Undergrad Research: A Conversation with AMS Senior Max Mills

As part of UT’s Undergraduate Research Week, our department will be hosting its 5th Annual Undergraduate Honors Thesis Symposium, to be held on Friday, April 22, 4-6pm, in Burdine 436a. Today, we feature a conversation with one of our undergraduate senior thesis writers: Max Mills. Here, he describes some fascinating findings from his research, as well as some of his favorite moments that emerged from majoring in American Studies. Enjoy!

Max 22 Birthday

Why did you major in American Studies?

Coming into UT, I had no idea that the American Studies Department existed. I actually only signed up for Intro to American Studies for my second semester because it fulfilled a flag requirement. The class was taught by Dr. Engelhardt, and it was essentially a course investigating the evolution of gender in America. I was hooked after the first day, but it was the lecture on the importance of Tupperware in American culture that made me realize that I needed to be an American Studies major. The courses that I took later down the road confirmed that I made a great choice. I liked what I was able to learn from an American Studies education, and the interdisciplinary nature of the field really appealed to what I wanted to get out of my time at UT. I mean, who else can say that they learned about the importance of Marxism in American film, the impact animals had as agents of American Empire, or the connection between video games and the military à la the “military-entertainment complex” during their college career?

Do you have any favorite memories from your time in American Studies?

There are too many!! But one that comes to mind is from an assignment in Dr. Davis’ Animals and American Culture 370. We had to bring a cultural artifact that related to factory/ industrialized farming, and so I decided to bring an empty carton of eggs. Her class was the last one I had on those days, and so I carried this carton of eggs everywhere I went with me. I mean, everywhere. And for some reason, everybody reacted to me as if I had a scarlet “A” embroided on my chest. I kept getting asked questions like “What’s the deal with the carton of eggs?” It was a cool way of being able to engage with my colleagues about factory farming and once again reinforces how awesome the American Studies Department is.

What is your thesis about, and why did you decide to write a senior honors thesis?

My thesis is an investigation of the integration process of Waxahachie Independent School District, a process that took about eighteen years after Brown v. Board was decided. While many schools in the South did delay school integration for many years, there are several reasons why I decided to write about this topic in Waxahachie. For one, it’s a history that is incredibly personal to me. Not only is it about the community that I grew up in and care for, but there is also a deep family history that runs through this narrative. My grandfather was the assistant superintendent that was hired to help implement the full desegregation of the school district in 1970. There is also, probably not surprisingly, a lack of community history regarding this process. Even though the memories of integration are held within many community members, I felt that a comprehensive history needed to be preserved for future generations.

What kinds of sources do you draw upon in your research?

Most of my sources were primary documents: school board minutes, newspapers, and yearbooks. I also interviewed a few community members that were former students of the all black schools in Waxahachie, as well as the two superintendents that helped integrate the district in 1970. When I was doing archival research in the school administration building in Waxahachie, I actually got to dig through the physical board minutes and correspondence with the office of Housing, Education, and Welfare. Getting that close to history was amazing.

Has your thesis research yielded any surprising findings?
I knew that white supremacy was manifest in my town, but it was the extent of white supremacy that really took me aback. Reading things like “First KKK wedding in Texas occurs in Waxahachie,” and seeing a high school yearbook cover of a black field worker kneeling before a white overseer made me realize what kind of history I was going to expose and write about.

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At first I was worried about upsetting people in my community. But that’s Waxahachie history, and avoiding it or choosing to ignore it is counterproductive to progress, and is even dangerous. I hope that this thesis can spur some much needed conversations about race and place.

How has American Studies prepared you for your post-UT life? Majoring in American Studies has been the most transformative experience I’ve had at UT. Aside from a collection of facts that makes me awesome at dinner parties and trivia nights, the critical reasoning skills I have picked up from the American Studies department will come in handy in whatever I decided to do with my life. Majoring in American Studies has changed the way I perceive the world I live in and how I interact with that world. It has led me to question and contemplate profound moral issues, such as “What is the America we want to live in?” and “What is the responsibility of our America?” These are questions every American should be asking and pondering if we are to make our time on this tiny planet more bearable. The University’s motto is “What Starts Here Changes the World.” Majoring in American Studies has made that more possible for me.

Faculty Research: Dr. Janet Davis pens NYTimes editorial on elephants in the circus

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We’re pleased to share with you all the news that Dr. Janet Davis, one of our core faculty members, published an editorial in the New York Times this past Sunday. She describes the history of elephants in the circus in light of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s announcement that their traveling elephant performers would be retiring by 2018.

See an excerpt below; the full editorial can be found here.

Elephants have been wildly popular in this country since 1796, when the first one arrived on American soil. Jacob Crowninshield, a ship’s captain from Salem, Mass., landed in New York City with a two-year-old Asian female from Calcutta. He sold the “Crowninshield Elephant” to an enterprising showman for $10,000. Thousands of eager Americans, including President John Adams, flocked to see the animal in taverns and courtyards, where audiences, fascinated by her trunk’s dexterity, plied her with gingerbread and wine. She and her keeper plodded from Rhode Island to New Orleans under cover of darkness for the next nine years because her owner was fearful of giving spectators a “free” look.

