that was in part derived from the Jewish faith. Another archive I’ve consulted is the Center for Jewish History in New York City and the New York Public Library.

Alyse: My thesis moves between two different departments, American Studies and Slavic Studies. I’m looking at Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was essentially the poet of the early Soviet Union but he also happened to be absolutely fascinated by America. In 1925 he came to America, really to New York and Chicago, did a cycle of poetry, and wrote a travelogue called, in translation, My Discovery of America. In scholarship this is essentially treated as a Soviet criticizing America as this terrible place simply because he was a Soviet and writing from the perspective of the Soviet Union. I’m trying to look at it more as Mayakovsky having valid critiques of America that were valid and identified by American and foreign observers around the same time. So I’m really trying to explore the unique relationship that Mayakovsky had with America before, during, and after his visit, and how his views shaped the Soviet Union’s early impressions of America. There aren’t a whole lot of Mayakovsky archives in America, so I’ve pulled mostly from the texts that he published and from a couple American newspapers–The Daily Worker was kind of responsible for promoting lectures he did while here, and Russkii Golos, a Russian language paper out of New Yorkpublished something about Mayakovsky almost every day of his trip, so it’s been really great to look back through those archives.

What has been a favorite class or assignment in American Studies that led you toward this project?

Taj: There was an American Studies class I took on amusement and understanding specific populations and amusement in America. We had a lot of liberty to choose the topics we wrote about, and I remember writing a paper on the Jewish American population and the relationship between Israel and America. I remember becoming inspired by the fascinating relationship that is ongoing between American and Israel and this helped me focus in on the Jewish American population in America and understand their history, their position, and the different things that they’ve gone through. My paper looked at Jewish American identity through the lens of advertising. It focused on the representation of Israel in American advertising regarding tourist culture.

Alyse: One of the earliest classes I took in American Studies was Intro to American Studies with Elizabeth Engelhardt and it was focused on masculinity and femininity in American culture. I had never really explored masculinity before and I had never heard American History explored from that perspective. I thought it was interesting to look at changing gender roles as not necessarily an explanation of cultural shifts, but just one of the many lenses you could look through. At the time it was just an exceptionally new concept for me. During her class I became really drawn to this time period of 1900 to World War II because there is just so much going on and it feels like almost everything is in a constant state of flux. Her class made me realize that there was so much going on at this time that I hadn’t ever considered and to me that was very eye opening.

What’s next? Where are you headed after graduating this spring?

Taj: For the past year or so I have been working at my parents’ medical device company in quality assurance, and while that sounds dry, it is actually pretty fascinating work. I make sure the company stays within the guidelines of both international and domestic standards. What that means in layman’s terms is that when foreign or domestic governments set out new or revised standards for selling the medical device in those countries, I make sure that the company complies with those regulations. It’s fascinating work and I’m able to readily apply my research skills to international business.

Alyse: Well, after I graduate I’m going to take some time off before pursuing a graduate program. I’ve been looking at everything from History to Comparative Literature and I’m just not quite sure yet which direction I want to take. So, I figure that taking a step back from everything will give me some much needed perspective and let me flesh out my options a little better. To do that, I’m going to move to Los Angeles with one of my friends while she works on her Master’s. To be honest, I’m not yet sure what I’m going to do once I’m there, but I’ve always been the kind of person who just figures it out as I go along. I have a lot of different interests and options so I’ll see where they happen to lead me. In all of the free time that I’ll have because I won’t have a thesis to write, I’m actually hoping to work on translating the poems Mayakovsky wrote while in America. Most of them have never been translated to English and there are 22 of them, so it’ll keep me busy!

Undergraduate Research: Interview with Amanda Martin, Recipient of the Rapoport-King Thesis Scholarship

Today, we’re pleased to share with you an interview with one of our undergraduates, Amanda Martin, who recently received the Rapoport-King Thesis Scholarship. Congratulations to Amanda on this incredible accomplishment!

What was/is your favorite class in American Studies?

I took a Beats Literature class last semester with Dr. Meikle. I really loved that class. It was kind of refreshing to dive into the literature and live vicariously through these rugged souls. My life looks quite different. I really enjoyed that. I usually take the more intense cultural studies, critical thought classes, which I love, but it’s nice to take something different every once in a while, so I really enjoyed that class.

What are your research interests? Tell me a little about your thesis project.

My thesis is inspired and fueled by personal interests that I have in female identity in America and how it is constructed and maintained by women. I’m really interested in gender studies, obviously, and my thesis focuses specifically on examples of women who claim individual empowerment through partaking in beauty processes or traditional gender roles that can be perceived as regressive by feminist scholars. So I look at these complex, contradictory examples. For example, I’m looking at a pole dancing fitness studio called Brass Ovaries, which is interesting in itself. Even the title gives this idea of empowerment, and I’m hanging out with them and taking photos. Obviously, pole dancing has a lot of connotations for women in our society, but they see it as a really empowering thing, embracing their sexuality. They’re not really frilly about it. I have pictures of them in their Converse, these kick-ass women. I like trying to understand this and grapple with these ideas I’m not really certain about. As I’m trying to understand it, photography is a really useful medium especially with something complex like this.

