Interview: Dr. Julia Mickenberg

jmickenberg1In discussing her new book, American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream, Dr. Julia L. Mickenberg says “the main takeaway I want people to get is that people are complicated, institutions are complicated, and there are no easy solutions.” The book, which explores the history of American women living and working in Soviet Russia in the first few decades of the twentieth century, uncovers a little known phenomenon, remarking on the complicated stories of women who moved to Russia in search of opportunity and community. Dr. Mickenberg, an Associate Professor in the American Studies Department here at the University of Texas at Austin, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on American cultural history, American radicalism, and women involved in radical movements.

Dr. Mickenberg published Leaning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States in 2006, and it was in the course of working on this first book that she became interested in the stories of American women in the Soviet Union. Dr. Mickenberg was particularly intrigued by the stories of some of the individual women involved in this history: “The thing that kind of shifted me toward this was one of the women, Ruth Epperson Kennell, who is the focus of one of the chapters. She was one of the first people in the United States to write children’s books about Soviet Russia and looking at her papers—initially thinking I would write about her children’s books—I discovered a fascinating record of the years she spent living in a utopian colony in Siberia…I became completely obsessed with her.” The book investigates the reasoning behind decisions on the part of women like Kennell to move to Russia. Many were attracted by Soviet treatment of women, which included granting the right to vote immediately following the revolution in 1917, property rights, and abortion rights, as well as maternity benefits and state-supported childcare. While Dr. Mickenberg is careful to acknowledge the ways in which American women in Russia grappled (or failed to grapple) with the more difficult aspects of Soviet Russia’s history, including writing Pro-Russian propaganda, she is interested in depicting the people at the center of this history in all their multifaceted complexity.

One of the main issues with which nqWmnaiPqQAmerican Girls in Red Russia engages is that of the “new woman.” Dr. Mickenberg was particularly interested in why American women wanted to move to Russia, a cultural phenomenon that has not been previously explored. Dr. Mickenberg writes, “The right to vote, which Russian women were granted not long before the February Revolution, continued under the Bolsheviks. But that was just the beginning.” Russian women were encouraged to view men as their equals, and, in addition to gains noted above, were granted access to education and professional advancement, and even equal pay for equal work. Some American women, chafing under restrictions to their independence in the United States, were eager to enjoy these benefits, and began heading to Soviet Russia soon after the Revolution in 1917. While many women would become disillusioned and attempt to move back West, Dr. Mickenberg complicates understandings of American involvement in the Soviet Union, remarking on the ways women were able to create meaning for themselves in a difficult historical moment.

American Girls in Red Russia also delves into the history of African American women in Soviet Russia, stories that have not previously been investigated at length. In a chapter entitled “Black and White—and Yellow—in Red: Performing Race in Russia,” Dr. Mickenberg includes the story of Louise Thompson Patterson, perhaps best known for co-founding the Harlem Suitcase Theater with Langston Hughes in 1938, as well as that of Frances E. Williams, a prominent African American actress. “I knew there were also a number of African Americans who went, and there has been writing about this movie that was never made called Black and White…I knew I had to look at it from a different angle from how other people had looked at it, so I started looking at it from the lens of performance, even though the movie was never made.” She highlights the stories of women involved in the attempted creation of this movie, and discusses the ways race and gender were intertwined in the experiences of African American women traveling to and living in Soviet Russia.

According to Dr. Mickenberg, one of the more complicated aspects of writing this history was in the research. She traveled to Russia twice in the course of writing the book, and describes researching in Russian archives as “an incredibly and almost unfathomably complicated process.” Dr. Mickenberg learned Russian in order to read the materials, although some were written in English, and she says that the whole research process ended up being very rewarding, adding, “I found some amazing things and it was just fascinating being in Russia…I was very grateful, several people saw me looking confused and helped me.” She never became exactly proficient in the language, but she got good enough that when she overheard one Russian archivist say to another, “her Russian is really bad,” she was able to respond (in Russian) “not that bad!”

