Grad Research: MA student Ashlyn Davis’ work featured on LightBox blog

We are thrilled to draw your attention to Time magazine’s LightBox blog, which recently featured MA student Ashlyn Davis’ collaborative artist book project, Islands of the Blest, which brings together historic photographs of the American west that Davis and photographer Bryan Schutmaat sourced from the online archives of the Library of Congress and the United States Geological Survey.


The following is a description of the book from the publisher’s website:

These photographs depict various places in the American West, and were taken over a one hundred-year period, from the 1870s through the 1970s. The photographers represented range from the completely unknown to some of America’s most distinguished practitioners of the medium. All of the images were sourced from digital public archives.

Five Questions with Rebecca Rossen

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Announcement: Rebecca Solnit speaks at UT tomorrow!

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We’re thrilled to announce that the Department of American Studies will present a talk by Rebecca Solnit tomorrow (Thursday, November 13) at 7:00 in the Prothro Theater at the Harry Ransom Center on campus at UT. Solnit will discuss her new collection of essays, “The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness.” Books will be available for purchase, and a brief book signing will follow the talk. Support for this event was provided by the Austin Center for Photography, the Harry Ransom Center, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of English, and the Humanities Institute through the Sterling Clark Holloway Centennial Lectureship in Liberal Arts.

Hope to see y’all there!

Alumni Voices: Recent Grad Publishes Book on Austin Music in the ’60s

Today we are thrilled to feature an interview with one of our recent graduates, Ricky Stein, who has published a book based on his undergraduate thesis, Sonobeat Records: Pioneering the Austin Sound in the ’60s. We sat down with Ricky to discuss his book, his time in American Studies at UT, and what’s next for him and his research on Austin music.


What was the inspiration for this project?

Music and musicology have always been what I go for. I grew up listening to all the great rock records and got endlessly interested in music. My other interest is in my hometown of Austin and its history. Austin has, I think, a history that you don’t hear a lot about. It’s not on par with some of the other major cities in the country, but it has a really nice little history. I was also interested in seeing how it went from being a sleepy college town, a settler’s town, really, to this up-and-coming city on the rise known throughout the country. The thing with Sonobeat, well, that was a gift–it’s amazing what can happen after one conversation. One minute I was working as an intern at KLRU and this guy says I should check out this website, Sonobeat Records, because he knew I was interested in Austin music. I checked it out and two weeks later got invited to participate in the senior thesis class taught by Dr. Janet Davis. I’m so glad I did that, because it dawned on me then that I had a chance to write about this local story.

How did you go from writing an undergraduate thesis on Sonobeat Records to writing a book?

It occurred really naturally. I am also a musician and worked for about ten years before going to college. For a long time I tried to get a record deal and then when I finally went to college the book just happened. I was so lucky, because it’s a really good topic and people are interested in it, especially because Austin has become the music town it has become. When I interviewed one of the musicians who was in a band signed with the Sonobeat label he knew of a publisher, The History Press that does city and local histories. He got me in touch with them, and they read the thesis I had written. They liked it and asked if I could expand it, double it, basically. And we drew up a timetable and they drew up a contract, and it was too cool–a little less than a year later I expanded it into a book and now it’s published.

We had an event this past Sunday at Antone’s Record Shop–there was a book signing, and we had one of the Sonobeat bands playing, The Sweetarts. I wish more students went to Antone’s Records, because I always loved going there when I was at UT and I wish I got out there more. It has a perfect location, right by campus, and they specialize in these old records, the old vinyls. We’re also doing a book signing this week at Waterloo Records on Thursday at 5:00.

How did your work in American Studies prepare you to do what you are doing now?

One of the things I really love about American Studies and one of the reasons I chose it as my degree was the interdisciplinary nature of it. It’s like history meets anthropology, sort of. I’m a culture junkie; I love film and music and art and history and literature, and that’s literally what I wake up thinking about in the morning. So American Studies spoke to me directly because it fit what I was interested in. I think the class I took that most stands out to me is Main Currents in American Cultural History, one of the courses that every American Studies student takes. We studied cities; the professor focused on studies of places like Chicago, New York, the Rust Belt, and we studies Los Angeles when we were talking about the twentieth-century rise of the Sun Belt from Los Angeles to Houston. I found that really interesting–the evolution of the American city–so that definitely had a big influence on writing the book. The broad scope of American Studies is great–there’s a lot of room for research there.

What’s next for you?

I have applied for the Texas State Historical Association conference. I’m on a team with a couple of grad students that is headed by Jason Mellard who is a really brilliant musicologist and American Studies professor at Texas State. He was a big help for me as I was working on the book, and his book on Progressive Country just came out from the University of Texas Press. My topic for the panel is the East Austin music scene, which you don’t hear a lot about–the juke joints of the 1950s back when Austin was a segregated city. I’m not sure where the research will go, but I want to do as much research as I can and continue writing. I loved writing this book–the whole process was so cool and came so naturally. It’s something I’m really proud of. So I hope to do more of that, and I am gearing up to apply to grad school and I want to be a professor of American Studies or History and read and write for as long as I can.

Announcement: Two Not-to-be-missed Lectures Tomorrow!

Happy “Snow Day,” Austin! The news doesn’t stop over here at AMS::ATX. We have not one but two great lectures to draw your attention to, both of which are taking place on the UT campus tomorrow, Wednesday, January 29 (worry not–the forecast calls for sun and 51 degrees).

