Announcement: Professional development workshop on ‘academic performance’ with Dr. Brian Herrera this Friday

This Friday, February 27, visiting Harrington Fellow Dr. Brian Herrera, Assistant Professor of Theater at Princeton, will offer a workshop on academic performance at 12:00pm in GAR 1.134. This workshop is intended for graduate students and early career academics who would like to build their presentations skills or who experience a bit of academic “stage fright.”herrera


Dr. Herrera sent us the following description of this workshop:

This performance workshop is designed specifically for early career academics encountering some measure of “stage fright” or “performance anxiety” around essential academic performances like job talks, conference presentations, and thesis/dissertation/exam defenses. After introducing several simple techniques borrowed from actor and voice training, this workshop rehearses how such performance techniques might also be applicable to high-pressure moments of academic performance.

RSVP for this workshop by e-mailing Chad Crawford at

Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis featured in ‘Life and Letters’ Magazine for documentary film

Sicilians and Sicilian-Texans exchange memories of the town poet.

Sicilians and Sicilian-Texans exchange memories of the town poet.

Last spring, we posted a dispatch from Dr. Randy Lewis about his travels to Sicily, Italy to screen an ethnographic documentary called Texas Tavola that he directed and produced with Dr. Circe Sturm. We’re pleased to also share with you a brand new piece in the College of Liberal Arts’s Life and Letters magazine featuring the duo’s work on this film, as well as Dr. Lewis’s and Dr. Sturm’s broader concerns with public scholarship.

“From Bryan to Sicily: Public Scholars Join Academy to Community” can be read in its entirety here, and here is a quick excerpt:

Sturm and Lewis both come from non-academic families, and this background is a big driver of their passion for public scholarship.

“Randy and I have always tried to create work that has an impact as scholarship and is also accessible to broader publics,” Sturm says. “Even with book writing, we’re both committed to writing about complex ideas in such a way that anyone can read it and that the communities that we write about will want to read it and engage with it.”

Public scholarship is intellectual work done with a non-academic audience in mind. It can take many forms, from digital humanities and online journals to books and documentary films created for a general public.

“Public scholarship is a broader thing that’s trying to transcend this inwardlooking model of higher education and really connect with different kinds of publics and communities out there,” Lewis says. “How do you convert or translate [your academic research] into something that resonates with the people who are actually paying for the University of Texas?”

Kids and Conferences Do Not Mix

As a follow-up to our post of reflections on the American Studies Association annual meeting, we’d like to feature AMS assistant professor Dr. Cary Cordova’s reflection on attending conferences, including ASA, as a mother, and the professional challenges this creates. For more great words from Dr. Cordova, check out our interview with her a few weeks back right here on AMS::ATX.


Kids and Conferences Do Not Mix

Starting with the American Studies Association annual meeting in 2009, it got complicated.  I organized two panels for that year, one for myself and one for the Minority Scholars Committee, but then learned I was pregnant and that my due date practically coincided with the conference.  I hear the panels went well, but I was not in attendance.  In fact, the meeting convened within a day or two of my leaving the hospital with my newborn son.  I have no regrets about having a child, but I do admit the professional challenges have been profound.  I knew life would change, but I did not foresee the specificity of these changes, including how difficult attending conferences would be.

Most conferences do not offer childcare.  The organizers anticipate that participants will be adept at setting up childcare in cities where they do not live.  If one is lucky, the conference takes place in a city inhabited by a family member, or a friend, whom I can ask to take time off of work to help, or who knows someone that I can trust to babysit.  On more than one occasion, I have helped friends in return who are coming into my city and who need help locating a babysitter they can trust.  But if you do not have a contact in that city, exactly how do you vet care for your child?  Perhaps you turn to the various childcare websites, though these sites and the subsequent virtual interviews of babysitters may not instill a parent with the greatest confidence.

