What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Josh Kopin on Talking Le Guin in Paris

In this third installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS Doctoral candidate Josh Kopin takes us to Paris through the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. Read on for Josh’s take on conferencing abroad and the pleasures of traveling with your favorite writer.

The second best thing to do in Paris is to buy books. I don’t read French, but even buying English language books in Paris is a joy. All bookstores are jewels, but Parisian bookstores are especially striking by decree: the famous stalls that line the Seine, where I regret not picking up a poster of the 1953 Tour de France route; the big corporate ones a few blocks into the Latin Quarter, where I bought the first two novels by Northern Irish writer Anna Burns, whose recent dense and beautiful and dystopian novel of the Troubles, Milkman, flows like a river with rapids and dams; to the tourist trap at Shakespeare and Co, where I couldn’t resist a stout edition of Chinese science fiction and a Murakami-lite novel from Taiwan about a missing bicycle. But the bookstore that’s bookmarked in my memory is the big, airy one with the tall windows and the red panes across from the Jardin du Luxembourg, where a satire in translation, a hip award-winner, and one of the most beautiful book-objects I’ve ever seen, from a British press that publishes neglected twentieth century women writers, somehow found their way into my bag. We chatted with the owner, who mentioned she was looking for partners and we counted up our euros and our pocket lint and we told her we would have to think about it.

We’re still thinking about it.

Holding books in Parisian bookstores is a joy; American paperbacks almost never fulfill the primary function of a softcover book, which is to fit into your back pocket. In my two weeks in France, I didn’t ride in a car even once. Having a book at hand at on the train, in the park, walking down the street, having so many small, satisfying treasures to choose from, felt just about utopian.

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I was in Paris this summer to talk about books, specifically about one book, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, at a conference dedicated to her life and work. When Le Guin died at the beginning of 2019, I was devastated; I turn to her for wisdom and guidance; she is my heart. The opportunity to celebrate her with others was a kind of homecoming; of the many extraordinarily talented and dedicated scholars I was on the schedule, I’m proud that I can now call a few my friends.

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The Dispossessed, published in 1974, is a novel from Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, a group of experiments in political thinking that proceed from the premise that there are genetically modified humans living on planets arrayed across the stars. In The Left Hand of Darkness, perhaps her most famous novel, the inhabitants of the ice planet Winter are without gender or even differentiated biological sex; the humans of The Dispossessed are covered in short, fine hair, but they are otherwise similar to Earth-humans. The novel is set on the planet Urras, a planet fighting a thinly veiled analogue of the Cold War, and its moon, Anarres, where a colony of anarchists were allowed to settle a century and a half before the events of the novel. On Anarres, individuals are nominally free to do as they please, supported by and supported their society. Guided by the works of a philosopher named Odo, the moon lacks what we would call government; it uses a central computer for planning purposes and the opinions of an individual’s neighbors, rather than laws, as a means of social control. Both planet and moon have recently been shaken by the arrival of representatives from interstellar humanity, including an ambassador from Earth.

The dual stories of the plot center around the youth of the Anerresti physicist Shevek, the way that the stifling social conditions of the moon drive him to rebellion as he completes his great theory of simultaneity (an apparently extraordinary development in theoretical physics that leads to the ansible, a piece of speculative technology that allows individuals to communicate across the vast distances of space in real time), and his eventual fool’s errand to Urras, where he hopes to reconcile the two societies.

My paper focused on an unusual feature of the anarchist philosophy presented in the book, its emphasis on what Le Guin calls “fidelity.” I can say without hesitation or self-consciousness that the passage where I first remember encountering her use of that word changed my life; she writes:

…the variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.

Outside the room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.

I was awed by Le Guin’s fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity, one of the utopias put forward for consideration in The Dispossessed (subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia”). Modeled on a just relationship between individuals premised on their mutual support for each other’s flourishing rooted in the individual’s moral obligation to promote their own, Le Guin’s fragile, makeshift, improbable utopia is striking because it appears as a fractal, the same pattern repeating over and over at increasingly smaller scales, from the level of the society all the way down to individual relationships. Some of these are premised on the sexual monogamy we usually mean when we use the word fidelity, but the vast majority aren’t, both because most human relationships aren’t sexual and because monogamy is not the default on Anarres.

