5 Questions: Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor, African and African Diaspora Studies

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Today we share with you an interview with Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies department and affiliate faculty member of the American Studies department. Dr. Browne and American Studies senior Rebecca Bielamowicz discussed teaching in the public school system, black feminist thought, the politics of creative expression, and her new book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015). And, you’re in luck: the conversation was so engaging that we expanded it beyond our usual five questions. Read on for a fascinating discussion!

 

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

Oh that’s a good question – nice – and I like that you put teaching first because that’s so important to me. So my scholarly background, I grew up in Toronto and I went to school at the University of Toronto for undergrad, master’s degree, and PhD. In between that I got a teaching degree, and so I actually have background teaching kindergarten and the second grade as well, too. And so one of the things that was important in my graduate studies was that in the program that – so I’m a sociologist, but the program that I was in was sociology and equity studies, and so it wasn’t like an add on, it was something that was really important to the department’s political project, and I think that comes in to how I think about how we can see the world sociologically, it’s also about equity as well, so I think that kind of influences my teaching.

After I did the teaching degree, I wanted to go into a master’s in education in the field of education. I was interested in pursuing those issues around social justice and equity in the public school system and so – but when I went there, sometimes you get a little sidetracked with some things, and I was kind of interested in those same things but as well as a cultural studies approach to looking at sociology and so that’s how I ended up in more of the, I guess more of the academic track as opposed to public schooling.

How was teaching the younger kids?

It’s hard. That was the hardest job I’ve ever had. A different type of hard because you’re on every day, there’s so much prep work to do, of course there are always, and I’m sure it’s changed a lot now where it’s been ramped up, but there’s always these metrics and benchmarks and testing and everything that you have to do. There’s oftentimes that you have to create spaces for them to learn through play or other things, and so it was tough, I’ll tell you that. My mother was a teacher, so I have a great – she was actually teaching at the same school as me for one time – but it was a great appreciation for the labor that they do. It’s no joke. They are really putting it in and they’re often not given the respect they deserve and the schools are not given the money they need. It is the toughest job but so important. And they’re great – to see the students, some of them are finished with university now, you know, that was such a long time ago.

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5 Questions with Dr. Lauren Gutterman

IMG_3740The Department of American Studies is very pleased to announce that Dr. Lauren Gutterman will be joining our faculty in the fall of 2015. Dr. Gutterman comes to us from the University of Michigan, where she is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Society of Fellows. She holds a PhD in History from New York University, and has published in Gender & History and The Journal of Social History. Her current book manuscript, developed out of her dissertation, focuses on lived experiences of mid-20th century married women who desired other women. We spoke with Dr. Gutterman earlier this month, in advance of her arrival in Austin this August.

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

Dr. Gutterman: I received my PhD in History at New York University, and I’m currently a postdoctoral scholar in Women’s Studies and the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. But my academic career really began as an undergraduate at Northwestern University where I double majored in American Studies and Gender Studies. Part of me will always be chasing the feelings I experienced as an undergrad as I learned to look at things—especially with regard to gender and sexuality—in an entirely new way. It just felt like the world was opening up, changing before my eyes, all these things that sound so trite but were completely true. As an undergrad I also discovered my love of history. I wrote a senior thesis about the New England Watch and Ward Society’s anti-burlesque campaign in the 1930s and that was my first experience with archival research. It was so exciting for me to read and touch things written so long ago, to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I discovered the depth of my nerdiness.

As a teacher and a researcher, I’m most passionate about understanding how what we think of as normal and natural in terms of gender and sexuality has changed over time. My classes (like my research) combine a study of politics and popular culture in American history. In the fall I’ll be offering a course called “Sexuality, Reproduction, and American Social Movements,” which I’ve taught twice before at the University of Michigan. One of the things I enjoy most about this course is challenging students’ belief that women’s reproductive rights keep improving steadily with time. So, for example, we read about how abortion was unstigmatized, legal, and often easily accessible for most of the 19th century. There’s an oral history interview I use on History Matters with a working-class immigrant woman who got twelve abortions at the turn of the twentieth century in New York City safely, and without thinking anything of it; this is completely shocking for students.