The predominant expectation is that you leave your kid at home, but with whom, and for how long?  Thanks to my specialized training, I live far from my family and cannot call on just anyone to watch my son for days at a time.  I have felt more than a twinge of jealously when I see colleagues who live near their families drop their kids with the grandparents for days at a time, free of charge.  For one conference, I opted to fly in my mother to meet me and help me watch my son.  For this, she had to take multiple days off work, and I had to buy three plane tickets to attend a single conference.

Most obviously, the expectation is that I turn to my partner to watch my child.  The presumption that I have a partner to turn to is enormous here, much less that my partner might be free from his own professional commitments.  But yes, I do have a partner, and our relationship makes conferences both easier and more complex, since I am partnered with an academic who works in similar intellectual terrain.  I appreciate that my partner and I like similar conferences and can trade-off childcare when we attend together, but this guarantees that at best, each of us will have a fifty percent chance of participating in the conference.  In the last few years, I think my conference participation has been most visible via the frequent image of me chasing after my son through the halls of meeting rooms and around the lobby of the conference hotel.  This, of course, is not the professional image that one strives for, but it is a reality of my life in academia.

Since my partner and I like to attend the same conferences and engage together with our academic friends, we struggle over who gets to go to which conference, much less which panel.  Often, we try to bring our son to something that is clearly not playing to his interest, which at the moment is everything that does not correspond to Superheroes and Legos.  One year, my partner wanted to hear my talk, so he tried to come and sit in the back row with our son.  The visit lasted all of five-minutes, as our son kept calling out for “mommy” to step away from the podium and come play with him.

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Faculty, Grad, and Alumni Research: Reflections on the American Studies Association Annual Meeting

Fall is conference time, and this year we asked our faculty, grad students, and alumni to share a few words on their experience at the annual meeting of the ASA. We asked folks to reflect on any portion of the event–their panel, other panels they found inspiring, the presidential address–and today we feature some of these reflections on the conference back in November in Washington, D.C. For those of you unable to attend and who didn’t follow the chatter on Twitter, here’s a taste of what ASA had to offer this year. Some of the reflections address the ASA National Council’s endorsement of an academic boycott of Israel. The views expressed here are those of individuals; they do not reflect those of the department as a whole.


The American Studies Association annual meeting took place this year in Washington, D.C.

Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa

I confess to typically staying within a certain comfort zone at conferences, going to panels and talks on topics related to my work. This year’s ASA conference (a first for me) began in much the usual way, though once I got my feet wet I ended up attending three sessions on topics I knew absolutely nothing about! The first session I attended, “Photographing War, Picturing Dissent: Visualizing the Vietnam Conflict,” chaired by Robert Hariman, was sponsored by the Visual Culture Caucus. Andi Gustavson, Franny Nudelman, Sara Blair, and Liam Kennedy presented work that interrogated the aesthetics of dissent, describing some of the ways that photographers contributed to the critique of the Vietnam war and, in the process, further developed photography as a documentary and artistic medium. Andi Gustavon’s talk, the first of the morning’s panel, focused on snapshots soldiers took in Vietnam and circulated to family, friends, and each other. She suggested that soldiers used these snapshots of their every day lives in the war zone to mediate emotional responses to the war.

These snapshots and the poignant images that punctuated the other presentations drew me back to my childhood. The images of young men going off to war, and of those returning aged and oftentimes physically and psychically wounded called me to reflect on what it must have meant to a child to see a war unfolding in black and white on a living room television every evening. I don’t think I registered any particular war. Nor would I have have understood the concept of war. The visual and aural nearness of guns and helicopters likely served as part of the visual and aural backdrop to every evening, arriving just before dinner and at the end of a day of playing and attending elementary school.

