Undergrad Research: A Recap of the 5th Annual Honors Thesis Symposium

Today, we share with you this fantastic recap of last week’s Senior Honors Thesis Symposium, where three of our stellar seniors shared findings from their undergraduate theses. Rebecca Bielamowicz, also a senior and Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Honorable Mention, shares with us her take on the event. Enjoy!

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Max Mills, “In the Belly of the Cotton Kingdom: An Investigation of School Desegregation in Waxahachie, Texas”

Supervisor – Dr. Mark Smith

2nd Reader – Dr. Steven Marshall

Senior Max Mills conducted his yearlong project on the process of school desegregation in his hometown of Waxahachie, Texas, a community approximately 30 miles south of Dallas. Waxahachie, though no Little Rock, still resisted school desegregation through their adoption of piecemeal, halfhearted policies that did not guarantee full integration with “all deliberate speed.” It was not until 1970 that the Waxahachie Independent School District adopted district-wide desegregation policies and built a new high school that both whites and blacks could attend, and it was not until 1972, a full 18 years after the passage of Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, that the district was deemed sufficiently integrated by visiting federal agents.

Citing a lack of a comprehensive history of the desegregation process in WISD as the motivation for his project, Max went to work. To document this process, Max investigated old Waxahachie yearbooks, city council minutes, and conducted interviews with black and white students who had experienced the desegregation process firsthand. Yearbooks were visual proof of the ludicrousness of “separate but equal:” bathrooms and classrooms for black students, when compared side by side to their counterparts at the white high school, were pathetically dilapidated. The city council minutes demonstrated the extent of city officials’ foot dragging when policies to desegregate schools were perpetually tabled. Finally, interviews with former students yielded a range of different realities experienced under different district policies: Ira Gay, Jr., attended the white high school under the district’s 1965 Freedom of Choice Plan, which allowed Waxahachie students, both black and white, to attend whatever school they wanted to. He was the only black student at the white high school and said his presence caused little resistance. Conversely, Jackie Mims was forced to attend the white high school in 1968 after federal agents demanded that the district integrate their 10th, 11th, and 12th grades or face dissolution. “It wasn’t our school,” she said, and noted the violent fights that occurred often between white and black students. Interestingly, all white former students who Max interviewed asked that they remain anonymous and said they were “fine with integration” and argued that teacher resistance that was the real problem.

While memories of this process may differ, it’s hard to argue with today’s reality: as of 2010, 28 percent of black families in Waxahachie lived below the poverty line compared to 3.5 percent of non-Hispanic white families. Education promises equal opportunities for all, but it’s falling short. Max closed by stating the importance that lies in confronting Waxahachie’s history: although it is painful, it is necessary to do so in order to move forward.

 

Molly Mandell, “DIY Cuba”

Supervisor: Dr. Randy Lewis

2nd Reader – Dr. Steven Hoelscher

Senior AMS major and journalism minor Molly Mandell was able to put both of her degrees to use in her thesis project. Motivated by the sparse or inaccurate coverage Cuba has received throughout her lifetime and more recently since Cuban-U.S. relations have been on the mend, she took four trips and spent over three months collecting data in the country. While most coverage reinforces stereotypical understandings of Cuban life in the American imagination, such as antique cars, cigars, and beaches, her goal was to document what Cuban life was really like. Her initial focus was to photograph and interview farmers who were practicing sustainable, pesticide-free farming, but once she spent more time in the country, she realized that do-it-yourself or “maker” culture was flourishing seemingly everywhere in Cuban life.

When she asked Cuban linguistic graduate students why there wasn’t a word or phrase in Cuban Spanish to describe this “do it yourself” culture, they said it was because it wasn’t novel, but it was just their way of life. Although Molly’s project focused on Cuba, her findings shed an illuminating light on American culture. When she returned to the United States, she experienced what she called reverse culture shock: in the United States, more and bigger is always better, and something that would never have been thrown away in Cuba would probably be tossed out here without so much as a second thought. Informed by these observations, she makes the distinction between lifestyle DIY and essential DIY. Lifestyle DIY is often practiced by upper-middle class consumers and facilitated by products like Make magazine or websites like Pinterest. In contrast, Cubans practiced what she calls essential DIY, which, although it can be a deeply fulfilling and enjoyable practice, stemmed from economic necessity and a lack of other resources.