In addition, one of my major goals as a scholar has been to try to speak to a broad audience, to engage those beyond the academic world in the history of sexuality. I’ve tried to do this in multiple ways, through my work with the history of sexuality websites OutHistory.org and Notches, the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, and the Center for LGBTQ Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. One of my proudest moments was discovering that artist Elvis Bakaitis had cited my work in a zine about 1950s queer history.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

Like many historians of homosexuality, George Chauncey’s Gay New York is probably the one book that has had the greatest impact on my work. I first read it as an undergraduate and I remember being awed both by the extent and details of the queer world he uncovered, and by the simple fact that it was possible to do this kind of history.

My current project, which examines the lives of wives who desired women since the postwar period, is in some ways a response to Chauncey’s book which focuses primarily on men and on the public sphere. I don’t believe that lesbians have ever had the same claims to public space that gay or queer men have had (even today there are far fewer lesbian bars), but this has not prevented women from engaging in sexual relationships with each other. My book project argues, in part, that the nuclear family household has functioned as a lesbian or queer space for married women; the women in my study typically engaged in same-sex affairs with other wives and mothers they met in the course of their daily lives, within their own homes.

What was your favorite project to work on and why?

I’m still working on revising my first book manuscript Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire within Marriage, which is based on my dissertation, so it is hard to talk about having a “favorite” project, since I don’t have many to choose from!

I can, however, speak to a favorite moment in researching this project, which occurred when I first went to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco to look at the papers of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Martin and Lyon were long-time lesbian activists who helped found the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the nation’s first lesbian rights group in 1955. When I first set out on this project, I imagined that I would focus on the lives of three women, one of whom was Del Martin. When I got to the GLBT Historical Society the materials I’d hoped would be there–about her personal life while she was married–were not, but I did discover dozens and dozens of letters that married women had written to the DOB and to Martin and Lyon stretching from the 1950s to the 1980s. Discovering those letters changed the entire frame of my project, because I realized I could write a social history (rather than a group biography) about these women, which I had not imagined before. I joked at the time it was like a finding a dissertation in a box.

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

Well, I’ll start with academia because that’s easier…One of the things I am trying to do as a scholar is to draw attention to the ways that the history of homosexuality is primarily based on men’s experiences. This problem cannot be addressed simply by taking our current model of gay history and “adding” women. I believe that focusing on women’s lives can change our understanding of the history of homosexuality as a whole. For example (as I alluded to above), as long as the history of homosexuality focuses on the public sphere–on bars and public sex, and even government policing–women will inevitably play a lesser role within it. To make women more central to the history of homosexuality requires that we pay much more attention to the domestic sphere, as I do in my book. But this is just one of the ways that I think gay history might change by centering women’s lives.

Beyond the academic world, my work obviously relates to the broader conversation about gay marriage. My work shows that legally defining marriage as “between one man and one woman” cannot, and has not, ensured marriage’s straightness. Even in the postwar period–when American marriages were more widespread and longer-lasting than ever before–wives who desired women found myriad ways to balance marriage with lesbian affairs. Often these women did so by engaging in same-sex affairs in secret, but many women did not hide their affairs from their husbands entirely, and many husbands were willing to turn a blind eye to their wives’ special friendships, and just wait for them to pass. In this way, my work shows that the histories of marriage and of homosexuality have long been intertwined, and that, in a way, marriage has been queer for much longer than we’d like to think.

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

Over the last year or so, with the help of two incredible undergraduate research assistants at the University of Michigan, I’ve begun researching and writing about the case of Jeannace June Freeman, the first woman sentenced to death in Oregon in 1961. Freeman was a white, working-class, butch lesbian and she and her lover, Gertrude Nunez Jackson, together murdered Jackson’s two young children in an incredibly brutal way. Based on everything we know about stereotypes about violent, mannish lesbians from the work of Lisa Duggan among other scholars, and about the discrimination homosexuals faced in the middle of the twentieth century, the fact that Freeman was sentenced to death is not at all surprising. What is surprising, however, (and this is what has fascinated me about this very disturbing case), is that Freeman became the major symbol of the movement to abolish capital punishment in Oregon, and many Oregonians came to see her as sympathetic. Ultimately, in large part because of her case, voters repealed the death penalty in Oregon in 1964 by referendum, and the governor commuted Freeman’s sentence to life in prison. So the question that has been guiding this project is, why and how did Oregonians come to see a butch, lesbian, child-killer as deserving of mercy?