While I did not know it at the time, my brother’s “number” was called in 1967. It was not long ago that I learned from my mom the details of his “call to report.” Not long before the war lottery drew his number, my brother had what was then major surgery for torn knee cartilage. Sustained playing college basketball on scholarship, the injuries prevented him from being enlisted. It’s strange—I recall vividly visiting my brother in the hospital, making a trip to a restaurant with him on crutches, and being repelled by the odor of the yellow substance the hospital used to clean his leg. But I can’t fully remember the war images and associated words and sounds emanating from the television. Little did I know that, while the images and sounds may have registered as the usual backdrop to my childhood evenings, families across the nation watched the news nervously, waiting the longest wait for a child to return home.

Elizabeth Engelhardt

My ASA moment this year happened at a Saturday morning food studies session. Two of the presenters had workshopped their pieces at our Food Studies Writers Salon earlier in the fall, so it was fascinating to see how Lindsey Swindell of Sam Houston State and Jennifer Jensen Wallach of the University of North Texas had modified and deepened their thinking. It was also intellectually provocative to see their work in conversation with the other panelists. The conversation ranged from Mexico to Alabama to the Blackfoot Tribal Lands and from 1870s’ progressivism to the past month’s media coverage of the Obamas. More than that, though, I attended the session with my friend Psyche Williams-Forson, and we ended up passing notes, hatching an idea for an anthology project inspired by the moment.

Caryl Kocurek

American Studies is a sprawling discipline, and that is something that is often on display at the annual meeting of the ASA. What is, perhaps, less obvious from outside the field is how the same meeting that showcases the diversity of interests within the field shows how these diverse interests intersect in meaningful, productive ways. For me, the best part of ASA is not necessarily presenting my own work or even seeing others’ work presented — although both are valuable — but instead the host of opportunities for meeting peers at caucus and committee meetings and events and less formal receptions and social gatherings. For the past two years, I’ve participated as a member of the Digital Humanities Caucus, and this year, I’ve also signed on as a member of the ASA Women’s Committee. Conferences are vital as opportunities for connection, and in a large organization like the ASA, finding smaller groups within the whole can be an important means of forging meaningful ties. My work with the Digital Humanities caucus has yielded opportunities for collaboration that I would not have had otherwise. While I am sure working with the Women’s Committee could yield the same, I am also excited to give back to the organization through service and facilitate opportunities for other women in the organization. I’m always excited to go to ASA, even at moments when I feel my research is straying afield from the discipline, because I can rely on the meeting as a kind of homecoming and an important reminder that I am, always, an American Studies scholar at heart.

Julia Mickenberg

The recent ASA meeting was stimulating but very emotional one for me, mainly because of the Israel boycott resolution being debated throughout much of the conference. I spent a great deal of the time discussing the pros and cons of an academic boycott with various colleagues who embraced a range of different positions, from strongly opposed, to strongly in favor. Many people were simply concerned that the American Studies Association was devoting its energies to this issue more than many other worthy issues (global warming, nuclear proliferation, etc.), or wondered if a scholarly organization should be in the business of making political statements. Many were concerned about the capacity of the boycott resolution to create enduring rifts in the organization.

I had intended to attend a forum on the boycott Friday night but several social events—that is, the chance to see old friends, colleagues, and former students who I would not otherwise see—prevented me from going. However, at dinner that night I wound up hearing about that meeting from two professors at other institutions who strongly support the boycott but had concerns about the level of discourse at the meeting. At dinner the next night another friend expressed fear that the ASA was tending toward overemphasizing “social justice” oriented work to the point that there was no longer space for scholars who are more oriented toward academics than politics—“Isn’t there still room in our organization for the folks who just want to study Emerson and Hawthorne?” he asked, not because he’s a political reactionary, but because he would like our organization to welcome everyone interested in American culture. He said that for the majority of awards announced at the awards ceremony (which I did not attend), people were commended on how their work would further social justice (which we both agreed is important), but hardly anyone was commended simply for the outstanding quality of their scholarship.

