Stories from Summer Vacation: Caroline Pinkston and Teaching Teachers

Here’s a report from Caroline Pinkston, who shares some details about her job with Breakthrough Austin:

At first glance, my summer job might not sound that great. During the academic year, when I’m not haunting the halls of Burdine, I’m living a double life as a high school English teacher. My summer is therefore exceptionally valuable to me, as both teacher and student. And yet, instead of getting to take a break from teaching and learning, somehow I was tricked into working as an Instructional Coach with Breakthrough Austin. That means I’m spending my whole summer with a combination of 19-year-olds and middle-schoolers. I spend my days walking between buildings on the UT campus, literally covered in sweat.  Sometimes I run into friends or coworkers or former students, and I have to try to avoid eye contact because, again, I’m literally covered in sweat.

Breakthrough Austin

Breakthrough Austin

You might be thinking that this doesn’t sound like a great way to spend a summer. But you’re wrong. I have the greatest job on the planet. Here’s why:

  1. I’m working with an awesome program. Breakthrough Austin is part of a national collaborative working to support students who will be first-generation college graduates. Breakthrough begins working with these students in middle school, and continues to provide support all the way through college graduation. One fundamental part of Breakthrough is the summer program, which provides enrichment and summer learning opportunities to Breakthrough students entering 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. Breakthrough’s summer program at UT is part summer camp, part school, and part mentoring program. Students do ridiculous cheers, build model roller coasters, tour local universities, perform Shakespeare, and throw pie at each other. It’s good stuff.

  1. Middle school students are hilarious. If you don’t think middle-schoolers are hilarious, it could be because you’re remembering being a middle school student, which — in my own experience, at least — is often more traumatic than funny. Being around middle-schoolers as an adult no longer immersed in a sea of anxiety and awkwardness,* however, is a different story. I’m no mathematician, but I feel confident asserting that 65% of what 14-year-olds say is really, really funny (and often unintentionally so, which is even better).  I spend a lot of my day laughing, or trying not to laugh, or thinking about how funny this will be later. It’s a pretty good way to spend a day.

*Actually, this is still a remarkably accurate description of my life.

  1. I’m not the one who actually has to control the middle-schoolers. This is where things start to get really awesome. Breakthrough’s summer program is based on a students-teaching-students model, which means classes are run by college students (and a few high school students) who come to Austin from all over the country to try out teaching. My job as an Instructional Coach is to work with these young teachers and help them figure out what good teaching is all about. It turns out that brainstorming ways to stop Student X from doing whatever ridiculous thing he or she is doing in class is significantly more fun than being the one who actually has to stop Student X. It also turns out that spending all day watching energetic, motivated, insanely creative young people teach is the best way I can imagine to recharge my own teaching energy before I am running a classroom of my own again.

  1. I get to talk about nerdy education stuff all the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the people I work with are also really interested in education and its connection to various things American Studies-related, and said coworkers will talk with me about these things literally all day long! It’s great! The fact that I’ve found this outlet is a welcome relief to many of my other friends, I’m sure. It also means I’m going back into my graduate school life full of new ideas and energy and ready to read and talk about things again.

  1. I am finished most days by 2pm. This perhaps speaks for itself, but just in case, I will elaborate: most afternoons, I have plenty of time to read 1Q84, attempt to train my new puppy Thelma, and think about going to free Russian classes at Russian House, but not actually go. What more could you want from the summer?

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Conference Preview: The American Dream and the Politics of Promise

Next up in our series of sneak peeks at the American Studies Graduate Student Conference is a panel entitled “The American Dream and the Politics of Promise.” This panel will feature papers on political theory and rhetoric as they relate to the American Dream.

Photograph by Andrew Jones

Photograph by Andrew Jones

  • Curt Yowell, “The Rhetoric of Poverty and Payday Loans”
  • Joe Roberto Tafoya, “Watching and Learning From the Shadows: Political Sophistication of Latina/o Young Adults”
  • Jeff Birdsell, “Advancing the Student as Investor Metaphor by Reconceptualizing the ‘Career Student’ to Advance the American Dream”
  • Duncan Moench, “How Social Democrats can Change the American Dream: A Political Communication Perspective”

This panel will take place on Friday, April 5 from 10:45a.m. – 12:15p.m. in the Texas Union, 4.206 Chicano Culture Room.

Undergrad Research: This Mongolian Life

The following post comes to us from Stephanie Kovanda, a recent graduate of the program in American Studies here at UT Austin. Since graduating from UT, Stephanie has been working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia. Many thanks to Stephanie for sharing her story with us!


March 16, 2011, 6:13 PM

I receive a text from a friend staying at my place in Cedar Park, Texas. “A package just arrived… something about Peace Corps?” This is the invitation I have been waiting for since I began the grueling application process nearly a year ago, an invitation I’ve been waiting for since I was seven years old. And of course, I have just started my 6-hour shift volunteering at a South by Southwest venue. The details of the next two years of my life will have to wait until the final band finishes their set and all amps, cords, and instruments are transported back to their designated vans.