Through stunning photographs and tidbits from interviews, Molly told us of the people she met and the projects they were working on. One jack-of-all-trades English tutor, German tutor, and seamstress, sewed on her great, great grandmother’s sewing machine. Although she sewed, she admitted that her real passion was knitting and crocheting. She shared with Molly a picture of herself proudly wearing her first crocheted dress she created at 16. White and full length, it took her three months to complete. We also heard about Damian, who wandered the streets of Havana searching for materials from old paint cans, cars, or refrigerators that he could use to make his artwork because art supplies are difficult, if not impossible, to find in Cuba. He had plans to renovate an old factory to turn it into a space where he and other artists could work. Navis biked 25 kilometers each way to earn a business degree from the university. When she saw that there was a dearth of bike shops, she used her degree and knowledge of bikes to open one.

The profiles Molly conducted were genuine, detailed documents of contemporary Cuban life that have gone untold by American reporters, and she plans to turn this project into a full-fledged e-book in the near future.

 

Liz Garlow, “Manifesting Outward: A Prosopography of the Feminist Spirituality Movement in Central Texas”

Supervisor: Dr. Jeffrey Meikle

2nd Reader: Dr. Martha Selby

AMS senior Liz Garlow conducted a prosopography, or the study of a historical group, on three feminist spirituality groups in Austin and its immediate surrounding counties. The feminist spirituality movement, or FSM, is a form of cultural feminism that emerged out of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s. FSM is pluralistic faith practice that is informed by neo-paganism, lesbian separatism, Jewish and Christian feminism, New Age, and Native American spiritualities. Founders of the FSM were unsatisfied by the patriarchal and oppressive religions they had access to, so they left to create their own. The religion does not have one holy book, one leader, or one headquarters, but encourages women to do what it is that works best for them, and many identify as Wiccans. Ultimately, FSM is a political and spiritual movement that aims to transform the lives of the women involved.

Although the FSM has only been found in the English-speaking world, it is not endemic to Austin. While conducting research, Liz realized that histories of the FSM existed only about the West Coast and communities in Madison, Wisconsin. This lack of a comprehensive history of the movement in Central Texas motivated her research. She conducted interviews with the founders of three FSM organizations in the area: The Reformed Congregation of the Goddess – RCG 1st Austin Circle, Tejas Web, and the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Spirituality Group. The women she interviewed all strongly identified as feminists and were in their late 50s and early 60s. These organizations started popping up around Austin in the early 1980s, but their existence was not well documented through pictures or other media. However, they are still active today, although the age of its members tends to be older.

Understanding the role religion has played in shaping American life is an important domain to investigate, and Liz’s work is an important contribution. She ended her presentation with a thought-provoking excerpt from one of her interviews with a founder: “What does it say about a culture whose religious icon is a dead man on a cross, tortured, naked, and bleeding, compared to a culture where the central religious icon is a woman on a throne giving birth? What are that culture’s values, what are that culture’s attitudes, and what kind of institutions would that culture produce?” She leaves it to us to answer these questions.

All photos by Dr. Steve Hoelscher.

Undergrad Research: Molly Mandell Awarded 2015-2016 Rapoport-King Scholarship

SelfPortraitWe are very pleased to announce that UT AMS undergraduate Molly Mandell recently received a Rapoport-King Scholarship from the College of Liberal Arts to support her honors thesis research this school year. A Rapoport-King is a great show of support from the College, and we are very pleased to have Molly represent the great work being done in the department to the wider university community.

If you’d like to learn more about Molly and her research on organic farming in Cuba, check out this interview we did with her last spring.

Undergrad Research: Molly Mandell named UEPS scholar for 2015-2016 school year!

Today we are thrilled to share a conversation with AMS undergraduate Molly Mandell, who is the recipient of an Unrestricted Endowed Presidential Scholarship (UEPS) for the 2015-16 school year. The UEPS award is one of the most notable scholarships offered to UT students from a wide range of departments. We are super excited that Molly will be representing AMS and doing great work in the year ahead. To find out more about her next project, which involves a trip to Cuba to visit and photograph organic farms, read on!SelfPortrait

Tell me about what you are working on right now.

This summer, I’m working with the school of Undergraduate Studies and American Studies professor Randolph Lewis on an independent research project where I will be going to Cuba to photograph organic farms. I’m trying to understand sustainability there. Here at UT, I worked at the Micro Farm, which was an extension of my summer WWOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in France and Italy. I’ve always been interested in organic, sustainable farming and agriculture, but that really inspired me to come back and to look into my own community and see what is going on locally.

How have your American Studies classes influenced the way you think about sustainability and organic agriculture?