All of this was swirling in my head after the open forum on the boycott on Saturday night, and I wound up feeling compelled to write a statement to the ASA Council, especially given the fact that I had at the last minute added a slip of paper to the box containing names of people who wished to speak at the forum, and my name was not called. Below, verbatim, is the letter that I sent to the ASA Council; I like to think that maybe it had something to do with the statement in the final resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

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Alumni Voices: Kimberly Hamlin, Asst. Prof. at Miami University in Ohio

Today we have a new dispatch from Dr. Kimberly Hamlin, an alumna of our graduate program, who shares some fascinating and useful advice from her experiences at UT and beyond. Hamlin is assistant professor of American Studies and History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her first book, From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America will be published in early 2014 by the University of Chicago Press.  For her article “‘The Case of a Bearded Woman’: Hypertrichosis and the Construction of Gender in the Age of Darwin” (American Quarterly, December 2011), Hamlin received the 2012 Emerging Scholar Award from the Nineteenth Century Studies Association. She completed her PhD in American Studies at UT in 2007.

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How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

Both my research and my teaching are very much informed by the work that I did in American Studies at UT. My book, which will be published in a few months, began as my dissertation. While there were many revisions along the way from dissertation to book, the central question remained the same: what did evolutionary science mean for women living in the nineteenth century when many gender roles were defined by the myth of Adam and Eve?

My next book project, a biography of freethinking feminist Helen Hamilton Gardener – a woman who played a key role in the passage of the 19th amendment and later donated her brain to Cornell University to prove that women’s brains were not inferior to men’s—is also informed by my experiences at UT, not so much in terms of content but in terms of my desire to connect my scholarship to readers who may or may not be academics. One of the strengths of the AMS program at UT is that faculty encourage students to share their research beyond the academy and often model how to do this with their own research (here, for example, I am thinking about Professor Elizabeth Engelhardt’s work on barbecue).

One of the great benefits of having gone to UT was the opportunity to teach my own courses for four years. Before I taught my own courses, I was not 100% sure if graduate school was for me, but as soon as I was able to design my own syllabus and spend a semester working through it with students, I knew I was in the right field. At UT, I served as a teaching assistant for two semesters, then I taught in the rhetoric department for several semesters, and, finally, I developed and taught several sections of a class in the American Studies Department (“Women in American Culture from Seneca Falls to ‘Sex and the City’”). The ability to teach while still in graduate school not only helped me prepare for life as a professor, it also allowed me to begin connecting my scholarship with my teaching at an early stage. For example, my dissertation project—and later book—actually grew out of a connection I made while preparing the course packet for my class on “The Rhetoric of Feminism.” In putting together this course packet of pro and con feminist arguments from the 1790s till the present, I noticed that nearly everyone writing prior to 1900 mentioned Eve. So, I wondered, what happened to feminist thought when Eve became optional as a result of the broad-based acceptance of evolutionary theory? The answers to this question form the basis of my forthcoming book.

In addition, the reason that I have my particular job is very much because of the unique experiences I had in American Studies at UT. In the summer of 2006, when I had written exactly two chapters of my dissertation and was not planning on graduating till 2008, I saw a posting on H-Net for an American Studies scholar with an interest in “public culture.” At UT, I participated in several projects that promoted public history and public culture and knew that I wanted a job that would reward me for engaging with academic and non-academic audiences. For example, through a connection of Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s (then at UT), I served as a research assistant on Ken Burns’s documentary on the national parks the summer after my first year. I also served as the assistant director of the Austin Women’s Commemorative Project which began as a Woodrow Wilson Foundation grant directed by Professor Martha Norkunas. And, finally, as a result of my master’s thesis on the origins of the Girl Scouts, I connected with Austin-area filmmakers Karen Bernstein and Ellen Shapiro and served as the historical consultant on their award-winning PBS documentary “Troop 1500: Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.” I think it is because of these “public” experiences that I got the job I have today.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

