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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Announcement: Dr. Shirley Thompson Awarded Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship


Dr. Thompson’s first book, winner of the 2010 Robert W. Hamilton Book Award

We are delighted to share with you the news that Dr. Shirley Thompson, Associate Professor of American Studies and Associate Director of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, has been awarded a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship. These fellowships “assist faculty members in the humanities, broadly understood to include the arts, history, languages, area studies, and zones of such fields as anthropology and geography that bridge the humanities and social sciences, who seek to acquire systematic training outside their own areas of special interest.”

Dr. Thompson says she will use the fellowship to study economics and law more systematically and to confront the theoretical and methodological challenges of her current book project, “No More Auction Block for Me.” Here is a little more from Dr. Thompson on her current research:

An interdisciplinary scholar trained in cultural history, literary criticism, critical race theory, and cultural geography, I have been inspired by my previous research on nineteenth century New Orleans, the largest slave market in the U.S. South, to ask broader questions about the gruesome intersections of race, law, and economics. I believe that this avenue of research can illuminate the history of racial disparity and also help us understand wider, seemingly unrelated macro- and microeconomic processes. In the past decade and a half, many historians and cultural studies scholars have detailed the connections among slavery and other capitalist ventures, particularly within the FIRE industries of finance, insurance, and real estate. As an important foundation of local, national, and global economies, the slave market, according to Walter Johnson, Stephanie Smallwood, Ian Baucom and others, has also shaped individual and collective identities in powerful ways. I will explore the accounts and critiques of capitalist logics issuing from the knowledge and experience of those subjects who had functioned as capital—the enslaved and those persons whose blackness has continued to serve as a “badge of slavery” even after formal emancipation. In other words, I aim to ask Karl Marx’s rhetorical figure, the “speaking commodity,” what she knows about the vagaries of the capitalist economy in general and the property relation in particular.

Congratulations, Dr. Thompson!