My American Studies classes have taught me to think really critically in a lot of ways. I didn’t start as an American Studies major. I found it by chance. I’m also interested in the arts. I like how in American Studies you can look at a lot of different topics and see common themes across them and understand how things reflect society. It makes you question society both locally and more broadly.

American Studies classes had a big influence on why I chose to go to Cuba, actually. At first, I didn’t make the connection between agriculture and Cuba. I was just following all the news once the United States started relations again with Cuba. I feel like Cuba is either romanticized or demonized in the United States. Simultaneously, there are all these discussions happening about when the embargo is lifted and America is once again involved with Cuba, how all these things will get better. I think there is a lot of truth to that; many things will improve, but I also think that there are parts of their culture that we don’t talk about that are really unique and special. As I was researching I started to read about agriculture, and it’s fascinating: basically, they were forced to be entirely organic because they haven’t had access to pesticides and machinery. They are now on their way to being one of the most sustainable countries in the world, but that is really subject to change as the United States gets more involved.

Tell us about one of your favorite experiences in an American Studies classroom.

The class that got me involved in American Studies was the Politics of Creativity course with Randolph Lewis in the Fall of 2013. That class was initially a writing flag for me, and I picked it at random. In that class, I did my research paper on Marfa, Texas, and the controversy between Prada Marfa and Playboy Marfa, which are two roadside art installations. I was talking about which one should stay there in relation to Donald Judd’s ideas around art and what it should be. That was really influential for me because I hadn’t really explored my more creative thinking side, and that class pushed me to do so. It caused me to rethink academics in general. There are all these notions about what it means to get a degree and do research–write a research paper. But I get to incorporate photography, as I will in my Cuba project, which is important. The end result for my Cuba project will be a book published as both a paper and eBook. I’m old school, I still like holding things. My photographs will have long captions as an alternate to a long research paper. My American Studies classes have taught me that you can use your creative side in academics, which is really exciting.

Alumni Voices: Dr. John Gronbeck-Tedesco, Asst. Prof. of American Studies, Ramapo College

Today we share with you some insight from Dr. John Gronbeck-Tedesco, Assistant Professor of American Studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey. Dr. Gronbeck-Tedesco graduated from the department with a Ph.D. in 2009.

Gronbeck-Tedesco-John

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?

The work I do right now evolved out of the nourishing range of experiences I enjoyed as an American Studies graduate student and temporary citizen of Austin, Texas.  UT introduced me to an invigorating intellectual atmosphere where I could explore many facets of humanistic study.  At first, the flexibility of American Studies can be frustratingly amorphous, with its oft-cited lack of consensus on the query, “What is American Studies?” (and outsiders’ persistent question, “What is it not?”)  But as an interdisciplinary, malleable form of study, American Studies continually demands reinvention of itself through its refreshing breadth and creativity.  The program allowed me to tailor my scholarly interests into a set of paradigms and methodologies that still govern my work today.  Classes on Cuban history, the American Left, the African Diaspora, U.S. foreign relations, and on race and ethnicity in the United States helped me produce my own definition and working model of American Studies, which I took with me on the job market, inscribed onto syllabi, and crammed (if uncomfortably in parts!) into my dissertation cum book manuscript.  American Studies at UT gave me the resources and peer/mentor support to travel to Cuba to conduct research and form a community of scholars and friends that continue to shape my personhood today.  And Austin was a place where I politically matured by joining activist organizations that organize on behalf of immigrant rights, compulsions I keep up on a weekly basis in Queens, NY.  UT American Studies is a thriving community that still dazzles on the ASA stage.  I consider myself lucky to have been a part of it.

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?

Explore, explore, explore.  Then write a manageable dissertation.  It seems to me that through this exploration we develop an understanding of the scholarly domains to which we will ultimately contribute.  It’s important to have a sense of where our work fits (in journals, departments, conferences) and where it doesn’t.  The advantage of American Studies is that we can have several options in this respect.   Having a good relationship with your mentors is also key.  I have been in awe of my mentors’ capacity to tirelessly help me well beyond graduation.

I think the most important words of advice I can give is something that I did not learn until I was deep into my degree.  That is to indulge in the vulnerability it takes to unmask and remake the hidden assumptions and understandings you carry into the program.  This is intensely personal, much more than I realized until later.  We are intimately invested in our knowledge production because it is inseparable from our profound sense of selfhood.  Breaking down time-tested barriers and defense mechanisms is a discomfiting but unconditional part of the liberatory process of education.  Knowing this at the outset, I think, is advantageous in graduate school.