When asked about further research growing out of this book, Dr. Mickenberg said she is working on a number of projects, including an edition of writings by Madeline Doty, a prominent American writer and activist who wrote about the Bolshevik Revolution..Dr. Mickenberg will be giving a talk on June 3rd, 2017 at the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians about the relationship between Ruth Epperson Kennell, who was one of the main inspirations for American Girls and Red Russia, and Theodore Dreiser, with whom Kennell worked for many years. She will also serve as the keynote speaker at the 18th Annual International Graduate Student Conference on Transatlantic History at the University of North Texas in October, speaking about the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Dr. Mickenberg hopes that American Girls in Red Russia works to enlighten its readers about the interesting and engaging stories of American women living and working in Soviet Russia, and the complexities of the women at the heart of the book. While these women were complicated, and made mistakes in the course of their lives and in the course of their relationships with the Soviet Union, she wants readers to understand the nuanced nature of these stories: “Instead of trying to paint people as black and white or good and bad, I wanted to show people in all their complexity.” American Girls In Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream was recently named the Times of Higher Education’s book of the week and Dr. Mickenberg has published an op-ed about her experience writing the book at Not Even Past, the blog of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. The book has also been featured in Life and Letters, the magazine of UT’s College of Liberal Arts, and has had excerpts of the book published at Lapham’s Quarterly and Timeline.

Dr. Julia Mickenberg will read from American Girls in Red Russia on Tuesday, May 16th from 6-7:30 p.m. at Bookwoman, located at 5501 North Lamar Blvd, Suite A105, Austin, Texas 78751. For more information about the event, please visit http://www.ebookwoman.com/event/book-launch-american-girls-red-russia-dr-julia-mickenberg.

Making art about energy: Emily Roehl on flood plains and coal ash

Today we would like to feature the work of one of our graduate students, Emily Roehl, who co-founded Mystery Spot Books, an artist publisher based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that publishes small-run artist books, zines, and other publications about the human-altered landscape.

Over the past year, Emily has worked with Chad Rutter, her Mystery Spot Books collaborator, and St. Louis-based photographer Jennifer Colten on a new artist publication on energy and environment in St. Louis. They are currently running an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to help get this title in print. Take a look here.

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Detail from Flood Plain Color Field, Chad Rutter, Jennifer Colten, and Emily Roehl


Flood Plain Color Field is a new photo book and the third installment in Mystery Spot Books’ larger Energy Landscapes of St. Louis project. In this publication, Mystery Spot explores a part of our energy consumption typically unseen by the public, the residual monuments of energy waste that accumulate in the flood plains of rivers.

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Coal ash waste mound with flood waters, photo by Jennifer Colten

The coal ash mound that Mystery Spot and Colten have been documenting is currently under water. St. Louis has experienced two “100 year” floods in less than two years. In the midst of attempts to regressively dismantle the EPA and other institutional protections, it’s important to draw attention to these overlooked landscapes of industrial waste. Flood plains flood. When you pile up coal ash in a flood plain, toxic industrial waste flows downstream. You can help Emily and Mystery Spot Books tell the story of this place and of the long term impacts of industrial development on the landscape; donate and share to help publish Flood Plain Color Field.

Five Questions with First Years: The Kate Grover Edition!

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As we wrap up this academic year, we want to feature one more member of the 2016-17 incoming class:  Kate Grover!  Kate comes to UT by way of many an American city, but most recently Philadelphia, and before that several years in New Orleans, where she did a B.A. in American Studies, English, and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University (working with an esteemed graduate of UT’s AMS PhD program, Joel Dinerstein).

Kate’s scholarly interests include rock stardom, feminist rock music, and the concept of cool–so you’ll probably want to read this interview.  Here they are: five questions with Kate Grover!

