Jessica Swigger (PhD ’08) Talks About How Steve Hoelscher Inspired Her Career

img_4737In a short post featured on the Pearson website, Jessica Swigger (PhD ’08) describes how UT AMS Faculty Steve Hoelscher has inspired her in her career as a professor. We’ve included an excerpt below. Congratulations to Jessica and Steve!

“Steve informed everything about how I approach my job,” Jessie, an associate professor of history at Western Carolina University, said about her inspirational professor.

Jessie first met Steve when she took his Memory and Place course at the University of Texas (UT), Austin. “The point of the course is to examine how members within different cultures and societies do certain things to remember a shared past as well as to forget a shared past,” explained Steve, a professor of American Studies.

“I was really inspired by that class,” Jessie recalled. “Steve was studying the kind of things that I was interested in.” His enthusiasm for the subject was infectious, and it sparked her interest in public history, the way history is put to work in the world in fields like museum curatorship and historic preservation. Jessie eventually decided to specialize in this area of American Studies, writing her dissertation on the history of Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village and choosing Steve as her advisor.

Graduate Research + Exhibition: Natalie Zelt on LaToya Ruby Frazier

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Today, the first of two Austin-area exhibitions, both featuring the work of photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier and curated by the INGZ curatorial collective, opens at the UT Visual Arts Center, located in the ART building. INGZ’s Z is AMS grad student Natalie Zelt, who wrote her master’s report on Frazier. She elaborates on the project:

I had been familiar with Frazier’s work for a while, but I have this problem where I tend to be extra skeptical of photographers working in the rustbelt who deal with deindustialization. It wasn’t until I got to spend time in Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s exhibition “Witness” that I really got a sense of how her photographs work as both object and images on so many different registers. Seeing a solo exhibition really brings out the ways that she is conceptually using the history of photography as a tool in here work. That is part of why INGZ is bringing two exhibitions to Austin, both under the title “LaToya Ruby Frazier: Riveted.”

The black and white gelatin silver prints, the documentary style, her use of mostly analogue process and commitment to photography as an activist medium all harken to a history of photography that has been criticized for being aloof, marginalizing, and voyeuristic. Frazier is using this history and its criticisms when she makes these intensely personal and political images.

But the study and engagement with her work begs to move beyond a masters project. Thats part of why the INGZ collective decided to bring two exhibitions to Austin. At a moment when the very city around us is experience industry driven growth, not all that unlike the boom in Braddock in the 1950s, it is important for people to bear witness to LaToya’s experience.

The first exhibition is open at UTVAC until December 6th. Reservations for tours with the curators are available for classes and interested groups, please email for scheduling information. The second exhibition runs from January 15, 2015 to May 6, 2015 at ISESE Gallery in the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies (Jester A232A).


Announcement: Reading Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”


On Wednesday, October 29, AMS core faculty Dr. Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernandez and Dr. Mark Smith are participating in a round table of historians and literary scholars celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath by reflecting “on the context and controversies surrounding the book’s representation of poverty and dispossession in the United States during the Dust Bowl Era.” The event is at 3:30 PM in Garfield 4.100. We hope to see you there.

Five(ish) Questions: A Conversation with Dr. Susie Pak (St. John’s University)

Dr. Susie Pak, a historian from St. John’s University in New York, is coming to campus next week to discuss her recent book, Gentleman Bankers: The World of J.P. Morgan, “a study of the complex web of financial, social, and political relationships among Wall Street’s aristocracy in the early twentieth century.” During her talk, she’ll address how her use of network analysis allowed her to understand Morgan and his world and, in particular, “the challenges and rewards of studying historical networks from archival sources.” This week, we spoke to Dr. Pak about how her interests led her to Morgan, and where they’re going to take her in the future.