Americans at the time were particularly receptive to the Crowninshield Elephant and the many others who followed her, in part, because of nationalistic myth: Thomas Jefferson believed that flesh-eating elephantine mammoths roamed the American West, and he expressly ordered Lewis and Clark to look for one on their trans-Mississippi expedition. Performing elephants gave live, physical form to Jefferson’s notion of the American mammoth.

But that’s not all! Janet also contributed her expertise to this recent CNN piece on the circus’s decision. See that article here.

Faculty Research: Dr. Janet Davis and “In the Company of Cats and Dogs”

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The Department of American Studies is deeply concerned with public scholarship and finding innovative ways to reach out to the greater community around us. In that vein, we’re happy to report that Dr. Janet Davis has consulted on a brand new exhibition at the the Blanton Art Museum entitled “In the Company of Cats and Dogs.” The exhibition features works of art featuring – surprise – cats and dogs, including works by Pablo Picasso as well as some video clips of cats. Like Nora the Piano Cat. Seriously. No word yet on whether Keyboard Cat is also featured, but we can hope…

In addition to providing her own expertise on animals and humanities, Janet also incorporated the exhibit into her Plan II Signature Course: students in her class wrote papers on specific works, which the curators then used to generate some of the labels in the gallery. Truly a wonderful and fruitful bridge between the classroom and the community.

More details on the exhibition can be found here, and we highly recommend you check it out this summer!

Stories from Summer Vacation: Jeannette Vaught and Food-Industry-Animal Research in the Archive

Our next report comes from Ph.D. candidate Jeannette Vaught, who describes a recent research trip to Ames, Iowa, to research Iowa State University’s Special Collection for materials on food and animals.

According to the archivists, I may be the only humanities researcher ever interested in this apparent crisis.

According to the archivists, I may be the only humanities researcher ever interested in this apparent crisis.

Early this summer I took my last major research trip to the Iowa State University Special Collections in Ames, which houses massive collections of veterinary and agricultural materials spanning decades of scientific research, industry marketing, and political lobbying. Since my dissertation accounts for animals used both for sport and food, the ISUSC provided the bulk of my food-industry-animal research. Most of these collections have gone largely untapped, judging by the amount of dust rising from many a box of documents. At one point, the archivists had a difficult time locating a box from the Beef Improvement Federation collection, and were extra perplexed by its absence since, well, no researcher had ever requested it before! I capped off my 10 days in the archives by swinging down to Des Moines for the amazingly weird World Pork Expo, the major annual industry trade show. While I write about cattle, not hogs, the Expo nevertheless showcased every detail that goes into industrial meat: booths represented reproductive technologies ranging from individual insemination techniques to patented genes; feeding technologies from fortified corn products to methods of delivering the food to the animal; management technologies from gestation pens (excuse me, now they are called “individual maternity areas”) to slaughter restraints – the list goes on and on. There was also the option of eating some fresh meat scraped from the proverbial whole (roasted) hog, cracklins included. Talking to industry people and hearing their takes on their role in American food production was as useful as the bounty of primary historical records I took home from the archives.

I took a break from library time to visit Iowa State's lovely Reiman Gardens, home to the Largest Concrete Gnome in the World.

I took a break from library time to visit Iowa State’s lovely Reiman Gardens, home to the Largest Concrete Gnome in the World.

The remainder of the summer will be spent turning that research into chapters. I have a handful more interviews to conduct with sport and industry veterinarians at Texas A&M, but once those are completed, it’s pretty much all writing from here on out. In other animal news, I’ll still be hanging out with my horse, Dallas, and teaching riding twice a week, and am adopting a greyhound to share my apartment with come July.

Conference Preview: Keynote Address by Dr. Claire Jean Kim

Only one more day to wait! This Thursday and Friday, the American Studies Graduate Student Conference will take place at the Texas Union. Click here for a full schedule.

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Today we’d like to offer you a special invitation to our keynote address by Dr. Claire Jean Kim (Political Science and Asian American Studies, UC Irvine). Dr. Kim’s address is entitled, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Michael Vick” and will take place on Thursday, April 4 from 6:00p.m. – 7:30p.m. in NOA 1.124.

Here’s a little more on our keynote speaker:

Claire Jean Kim received her B.A. in Government from Harvard College and her Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale University.  She is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian American Studies at University of California, Irvine, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate classes on racial politics, multiculturalism, social movements, and human-animal studies.  Dr. Kim’s first book, Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City (Yale University Press, 2000) won two awards from the American Political Science Association: the Ralph Bunche Award for the Best Book on Ethnic and Cultural Pluralism and the Best Book Award from the Organized Section on Race and Ethnicity.  She is completing a second book, Multiculturalism On Edge: Contesting Race, Species, and Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which examines the intersection of race and species in impassioned disputes over how immigrants of color, racialized minorities, and Native people in the U.S. use animals in their cultural traditions. Dr. Kim has also written numerous journal articles and book chapters.  She has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of California Center for New Racial Studies, and she has been a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey and the University of California Humanities Research Institute.  Dr. Kim is an Associate Editor of American Quarterly and the co-guest editor with Carla Freccero of a special issue of American Quarterly entitled, Species/Race/Gender, forthcoming in September 2013.

Hope to see you there!