1) What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

Well I was born in Michigan, moved to Ohio and then California, grew up in Phoenix, and then went to college in New Orleans—and I would definitely say that my experiences in these places sparked my interest in the diversity of American life and culture. I’m also an only child who spent a lot of her free time nerding out over books, albums, and TV shows, so I’ve always been fascinated by pop culture and what it means to various people. This translated into my undergraduate studies at Tulane University where I graduated with a B.A. in American Studies, a B.A. in English, and a Minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies in 2015. I was living and working outside of Philadelphia before moving to Austin this past fall (and I miss Wawa everyday).

2) Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work? 

The sense of community in the AMS department was what initially drew me to UT. I remember visiting as a prospective student and seeing that the faculty and graduate students were invested in each other’s work and wanted their colleagues to succeed in their goals. That really made an impression on me. Plus, as someone who studies music and musical culture, I couldn’t pass up living in the live music capital of the world.

3) What projects or people have inspired your work?

I’m heavily indebted to the Newcomb College Institute at Tulane and the Newcomb Scholars Program in which I was lucky enough to participate as an undergrad. Being in this community of women cultivated my interest in gender-focused research, and the Newcomb Scholars seminars were where I first realized that I wanted to study women in rock music. The NCI also supported me through several crucial stages of my undergraduate thesis, including a trip to the Fales Library at NYU to research at their Riot Grrrl Collection. It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be in the American Studies program at UT without the resources, sponsorship, mentorship, and friendship I received from this great group of folks.

I’m also grateful to Joel Dinerstein—for the opportunity to study with him, and for the opportunity to do American Studies as an undergraduate. When I was at Tulane, the university was planning to phase out the American Studies major by 2014, the year before I was supposed to graduate. Joel not only allowed me to close out the major a year later than scheduled, he advised my capstone project and undergraduate thesis—two projects that were instrumental in my development as an American Studies scholar. From Joel’s teaching and mentorship I learned the value of interdisciplinary research, the necessity for empathy in one’s writing and analysis, and the importance of letting your material cover you rather than you covering it. I also got a crash course in cool, and this inescapable concept is shaping my work more and more.

4) What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?

I definitely want to continue my undergraduate research on women in rock music, but I’m contemplating various ways of exploring and focusing this topic. The concept of “rock stardom” intrigues me (this semester I’m in an excellent course in the RTF department about stardom and celebrity), and I’m curious about what rock stardom means to various groups of people and how this meaning has shifted over time—not to mention the ways constructions of rock stardom themselves are racialized, classed, and gendered. I’ve also been thinking a lot about taste lately and how the things we like (or find cool/uncool) shape our identities. Ellen Willis’s writing on rock music and her personal relationship to it as a fan, critic, woman, and feminist has been extremely influential in this regard.

I’d also be interested in working on a project historicizing feminist rock music. When we think of feminist rock, we often think of riot grrrl and the punk rock feminism that gained recognition in the 1990s. But the story of feminist rock starts much earlier (see the Chicago and New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Bands), and we can also locate feminist rock outside of our traditional conception of “the feminist movement.” Looking at why and how people created feminist rock music can tell us so much about music’s impact on people’s lives and the meaning they make of it.

5) What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

In addition to building my own research and knowledge, I’m excited to work with the undergraduates at UT as a teaching assistant and later as an assistant instructor. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing after I graduate from UT, but helping students make new connections and grow as writers and scholars seems incredibly rewarding. I also hope to learn more about public scholarship and ways to reach various audiences outside of academia. I’m constantly impressed and intrigued by the work my colleagues are doing, and it would be fabulous to be to share this work with as many people as possible.

Bonus: How would you define American Studies?

What isn’t American Studies? I’m joking, but in reality that’s what makes this field special. I see American Studies as a home for academic weirdoes (I say this with love) who take on unique projects and ask fresh, provocative questions. American Studies makes unforeseen connections visible and tells the stories of people who may not otherwise have those stories told.