March 17, 2011, 3:28 AM

I arrive back at the house. Surrounded by three friends, I open one neat little government-issued envelope containing my fate. My friend has the BlackBerry video camera recording. “It is with great pleasure that we invite you to begin training in… Mongolia???” I wish I can say my first thoughts are of intelligible details regarding Mongolian politics and culture or even a clue about the spoken language. No, my first thoughts are of BBQ and something about Chinggis Khaan making the Chinese so nervous that they built a long wall. A quick Google search and I realize that I will be going to a country that is rich, fascinating and about 100 degrees colder than my current location. One big question on my mind, though, is how exactly I will put my bachelors in American Studies to use in an Asian country where the livestock outnumber the human population ten to one.


December 2, 2012, 4:37 PM

I write to you from the Gobi Desert region of Dundgobi Province, Mongolia. I literally live in “Outer Mongolia.” This country has some of the most diverse and rich nature and culture I’ve seen, both of which have been beautifully preserved throughout the centuries. I’ve even acquired a taste for airag, Mongolia’s traditional beverage of fermented mare’s milk.

Since taking Dr. Hoelscher’s “Intro to American Studies” a few years back, I have a thing for sense of space. So allow me paint you a picture of my place right this moment. I live in a Mongolian ger. To me, it is a miniature circus tent and quite the intellectual one-room design for the Nomadic lifestyle that Mongolians have sustained for more than a thousand years. Every so often, I leave my laptop to adjust the central heating system, a coal stove located in the center of the ger. It’s a balmy five degrees Fahrenheit outside, up from last night’s subzero temperatures. My 12-year-old Mongolian host brother is taking a break from fetching water from the community well by sprawling out on my couch, absorbed in a game of “Zombie Highway” on his Blackberry-esque cell phone. His cell phone goes off. It blares out the Korean viral video sensation, “Gangnam Style.”

The dichotomy of technology and tradition never ceases to amaze and amuse here. I am connected to the internet in my ger but must run to the outhouse in between sending out an email and checking up on Pinterest. I cut up hunks of mutton for dinner with a meat cleaver while listening to This American Life. I digress.


December 3, 2012, 6:07 AM

The fire died out a few hours ago. I can see my breath inside the ger and I drag myself out from under the layers of a camel wool blanket to start another fire. Soon, I will head to the local secondary school where I work as a Peace Corps TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Volunteer.

Besides being aware of and analyzing the space around me, how did my work at the University of Texas’ Department of American Studies prepare me for This Mongolian Life? My students are fascinated with all that America entails, so obviously a degree in American Studies has been conducive for teaching on that subject. More importantly, though, American Studies has influenced the way in which I teach my Mongolian students. I draw from many disciplines as I teach the English language and challenge my students to do likewise as they learn it. Critical thinking is a newer concept within the school system here and something for which the American Studies department has provided great tools I now try to develop in this Mongolian generation.


Most importantly, though, I feel that I was provided with a comprehensive and challenging education in the American Studies department, a learning environment that fostered a wide range of skills I now pass on to the Mongolian students and teachers of Dundgobi’s Fourth Secondary School.

Over a year and a half since opening that Peace Corps invitation in Cedar Park, Texas, I can confidently answer a big question regarding my American Studies degree. This degree can take you anywhere, even all the way to Outer Mongolia!

Alumni Voices: Adam Golub, Asst. Prof. American Studies at Cal. State Fullerton

Adam Golub defended his dissertation at UT Austin in 2004.  He is currently an Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.  Before that, he taught for three years as an Assistant Professor of Education Studies at Guilford College in North Carolina.  He is a former high school English teacher.

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 UT American Studies program significantly shaped my approach to writing, teaching, and conducting research.  First, writing.  My first semester in Austin, I took courses with Bill Stott, Bob Crunden, and Shelley Fisher Fishkin.  From the three of them, I learned to simplify my prose and write more clearly.  Bob Crunden rid me of my habit of parentheses abuse and taught me how to use footnotes effectively.  Shelley Fishkin taught me to get to the point sooner in my papers—I used to spend pages “clearing my throat” before I articulated my argument and focus.  I remember Bill Stott telling us that because American Studies was a multidisciplinary field, we had to be able to communicate our ideas across disciplines in our writing.  Incidentally, I still have a copy of Bill Stott’s Write to the Point on my shelf, and I look at it often.  I recommend it highly.

Second, teaching.  One of the best things I did at UT was sit in on Mark Smith’s “Main Currents” course while I was reading for orals.  I confess that in my first few years of university teaching, I borrowed heavily from Mark’s course content and pedagogical style.  The way he tells engaging stories in class and supplements them with art, architecture, and primary source quotations has unquestionably inspired my teaching method.  Along similar lines, when I put together lectures and syllabi, I still refer to the notes I took while reading for orals—I made one large notecard for each book I read, and they all still sit prominently in a file on my desk.  Another example comes to mind: when I teach my theories and methods course, I often imitate something Janet Davis did in her popular culture course.  She would start each class with a brief lecture to put the dense theoretical reading(s) of the day in historical context, and then cite scholars who had incorporated these theoretical approaches in their work; as a new Ph.D. student trying to figure out what American Studies was all about, I always found this incredibly helpful.  Finally, by way of another book recommendation, I will say that I still borrow material for my courses from Bob Crunden’s A Brief History of American Culture, which grew out of years of lectures and invited talks he delivered.