When I was at UT, I often turned to my friend Matt Hedstrom for advice and generally followed his excellent example. So, since Matt wrote a list in answer to this question for his blog post, I will once again follow his example here. I guess this is also my first piece of advice:

  1. Seek out role models and mentors among the faculty, fellow students, and alumni. 
  2. Enjoy the graduate student lifestyle. I know this sounds odd to say when you probably feel very stressed, overworked, and underpaid. But, trust me, graduate school is a luxury in terms of time, if not money. Take advantage of the flexible schedule, the time for walks and contemplation, hanging out with friends, and reading all sorts of books just because they sound interesting.
  3. Make the most of all that UT has to offer, including but not limited to the American Studies Department. (One of my regrets is that I never went to a UT football game. Even though I do not really care about football, I should have taken advantage of those student tickets!) Many of the best experiences I had and closest friends I made while at UT came from outside the department. Teaching rhetoric was a terrific way to ease into the classroom (because before you apply to teach your own class you teach from a shared syllabus); working at the Writing Center not only improved my own writing but helped me become a better teacher of writing; the History Department’s Gender and Sexuality Symposium provided the core intellectual home for me while writing my dissertation; and working on the outside projects described in my answer above helped me imagine myself as a professional in this field and helped me attain my current position.
  4. Look for projects that can be researched at archives with travel funding. I was fortunate in that I was able to research my dissertation at the major women’s and gender history archives and that they all provided travel funding. So, to the extent possible, look for archives related to your general interests and see if they offer research or travel stipends.
  5. That said, do not look for “trendy” projects. Select a project that truly interests you and that you will be passionate about for the next 5-10 years. Besides, by the time you finish your dissertation/book, what is “trendy” will have changed.
  6. Now that I have also served on search committees, I am going to use a word that makes me cringe a little bit—look for ways to “credential” yourself. If you are interested in women’s and gender studies, for example, complete your certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies. Including on your CV that you completed this certificate program looks a lot better than writing that you are “interested” in women’s and gender studies. If there is a not-for-profit group connected to your research interests, try to connect with them; if you have a pretty solid seminar paper, present it at a conference; if there is an article or paper prize in your area, apply for it; etc. I wish I could just say do #5 (follow your interests), but in this tight job market candidates who do #5 and #6 generally fare much better.
  7. I think this one is actually the most important– Take advantage of living in Austin! Odds are that the place you move next will not be as vibrant or exciting… or have as great food or music! (And the connections you make outside of UT may prove to be equally as helpful as those you make within the university.) So, please go for a walk around Town Lake and eat a breakfast taco and a gingerbread pancake for me!

A Post-Lecture Assessment of Thomas Frank on Higher Education

Last week, we were delighted to host Thomas Frank and John Summers, founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Baffler, for a conversation on the future of higher education. In case you weren’t able to attend the event (or watch our live-tweeting), one of our graduate students, Brendan Gaughen, has penned this thorough and thought-provoking write-up of the event. Feel free to weigh in in the comments, too – where is higher education going in the age of market pressures and student loans?

Tuition Hike Protest-0385

A student protests tuition hikes at McGill University in Quebec

Thomas Frank, founding editor of The Baffler, gave a talk called “Academy Fight Song” on October 30 in Avaya Auditorium on issues in higher education. Comparing higher education to an impossible dream burdened by unfulfilled promises, Frank decried the fact that universities have over the past few decades been increasingly run as businesses that value profits over the interests of students. Though his jeremiad was quite effective in articulating some of the problems presently occurring in higher education, his solutions were less clear.

Frank began the talk by describing the perception of the American university system as a dreamlike utopia of infinite possibility. Then all of a sudden, he said, recent college graduates wake up from the dream to discover themselves $100,000 in debt with no prospects to speak of, despite the pervasive myth that their college degree grants automatic entry into the professional managerial class. Frank was careful to differentiate between a college degree and a college education, the former being what is thought of as the single most important credential to obtaining a career.