Carrie Andersen Wins Prestigious Granof Prize For Top Dissertation Across the University

20150408_9199edit Congratulations to UT AMS PhD Carrie Andersen!  She has been awarded the most prestigious prize for a PhD graduate at the University of Texas: the Michael H. Granof Award, given “to recognize the University’s top dissertation.” Carrie is also the recipient of the UT Graduate School’s Outstanding Dissertation Award in the Humanities and Fine Arts.

The title of Dr. Andersen’s dissertation is “Securing America:  Drone Warfare in American Culture After 9/11.”  We sat down with Carrie to learn more about about her work, her academic inspirations, and advice she has for current and future graduate students.  This is award-winning material, so please do read on!

 1.  First:  Congratulations on not one, but two major awards for your recently completed dissertation:  the UT Graduate School’s Outstanding Dissertation Award in the Humanities and Fine Arts, and the extremely prestigious Granof Award, for the best dissertation at UT!  Can you reflect on your feelings right now?

Thanks so much! To say I’m shocked would be an understatement; I certainly didn’t anticipate this sort of recognition. I’m incredibly excited, grateful, and honored.

2. Your dissertation is, broadly, on the subject of drones in America.  How did you come to this topic, and how did your work at UT leading up to your dissertation inform your topic and research question(s)?

When I enrolled at UT, I, like many American Studies students, had incredibly expansive interests, ranging from digital media to political theory to 1960s proto-punk in Detroit. So it certainly wasn’t a project that I planned on doing before I got to graduate school, and it took a few years of germination.

Eventually, a few things nudged me towards studying drones. My academic interests in media and technology were honed in coursework in our department as well as in the department of Radio-Television-Film, and I found opportunities through those classes to examine my growing interests in media, technology, and power. Later, I built on those interests in my orals exam lists, which focused on media, war and emotion, American cultural history, and political theory. The oral exam process was completely essential to figuring out how to approach a project that melded all of those disciplines. I also found myself most interested in the books that examined technologies through cultural lenses, so I wanted to pursue a project in a similar spirit.

So my path to a dissertation on drone warfare was of course informed by this general academic trajectory born of coursework and the exam process. But it was also heavily based on what was happening in American culture at the time when I was formulating my project. After about 2008, there was an increasing national and global focus on drone warfare in the news, and those conversations typically centered on the ethics or legality of drone strikes abroad, or concerns about surveillance and privacy at home in America. But beginning in about 2011 and 2012, I started noticing more nods to military robots and unmanned machines in TV shows like Saturday Night Live, films like Iron Man 2, and videogames like those of the Call of Duty series. By the time I was finishing orals and beginning to conceptualize my dissertation, this important national conversation about drones was increasingly happening in cultural spaces, not just political or legal spaces. Drones were suddenly everywhere. So I wanted to examine the meaning and consequences of the machine’s apparently sudden cultural ubiquity.

3. What projects, people, or “real life” experiences, at UT or beyond, inspired your project?

So many of the books I read in orals and in my coursework were inspirations. Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Lightstands out as the clearest example of a cultural history of a military technology that provoked a broad range of complex emotional responses, from fear and anxiety to excitement and wonder. Patrick Wright’s Tank, a cultural history of tanks during WWI, offered a similar approach that I look to as a model (and some fascinating stories of Scottish churches decorated with tank-and-bomb emblazoned stained glass windows). And a broad body of literature on militarization, spanning scores of the disciplines, provided the most significant theoretical spine to my work.

And, like many graduate students in our department, I was fortunate to work with several faculty members whose work inspired my own. My adviser, Randy Lewis, pushed me to try to understand why drones were, and are, so culturally pervasive, and why they inspire such a range of visceral responses, from disgust to delight. His concern with understanding what makes Americans tick—as you’ll see in his forthcoming book on surveillance—is an impulse that I emulate in my project.

