Faculty and Graduate Research: An Evening of Pecha Kucha Presentations

by Cole Wilson

The American Studies Department tried out a new style of presentation this Friday the 6th, a PechaKucha Night. Designed by “Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Klein Dytham architecture” The first PechaKucha Night was held in Tokyo February, 2003 and consisted of seven minute presentations consisting of 20 slides lasting for 20 seconds each.[1] The Austin adaptation took place on the fourth floor of Burdine Hall in the American Studies conference room and featured seven varying, thought-provoking, and engaging presentations by AMS faculty, Ph.D. candidates and masters students. Like the original invented in Japan, UT Austin’s PechaKucha Night presentations were limited to 20 slides, lasting for 20 seconds each. The topics varied from American students in Vienna, Austria to modern day interpretations of Tiki drinks and its allusions to cannibalism. Every presentation was jam packed with information that both captivated the attending audience and propagated a lively discussion following the event. Here’s a recap:

Masters student Kerry Knerr connected the contemporary constructs of tiki with cannibalism through her argument that “consumption [of the contents of the iconic tiki cup] inhabits the being of the cannibal” while also carrying out the act of “consume[ing] the cannibal” itself. Knerr offered a glimpse into the history of Tiki as a physical artifact and as a romantic notion constructed by western entrepreneurs “Trader Vic” and “Don the Beach Comber.”

Following Knerr was Department Chair, Dr. Steve Holescher who presented on his bi-annual maymester course in Vienna. Dr. Hoelscher outlined his course objectives: understanding memory, the city’s adaptive reuse, and the cultural norms that have grown out of Vienna complicated past. He went on to discuss how he goes about reaching these objectives. Dr. Holscher pointed to Nazi era anti-aircraft towers standing stories above the tallest buildings in the city’s center, which are impossible to remove due to the dense urban landscape, and poses the question: how does the city of Vienna deal with this permanent reminder of the past? During his class students visit sites like the Jewish Monument against fascism, the Nameless Library,[2] and Mauthausen Gestapo camp. As a former participant of Dr. Holescher’s Viennese course I can safely say each and every day is filled with impactful and insightful lessons all revolving around the city and its concept-of-self. Dr. Holesher states that students in his course are constantly prompted to answer the question: how is Viennese memory displayed and interpreted at these location.

Ph.D. candidate Andrew Gansky presented a portion of his dissertation titled “Apple helps those that help themselves” next. He opens with a provocative question: “why do teachers love Apple?” Gansky goes on to argue that the answer lies somewhere in Apple-funded educational grants, a teacher-centric acknowledgement campaign, and a business model that made “people feel good consuming.” Gansky states that Apple continued their marketing techniques from the early 1970s through the 1990s, each year gaining more clout in the world of educators through their marketing grant-based, publicity-driven, education-focused business model.

Next, Dr. Lauren Gutterman presented on the case of Jeannance Freeman, a lesbian woman who charged with the murder of her two children in 1960, with the aid of her lover, and mother of the children, Gertrude Nunez Jackson. Freeman was the first woman sentenced to death in the history of Oregon’s penal system; however, the sentence was reduced to life in prison four years later. Dr. Gutterman argues that Freeman was considered a villain but later became a victim in the public’s eye. Dr. Gutterman touched on Freeman’s transition from villain to victim and how that change relates to her sexual orientation. She also explored how capital punishment was distributed unto the LGBTQ community in the 60s and sheds light on Oregon’s LGBTQ population’s progress throughout the decade. For more information check out Gutterman’s synopsis through the University of Michigan here.[3]

Dr. Jeff Meikle was next to present, and he did so on G.I. Pitchford’s iconic 4×6 inch portraits of the American southwest. Dr. Meikle explains that Pitchford sold (in bulk), captured, colored, and altered the post cards that would later create Americas notions of the “open road,” perhaps anticipating Jack Kerouac’s widely read On the Road. From his iconic, almost generic, sunset, to his incorporation of blossoming American technology like the automobile, highway, city center, or, in one famous instance, Hoover Dam, Pichford’s work has captivated the American imagination and instilled a picturesque romanticism of the continental southwest unlike any other artist before him or scene.