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Alumni Voices: Dr. Matt Hedstrom, Assistant Prof. of Religious Studies and American Studies at UVA

We are delighted to introduce a new regular blog series! Alumni Voices will feature words of wisdom from alumni of the American Studies program at UT about their experiences in graduate school, their current work, and advice about how we can get the most out of our time while students of American Studies.

Today, we kick off this feature with some insights from Dr. Matt Hedstrom, a professor in the department of Religious Studies and the program in American Studies at the University of Virginia. He graduated with a Ph.D. from UT in 2006, and his book, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century, will be released by Oxford University Press in October 2012.

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?

That’s a hard question, because everything I do is informed by my graduate education. For one thing, I only really learned to read and write as a graduate student. I mean that.  Bob Crunden talked about academic reading as akin to gutting a fish—learning to get quickly at the meat and discard the head and tail—a rather gruesome image that has nevertheless stayed with me. This is not just about efficiency but also about honing the ability to find what matters in an argument. In addition, many of my professors were incredibly insightful readers of student writing, Bill Stott most memorably. I try to write narrative and jargon-free prose as much as possible, following the examples of many of my professors at Texas. This reflects, perhaps, my affinity for history rather than cultural studies, though I don’t want to draw that line too hard and fast. More than anything, it reflects the style of writing I was taught at Texas, and I am grateful for it.

More substantively, the book based on my dissertation is just coming out now (The Rise of Liberal Religion)—so I have been immersed in my graduate research until very recently. Be careful what topic you choose—you’ll have to live with it for a long time!

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Undergrad Research: Review of AMS Senior Kelli Schultz’s Play, “Our TEKS”

Texas Capitol.

Last Monday night, senior Kelli Schultz premiered her American Studies/Plan II honors thesis play titled, “Our TEKS,” to an eager and curious audience. The play was the culmination of a year’s worth of diligent and passionate research into the Texas textbook controversies in 2010 when the Texas State Board of Education drafted a list of over 100 amendments to the Social Studies curriculum for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). Taking a critical and creative look into the historical hoopla and media coverage of the new standards, Kelli referred to her play as “Our Town meets Barnum & Bailey meets The Colbert Report.” As a form of documentary theater, it combined true accounts and reenactments from board room transcripts, interviews, video and audio clips, and even a surreal recreation of a Colbert Report segment with Alexandra Reynolds as the ever-vigilant Stephen Colbert.

Kelli began by providing a brief overview of what this is all about—policy, history, and memory—before introducing us to the 15 elected “experts” on the Texas State Board of Education. Each member was represented as a circus performer in silhouette, dazzling and dismaying the audience with their rhetoric and apparent expertise in the matters of K-12 standards for education in the departments of Language Arts, Science, Math, and Social Studies. There was the “strong man” Bob Craig; Barbara Cargill, unfurling a long cloth from her mouth as she spoke to the crowd; skilled-balancer Pat Hardy; Siamese twins, a cannon-ball man, a mime, a few clowns, and more. It was an ingenious way to represent the so-called “experts” administering these standards, only one of whom actually holds a degree in history and has experience teaching this information in the classroom. Two are ministers, four are professors, one is a dentist, and another holds no college degree at all.

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Undergrad Research: “Our TEKS,” a Theatrical Production and AMS Senior Thesis

Today we share with you news about an upcoming theatrical production, “Our TEKS,” written by and directed by American Studies graduating senior Kelli Schultz.

Texas State Flag

As Kelli describes,

“Our TEKS” is a theatrical exploration of my American Studies/Plan II senior thesis. Over the past year, I have followed the Texas textbook controversy by conducting dozens of interviews with educators, government officials and textbook publishers. These interviews, along with transcripts of Board meetings and media coverage, were combined into a play, which explores the 2010 Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). It’s Our Town meets Barnum & Bailey meets The Colbert Report.

And, in a bit more depth, here’s the official abstract for the project:

In 2010, the Texas State Board of Education drafted a list of over 100 amendments to the social studies curriculum, which explicitly defined what teachers must include in their K-12 classrooms. Some of the changes include replacing the term democracy with constitutional republic, emphasizing the religious foundations of our country and removing “Hip Hop” as a cultural art form. While the media charged the board with rewriting history, others would commend the elected officials for correcting an already liberal bias in the educational system. Utilizing a documentary-based style of devised theatre, we will explore the straight facts, pure fiction and implications surrounding the 2010 Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).

We were lucky enough to learn about the project from Kelli last week at the Undergraduate Honors Symposium (side note: expect a write-up and photographs from that wonderful event soon!) and, we must say, we’re very excited to see the production. If you have an interest in education, Texas, American history, theater, or the intersections between politics and artistic representation, you best not miss it.

The production will run two nights, April 30 and May 1, at WIN 2.180. Both shows begin at 8pm. More nitty-gritty details can be found here.

We are also told there will be cookies and balloon animals, so… there’s also that.