4.  Drones are a fairly recent technology (right?) in the US.  What does it mean to study drones from an “American Studies perspective,” or to study the cultural and political meanings of drones more generally?

Well, the drone’s relative newness depends on how you define a drone! In the 1800s, military officials were using “balloon bombs” to send explosives over to enemy territory, and WWI saw the use of pigeons with cameras attached to them—early surveillance drones, arguably—as well as unmanned airplanes operated with gyroscopes. So they’re arguably a fairly old technology.

But their incredible cultural notoriety is definitely new, and that’s what I intended to analyze in my project—why are these machines so pervasive both in military circles and in popular culture nowadays, and what could some of the consequences of the ubiquitous drone be on a cultural level? Scores of scholars and military officials have examined the former question, which has fairly clear answers: drones are cheaper than manned vehicles, they typically keep American fighters out of harm’s way, and unmanned vehicles can fly farther and longer than manned vehicles can. But an American Studies approach meant that I was more interested in the drone as a cultural object rather than the intricacies of military strategy. How are people encountering these machines if they aren’t members of the military? Why are they so prevalent in popular culture? What could the consequences of the drone becoming an increasingly mundane of everyday life be? What’s the deal with this SNL sketch?

5. What are three things about drones that readers of the blog may not already know?

I’ll tell my favorite historical story about drones. In the 1910s or 1920s, a man named Reginald Denny, a veteran of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, moved to Hollywood to pursue acting. He found initial success in the silent film industry, and, by the late 1920s, he was acting regularly in films with sound. By 1934, he opened a hobby shop for remote-controlled aircraft, and, over time, started making unmanned machines that could be used for training gunners—these drones were for target practice, in other words. The U.S. Army gave him a contract, and Denny’s company manufactured thousands of drones for them.

So someone who was acting in films with Katherine Hepburn (like The Little Minister) and Laurence Olivier (like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca) was, at the same time, manufacturing military-grade target drones for the Army during the earliest days of World War II. His company was bought by Northrop, which eventually became Northrop Grumman, in the early 1950s.

Denny’s last film role was about 15 years later: he played Commodore Schmidlapp in the 1966 Batman movie starring Adam West.

As if all that weren’t weird enough, one of Denny’s employees was a woman named Norma Jeane, also known as Marilyn Monroe. She was discovered, so the story goes, after a young Army captain named Ronald Reagan (yes, that Ronald Reagan) assigned a photographer to snap some photos of her assembling the drones to celebrate America’s industrial power, and convinced her to become a model. The rest, as they say, is history.

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

I see this work as an extension of a long impulse in American Studies to excavate the cultural significance of everyday life and culture: the media we consume, the toys we play with, the marketing we encounter. My work also builds from and upon an increasing scholarly concern with interiority—the beliefs, feelings, and subjectivities we all have—that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of subdisciplines like affect theory, for instance. This growing academic impulse to understand what makes people tick and why people feel the way they do undergirded my approach in this project.

6.   As a now-decorated graduate of the UT AMS PhD program, do you have any sage advice for graduate or undergraduate students in American Studies, or the humanities more generally?

Yes! Say “yes” as much as you can without overworking yourself. Broaden your skill set, your network, and your body of interests. There are so many fascinating people at UT (and beyond) to connect with, and so many opportunities in front of you to develop new skills and interests. Push yourself to do something that isn’t your dissertation or your class work. Even if you can’t devote a huge amount of time to endeavors beyond your core academic work, it’s healthy to engage in a diverse variety of projects—and those ancillary activities will likely confer benefits in the long run that you never anticipated.

7.     What projects are you excited to work on in the futureFirst things first, I’m excited to turn this project into a fully-fledged book. I’m also increasingly interested in the culture of hacking and cybersecurity, and anticipate a second research project about emotionally-charged rhetoric about violation, security, and protection that has come to infuse any discourse about cybersecurity. I imagine I’ll always want to study politically and culturally hot topics.