What is your scholarly background and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

I went to graduate school because I wanted to understand the historical persistence of racism, particularly as it related to the history of Asians in the United States. If history is the study of change over time, why and how does racism endure? At Cornell, I completed a comprehensive study of Asian American historiography (1850 onward) where I wrote about one important expression of racism that is a dominant theme in the literature, particularly after 1950—the characterization of Asian as foreign to and different from American. For my dissertation, I chose two topics central to Asian American history—immigration and empire—because they were two subjects in which foreign and domestic issues were also inextricably linked. Unexpectedly, this project generated another set of questions about the relationship between race, empire, and capital. That is how I arrived at the study of J.P. Morgan. To me, trajectory of the project speaks to the way in which history is also the study of relationships and connections, and it is an example of how those ties should be broadly defined because the answer to the question may reside far beyond one’s initial scope of interest.

What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

In general, historical research is a combination of discovery, translation, and analysis because historical evidence is, by nature, incomplete. I have spent so many years in archives that they are like a second home, but the research for Gentlemen Bankers required another level of endurance. Two projects in particular—the translation of the Morgan syndicate books and the creation of the geographic maps—stand out because they were very experimental and their analysis involved many separate steps over the period of several years. Though they turned out to be quite important to answering the book’s question about the relationship between Anglo-American and German Jewish bankers, there was no guarantee they would be useful, but the process of translating them had to be done if even just to test my assumptions about how the Morgans’ networks were organized.

The study of these particular sources also created many other different kinds of problems, and in order to address them, I had to learn skills in new content domains that I had not learned or even thought to learn, such as statistics, ArcGIS, social network analysis, and economics. After many years, the process of doing this research taught me how to look at a piece of qualitative data and translate it into quantitative form, which has fundamentally changed the way that I see, understand, and interact with historical evidence. This is also something I never planned or anticipated, but now it has become part of the way that I think. Much of my lecture will talk about the process of analyzing these primary sources.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

As a historian, I am not trying to formulate contemporary political or economic policy, but I can see how the stories in Gentlemen Bankers would resonate with current issues, such as the government regulation of finance, the importance of trust in business, and the persistence of economic inequality. For example, the book argues that economic agents are not separate from their society. Their relations, including those that create cooperation and trust, are not confined to the boundaries of the financial world. This would suggest that fundamental reform of economic inequality is also dependent upon substantive social change. Yet because society seems to change very slowly, it is often discounted as a variable in economic analysis—“Ceterus paribus”. What if the relationship to the variable “holding things constant” or “all things being equal” is actually what we should be investigating? And how would we do that given the fragmentary nature of much qualitative historical evidence? The book offers a historical example of an investigation into these kinds of questions.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

My work draws from many different fields ranging from economic history to comparative literature to sociology to cultural studies. I have too many heroes to mention, but I can say I am most inspired by work that investigates the history of the normal (narratives we take for granted and do not question), and I tend to be drawn to work that explains the process of analysis and the nature of the evidence in great detail. These days there are few things that impress me more than when someone has a good research question and systematically and rigorously collects diverse evidence in a transparent fashion.

What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

I am very interested in the study of crime, including financial crime, and I am working on a paper right now on the 1980s Savings & Loan Crisis with Jana Diesner, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign where I am a research fellow for the next year. Our study incorporates the use of text and social network analysis to study the structure of social and economic networks using historical, digital open-source data. In the long term, it will form part of manuscript project on the history of banking in the United States.

One impetus for the project had to do with the changing nature of historical data. It is not just that I want to avoid the pain of handcoding thousands of pages of archival data because I am sure that will still happen, but one hundred years from now, historians will not be searching through the papers of banks and individuals as I did in Gentlemen Bankers. Much of the data will be stored electronically. If we are to be prepared for the future study of history and also teach it to our students, we must engage with new technology and to understand how future historical data will be stored, archived, and accessed.

Like Gentlemen Bankers, this project is very experimental and it requires a different kind of skillset and engagement with the field of computer science—text mining and natural language processing. We will be presenting part of our work at the American Historical Association in January 2015, and I am very interested to see how historians will respond to this kind of computer-assisted historical analysis. It is becoming more common in fields like literature, but I think it is still fairly new to the study of history. There’s a lot of math behind it and learning about the science has been like learning a new language.