I gave my talk on Friday morning; Friday afternoon’s sessions were all in French, so my partner and I slipped out, ate some cheese for lunch and drank small sugary espressos after, went shopping for books, and then into the Jardin du Luxembourg.

In the middle of the park, between the small restaurants and the bocce courts, there’s a grand fountain. In the plaza around the fountain sits a little stall that rents tiny toy sail boats and bamboo poles; you put the boat in the fountain, poke it with the stick, watch it sail around until it hits the wall, at which point you get it moving again by giving it another poke with a stick.

This is the best thing to do in Paris.

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My partner stayed for a few more days, and after she left I traveled to Angoulême, a small city in the southwest. Every year, the city holds the world’s most important comics festival, and it is the home to a comics museum, open year round. I traveled there to give a paper on the role of the Ranger (a UT-Austin humor magazine that was also responsible for producing a significant number of important American media personalities over several decades in the middle of the twentieth century) in the prehistory of the US underground comix movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Although the Underground was a national phenomenon, it is generally thought of as having been founded in San Francisco; recovering the Ranger and other campus humor rags in the movement’s coalescence serves a broader project of reconceptualizing the Underground that was the focus of an issue of INKS, put out this summer and co-edited by my friends Margaret Galvan and Leah Misemer, that featured my first published academic article.

While I was in Angoulême, the temperature, already hotter than temperate France is used to, exploded. It exploded all over Europe. The Paris I returned to for a day and a half at the end of my trip was still bustling, but it was clearly under a good deal of strain. I went back to the Jardin du Luxembourg to see the boats one last time, but they weren’t there; it was simply too hot.

Although many of Le Guin’s novels are early examples of the increasingly important genre of speculative environmental fiction we now call cli-fi, The Dispossessed is not usually counted among these. Critics instead (and perhaps rightfully) tend to focus on its experiment in anarchist living. But the novel pays clear attention to environmental conditions: its plot turns on a major ecological catastrophe on Anarres, a drought that causes many deaths and shakes Shevek’s faith in the way the moon’s people govern themselves; the beauty of Urras, meanwhile, emerges from its vegetation, its large animals, its wide open wild spaces, all absent from the harsh ecology of the moon. Even the one character from Earth, an ambassador, describes our planet’s future state in environmental terms; ecological catastrophe from climate change has rendered much of the planet uninhabitable, leaving its population at a sparse half a billion.

It’s not clear exactly who Le Guin believes are the dispossessed of her novel’s title. Is it the anarchists of Anarres, scratching by on a barren world? Is it the poor of Urras, rendered abject by capitalist excess? As Paris boiled, as I tried to read my book and watched a fountain emptied of its happy boats, I began to wonder if, instead, she meant us.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Dr. Steven Hoelscher on Bicycling in Vienna

In this second installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” AMS Department Chair Dr. Stephen Hoelscher shares his experience biking with UT undergraduates during the “Memory and the City” Maymester program in Vienna, Austria. Please enjoy Dr. Hoelscher’s photo essay “Bicycling in Vienna: Toward a Velo-Centered Sense of Place.”

“The bicycle was a collaborator in my reading of the city, of territory crossed and crisscrossed, of backwaters explored.”

-Iain Sinclair

When encountering a new city, I can think of no better way to get around than on a bicycle: you can cover a lot of terrain quickly, but you are still embedded in the landscape. For art rock icon and avid urban cyclist David Byrne, part of what makes biking through a city so great is how you visualize the places you’re riding through: “faster than a walk, slower than a train, and slightly higher than a person . . . one gets a perfect view of the goings-on in [a]town.”Time and space compress as you traverse great expanses, and yet the theater of social life that makes cities so wonderful, so unforgettable, is everywhere evident. You run into all sorts of stuff that you had no idea was happening—parades, carnivals, social gatherings, protests. You see entirely new neighborhoods, new parks, new housing units, new stores and theaters, even though those “new” places may be hundreds of years old.“Forget the damned motor car,” urban theorist Lewis Mumford once pleaded,“and build cities for lovers and friends.” The cities I like best are ones that are built for lovers and friends to ride their bikes through, without worrying about where to find a parking spot, and that encourages them to stop and enjoy each other’s company.