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At noon in Garrison 1.102, historian James Brooks will be presenting his lecture, “Species of Silence: Things Unsaid about the ‘Annihilation of the Converted Indians of Agautub.'” Brook’s book, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (University of North Carolina Press, 2001) was the recipient of the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Frederick Jackson Turner Award. Brooks was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton as well as the President of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the past ten years.

At 7:00, award-winning British journalist, author, and broadcaster Gary Younge will discuss his new book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream (Haymarket, 2013). In this lecture, Younge will examine the spirit of that historic day in Washington and the misappropriation of King’s legacy since, offering a critical analysis of why “I Have a Dream” remains America’s favorite speech. Younge will present his talk in The Joynes Suite (007 Carothers Residence Hall, UT Austin).

Announcement: Texas Book Festival This Weekend!

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It’s that time of year again–time for the Texas Book Festival! Here’s a look at a handful of writers to check out during the weekend:

AMS alumni Jessica Grogan and Kevin Smokler will both be presenting at this year’s festival. Jessica Grogan will present on Sunday from 2:00 to 3:00 in the Capitol Extension Room E2.026. She’ll be presenting along with Elena Passarello and looking at ways in which self-identity is shaped. Check out her book, Encountering America: Humanist Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self here! Kevin Smokler will also present  on Sunday. He will join Wayne Rebhorn from 11:30 to 12:15 in the Capitol Extension Room E2.012 to talk about “Bringing Classics Back.” Check out his most recent book, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Read 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School here.

Here are a few other presentations to check out:


From 10:00 to 11:00, Geoff Dyer will discuss Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, on his book-length film essay, in the Capitol Auditorium Room E1.004.

Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn, and Zachary Karabashliev, author of 18% Gray, will present in a panel tauntingly titled America the Beautiful? from 12:00 to 1:00 in the Capitol Extension Room E2.026

From 1:00 to 2:00, horror master R. L. Stine will present in the House Chamber with his newest, A Midsummer Night’s Scream.

Where to Fight the Fight: Books on Conservation will feature Brad Tyer (Opportunity Montana) and Deni Béchard (Empty Hands, Open Arms) from 1:45 to 2:30 in the Capitol Extension Room E2.016.


Mark Binelli (Detroit City Is the Place To Be) and Jeffrey Stuart Kerr (Seat of Empire: The Embattled Birth of Austin, Texas) will discuss the evolution of Austin and Detroit in a session called Rebuilding from 11:00 to 11:45 in the C-SPAN2/ Book TV Tent.

Sherman Alexie, author of twenty-two books, including The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, will present on Sunday from 1:15 to 2:15 in the Capitol Auditorium Room E1.004. Alexie will discuss his new work Blasphemy and the 20th anniversary of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

From 3:30 to 4:30 Sunday, Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator of the Harry Ransom Center, will discuss Arnold Newman: At Work at The Contemporary Austin–Jones Center (700 Congress).

From 4:15 to 5:00 in the C-SPAN2/Book TV Tent,  Ricardo Ainslie (The Fight to Save Juarez) and Alfredo Corchado (Midnight in Mexico) will present their work in a panel titled Border Politics.

Hope to run into you there!

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Faculty Research: Steve Hoelscher on Reading Magnum

In honor of all the great events taking place this week surrounding the Magnum Symposium: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, (including a lecture by Alec Soth – tonight!) we want to draw your attention to an incredible book edited by our own Dr. Steve Hoelscher: Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World (UT Press, 2013).


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We sat down with Dr. Hoelscher a few weeks ago and chatted about the ins and outs of putting together such a rich, complex book about this storied institution. Reading Magnum was a four-year project, which, in comparison to most academic projects, is light-speed. The book is not a catalogue, though its publishing coincides with the Magnum exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center, Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age. With the arrival of the Magnum collection of photographs at the Ransom Center in 2009, Dr. Hoelscher began work on this far-ranging consideration of the historical, political, and cultural context in which Magnum has worked since its founding in the wake of World War II.


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Instead of focusing on Magnum’s photographic “geniuses,” the book takes a decidedly more contextualist approach to the archive. Dr. Hoelscher did not want to represent a hermetically-sealed vision of the photography world; he wanted to bust things open and make connections across photographers, time periods, and subjects. To add depth to the work, Dr. Hoelscher contacted a diverse group of scholars to contribute essays to Reading Magnum: Alison Nordstrom, Barbie Zelizer, Frank H. Goodyear III, Erika Doss, Robert Hariman, and Liam Kennedy. The work is theoretically informed, but style is paramount and clarity key. It is also, as you can see from just a couple of the spreads, incredibly beautiful.


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According to Dr. Hoelscher, Magnum was in many ways the post-war geographic information system, and place as much as narrative defined the Magnum project. Magnum photographs published and re-published around the globe constructed a certain understanding of the world in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. While many of the photographs featured in the book look at the horrors of war, there are also examples of photographs that addresses the quotidian, street life, stardom, and Civil Rights struggles. Scattered throughout the book are illuminating “Notes from the Archive” sections that give a behind the scenes look at the process of photographic distribution as well as “Portfolio” sections that highlight themes that wind through the archive: portraiture, geography, cultural life, social relations, and globalization.

Definitely check out the Magnum exhibition at the Ransom Center, up until January 5, and get your hands on this beautiful book!


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