Masters student Josh Kopin presented on portions of his thesis concerning Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts gang and their allegorical ode to adulthood. Kopin argues that Charlie Brown counters the American nuclear family by presenting an allusion to the American worker, similar to Charlie Chaplin’s “Industrial Man.” By becoming consumers, fulfilling parental roles, and their acknowledgement of finite American cultural minutia (as evident in the gangs interest in works like “War and Hate”) the Peanuts are both children, and adults, possibly more so than Chaplin’s Industrial Man.

Lastly, Dr. Randy Lewis’ centered his presentation around the artistic interpretation of modern day surveillance. Dr. Lewis remarked on how artist action is at its heart a cultural barometer and went on to discuss how contemporary artists like Zach Blas[4], Karin Krommes[5], and Josh Kline[6] have thus expressed an uneasiness surrounding the practice. From drones to street cameras, artists have taken on the task of digesting and presenting these surveillance practices.

If you missed out, that’s alright! There is a PechaKuch Night planned for the Spring you can catch next semester. Keep in touch with the blog, the UT AMS website, our Facebook page, twitter feed, or wherever you get your UT Austin AMS news for more info on the next PechaKucha Night.


 

[1] PechaKucha.org. “PechaKucha About” Klein Dytham Architecture. http://www.pechakucha.org/faq

[2] “Holocaust Monument a.k.a. Nameless Library (2000)” University of Florida school of Art and Art History, http://art-tech.arts.ufl.edu/~kecipes/whiteread/holocaust.html.

[3] Gutterman, Lauren “Saving Jeannace June Freeman: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of Homophobia in Oregon, 1961-1964.” University of Michigan. https://lsa.umich.edu/women/news-events/all-events/archived-events/2015/03/saving-jeannace-june-freeman–capital-punishment-and-the-transfo.html

[4] Blas, Zach. “Facial Weponization Suit” http://www.zachblas.info/projects/facial-weaponization-suit.

[5] Facebook. “Karin Krommes” https://www.facebook.com/karinsabinekrommes/

[6] Kline, Josh. http://47canal.us/main.php?1=jk&2=pics

Alumni Voices: Mike O’Connor

o'connor author photo

Since earning his Ph.D. from the UT American studies program, Mike O’Connor has taught U. S. history at universities in New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. He has published articles in the scholarly journals Contemporary Pragmatism and The Sixties. While at UT, Mike’s writing was featured in the Austin American-Statesman and he wrote a weekly column for the Daily Texan. One of the original bloggers on the U.S. Intellectual History site, he later founded (with several others) the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. His book, A Commercial Republic: America’s Enduring Debate over Democratic Capitalism, will be out later this month.

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?

It took me many years to realize that my winding intellectual path was fundamentally focused on one theme: the influence and expression of philosophical liberalism in the United States. Before I came to UT, I took my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy. Since graduating from the American studies program, I have been teaching US history. My book tells the story of the changing debate over the role of government in the national economy, in order to contest the contemporary conservative narrative that suggests that the nation was “founded on” the principles of laissez faire. As such, it engages with economics, politics, history and public affairs. I’ve even published an article on Star Trek. Though these projects might seem unrelated, all of them, I now see, have served as vehicles for my attempt to understand, analyze and explain the influence of liberalism in American thought, culture, politics and economics.

In order to get at this question, I needed to synthesize the insights and perspectives of many different disciplinary approaches. That sort of eclecticism is something that I cultivated during my time at the University of Texas. The AMS program gave me both the tools and the confidence to pursue the particular questions that sparked my interest, and to reimagine academic disciplines as inviting resources rather than forbidding boundaries. Without the interdisciplinarity that I learned in the department, I would not have been able to recognize the coherent intellectual program at the root of my various disciplinary forays.

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?