At the meta level, though, this project is also about resisting the pressures that historians of homosexuality face to do history that is always somehow “good” for LGBT politics. Obviously, the field of sexuality history is fundamentally linked to the emergence of the gay liberation and women’s liberation movements of the 1970s. And my own commitment to researching and writing the history of homosexuality is shaped by my political concerns, my desire to show that this history matters. But at the same time, I don’t think it is good or honest to neglect those parts of the gay past we’d prefer to keep hidden. Jeannace June Freeman’s case certainly lent credence to the worst stereotypes about lesbians at midcentury, but when we ignore her story—or those of other “bad queers”—we lose opportunities for historical insight and we surrender our ability as scholars to help contextualize some of the ugliest parts of the queer past. I don’t think we can overcome homophobic stereotypes by tiptoeing around them.

Bonus question – in one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

To me, American Studies is the study of what it means and what it has meant to be American. Who gets to choose? Who gets excluded? What cultural and political mechanisms enable those exclusions? And how have they changed over time? In addition, for me American Studies is as much about the research method as the object; it’s about a commitment to interdisciplinary work, however complicated or difficult that may be.

5 Questions with Dr. Stephen Marshall

We return on the eve of Spring Break by publishing one of our classic features. Here’s an absolutely fascinating conversation between Ph.D. student Christine Capetola and Dr. Stephen Marshall, associate professor of American Studies and African and African Diaspora Studies.

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CC: What’s your favorite project to work on and why?  In the past or maybe right now, whichever…

SM: Well… I’m having a lot of fun with my research right now.  I don’t feel nearly the same amount of pressure that I felt trying to get first book done.  The first book, actually, was not connected with my dissertation.  The dissertation was an entirely different study that was probably too large an undertaking for someone in that stage of their career.  The kind of question I was pursuing in the dissertation was not only a huge question but one that became really politically salient as I was attempting to revise.  The dissertation was on the problem of evil as a political problem, the political as particular kind of interpretation and engagement with evil.  I looked at Hannah Arendt, St. Augustine, and James Baldwin as thinkers who in different ways understand the political in these terms.   So I’m writing about evil and, as it turns out, September 11th happens and everybody and their mother begin to talk about evil.  I find myself responding to everybody and I realize that I could probably spend another three, four years working on this project to do it right.  So after three years on it, I turned to a smaller project that I had been kicking around for a little while and that turned into my first book.

But of course after spinning my wheels on the problem of evil for two, three years, I was under a lot of pressure to get this book done in time to get tenure.  So, that wasn’t a lot of fun.  There’s a chapter in my first book where I write about James Baldwin and I really did feel like I was inspired when I wrote that.  I mean, I actually wrote it out by hand.  I was smoking cigarettes at the time so I sat right out there (points to outdoor space at Flight Path) and Shirley [Thompson] and Solomon, my son, were out of town and over a two day period I just basically wrote out a large part of that chapter.  Those moments of inspiration are rare and special but I can’t say that… I don’t claim that as fun.  Fun is something like I used to experience when I was a graduate student.  After I completed my coursework and before I began writing my dissertation, I was reading everything that I wanted to read at my own pace.  That’s kind of where I’m at right now, pursuing the questions that I’m interested in, engaging authors that I want to engage.  I’m certainly feeling there’s a time constraint, that I need to get this second book finished fairly soon but not feeling like my livelihood or the livelihood of my family depends on me getting this thing done tomorrow.

So what are some of those questions that you’re thinking about right now?

So there are a couple of things.  The general problematic is this question about the afterlife of slavery; that is, the problem of slavery as an ongoing reality of American culture and politics. However, what I am interested in is turning from prevailing investigations which track this reality on and within black life to an investigation that thinks this problem through the problem of mastery- the political constitution of mastery as a legitimate but threatened practice that must remain silent yet always in need of special forms of protection. So, I’m thinking about the political legacies of this problem; where within American culture and politics one finds traces, and in fact, actual reconstitutions of it.