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Vienna, Austria, is one such city. The infrastructure for all kinds of transportation, including bicycles, is impressive. One recent study found Vienna to be the 9th most bike-friendly city in the world, and I believe it. There are bike lanes everywhere, more than 1,300 kilometers throughout the city, many of which are protected from automobile traffic. People ride their bikes everywhere: to the opera, to work, to a favorite park, to bakeries and grocery stores, to soccer games, to school, to wine taverns. Equally important is the hard-to-define cultural sensibility that has made riding a bicycle more of a way of life than simply a mode of transportation. A velo-centered sense of place permeates the city.

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Most summers, since 2007, I’ve had the good fortune of teaching an American Studies course in Vienna. Every year—except one—I’ve brought a bicycle. Like the British novelist and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, for me the bicycle is a collaborator in my approach to making sense of cities. Each morning, I traverse Vienna, scouting out new places for our class meetings and looking to see whether the places I know well have changed. This is important logistical work since our class meetings are comprised of field trips to different sites that we’re studying. My pedagogical approach comes directly from my training in geography,with fieldwork built into the discipline’s DNA. I ask myself: why show PowerPoint slides about, say,the Karl-Marx-Hof social housing project, or a Nazi-era anti-aircraft tower,when we can conduct our class in those locations? Often,I get sidetracked, and explore backwaters that I had no idea existed.The bicycle might be the same one that I ride in Austin, but everything about the experience seems different, including the food that I eat along the way.

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Over the years, and with only a modest amount of encouragement, students have also discovered their own velo-centered senses of place. Many have made use of the excellent City Bike program.One student, in 2009, purchased a vintage steel-frame Colnago racing bike at the local flea market. And another, in 2015, even learned how to ride a bike, never having done so before.

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What happened this summer was a little unusual. Toward the end of our month-long course, a couple students approached me about leading a group bicycle ride for the entire class. I was immediately interested, of course, but also concerned about potential logistical and safety issues. Thankfully, riding bicycles(unlike skydiving and automobile driving) is not on the International Office’s prohibited-activities list.I was also hesitant because I didn’t want any student to feel left out if they didn’t have the ability to ride for a couple hours. On the bus ride back from our weekend in Salzburg, I asked every student individually if they would be interested in such an activity; much to my surprise, everyone responded affirmatively and with great enthusiasm. To the question: “Fährst du rad?,” each replied: “Ja, gern!”

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So, our penultimate evening in Vienna included a bike ride. The intensive work of the course—the lenghty readings, field excursions, field note writing, research presentations, dailyGerman language classes—was nearly complete, so the timing seemed right. As a route, I chose the Donauinsel (Danube Island). Closed to automobile traffic, the 21-kilometer-long island serves as an important urban greenway in the heart of the city. The island—constructed in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a flood control effort—cuts the Danube river in two sections. The wider (western) section is the main portion of the river and serves as the navigation channel for enormous tourist ships and cargo vessels. Free of motorized vessels, the narrower (eastern) channel—the Neue Donau (“New Danube”)—was constructed with the development of the Donauinsel and serves as an enormous swimming pool. Today, some thirty years after its creation and well connected to the city’s public transit system, the Donauinsel is a massive urban park, with sports fields, barbeque equipment,sun bathing areas, floating rafts, playgrounds, and the world’s largest music festival (unlike ACL, it’s free).

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And bicycle paths. Crisscrossing the island, the more than 50 kilometers of Donauinsel bike paths proved to be ideal. With the assistance of Fahrradverleih Copa Cagrana—a bicycle rental place adjacent to our subway stop—my students and I were outfitted with turquoise blue city cruisers. After getting everyone set up, we slowly took off, meandering up stream. One could almost hear Freddie Mercury sharing in our adventure:

Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle / I want to ride my bicycle / I want to ride my bike / I want to ride my bicycle / I want to ride it where I like

Before my eyes, college students were transformed. Some were reconnecting with nearly forgotten younger selves of when they loved riding bikes. Others were experiencing velo-exhilaration for the first time. We rode slowly, to enjoy the moment and so that no one felt pressured to keep up. I kept riding to the front and then to the back of our mini peloton, making sure that everyone was doing alright. The view, which I tried to photograph as best I could, approximates the atmosphere, but doesn’t quite capture the frolicking scene.

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We rode to the Anfang der Donauinsel, the point where the Danube Island begins, and stopped for a group photograph. It’s one of my favorites.