Announcement: “Archives Against Annihilation: Imagining Otherwise,” A Talk by Michelle Caswell

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Please join us today at 11:00 AM in the Prothro Theatre in the Harry Ransom Center for a talk by Michelle Caswell entitled Archives Against Annihilation: Imagining Otherwise.

The talk, sponsored by the UT Chapter of the Society of American Archivists, is described below:

In the 1970s, feminist communication scholars first proposed the term “symbolic annihilation” to describe the ways in which women are absent, underrepresented, or misrepresented in mainstream media. Taking this concept as a starting point, the first part of this talk will examine the ways in which mainstream archival practice has symbolically annihilated communities of color and LGBTQ communities through absence, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation. In the face of such symbolic annihilation, marginalized communities have formed their own independent community-based archives that empower them to establish, enact, and reflect on their presence in ways that are complex, meaningful, and substantive. Based on interviews with dozens of community archives founders, staff, and users, this first act will propose a tripartite structure for assessing the impact of such archives on the individuals and communities they serve: ontological impact (in which members of marginalized communities get confirmation “I am here”); epistemological impact (in which members of marginalized communities get confirmation “we were here”); and social impact (in which members of marginalized communities get confirmation “we belong here”). In the second part, this talk will examine the relationship between symbolic and actual annihilation using the state-sponsored mass murder of Black people by the police in the U.S. as a prime example. Symbolic annihilation both precedes and succeeds symbolic annihilation in that communities are rendered nonexistent, invisible, or expendable before they are subject to violence, and then, after violence, such acts are often rendered invisible or expunged from the record, magnifying and mimicking the violence itself. Finally, this talk will end with a proposition for archivists to “imagine otherwise,” that is, to conceive of and build a world in which communities that have historically been and are currently being marginalized due to white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, gender binaries, colonialism, and ableism are fully empowered to represent their past, construct their present, and envision their futures as forms of liberation.

After the talk, we hope you join us for the American Studies Undergraduate Thesis Symposium, 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM in Burdine 436A. We hope to see you at both events!

The World in American Studies Today Keynote: Dr. Anita Mannur

 

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We are pleased to announce that the keynote lecture for our biennial graduate conference, The World in American Studies Today, will be given by Dr. Anita Mannur at 6 PM on Thursday, March 20th in CLA 1.302B. Dr. Mannur is Associate Professor of English and Asian/Asian American Studies and Director, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Miami University. She is the author of Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture and the co-editor of Eating Asian America: A Reader and Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader.

In this talk, Dr. Mannur explores how the figure of the “enemy” is constructed in public culinary sites by examining social media, cook books and food trucks that are devoted to the dissemination of culinary knowledge. The spaces she examines are Michael Rakowitz’s performance art installation “Enemy Kitchen” and Conflict Kitchen, a take-out restaurant in Pittsburgh, PA. In juxtaposing these sites and exploring the performative politics deployed within each context, Dr. Mannur explores what it means to turn to the tactile, olfactory and consumptive to reflect on questions of US diplomacy and foreign policy that have taken on particular forms of cultural xenophobia, directed at the Islamic
subject, in the wake of the war on terror and 9/11. By focusing in particular on the use of “radical hospitality,” Dr. Mannur asks how meals are staged as spaces to provide a counternarrative to xenophobia and the discourse of the
enemy combatant.

Announcement: MARCH ON! Gallery Reception and Conversation with Rep. John Lewis

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MARCH ON!, curated by Rebecca Giordano, is a show of original art from the March trilogy of graphic novels written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and drawn by Nate Powell. There are two events this week that are the part of the ongoing programming for the exhibition. First, starting at 5:30 PM on Thursday the 23rd, there is a opening reception in Jester A232A. The following day, Friday the 24th, at 11:00 AM in Hogg Auditorium, there will be a conversation with Rep. Lewis, Aydin, and Powell regarding their work. Tickets are required for the latter event and ticketing information is here.