Teaching Stories: Featured Fall 2016 Course Offerings, Part I

Being an interdisciplinary department, American Studies has a history of offering fascinating courses about American culture, politics, and history that you cannot find anywhere else on campus. Today, we feature four of those courses taught by our stellar Ph.D. students, to be offered in Fall 2016 and Spring 2017, about fascinating and timely topics like conservative politics in America, public education, energy and oil, and the image of the American Indian. We’ll feature more of our courses over the next few weeks, so stay tuned!

Each of these courses is a lower division course and will fulfill your writing flag requirements.

AMS 311s: The Culture of the Right

Unique # 30555
Instructor: Carrie Andersen
MWF 11am – 12pm

The moniker “conservative” can apply at once to fiction authors like Ayn Rand, political theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville, Renaissance men like Henry David Thoreau, television writers like the creators of South Park, and preachers like Jerry Falwell. How? What does it mean to be conservative? How has that definition transformed over time? And how are those ideologies expressed, reimagined, and critiqued in not only political texts and speeches, but also a variety of different cultural forms, from film to television shows to music to videogames?

In this class, we will explore those cultural forms to understand the changing politics of the Right in America from the 19th century through the 2016 election cycle, emphasizing in particular the relationship between the history of the Right and current events in culture and politics. In tracking the historical development of the Right, we will also attend to the interplay between conservative ideology and race, gender, sexuality, class, and religion.

This course will draw upon a variety of primary source texts (including films, television shows, fictional stories, essays, videogames, and music) as well as secondary source analyses of those cultural works.

Finally, a key question will subtly guide many of our discussions, readings, and assignments: how did we get from Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump?


Oil Well -- Bradford Oil fields, oil metropolis of the world (69693)

AMS 311s: Cultures of American Energy

Unique # 30560
Instructor: Emily Roehl
MWF 12pm – 1pm

Sources of energy are all around us—deep underground, blowing in the wind, stored in muscle and bone, mined and refined. The way we work, move, eat, and play is deeply connected to the histories and cultures of these energy sources. For this reason, energy is an important topic not only to engineers and economists but to humanities scholars as well. In this course, we will consider the histories and cultures of energy in North America from the mid-19th century to the present. We will dig into the question of energy by focusing on four themes: energy frontiers past and present, energy disasters fast and slow; energy in cultural memory; and energy media. We will look at representations of various energy sources (fossil fuels, human and animal power, wood, water, and wind) in film, television, literature, art, photography, museums displays, and industry archives while considering the role of energy in our everyday lives.


Integrated classroom at Anacostia High School

AMS 311s: Imagining Public Education

Unique # 30565
Instructor: Caroline Pinkston
MWF 1pm – 2pm

The last sixty years have been a remarkable and tumultuous period for American public education. From the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools to the more recent controversies over charter schools and high-stakes testing, public education has spent much of the last half-century right in the middle of national debates about equality, justice, and democracy. A recurring narrative in these debates is that our public schools are failing, and that fixing them is crucial to solving other longstanding issues of poverty and racial injustice.

Where does this narrative come from?  What stories and images contribute to the way we understand the importance of public schooling and its apparent failures? What’s at stake when we imagine a “failing” public school – or, for that matter, a successful one?

This course will examine contesting representations of public school in American culture from the 1960’s to the present day.  This will not be a course in the history of American education. Our main purpose, instead, will be to investigate cultural perceptions of the state of public education, in pop culture, in the news, and beyond. What’s the relationship between the stories we tell about public education, the policy that determines what happens in schools, and broader cultural anxieties about race, childhood, and social justice? We will consider sources including film and television, policy briefs & journalism, nonfiction texts & memoir, children’s literature & school curriculum.

Potential texts (excerpts): Up the Down Staircase (Kaufman, 1964); Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (Kozol, 1990); Bad Boys: Public Schools and the Making of Black Masculinity (Ferguson, 2000); Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America (Tough; 2009)

Potential films (excerpts): The Breakfast Club (1985), Dangerous Minds (1995); Freedom Writers (2007); Waiting for Superman: How We Can Save America’s Failing Schools (2010)


American Indian stamp 14c 1922 issue

AMS 311s: The Mythic Indian in American Culture

Unique # 30570
Instructor: Eddie Whitewolf
MWF 9am – 10am

American culture is replete with images of the “Indian.” From the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to professional sports team mascots, and from the packaging on Land ‘o’ Lakes butter to Walt Disney animated feature films, the “Indian” remains a pervasive yet enigmatic figure, but also, in the words of Vine Deloria, “unreal and ahistorical.” This course will interrogate the image of the mythic Indian in American popular culture, as seen through a variety of media, including American history, world’s fairs and expositions, public museum exhibits, literature, and film.