What are your post-graduate plans?

I’m currently applying to a couple of graduate programs–probably not as many as I should, but I’m also open to the idea of taking a year off and doing photography and figuring life out if the grad school thing doesn’t work out immediately. I’d love to continue studying American studies at a graduate level because in a lot of ways it fuels my photography, that curiosity. I’m always being introduced to new ideas about American culture that make me want to jump into it, take pictures, and get to know people. So I’d love to go to grad school.

Why did you ultimately decide to study American Studies?

It’s funny how it happened. I actually went into undergrad as a Public Relations major. I took a journalism elective because I was still interested in photography, and I had a journalism professor who totally tore apart the advertising industry and PR and was offering a critical analysis that I’d never been introduced to. It was the first time I thought, hey, you can look at things critically, and things aren’t just a given, or naturally occurring, things are very constructed. So I ended up taking an AMS course on a whim as a history credit, and again I was introduced to this idea of critical cultural analysis, and I just loved it. So I immediately went in and added it as a second major, mainly because I thought it was awesome. I thought, I have my journalism degree, but I can do this for fun on the side. That’s how it started, but I’ve really fallen in love with the field and I want to keep going with it.

Amanda Martin is a senior studying American Studies and Photojournalism. She grew up in College Station, Texas. Amanda is currently employed by Texas Performing Arts as a student photographer and also pursues various other freelance photo opportunities. To view her work, visit www.amandamartinphotography.com.

5 Questions with Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

This week we bring you the next installment in a series of interviews with AMS faculty members: 5 Questions with Associate Professor Elizabeth Engelhardt.

1. What have been your favorite projects to work on and why?

My favorite project is always my next project. There is an interesting way that all of the projects lead one to the next. Even as writing a book about Appalachia might on the surface seem really different from writing a book about Southern food, I did the first research on the food project out of a bunch of material I was finding in Appalachia and didn’t know what to do with. So it sort of led me off into then doing the next project. You know, it’s easy to look backward and put a straight line on it, thinking, “Clearly I progressed from this to that.” I don’t think it was a straight line, but I do think that one has led to the other, which is one of the great joys of this particular career.

2. How do you see your work fitting into larger conversations in the academy and contemporary society?

One of the things that I love most about studying food is that there’s knowledge in all kinds of communities, and it has led me into conversations that are really thoughtful and challenging in university classrooms, but just as much in public libraries, waiting in front of a food trailer for someone to hand you food, at festivals or churches or in family kitchens. For me, that is not only one of the challenges of doing the research but also one of the places where I think the things we do in American Studies make real bridges to the communities in which we are living.

I have been increasingly thinking about what it means to do public humanities, where we need to be humble in that process but also where we are better for engaging in that process. I feel like my scholarship is better for the places I get out and talk with communities and sometimes those are communities in the present. Sometimes that is a real-life conversation where you’re sitting down across from each other. Sometimes those are archival communities that I get to listen in on through our historical methods, through our archival methods, and sometimes they’re communities that are best talked about through fiction, where the world of literature is a place where we can find these otherwise lost or subverted connections. Continue reading

Grad Research: Bombs and Belvederes

Last week, I introduced a collaborative project that I’ve been working on for the past few years, Mystery Spot Books. This week, I submit another bit of writing from our first book, Mystery Spot Vol. 1, on buried cars in Tulsa and hydrogen bombs hiding in plain sight in New Mexico.

Image by Chad Rutter, Mystery Spot Vol. 1

Sandia Base was a field test area for nuclear weapons run by the U.S. government that operated from 1946 until 1971. The former test site lies southeast of Albuquerque amidst a seemingly unbroken expanse of dry mesas and their tributaries of dusty roads. In May of 1957, at what is now called the Mark 17 Broken Arrow site, a 42,000-pound hydrogen bomb fell through the closed bay doors of a plane that was approaching Kirtland Air Force Base to the south. The plutonium pits were safely stored on the plane, but radioactive pieces of the bomb were scattered across the mesas. In 1996, the Center for Land Use Interpretation placed a descriptive marker at the site to commemorate the incident. The marker is a wooden post that stands in the middle of a field and holds a plaque describing the 1957 event. The Air Force cleaned up the site in secret, but if you visit the Mark 17 Broken Arrow site today, you can still find radioactive pieces of the hydrogen bomb hiding in the sagebrush.

