Stories from Summer Vacation: Kirsten Ronald’s Summer of Dance

Here’s a dispatch from Ph.D. student Kirsten Ronald, who discusses her summer of teaching dance lessons.

2LF Kevin and Kirsten

Hello friends!  I passed my oral exams in April, so this summer I’m doing all those fun post-orals things: putting together a dissertation committee, working on my prospectus, and investigating the brave new world of grant writing.  And yes, for those of you who know about my penchant for rubrics, I am already making flowcharts and schedules galore to help keep myself on track.  I’ve even got a timeclock called Toggl, so I can punch in and out of work.  Some things are just too much fun to resist.

But after so many months of sitting still and not talking to anyone while studying for orals, man, I’ve just got to dance.  I learned how to two-step back when I first moved to Austin, and there’s still nothing I like to do better on a hot Texas summer night.  For all its aspirations to be a global city and the live music capital of the world, Austin is still very much in Texas, which means that in addition to being home to some of the best barbecue in the state, it also has an awesome (and growing) old school country and honkytonk scene.  I’m not talking the watered-down twang of pop country here – Austin’s country music is hot, dirty, and downright swampy, with far more boozy lovin’ and leavin’ than will ever make it onto KUT.  The dance is alive and evolving, too, a hot and sweaty mashup of traditional moves with East Coast swing, Lindy Hop, West Coast, and jive.  It’s Texas two-step with a cosmopolitan twist, and the chance to create something new and beautiful every single time you go out on the dance floor makes it wildly addictive.

Last summer, I started teaching two-step lessons at a local honkytonk called The White Horse, and since then my partner and I have formed a little dance company called Two Left Foots that teaches free beginning and intermediate lessons to 50 or 60 students a week.  We’re a small, new addition to a very large, very old and very well-established scene that is growing like everything else in Austin.  It’s a ton of fun with a lot of wonderful, warm, accepting people, it’s great exercise, and it’s a great way to be a living part of Austin and Texas history.  So come on out, y’all.  And don’t forget to bring your boots!

5 Takes on Women and Bicycles

Back in 2004, inspired by my friend Emily Wismer, I traded my car for a bicycle, and eight years, six cities, and thousands of miles later, I think it’s safe to say that I think riding a bike is pretty sweet.  I’m rarely stuck in a traffic jam, I get front-row parking pretty much wherever I go, and hey, I get me some exercise and a little daily sunshine, too, especially here in Austin.  In these enlightened times, it’s generally pretty awesome to be a lady cyclist, too, especially with more and more shops hiring female mechanics (thank you, Ozone and The Peddler!), more companies making women-specific gear, and folks like Mia Birk, Georgena Terry, and Shelley Jackson leading the charge in making cycling more accessible to everyone, including women.

Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bike around the world

But gender and bicycles can easily become complicated, too, and not just in a turn-of-the-century dress reform kind of way.  Back in the 1980s and 90s, technophiles like Donna Haraway argued that technology was going to be the great equalizer, as though somehow the right combination of wheels and gears and metal tubing could erase centuries of gender inequality.  As far as bikes go, that hasn’t happened – not yet, anyway.  But, with more and more lady cyclists moving into what has so far been a male-dominated technological domain, the bicycle is beginning to raise some questions about gender, female sexuality, and what it means to be a lady on two wheels.  Below, five very interesting answers to these questions.

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Grad Research: Histories and Highways in Washington, DC

Once the holiday festivities, post-Christmas sale shopping, family fun and new year’s shenanigans quieted down, I snuck off to the MLK library down in Gallery Place in Washington, DC, to spend a few days digging around in their voluminous community archives collection.  It was awesome.  I’m working on a piece on DC’s anti-freeway movement, and hoo boy does the DC Public Library have a lot of great stuff!  Not only do they have an incredible collection of photographs, DC City Council records, and DC-area newspapers large and small – they also have 42.5 linear feet worth of clippings, flyers, hearing transcripts, correspondence, maps, picket signs and all manner of other goodies donated by the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis (ECTC), an interracial anti-freeway group that leveraged the social upheavals of the 1960s to fight freeways in DC and to rewrite eminent domain legislation in the process.  Needless to say, I was psyched.

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5 Questions with Dr. Janet Davis

Today we bring you another incredibly fascinating and comprehensive interview with one of our illustrious faculty members, Dr. Janet Davis!

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

My favorite project is hard to define because I enjoy all of them. Sometimes I love them, sometimes I’m eager for them to be finished, but each has had its moments of incredible revelation and excitement. I would have to say there are two places at which I love the process the most. The first is the initial exhilaration of discovery, which often happens in the shower or out running, or when I’m doing something completely unrelated to work. I believe in the power of being away from work as a generative experience for getting into that creative mode where I make connections and have fun. The act of discovery for my very first book, which came from my dissertation, The Circus Age, came when I was having fun in Chicago for a weekend. I was out with friends at the Museum of Science and Industry, and I saw an incredible circus pictorial display. It was a photographic exhibition of circus parades from roughly 100-150 years ago. At the time I was a student in modern South Asian history. I had just started graduate school and was in my first year, and I was poised to go to India that summer. It hit me like a thunderbolt, this sense of, “Oh my goodness, look at all of the colonial South Asian animals, rituals, dress, aesthetics in these circus parades, ponderously moving down the streets of Keokuk, Iowa, and Salt Lake City, Utah, and Waco, Texas.” All of this popular culture of empire was in full, intimate display for Americans across the country, and it sparked a question for me: why was this happening? What was going on? That process of questioning led to the serendipitous discovery that the world’s largest public circus archive was only forty miles from my home, which is really quite lucky. So I actually switched out of South Asian history and moved into the American history program at the University of Wisconsin, and I loved it. I had a blast doing my research, I had a blast thinking and writing. And I had children along the way while I was living in north central Wisconsin, so that was in and of itself a fascinating and educational experience, living out in the woods for a good chunk of the five years that I was there before I was lucky enough to get hired at UT.