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On the way back to Fahrradverleih Copa Cagrana, and our not-quite-farewell dinner, we stopped for a swim. One of the students had the brilliant idea of bringing sidewalk chalk. And so for the better part of an hour, University of Texas students swam in the cool (if not exactly Blue) Danube. They made art that tagged their presence, that tried out some of their new German language, and that expressed their feelings about living and studying abroad. And they swapped stories about life back in the U.S. and how it differs from the city that had become home. The conversations continued well into the evening, long after we returned our bicycles and had dinner together.

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As a way to wrap up a course, to help students see and experience the world in a new way, cycling along the Donauinsel proved enormously successful. I think it was especially impactful for those students who did not consider themselves “athletic” or who had not ridden a bike in years. Pretty much every student told me how much they enjoyed the ride, and one wrote after the conclusion to our class: “that bike ride was one of the best experiences of my LIFE.”As for me, I count myself among the most fortunate of working people. When your job feels like summer vacation, and when others find your commitments—in this case, a velo-centered sense of place—worth sharing, you’ve found a winning combination.

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For more information about Steven Hoelscher’s Vienna course, including comments from students who have taken it, see the course website

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Andi Remoquillo on Interning at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Each year, when UT AMS returns to campus for the fall, we ask our faculty and graduate students to report on their summer activities. First up is doctoral student Andi Remoquillo who interned at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Read on for research discoveries, blossoming friendships, and the best hotdog food truck in D.C. 

This summer I traded Austin’s triple digit temperatures for Washington, D.C.’s swampy humidity. Regardless of the fact that I constantly looked like I just stepped out of the shower, I had an amazing time on the East Coast. I ate endless amounts of shellfish, admired the different kinds of architecture as I walked down the streets, and interned with the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. This picture is of me in front of the NMAH, eating the first of many hotdogs I would buy that summer from the food truck on Constitution Ave.

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During my curatorial internship I worked with Dr. Sam Vong — a history professor at UT Austin and the curator of Asian Pacific American History at the NMAH — on his APA Women’s Labor History project. Dr. Vong started this project to expand the APA History collection and make women’s narratives more central within it. A large part of my responsibilities was conducting research on Southeast Asian refugee women and their industries in the U.S. I also contacted some of these communities in Seattle, Houston, and Long Beach to learn more about their histories, types of industries, and their communities. Lastly, I was in charge of cutting cake (and eating it).

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When working on the APA Women’s History project, I particularly enjoyed learning about the community of Hmong floral farmers in Seattle who sold their flowers at the Pike Place Market. Large groups of Hmong immigrants arrived in the 1970’s and 1980’s as refugees and made a living, built communities, and raised their families around floral farming. Today, second generation Hmong Americans continue to run their family farms and sell at farmers markets around Washington. However, my fondest memories from the internship had to do with the friendships I made with other Asian Americans also interning there. Spending time with them really reminded me of the importance of finding community in big institutions. We bonded over lots (and I mean lots) of food, conversations about our families and identities, and even went to see The Farewell together. So many tears were shed and tissues passed around.

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When I wasn’t at the internship I was out exploring other museums, trying out different food and drink spots, watching live music, and conducting my own research at the Library of Congress. I wasn’t quite sure where to start at the LOC, largely because I didn’t think they would have anything specific to Filipino women in Chicago. I’m thrilled to say, however, that I was mistaken. The Main Reading Room and Asian Reading Room had a number of documents specific to Filipinos in Chicago, such as resource guides, pamphlets, newspapers and periodicals. I found a few newspapers published in Chicago by Filipino immigrants as early as the 1940’s. Before my trips to the LOC, I had never seen documents like these that actually showed representations of Filipinos in Illinois. This gave me another exciting angle to study Fil-Am women in Chicago.

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Here is a picture I took of the Philippine Quarterly from 1943 and published in Chicago. I also found out that in the early 1950’s, the Philippine Quarterly began printing in Manila in addition to Chicago. In one issue of the Philippine Quarterly published in Manila, I came across an essay written by Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil called “The Filipino Woman.” This essay was the only piece that I came across in the PQ that solely focused on Filipina women. The essay was first published in a 1952 printing of the Philippine Quarterly, and would eventually become Guerrero-Nakpil’s most recognized works. In the introduction to her book of essays, Woman Enough, she talks about a white American journalist who took parts of her essay and republished it as his own in the U.S.