I have so much advice! Pretty much all of it stems from things that I gradually learned both during and after school, but wish that I had been able to figure out a little earlier in my graduate career. Hopefully, today’s students are more savvy than I was, and don’t need to be told any of those things. But just in case, here are my nuggets of wisdom, such as they are:

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5 Questions with Dr. Shirley Thompson

Today we bring you a new entry in one of our favorite series of AMS :: ATX: an interview with Dr. Shirley Thompson, associate professor of American Studies and Associate Director of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. Dr. Thompson was also recently awarded a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship for her research on property, economics, and law.

Photo by Marsha Miller

Photo by Marsha Miller

 

What was your favorite project to work on and why?

I have to say my favorite was everything relating to my New Orleans project, which was my dissertation, and turned into my first book, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans.  First of all because I’m someone whose native constitution is more conducive to more quiet, solitary, archival research, and the New Orleans archival situation is just amazing.  Because New Orleans was so long a French colony, governed by civil code, there’s a different bureaucracy in place, which means that a lot of the transactions that would fall under the radar in another kind of space, an Anglo-American space, had to be attended by a notary, had to be heavily detailed, recorded and filed for future reference.  It was also really litigious on the civil side: you had neighbors bringing suit against neighbors for civil infractions.  It was a highly contestable, really rich culture of recording disagreement and recording interactions.  The logic of the archives is really interesting too, to trace people, who while I was working I thought of as characters, through their various material interactions, to witness them buying and selling property, interacting with their families, their neighbors – it brought history alive and made me feel really intimate with the people I was studying. The archival situation was really rich for me, and I could spend hours in a room, totally engrossed, in the historical events that were unfolding.

But beyond that, when I came out of those archives, the place itself was completely engaging.  New Orleans opened me up to something I’ve always been interested in, which is maps, and thinking about various ways of experiencing and representing space, and marking the overlapping projects of placemaking – how these projects come together or fail to come together within a city, or town, a geographical unit.  It’s not hard in New Orleans because it wears its history on its sleeve, but I began to really pay attention to how the city itself is a palimpsest, and use that as a kind of guide for thinking about how to tell the stories that I thought were important.  And New Orleans, in terms of its placement, pulled me into a transnational perspective that I found really transformative for my way of thinking about US history, thinking about African American history and its relationship to a broader stream of African diasporic thought.

The New Orleans project opened all that up for me.  I’ve also done some more creative pieces on New Orleans recently. I find that it’s a city that stokes my creative imagination.

I love going back and talking to people in New Orleans.  One thing about the city is that the people who are from there and live there are, a lot of them, historians – not formally, but they’re really engaged with the history of their families, the history of their communities, how other people represent them. They’re very savvy about representations of New Orleans, what their city might mean, what their culture has given to the world, and all the consequences of that.  They’re very articulate about it, and very willing to engage you on all of those levels. I see it as an ongoing project.  Every time I go back, I’m thrown back in the midst of these broader questions about the city, race and the city, and questions of representation.

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Departmental Theme: The Music of [In]security

Marconi "Velvet Tone" Phonograph Record Sleeve - 1907

As part of our department’s 2013-2014 theme, we’ve compiled a collaborative Spotify playlist containing songs that relate to notions of security and insecurity. Today, we feature a few of those selections introduced by members of our departmental community, who opine on the relationships between sound and security. So kick your Wednesday off with some tunes and a little fancy scholarly footwork that sheds a little more light on some well-known (or not-so-well-known) favorites. The depth of some of these songs may surprise you. Enjoy.

And, if you’re a Spotify user, be sure to subscribe to the playlist at the link above.