According to Frank, universities themselves are guilty of perpetuating this myth of self-importance. They are driven by what he called academic capitalism, selling promises to students but acting in their own institutional best interests, calling Harvard, for example, a “hedge fund with a university attached to it.” Frank cautioned against universities functioning like businesses that answer to the needs of the marketplace.

He claimed college students also feed into the problem, calling them cash cows who are duped into believing a college education is necessary. Like lambs to the slaughter, said Frank, they sign a student loan application, a blank check drawn on their own future, not knowing what they are getting themselves into. Once in college, they are trapped by the high cost of textbooks and ever-increasing tuition. Afterward they are saddled with huge amounts of student loan debt.

Higher education has been undergoing what he called deprofessionalization, and the bulk of the teaching is now done by low-ranking faculty with no tenure, benefits, or job security. University budgets go toward things like fancy architecture, sports stadiums, food courts, and celebrity professors with no academic credentials such as General David Petraeus and Chelsea Clinton, who was given a high-ranking position despite not have finished her doctorate. Perhaps most importantly, higher and higher percentages of university budgets are spent on an increasing number of administrators, whom Frank believes are largely unnecessary. Instead of a dreamlike utopia, said Frank, the American higher education system has become a “dystopia brought about by parasites and billionaires.”

The problem will remain unnoticed, said Frank, until there is an eventual breaking point: a bursting bubble that would take the form of a debt-driven failure of a prestigious university. The failure, he said, will inevitably be blamed on socialism, and the solution will be more standardized tests and more number-crunching administrators to monitor budgets and standards. There will be a mass faculty extinction that will miraculously spare administrators, and as a result humanities education will only be available to the very rich.

At the end of the talk, Frank outlined some components that would begin to reverse the process of marketization in higher education. Ideally, college should be very cheap, he said, with greater subsidies from the state. Universities should reduce the number of adjuncts and get rid of most administrators. Student loan debt should be forgiven in bankruptcy. Finally, he suggested college students speak up for their own interests and strike for better higher education. Though he did mention a recent event in Quebec where students were able to negotiate for lower tuition, one wonders if he truly believes college students would be able to successfully organize on a grand scale, given that he previously portrayed them as unsophisticated and charmingly naïve (though perhaps it takes a bit of youthful naivete to proceed when the odds are not in your favor).

In the question and answer session that followed, several audience members brought up good points. What about the positive experiences and transformations of students? What about the fact that universities continue to be at the forefront of scientific and intellectual innovation? Why isn’t the solution to dream more, rather than less? Frank acknowledged the transformative power of college but again lamented the fact that it has largely been captured by market logic. He then described an intellectual epiphany that he had in college when he used to be a Republican, though surely he must have had a more significant transformative experience than that.

But let’s face it – the climate of higher education was much different then. The cost of tuition and textbooks was much lower. University budgets were not burdened by cadres of administrators, and a significantly greater portion of the teaching was done by tenured (or soon-to-be-tenured) faculty rather than adjuncts. The high cost of a college education today has made it increasingly more difficult for even the middle class to attend, let alone those from lower socioeconomic classes. This makes the privileges afforded to certain groups (based on race, gender, and class) even more pronounced. Despite a somewhat condescending view of the ones who should be central to the story – college students – “Academy Fight Song” described quite effectively some of the main problems facing higher education today: belief in the necessity of a college degree, skyrocketing debt, shrinking budgets that have decimated some humanities departments, and a proliferation of administrators. But as I’m sure even Thomas Frank knows, outlining the problems is much easier than articulating realistic solutions.

Announcement: Two Not-to-Miss Talks This Friday

Happy almost-end-of-semester!  While we know all the students and faculty out there are probably up to their gills in paper writing and grading, we recommend taking a break from the madness this Friday, December 7, to attend one (or both!) of these great talks.


For more information on Christopher Newfield’s talk, see here.


For further details on Avery Gordon’s talk, see here.