I’ve been recently looking very closely at Du Bois’s arguments about the way the post-Reconstruction consolidation of capital incorporates the ethos and management techniques of the plantation- spiritual commitments to and practical experience with dominating nature that were part and parcel of the southern slaveholding experience but foreign to northern capitalistic practices among smaller property owners.  So I’m thinking about the skills and expertise of the plantation finding their way into corporate practices.  And, also with the way in which the reconstitution of unfree black labor in the south occurs alongside the imperial constitution of virtual slavery in other parts of the world facilitate the emergence of what DuBois describes as the unprecedented power of the super corporation.

There’s another piece to this as well which is trying to figure out how it is that other practices of mastery show up in more mundane and  quotidian practices, some of which become central to African American life.  So, how is it that Americans from all walks of life come to adopt commitments and practices that were originally rooted in the exercise of mastery?   What does this mean for a cultural and political community which claims to have abolished slavery? What does it mean for a counter-tradition and political culture which has historically understood itself as organized around the quest for freedom?  Does it mean that when we take the full measure of the problem of mastery we must come to see freedom as always that something which stands outside the law and all the authoritative normativities which prevail in the U.S?  Is freedom always fugitive?

As per [Fred] Moten…

Moten, exactly.  Moten famously claims that fugitivity is expressly anti-political.  Not simply apolitical but actually anti-political.  According to him, you have to guard against the development of political interests because these interests implicitly connect you to institutionalized forms of race governance and state normativity.  So the experience of fugitivity, the experience of always being one step removed from the law means this refusal to stake a claim in yourself as an interlocutor with these logics.

I’m not totally comfortable with that.  At the same time, I’m not comfortable with other interpretations of black fugitivity which claim that the experience is sedimented in the radicality of those slave narratives which pushed the American regime to incorporate blackness and black folk within its conception and practice of liberty.  This view seems to flatten out the centrality of the fugitive’s experience of flight, evasion, and discipline to remain undetected by the law.  So, I think there is real work to be done around identifying the distinctive politics that flow from the experience of fugitivity. What are fugitivity’s conditions of possibility? What kinds of supports does it require and how does it exist in relationship to countervailing forces?  If it seeks to reproduce itself what must be done now and in the future to maintain and/or defend itself?  This is a political problematic that seems to me unavoidable for those of us interested in recommending fugitivity as an exemplary practice of freedom.  So, it is in light of these concerns that I’ve been drawn more and more to literary figures, Toni Morrison in particular.  So I’m having a lot of fun with this, reading widely in history and philosophy and putting this into conversation with political philosophers and literary artists has been a blast.

So what are some connections that come to mind for you between these questions and things going on both in academia and in the world outside of that?

One of the most exciting developments in my field and one of the most exciting things at the University of Texas is the emergence of black political thought as a recognized intellectual paradigm.  For political science, actually political theory, to finally acknowledge the authority and wisdom of these texts pushes the margins of the canon and the field.  To be forced to reckon with the philosophical autonomy of these texts even as we acknowledge their engagement with central questions of the canon and discipline means recognition of the need for a kind of specialized engagement with these texts. And, to reckon with the concerns of this literature that go beyond the traditional canon means the possibility that the entire enterprise of political theory may be undergoing important change.

The University of Texas was founded as an institution to carry out the project of reconstituting the nation along lines imagined by nostalgic former confederates.  One important founder was a large plantation owner from Mississippi who moved to Texas, and decided to invest in the mission of cultivating white manhood for a new south.  Since then, there’s been a slow and uneven opening to blackness at this university- first, with the admission of a small number of students and then with the hiring of a small number of black faculty. Today, we have this major opening where permanent institutions devoted to scholarly engagement with blackness have been created to serve the interests of the entire university.  This is a pretty dramatic transformation and wonderful opportunity. I think the acknowledgement of black political thought and black studies have been really important interventions.