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Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, “Nowhere To Run” (1965)

Ostensibly about the difficulty of walking away from a bad relationship, the jarringly upbeat “Nowhere to Run” is more of a ghost story.  The phantom lover haunts dreams, the bathroom mirror, and other people’s faces.  Reeves knows its time to go, but she can’t find a way out.  GIs took over the song as a metaphor for the quagmire of Vietnam.  Today, considering the quagmire of bankrupt Detroit, the Vandellas’ joyous romp through an auto plant in their promotional video offers an almost spectral image of a distant, happier past. – Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Steve Earle, “Rich Man’s War” (2004)

Steve Earle makes an appearance on the list. His “Rich Man’s War” is part of the most recent incarnation of Earle—a songwriter with politics on the sleeve and class consciousness in the heart. But it makes me think of an earlier, Appalachian-inspired Steve Earle—that of the “Copperhead Road,” bootlegging, fast cars, and law-breaking days. That Steve Earle had it the other way around, class on the sleeve and politics in the noisy heartbeat underneath. To my ears, both bring more layers to the question of security/insecurity. To “Are we secure or are we insecure?” Earle adds, “Did we build this prison ourselves?” and “How do we get out of this cycle?” As his “Satellite Radio” puts it: “Is there anybody listening to earth tonight?” Because it might just be us who are here to figure it all out. – Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

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Bruce Cockburn, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984)

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.   Everything about Cockburn’s piece screams the eighties—from its cheesy keyboard patches to its scathing critique of the US pursuit of the strategy of supposedly “low intensity conflict” in Central America.  The pacifist folkie’s mounting frustration leads to dreams of high-powered vigilantism two years after the first Rambo movie and two years before the Iran-Contra affair made Ollie North a household name. – Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Jeff Buckley, “Grace” (1994)

Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” the title track from the artist’s only self-released album, embodies the emotional volatility of nineties alternative rock. At once a driving hard rock anthem and a surprisingly tender expression of a man’s resignation to his own demise, “Grace” is a nexus among uncertainty, alienation, and shrill-but-powerful panic stoked when death knocks at the door. Such themes are well at home in the disaffected Gen-X musical world also inhabited by the pre-emo likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But fear not. That messy snarl of ostensibly inevitable misery is ameliorated, at least in part, by the power of love (no Back to the Future allusion intended, although Marty McFly certainly had reason to feel insecure). Much as love provides some semblance of stability, the raw finality of death is, sez Buckley, perhaps the greatest source of security we can hope for. – Carrie Andersen

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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: Thomas Frank’s Take on Higher Education in The Baffler

Lowell House Tower III

We recently announced the exciting news that Thomas Frank and John Summers, editors of The Baffler, will be joining the Department of American Studies for a spirited conversation on the future of higher education on October 30. Today, we offer an excerpt of a piece called “Academy Fight Song” that Frank published about the topic for their most recent issue. Expect the event to address and spring off of the arguments that Frank makes here.

The university deals in dreams. Like other utopias—like Walt Disney World, like the ambrosial lands shown in perfume advertisements, like the competitive Valhalla of the Olympics—the university is a place of wish fulfillment and infinite possibility. It is the four-year luxury cruise that will transport us gently across the gulf of class. It is the wrought-iron gateway to the land of lifelong affluence.

It is not the university itself that tells us these things; everyone does. It is the president of the United States. It is our most respected political commentators and economists. It is our business heroes and our sports heroes. It is our favorite teacher and our guidance counselor and maybe even our own Tiger Mom. They’ve been to the university, after all. They know.

[…]

Another fact: This same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a nineteenth-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.

[…]

Grant to an industry control over access to the good things in life; insist that it transform itself into a throat-cutting, market-minded mercenary; get thought leaders to declare it to be the answer to every problem; mute any reservations the nation might have about it—and, lastly, send it your unsuspecting kids, armed with a blank check drawn on their own futures.

Was it not inevitable? Put these four pieces together, and of course attendance costs will ascend at a head-swimming clip, reaching $60,000 a year now at some private schools. Of course young people will be saddled with life-crushing amounts of debt; of course the university will use its knowledge of them—their list of college choices, their campus visits, their hopes for the future—to extract every last possible dollar from the teenage mark and her family. It is lambs trotting blithely to the slaughter. It is the utterly predictable fruits of our simultaneous love affairs with College and the Market. It is the same lesson taught us by so many other disastrous privatizations: in our passion for entrepreneurship and meritocracy, we forgot that maybe the market wasn’t the solution to all things.

The full article is available here.

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