The Circus Age led to a slew of other opportunities. Again, it’s hard to say my favorite, because every project has had its own excitement and fun. I think that’s what makes this career so satisfying, in part. I would have to say that these projects grow out of each other, hence the difficulty in answering this question. It’s related to the interconnectedness of one’s own intellectual biography. Working in the circus archives and doing museum consulting at lots of different locations and building a community of people interested in this kind of research led to other projects, including the published memoirs that I edited, annotated, and wrote an introduction for about an aerialist named Tiny Kline. She was an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian empire and she lived at an industrial boarding school in New York City as a teenager, worked as a dancer, became a burlesque dancer, then became a circus performer and eventually hung by her teeth sliding across Times Square. She was a thrill artist. Tiny Kline later became Tinker Bell at Disneyland when she was 70, so her life story became a wonderful way to think about pop culture during the twentieth century in the United States. I really enjoyed the kind of detective work involved, from talking to her neighbors, to the descendant of one of her night-school teachers in Los Angeles.

Out of all of this work on the circus emerged a sense of thinking about animals while reading bits and pieces of protest about cruelty at the circus and what it meant. Although the circus was a pretty scattershot target of animal welfare activity in that era, I discovered that there was indeed an incredible social movement taking place in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century that was interested in thinking about animals and kindness and ideas of American citizenship, civilization, and America’s place in the world. People involved in these movements were redefining American civilization as a kindly civilization by advocating being kind to animals. So these ideas that seem really abstract in some respects about nationhood, empire, cultural pluralism, are all very much tied up into ideas about kindness and this “gospel,” as they called it, “of kindness.” This movement was interconnected with all sorts of other reformist movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My current project has been going on for quite a few years. What’s really been a surprise for me is that right now I am in the home stretch and I’m more excited about the project than ever, which is kind of surprising. About a year and a half ago, I kind of hated it, but now I’m feeling things are really coming together in a way that I did not expect when I was plowing through massive amounts of seemingly disparate primary material from all over the world. There are certain through lines, such as stray dogs, and the ways in which they speak to changing attitudes about the place of animals in urban environments versus rural environments. Dogs keep appearing in my chapters in really fascinating ways, and now that I’ve had some distance through the review process, I have more of a mountain top view of the project, where I see the landscape of my thinking and the evidence below me in a way that is allowing me to make these final, strong connections. And of course, this project is leading to other things, too.

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

I feel like my work is tied to a lot of bigger conversations topically, thematically, and methodologically. My research on animals has given me a wonderful entre into the natural sciences, into thinking about animals as historical subjects—not just in terms of how people relate to them, but in terms of their place in history as physical beings, directly tied to the impact of disease, technology, diet, and to epidemiological changes and technologies of preventative health like vaccines. This project has taken me into places that have been really exciting as far as rethinking what the humanities are. I think these fundamental questions about human-animal relationships are interconnected with questions of public health, diet, how we raise our food, how we live, and where we live. These are fundamental public questions, so I feel like this project really brings me into conversation with so many other fields, and I love it.

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5 Maps for the Visually Inclined

I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at, reading about, and – lately – making maps. No, this obsession with maps is not a new thing for me: I was totally the kid who pored over the AAA map on family vacations, the college student who lugged that same dog-eared AAA map on numerous cross-country treks, and the trucking dispatcher who tacked xeroxed, highlighted maps of Iowa and Michigan and Wisconsin over my desk.  When Google Maps finally unveiled their Bike Routes feature – well hey, there was at least one GPS-less bike hipster in Austin who took a victory lap around the neighborhood to celebrate.

One of the many things I love about maps is their ability to tell a story in a way that is somehow both totally objective and entirely personal. Certain elements of a landscape – the length of a road, maybe, or the location of a county line – are relatively fixed, but other elements – whether a road is safe to bike on, where the best barbecue is located, where the boundaries of a neighborhood are, how best to get from North Austin to the East side – are products of individual perspectives and ways of filtering and evaluating data. A really good map is one that visualizes the relationship between the objective and the personal in interesting ways; an awesome one makes a good argument or raises some good questions and has fun doing it. Here are five of my faves.

1. John Snow’s 1854 Cholera map

As Pete Warden points out, Snow’s map is the poster child for effective visualization of information, mostly because Tufte wrote so convincingly about it in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Snow, who had been trying to convince NYC officials for some time that cholera was not just water-born but related to a particular pump, created this map to show the correlation between high numbers of cholera-related deaths and proximity to a contaminated well in SoHo. The details of the story might be the stuff of legend, but I still love this map: it is simple, clear, direct, and uses spatial information to make a compelling argument for the cause of a deadly disease.

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