You know this question of mastery is for me at the heart of the crisis of black vulnerability in our present moment.  The racialization of crime and the criminalization of blackness are obvious and well documented examples of the afterlife of slavery.  The recent spate of indefensible killings of young black men under suspicion of criminality by law enforcement and their auxiliaries are too easily regarded as a break from or malfunction of the regime of American liberalism. And what this view does is displace victims and families of victims as the center of moral concern and focus attention on the frailties of ostensibly just American institutions.  And of course, this focus obscures how black vulnerability to surveillance, interdiction, and incarceration is and always has been constitutive of our politics.  So what I’m asking is what if what we’re really wrestling with when thinking about these killings is the normal operations of post-slavery liberalism?  What if that’s the regime that we live in? American liberalism and various projects of attempting to master blackness go hand in hand.

I started thinking about the problem of mastery long before the vulnerability of black men to executions became topical.  It actually came to me as I was thinking about this dispute between Du Bois and Douglass about the survival of the power and spirit of the confederacy.  But as I began to think about it, it began to illuminate for me the continuities between a number of unpleasant political moments.  I think a number of people are increasingly coming to believe that while we have this extraordinary array of theoretical formulations to make sense of the political past, we don’t really know the fundamental character of the regime we inhabit right now.  We don’t know where we are.  And I suspect part of this has to do, as George Shulman says in American Prophecy…, this is because we orient ourselves in light of models which presuppose the political experiences of Europe rather than the experiences of new-world political modernity. We need to devise the theoretical tools and frameworks that actually engage our experience and history to describe where we’re at right now.

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5 Questions with Dr. Mark Smith

Today we are pleased to present the next in our series of interviews with American Studies faculty and affiliate faculty members: 5 Questions. We recently sat down with Dr. Mark Smith, whose research interests include the history of social science and the cultural history of alcohol and drugs.

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1. What was your favorite project to work on and why?

I’m sure my answer’s going to be a little bit different from the other people who I think would talk about their research projects, but I think I’d really like to talk about the teaching that I’ve done around the issue of alcohol and drugs, which is something I just chanced into. In fact, I started working at a drug and alcohol treatment center, and I realized that there was a lack of historical and sociological background to see where that stood, particularly where it stood in the issue of cultural history. And what I’ve done is I’ve been able to give a series of classes to different people that deal with the issue of drugs in various permutations. Someone once told me that in scholarship, the question is whether you do more and more about less and less, that is, your focus becomes wider and wider; or whether you do more about less and less. The second is clearly what you do when you write books. Teaching gives the opportunity to do the former. I’ve taught three classes. I taught the original class, a seminar in the American cultural history of alcohol and drugs, and I’ve taught that primarily as an upper division undergraduate class. And I’ve also taught an upper division class for Plan 2 which treats the issue from a public policy standpoint, and now I’m teaching an undergraduate class on alcohol and drugs from an international standpoint, pointing out the fact that alcohol has been handled differently in places like Sweden and Finland and Africa.

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

You know, if you asked me ten years ago, I’d have a very clear answer for that. I deal in cultural history; I believe that I was the second person who taught both parts of the cultural history survey. My perspective is always to provide a general overview on the issues involved. I’ve always done that, that’s always been my interest. I was one of the first people to teach Introduction to American Studies. But my feeling is not to plunge myself into a topic- and maybe not even come out- my interest is providing a background so that people in important contemporary fields like Gender Studies or Queer Studies can have background and context. To that extent, I think I’m very much rooted not only in these issues that are coming up today, but those issues that have come up in the past and hopefully the future as well.

3. What projects or people have inspired your work?

Within alcohol studies, probably the best books that I know are W. J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic, and then recently, on Prohibition, Daniel Okrent came up with a book called The Last Call. I think those have really been useful. Clearly, Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, about Vietnam, and Frances FitzGerald’s book Fire in the Lake have been books that really had a lot to do with my understanding of the kind of world that I had grown up in. More recently, George Chauncey’s Gay New York, a work that you might think would be narrowly focused but instead tells you a lot more than you think it ever could. There are many amazing works on slavery, but the one that first opened my eyes at a very unprogressive time was Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution.  And then sometimes there are books where you think you’re not going to be interested in the topic at all and you’re surprised. There’s a man who died much too young by the name of Roland Marchand who wrote a book called Advertising the American Dream. This is one of the big books, ambitious books, books that you just look at and go, “Wow, this is amazing!” and you’re reading them and you’re taking notes and you do that for two whole days. I think that’s why a lot of graduate students have a “fear and loathing,” to use Hunter Thompson, in reference to the whole concept of the comprehensive exam fields. And to me, maybe that was my greatest scholarly experience in a way. Not only because you have a sense of accomplishment, but because you wind up reading books that you would never read. If you were just interested in alcohol and drugs, you would never read Marchand’s book. And that’s just a sampling of the books that have influenced me.