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My summer in D.C. was such a rewarding time. I got the chance to experience a new aspect of doing Asian Pacific American history in the museum context, make new professional and social connections, and discover exciting archival records that I would have never imagined working with before. I hope I can get back to D.C. soon and hit up all of these places again —the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and of course, my beloved hotdog food truck.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Judson Barber on Rollercoastering Through the South

In the final installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Judson Barber takes us on his road trip to find the best rollercoasters in the American Southeast. Read on to join the adventure—and for Judson’s excellent photographs. 

Years ago, I heard from somebody that one of the tricks to surviving grad school is having a good hobby. Anything that can give you a break from the rigors of academic life—something that lets you disconnect from the burdens of books to read and paper deadlines to meet—will get you a long way. Luckily, I’ve never had a problem distracting myself.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but since I was a kid I’ve always had this compulsion to collect stuff. Back then it was stamps, coins, action figures, whatever I could get my hands on. As I grew up and started to travel that evolved into collecting different places, or pieces of them, and now each summer I attempt to visit different regions of the country that are new to me, if I can. After spending most of my life in the hazy, brown, concrete deserts of Southern California, what some might consider the most mundane aspects of different parts of the country—dense foliage, remote highways, scenic vistas—bring me a very special and unique delight. Getting away from urban sprawl of mass suburbia to more rural parts of the country is a welcome treat in itself.

In recent years, those trips have been guided principally by one thing: new roller coasters and amusement parks. Corny, I know. But it’s something that still grabs my interest year after year. These trips through the Midwest, Northeast, Southwest, and this year Southeast, have allowed me to collect place in a more experiential way than through kitschy tchotchkes from wherever.

This summer I had my sights set on a major oversight in my regional experience. My trip started in Atlanta where I spent my first day. From there I went up I-75 to I-40 through Knoxville to Pigeon Forge, TN to visit a place that should be on everyone’s to-do list, Dollywood. Pigeon Forge also offered up a unique research opportunity—a trip to the newly opened “Alcatraz East” crime museum. But this isn’t a venue for that sort of academic writing, so I’ll leave you with just a few photos of the façade of that industrial building, nestled comfortably between Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Island Inn and the Comedy Barn Theater.

From Pigeon Forge, Highway 441 South took me through Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to the epic Newfound Gap lookout which separates the Volunteer and Tar Heel states. From there, Highway 19 reconnects with Highway 74 and then I-40 to about Asheville, and then I-26 turns south for about 35 miles until it reconnects with Highway 74 again, headed into Charlotte. There’s a theme park that straddles the NC and SC border, called Carowinds (“Where the Carolinas come together!”) where I spent the next day and a half.

After my time at Carowinds, and a quick stop in the small town of Belmont, NC for some of the best Barbeque in the state, it’s a straight shot down I-85 through South Carolina back to Atlanta.

In all, the four days in July added up to about 16 hours of driving which took me through 4 states (39 new counties), and on 31 new roller coasters.

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What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Janet Davis on Touring for American Experience Miniseries, The Circus

In this fourth installment of “What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS professor Dr. Janet Davis tells us about touring for the new American Experience miniseries, The Circus. Be sure to tune into PBS on October 8th and 9th!

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This summer, I was part of the Television Critics Association Press Tour for The Circus, an upcoming American Experience miniseries that will air nationally on PBS October 8th and 9th. I’ve been actively involved in the series from start to finish—I’m a talking head onscreen and over the last year, I’ve reviewed the script and the rough cuts of the film.

Here are some photos of me and my fellow panelists on July 30th at the TCA event at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. I am also part of other discussions and screenings at the New York Historical Society and the Portland Art Museum before The Circus airs in October. The series provides a remarkable multifaceted and intersectional exploration of how the circus made modern America.

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Left to right: Dominique Jando, Janet Davis, Jonathan Lee Iverson, Sharon Grimberg, and Susan Bellows

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What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Caroline Johnson on Interning at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

In this third installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Caroline Johnson takes on the near impossible task of telling us what it’s like to be a Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum intern. 

I breached the surface of the L’Enfant Plaza metro station as the escalator carried me toward a particularly dismal day in Washington, D.C. Wearing my spirited red Toms and holding an umbrella to block the drizzle, I made my way to Independence Avenue. As I rounded the corner and saw the familiar blue and yellow of the Smithsonian symbol, my mind churned over a sea of questions—was I too old to be an intern? What would it be like? Will I fangirl over everything I do and see? Not to ruin the post, but the answers were no, near indescribable, and absolutely.