Six hundred and fifty miles east of the Sandia Base, also in 1957, the city of Tulsa buried a brand new Plymouth Belvedere in an underground bunker designed to withstand nuclear fallout. The car was a time capsule, slated to be unearthed during Oklahoma’s centennial celebration in 2007. The concrete enclosure was intended to protect the car from decay, but a defect in the design of the bunker allowed water to seep in over the years and severely damage the Belvedere. A second car, a Plymouth Prowler, was placed in an above ground vault in 1998 and will be sealed there until 2048. If you visit Tulsa in 2048, you might see a well-preserved 1998 Plymouth Prowler emerge from its sepulcher, or perhaps a design flaw will allow time to do its work on this time capsule as well.

Some things get buried so no one can find them; some things get buried so everyone remembers them. But things don’t always stay buried. What you find if you visit the Broken Arrow site or Tulsa, Oklahoma, is more than the radioactive scraps of a destroyed bomb or a bizarre representation of local pride. One way or another, things come to the surface, and what is revealed when they do is not simply the contradiction between what we hide and what we honor, but the fact that the latter is often a mask for the former.

Grad Research: Mystery Spot Books

One of the most exciting projects I have had the opportunity to work on in the past few years is a collaboration with an artist and good friend in Minneapolis. Due to our shared interest in cultural geography and the weird and wonderful tourist landscape, we began to create book-length publications that explore ideas of land, site, history, and American material culture. These publications are printed in limited editions of 100-250 and include photography, drawings, essays, documentation of site-specific installations, and other artifacts from our travels. We currently have four titles in print, made possible by a generous grant through the Minnesota State Arts Board. The following is a short piece I wrote for our first book project, Mystery Spot, which has become the first volume in an ongoing series.

Photograph by Chad Rutter, Mystery Spot Vol. 1

Preservation and Entropy

The Winchester mansion in San Jose, California, was once an eight-room farmhouse. Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, purchased the property in 1884. By 1906, the year of the San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake, the house had grown into a seven-story mansion. After the earthquake it was reduced to its current four-story height, but construction continued for as long as Sarah Winchester was alive. It is said that on the day of her death in 1922, when carpenters heard the news, nails were left half-driven. In a house with 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens, this is just one of the apocryphal stories that has accumulated at the four-acre property in the Silicon Valley.

Tours of the Winchester mansion are offered to the public every day of the year save Christmas. The preservation process, like the building process, is perpetual. 20,000 gallons of paint are required to cover the exterior of the house, and the painting process takes so long to complete that by the time work has finished it is time to begin again. Much of the woodwork and many of the original fixtures are cordoned off or behind glass, and various collections of period furniture have been brought in to replace Sarah Winchester’s belongings, which were auctioned off after her death. One wing of the house, however, has been kept empty and in the state of disrepair brought on by the 1906 earthquake. Here, as in the rest of the house, guide ropes and carpeted paths maintain the distance between visitors and the attraction. Unlike the rest of the house, however, these rooms are billed as a “frozen moment in time,” as if entropy itself could be preserved.

The Winchester tour guide monologue focuses on the peculiarities of the owner’s ever-changing and enigmatic design and on the incredible arithmetic of the house itself. But something is missing from the hour-long tour. The eight-room farmhouse that stood on the site in 1884 has been all but lost in the process of building and rebuilding. While standing in one of the mansion’s many kitchens toward the end of the tour, visitors are informed that they may be standing in a section of the house near where the farmhouse once stood, but the location and dimensions of the oldest rooms are unknown. In a house that was renovated upwards of 600 times, a set of steps and a sentence of tour monologue are all that remain to represent the original structure.

The Mystery Spot Books website is in the works, but you can get updates on new projects (and see more images from the books) here.

Grad Research: AMS Dissertations Infographic, 2010-2011

The American Studies Association recently published the titles of American Studies dissertations from all reporting schools in 2010-2011. What better way to feature them than with a Wordle? For those unfamiliar with Wordle, the web application creates word clouds out of any text, visualizations that give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the original. With these visual data, we can (maybe) glean a little bit of information about which topics are currently in vogue to study in American Studies. Enjoy!

List: Top Picks at the Texas Book Festival

Writers and readers of all stripes and flocking to Austin this weekend for the annual Texas Book Festival. The schedule is always a bit daunting for the two day event, so here is a selection of notable events (with descriptions from the festival schedule)  featuring some familiar AMS faces (Elizabeth Engelhardt and Robert Abzug, to name two) as well as a few others worth seeking out amidst the flurry of activity.


A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender & Southern Food

with Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

Date: Saturday, October 22, 2011
Time: 11:15 – 12:00
Location: Capitol Extension Room E2.030

While staples of Southern foodways are often portrayed as stable and unchanging – the stories of their origins generally focused on elite whites or poor blacks – Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt uses methods of food culture and gender studies to reveal their troubling complexities. An associate professor of American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, Engelhardt was lead author of Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket.

Continue reading