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Five Questions with Rebecca Rossen

Today we’re pleased to feature an interview with another one of our incredible affiliate faculty members, Dr. Rebecca Rossen, professor of dance history in the Department of Theatre & Dance and Performance as Public Practice. Dr. Rossen has just published her first book, Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance (Oxford). We recently sat down with her to talk about her scholarly and artistic background, her new book, and her future research and teaching.

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

Before I was a scholar I was a dancer and choreographer in Chicago. I did that for the decade after I graduated from college, my entire 20s. I went to graduate school to get a PhD, expecting to continue on making dance, but the experience ended up transforming me into a historian. I would say that as a scholar I’m a dance historian whose work focuses on identity, ethnicity, and gender representations in performance. Methodologically, I bring together my work as a dance historian with my experience as a performer. Those two threads are not only present in my research but are also present in the classes that I teach and how I teach them.

What has been your favorite project to work on so far?

As a scholar I’ve worked on one main project (with multiple side projects) for a really long time, which started as a dissertation–as many of our projects do–14 years ago. It was finally birthed as a book last spring. It’s both my favorite project as well as something that I have sometimes referred to as “the beast” because it was the project. Dancing Jewish has been an extremely involving endeavor. The book looks at how American Jewish choreographers, working in modern and postmodern dance, represent their Jewishness. I show how, over a 75-year period, dance allowed American Jews to grapple with issues like identity, difference, assimilation, and pride.

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

Dancing Jewish considers various themes that are repeated in dances over time, like nostalgic depictions of Eastern European Jews or biblical heroism as a response to World War II or Jewish humor and stock characters. Because the book focuses solely on Jewish-American performances, it’s definitely an American Studies book. I’m interested in the next book in looking at representations of the Holocaust in performance, not focusing solely on American artists but including European and Israeli artists, and not just focusing on Jewish artists but also including non-Jewish artists who have responded to the Holocaust in interesting ways. The next project is a natural extension of the first one but takes a more global perspective and moves beyond considering just the work of Jewish artists.

How do you see your work fitting into broader conversation in dance history or American Studies?

Dancing Jewish is certainly an American Studies book, because when you are talking about Jewishness in America, you are talking about how a group of people balanced a very specific ethnic identity with their Americanness, which generally–especially in the earlier part of the century–was conceived as not-Jewish. There are some very interesting tensions that get worked out in these dances between Jewishness and Americanness and how choreographers are choreographically trying to balance these identities or converge them. It is ultimately a book about American identity with a specific lens looking at Jewish identity. But it is also a work of Dance Studies, so if you are interested in dance and performance, it’s a book that considers how identities are performed physically. Because of that, and because of my background as an artist, I think one of the contributions it makes is its use of embodied scholarship. I spent a lot of time in the archive, I did dozens of interviews, and there is analysis of photographic and video evidence and live performance. But I also use embodied methodologies, which means that at points in my research, I had physical and creative dialogues with my subjects. For example, I asked two of my subjects to “make me a Jewish dance,” and even though I didn’t have any money and they didn’t yet know me, they said okay. That process was a very interesting entre into my understanding of their work, because I didn’t just learn about their products on stage, but I also learned something about their processes and what Jewishness meant to them.

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Five Questions with Dr. Phillip Barrish

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Today we continue our ever-popular series, 5 Questions, where we sit down with American Studies faculty and affiliate faculty members to chat about their research and teaching. Today we bring you an interview with Dr. Phillip Barrish, Professor of English and author of The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism (Cambridge UP, 2011).