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I always thought it a sad reality we can’t put special narratives on our resumes, so I have decided to use this post to give you the two versions of my summer at the Smithsonian.

The first is what I like to call the “LinkedIn description,” and it is as follows:

As a curatorial intern in the Aeronautics Division at the National Air and Space Museum, I worked with the curators of the permanent military suite galleries spanning WWI, WWII and the Cold War. My primary duties included conducting archival research at the National Archives and Library of Congress as well as contacting key personalities and their families for participation in the exhibits. Since I specialize in visual history and the Cold War gallery will be a new addition to the military suite, most of my energy was spent collecting media relating to topics such as Vietnam airstrikes and photo transparencies from the Berlin Airlift and Korean War. (If you’re thinking that sounds like history nerd heaven, you are 100% correct.)

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Caroline at the National Air and Space Museum, Summer 2018

The second version of my summer contains the narratives that don’t quite make it into the bullet points on my resume. As a devoted FRIENDS fan (the TV show), I have titled each experience accordingly:

“The One Where She Almost Breathed on Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit”: During my first week, my supervisor gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of NASM’s Udvar-Hazy Center, located in Chantilly, Virginia. While in the preservation lab, a specialist pulled back a large sheet draped across a human-shaped figure. I stared at the freshly revealed artifact laying before me—it was a spacesuit. That alone was a special moment, and then I saw the label, “Armstrong.” Yes, friends, there in front of me, with no glass and subject to my very own mortal breath, was Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. Keep in mind, this was my first week.

“The One Where She Befriended the Berlin Candy Bomber”: One of my first tasks was to track down Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen (USAF, Ret), better known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” or “Uncle Wiggly Wings” for his efforts in dropping parachutes containing Hershey bars and bubble gum to the children of West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift in 1948. After weeks of calling various air bases and historical societies, I received a phone number. Much to my surprise, Col. Halvorsen picked up! At 97-years-old, he is one of the most humble, kind, and enthusiastic human beings I have had the pleasure of speaking to. He referred to me as “sunshine” on subsequent calls, and I assume that makes us friends.

“The One Where They Went to the CIA”: “I’m going to need your social security number. We’re heading to CIA Headquarters on Thursday.” My supervisor casually dropped this line as he stopped by my cubicle on his way back down the hallway lined with model spacecraft. This vignette is shorter than most, as I feel it keeps the air of mystery alive. I can say, we spent a little too long in the gift shop. As I sit here sipping my coffee from my official CIA mug, however, I have no regrets.

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The view from the top of the Naval Observatory

“The One Where Marine II Landed Thirty Yards in Front of Her”: I often accompanied my supervisor on tours he would provide visitors and other groups of invited guests. On this instance, I met a group of interns at the Naval Observatory, and their supervisor extended an offer for me to tour their facilities. In addition to viewing the telescopes and incredible library with copies of works by Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the VP decided to make a guest appearance during the tour. We stood outside as Marine II landed on the front lawn, and then watched a secret service agent chase the VP’s dog across said lawn.

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The WASP Congressional Gold Medal, located at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia

“The One Where She Cemented her Dissertation Topic”: A few times this summer, I found myself at a seminar table consisting of brilliant individuals who work around the clock to provide the most exciting digital content to NASM audiences. The 160th anniversary of aerial photography, and the 75th anniversary of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were fast approaching. With some encouragement from my supervisor, I volunteered to write these posts, and I ended up doing a bonus story on archival WASP images. My favorite part of this experience was seeing the public interact with the posts on social media, and it only confirmed my desire to return to UT and churn out a prospectus focusing on women in aviation. Yes, this is a shameless, self-promotional plug for you to read these posts, as I greatly enjoyed writing them!

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Books and resources for writing on women in aviation and conducting archival research

And so there we have it, the professional job description, and just a few vignettes to bring the experience to life. Though perhaps atypical in format, I figured it was the only way for me to convey the human element behind the trove of professional experience I gained this summer.