Given your newest project, what do you think the role of the digital methodologies will be in the humanities, long term?

Theoretically speaking, digital methodologies are no different from non-digital methodologies in that they are both about critical thinking. What distinguishes them is the type of evidence with which they engage. The role of digital methodologies in the humanities thus depends on the kinds of research questions that are pursued by the field and also on the state of the evidence in those projects. For example, I could not use text mining to study the Morgan syndicate books, but maybe one day, the library will digitize all twelve books and optical character recognition software will become more common and future scholars will do just that, which would be very interesting.

As a question of pedagogy and professional development, it is fairly clear that unless one has some awareness of digital methodologies, it would be difficult to grasp the possibilities or opportunities or challenges they can offer to critical analysis. Future students could learn it more systematically, if the desire is present in their graduate schools to implement those types of courses as part of the curriculum, or they could go about in the very organic, haphazard way I went about studying the social science methodologies for Gentlemen Bankers. The disadvantage to the latter method is that it took much longer (and it was a process fraught with anxiety), but the advantage is that it was entirely driven by the research question and the process of figuring out how to answer the question became an integral part of the process of learning. For future projects, it was not just the answer to the question but figuring out how to answer the question that was valuable in the long term.

In one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

American Studies is interdisciplinary.

Announcement: Texas Book Fest

2014-TXBookFest_Texas Theatre photo by Dan Winters 1992

This weekend is Austin’s annual Texas Book Festival, and we here at AMS :: ATX would like to point to some people you might like to see while you’re at the Capitol this weekend.

First and foremost is our very own Steve Hoelscher, who will be talking about Reading Magnum, the book he edited celebrating the history and archive of the Magnum photographic agency, the latter of which is now part of the collection at the Harry Ransom Center, at 3:30 on Sunday. You can find more info about Dr. Hoelscher’s book here. Info on the talk can be found here.


With the rest of your weekend, here’s some other stuff to seek out:


At 10:00 AM, check out Adan Medrano, who will discuss Texas-Mexican American cuisine, or go hear Douglas Brinkley, John Dean, and Luke Nichter talk Richard Nixon’s presidency.

At 11:00 AM, Charles Blow talks his memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones, while Tiphanie Yanique and Jess Row discuss Constructing Racial Identity in a globalized world at 11:30.

At 1:00 PM, Austinite Austin Kleon and Joshua Wolf Shenk have A Conversation on Creativity, while Ofir Touche Gafla and Jeff VanderMeer discuss science fiction in The Stuff of Stars at 1:45.

At 2:00 PM, novelist Elizabeth Crook talks Monday, Monday, her novelization of the Texas Tower Sniper.

At 3:00 PM, S.C. Gwynne discusses his new biography of Stonewall Jackson and Francis Fukuyama talks the development of political institutions and his new book Political Order, Political Decay.

At 4:00, Josh Ostergaard maps baseball onto American politics and culture in Let’s Play Ball, while Robert Bryce and Russell Gold talk the future of energy technology in Here Comes the Boom. 


11:15 AM, Tim Lane talks comics and his new book Lonesome Go.

12:00 PM, Adam Rogers discusses The Science of Booze.

At 1:30 PM, Luara Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer talk their book An Artist’s Library, their Library as Incubator Project and how to build strong relationships between artists and libraries.

At 2:15 PM, Michael Ruhlman tells of the many ways to cook an egg.

At 3:30, members of the cast and crew of the movie Boyhood, including director Richard Linklater and star Ellar Coltrane, come together to talk spending twelve years making a movie.

For a full schedule with room assignments, check our the Texas Book Festival schedule here.

Faculty Research: Interview with Dr. Nicole Guidotti-Hernández


dr.g-h In honor of her recent appointment as the inaugural chair of the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at UT (MALS), we sat down with Dr. Nicole Guidotti-Hernández to talk about the founding and future of MALS, the unique features of the program, and what Latina/o Studies contributes to scholarship and the community more broadly.