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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Grad Research: Carrie Andersen Writes on Louis C.K.’s Conservative Vision

Graduate student Carrie Andersen has just published a piece for the Radio-Television-Film department’s online journal, Flow. She explores the surprisingly conservative threads within stand-up comedian Louis C.K.’s oeuvre, whose television show on FX (aptly entitled Louie) deals with moral questions more often than we might expect from typical comedy programs.

An excerpt is reprinted below and the full article is available here:

…Louie explores lofty questions that half-hour comedy programs rarely confront. How do we live a good life? How do we cultivate a code of conduct for our world? How can we avoid being awful to each other?

C.K. is no stranger to questions of living an ethical life—and, aware of his moral choices, often puts his own behavior on trial. In his December 2011 stand-up special, Live at Beacon Theater, the comedian describes one of his own falls from grace.

Too late for a flight to return his rental car, C.K. simply drives the car to the terminal—not to the rental car return—and boards his flight. He then calls Hertz to explain where the car is, and the employee exasperatedly explains the proper rental return procedure. C.K. replies matter-of-factly, “Well, I didn’t do that already, and now I’m leaving California.” Hertz sends an employee to retrieve the car, and C.K. avoids any consequences from his failure to abide by the rules.

Although C.K. realizes he could do this every time he flies to avoid Hertz’s bureaucratic song and dance, he knows it is wrong. Considering the broader consequences of this behavior, Louis advises, “You should act in a way, that if everyone acted that way, things would work out. Because it would be mayhem if everyone was like that.” This is Louis C.K.’s crude twist on Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: for Kant, a principle (or, in his words, a maxim) is ethical if it would “become through your will a universal law of nature.”

C.K.’s maxim is, of course, not a strict reinterpretation of Kant’s. Louis is concerned with the outcome of his actions—he wants “things to work out”—while Kant questions whether we act in alignment with what duty requires of us. But both evaluate ethical choices based on the negative criterion of universalizability: you can’t make exceptions for yourself even if you want to.

(image from The AV Club)

Faculty Research: The Theology of Surveillance

Last week, American Studies faculty member Dr. Randy Lewis published a third column in Flow that both fascinates and frightens me. He writes on the theology of surveillance and the very odd presence of cameras in conservative Christian churches. What I find particularly interesting is the psychological response to knowing that one is being watched in a supposedly safe and sanctified space – not only by the eyes of a supreme being, but by security officials. How strange that these sanctuaries might be provoking fear and anxiety as they also claim to offer God’s loving embrace.

Here’s an excerpt, but you must read the whole thing – it’s beautifully written and, as I mentioned, fascinating:

I’m interested in my own feelings about CCTV as well, even surprised by them. Until recently I didn’t know I cared about cameras in sacred spaces at all. Yet I keep returning to religious angles that I’ve never pursued in the past. I wonder who would want surveillance cameras above the pews glaring down at the worshippers? What could be so alarming to a room full of gun-owning, God-fearing middle-aged white people in a small town run by other white people? In other words, who really needs sacred security, and what is so damn frightening that you’d replace the free-flowing calm and compassionate welcome of the idealized church with an ominous sense of lock-down? Apparently, it is not enough that some deacons areliterally carrying guns to Sunday services or that some pastors are literally clasping specially-designed bulletproof Bible holders at the altars. Something else is needed to assuage the fear.

Although I am only beginning to explore these questions, I can hazard this much: terrorism is not their demon of choice. Rather, it is the rank stranger outside the gate. It is the black cloud of evil that can settle anywhere, anytime, in their fretful vision of modern America. It is the vile nature of strangers, of difference, of heathens, but also the evil within: what the pastor might do to the organist, what the children might allege in the nursery—and if they don’t fear these things, the marketing of sacred security explicitly tells them that they should. Thank God—or Gideon Protect Services, or Watchman Security, or Savior Protection, Inc.—that video surveillance cameras, properly installed, will protect the innocent and ward off the wicked. Such is the sales pitch from the companies that I have been researching in this complex economy of fear.

What draws me to this topic is the sheer contrast between the ideal of hopeful refuge and shoulder-to-shoulder togetherness in a sacred space, and the insinuated, carefully marketed anxiety of the security business, forever amping up the threat of looming violence and the necessity of eternal vigilance. Must everything drip with fear?

(side note: as I began writing this, Hall and Oates’s “Private Eyes” came on my Pandora station – “watching you watching you watching you…” – a sign from above through yacht rock)