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

Luckily for me, my favorite project is the one I am working on right now, which has to do with the medical humanities. More specifically, I’m interested in what I’m calling the Healthcare Policy Humanities, or the Healthcare Humanities. A lot of work by literature scholars in the medical humanities has focused on representations of doctors, patients, and the illness experience, as well as on narrative medicine, which has to do with the stories patients tell doctors and the stories doctors tell patients—that is, the patient-doctor interface. I’m really interested in how literature and narrative relate to what could be called the political economy of healthcare, that is, for example the kinds of issues we are grappling with now around Obamacare and the healthcare crisis in our country. How has literature reflected, directly or indirectly, on questions such as who pays for healthcare, who has access to what kinds of healthcare, what is the role of government in providing healthcare? What role do stories, language, and metaphor play in the dynamics of how institutions, individuals, practices, and professional modes messily intersect to produce a healthcare system.

There are plenty of excellent books by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and economists about the historical evolution and current state of the U.S. healthcare system, but I want to look at those issues through a literary lens. (I’m an Americanist so it’s the U.S. context that most interests me, at least for now.) For example, I have an article in the most recent issue of the journal American Literature called “The Sticky Web of Medical Professionalism: Robert Herrick’s The Web of Life and the Political Economy of Healthcare at the Turn of the Century.” I’m currently in the early stages of researching an article/book chapter provisionally called “Healthcare Policy and Dystopian Fiction.” Here I’m less interested in dystopian works that extrapolate from the often disturbing implications of cutting-edge developments in medical technology, many of which have to do with reproduction: genetic engineering, cloning, surrogate pregnancy, but also such things as new organ-transplant technology. As fascinating and disturbing as such literature often is, I want to focus on a related but different aspect of dystopian medical imagining—dystopian literature and films that focus at least as much on the seemingly more quotidian issues of healthcare access, distribution, and funding. Two great recent examples are the 2013 movie Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp and starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and Chang-Rae Lee’s 2014 novel, On Such a Full Sea. If anyone reading this interview has additional ideas for texts, I’d love to hear them!

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations within and outside of academia?

Throughout my career, I’ve tried to be conscious of how my scholarly work might speak to issues, tensions, and problems that are important to us today. I think this dialogue is clearest in my current project, because the question of healthcare’s political economy is one that obviously a lot of people are thinking about and debating. Indeed, elections may turn on it.

What kinds of projects or people have inspired your work?

I went to graduate school in the early 1980s at Cornell, which was known for having a theory-heavy English department. I was fascinated by post-structuralism and by the emphasis placed by post-structuralist literary critics on close reading, which I had come to from a more old-fashioned training in college in formalist close reading. Some of the early people who inspired me in graduate school would be Barbara Johnson at Harvard, who died tragically several years ago from cancer, and Jonathan Culler and Mark Seltzer at Cornell. Since then I’ve not gone against my training, because post-structuralism still informs my own thinking and reading practices, often in subtle ways, but I’ve extended my graduate student training into looking at literature in its relation to other discourses and practices in our society. Among American Studies scholars, for example, I love the work of Janice Radway, whom I was able to take classes with as an undergraduate. Not untypically for scholars of my and subsequent generations, I’ve been inspired by feminism, critical race studies, new historicism, cultural studies, queer studies, and affect studies.

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

I grew up in a New York City, middle class, third generation Jewish immigrant family. When I was in college and even my first couple years of graduate school, a lot of my favorite texts were British. For a long time I thought about working in nineteenth-century British literature. But I had a feeling then that I wanted to be able to address the kinds of issues and problems American writers were dealing with in the U.S. context. Ultimately, I went into academia because I felt I was better at it than I was at some other things. I thought I’d go to graduate school for a few years and see if I liked it. I did like it, and here I am.

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

It’s always hard for me to think beyond my current project, especially when I’m still in the early stages. My mind is so full of different directions in which I might take my current work. So I’m going to have to defer answering that question. Ask me in a couple of years.

In one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

American Studies means, to me, mutually stimulating disciplinary approaches to issues and histories I care about.


Phillip Barrish is the author of American Literary Realism, Critical Theory, and Intellectual Prestige, 1880-1995 (Cambridge UP, 2001), White Liberal Identity, Literary Pedagogy, and Classic American Realism (Ohio State UP, 2005), and The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism (Cambridge UP, 2011). His current research explores fictional representations of health-care systems in the United States from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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.

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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.