Tell us a little bit about the history of the Center for Mexican American Studies and the founding of the Mexican American and Latina/o Studies department. What do you think is important about the work of the Center and Department at UT and beyond?

These two questions are actually connected. The Center for Mexican American Studies was founded in 1970 under the leadership of Americo Paredes, who was a public folklorist and conducted interdisciplinary anthropological work. He was a student at UT and trained with J. Frank Dobie, one of the most renowned American folklorists. Another really important person who was here was Jovita González, the first woman to be the president of the Texas Folklore Society. When the Center was founded, the mission was to serve the community through intellectual work, so one of the reasons we are doing all the press about the new department is because we feel we are not just an academic unit but that we have a political and social obligation to communities of interest here in Austin, in Texas, and nationally. When I say “the community” I don’t just mean Mexican American or Latina/o communities but wonder instead, what is the responsibility of this department in preparing the state of Texas and the nation for dealing with the exploding Latina/o demographic.

I actually think that we have a real opportunity to show that academic departments can help set the stage and problem solve for questions that emerge on the political scene. I’m not saying we have all the answers or that we should be writing policy, but why can’t research and teaching inform public debate? Also, why can’t the students we train be the people that end up becoming those key decision makers? One of the things I’ve been stressing in a lot of recent interviews is the value of the degree in terms of training students to be Latina/o professionals. I told a journalist that we’re not here to teach people to be Latina/o, that’s something they learn how to do on their own. This major, this degree, this program, its emergence as Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, is a recognition of the historic Mexican American population in the state of Texas, of newly emerging Latina/o populations from Central and South American and the Caribbean, and also a recognition of their long term histories. For example, there’s a Puerto Rican community in San Antonio–why? Because of military bases. We can link that back to the Jones–Shafroth Act of 1917, where Puerto Ricans were given citizenship and could join the U.S. military to fight in World War I. That’s why we have a Puerto Rican community in San Antonio, because of militarization. There are direct correlates between Latina/o migration and historic population and U.S. foreign policy that I think we need to pay attention to. At some level, it is the political, social, and intellectual responsibility of the department to account for these histories. What we can do is provide students a stellar UT education but also give them the additional bonus by teaching them how to be ethical, how to recognize cultural difference so they can be responsible professionals no matter what they’re doing. That’s where I see the relationship between the MALS department’s public mission and the long-term history of the Center being linked.

The thing MALS brings to the table that is different than, say, an area studies model of Latin America where you study Mexico or Chile or the Dominican Republic is that we’re interested in the diaspora question, the transit between there and here, “here” being the U.S. What happens here with those populations when, for example, Central Americans live next to historic Mexican American populations or African American population?. How do we account for these social relations? That’s what Latina/o Studies helps us do as a nation.

How do you see the MALS department growing in terms of research and teaching?

We have six faculty now. When we arrive at the optimum number it will be between ten and twelve, very similar to the size of the American Studies department. We’ll have a Ph.D. program, because you can’t have a research department without a Ph.D. program. One of the things we’re interested in is training students in a core discipline as well as the interdisciplinary field. For example, you could do Latina/o Studies and History, or Latina/o Studies and Psychology, or Latina/o Studies and American Studies. What that does is it gives a student formal interdisciplinary training in their field, and it also gives them a foot in a traditional discipline. I think that more and more it becomes critical to make sure students have as many advantages as possible for an ever-shrinking job market, and if we can provide two different kinds of training that are related to each other, then I think our students are going to fare better. The other thing I would say is that we are going to have small cohorts so that we can support our students better monetarily. What that means is that our students will be taking classes in departments like American Studies, like History, like English as a part of their training. On some level, what we’re doing is building on core disciplinary strengths across the university at the same time that we’re establishing our own individual research program that focuses on Latina/os but with interdisciplinary, qualitative, and quantitative methods.

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