In academia, we are trained to teach, to write, and to distill and present information at a rapid rate, yet we often forget we are building a wide range of skill sets in the process of doing so. I never thought my family aviation history, archival work, enthusiasm for Cold War material, and research on women in visual culture would combine in the most unexpected fashion to qualify me for this experience. To me, that has been the beauty of working in an interdisciplinary field: if you pursue your varying interests with a passion and seize opportunities to expand your knowledge base (or even to write in unconventional forms), you might just find yourself spending a summer in the sky, where, at least at NASM, I saw no limits.

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What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Leah Butterfield on Interviewing Women Solo Travelers in Spain

In this second installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Leah Butterfield recounts her experience interviewing women solo travelers in Spain.

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Leah at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid

 

We were seated on a sidewalk terraza on a hot, cloudless afternoon. Over icy glasses of
Cruzcampo, a Spanish beer, Alexandria talked to me about her solitary travel experiences. As the conversation circled back to the expectations society often has for women—and the ways that traveling alone runs counter to those expectations—she pondered, “We’re warriors in a way.” “Backpack warriors,” she added, with a chuckle. With every solo trip, she suggested, women are fighting against cultural conventions and expectations: that they should remain in the home, that they should prioritize romantic and family ties, that they should avoid risk or adventure.

Alexandria is one of the twenty-six American women that I interviewed this summer as part of my preliminary dissertation research. Though not all of these women might label themselves as warriors, most expressed an awareness that their solitary travels are a challenge to traditional gender norms. Despite the often-negative reactions from friends, family and strangers, these women choose to journey solo, on trips ranging from a few days to a few months, to destinations around the globe. The individuals that I spoke with ranged in age from nineteen to seventy. They included women of color and second- and third-generation immigrants, though the majority of interviewees were white. Most women identified as somewhere between lower-middle and upper-middle class, and over 40% of the women claimed queer identities, from “mostly straight” to “fluid” to “Let me put it this way: I don’t usually like sleeping with men.”

El Albaicín district in Granada, Spain

El Albaicín district in Granada

I spent much of my summer listening to these women’s stories. They shared anecdotes of
afternoons spent in charming cafes, of forming unexpected friendships and of being followed by unknown men. They talked about the moments when they felt safe and at peace in their solitude and of the moments when they did not. They told me about the books and blogs and people who inspired their journeys. When I asked interviewees to describe how they feel when traveling alone, they responded with words like joy, exhilaration, terror, independence, self-reliance, worry and love. This discordant mixture of terms suggests that the emotional uplift of women’s travel is often weighed down by the burden of fear. While the vast majority of these women had never experienced sexual assault or violent crime during their travels, the possibility of such occurrences was constantly on their minds. As one interviewee put it, traveling alone is “empowerment tinged with fear.”

As I explored Madrid, where I rented a room for two months, and traveled to other parts of Spain, I experienced the truth behind these women’s words. I walked along the shore in Cádiz and through the winding streets of Seville. I marveled at the royal library in El Escorial and pet friendly, stinky goats at the Madrid Zoo. I watched flamenco from the cheap seats at El Teatro de Canal and danced along with the crowd during Madrid’s Orgullo Gay parade. I got pickpocketed, I got catcalled, and I broke down crying to more than one stranger in the Barcelona Sants railway station. I ate countless meals with only a book for company. And, like most of the women that I interviewed, these solitary experiences made me deeply, unshakably, embarrassing-to-try-to-put-into-words happy.

Playa De La Caleta, Cádiz, Spain

Playa De La Caleta in Cádiz

As a PhD student feeling the pressure to be productive, it has been challenging to justify my choice to spend the summer in Spain. When people ask me the inevitable, “Why’d you do that?” I emphasize that the trip wasn’t all play, that I offset my costs by working as a nanny, teaching English to three sweet niños. I tell people that I wanted to escape from the Texas heat, that I wanted to practice my Spanish, that I wanted to return to the city, Madrid, that enchanted me as a study abroad student.

While these reasons are all true, what I yearned for, above all, was the experience that one interviewee described. Solo travel, she said, “is like when you’re in the shower, but for days.” She explained, “It’s time to really think through s—.” Perhaps, for a scholar-in-training, spending a summer really thinking through s— is the best justification of all.

Views of Greenland during the return flight to the US

Views of Greenland during the return flight to the U.S.

Some things I’m thinking through next? How American travelers conceive of their ties to the U.S., how age, race and physical appearance influence the anonymity of travel, and how the unsettled nature of travel can alter the value one places on “settling down.”