Alumni Voices: Jessie Swigger, Associate Professor, Western Carolina University


Last summer, UT AMS alum Jessie Swigger put out a book called History is Bunk about the historical development of the Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. We recently spoke to Jessie, who is currently teaching at in the history department at Western Carolina University, about the book and her time at UT.

Can you tell us a little bit about your book, History is Bunk, and how you came to the project?

My interest in public history started when I took Steve Hoelscher’s Place and Memory course. My research paper in that course formed the basis of my Master’s Report. After comps, I knew that I wanted to continue to work with Steve Hoelscher and to grapple with issues of place, memory, and history.

It was around this time that I took a trip to Detroit, where I visited Henry Ford’s outdoor history museum Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. I had read about Ford’s project and knew that it was one of America’s first outdoor history museums, but was struck by what seemed to be its unique landscape. The village mixes replicas and preserved buildings from across the country. Among the many buildings, Henry Ford’s birthplace, the Wright brothers’ cycle shop, and a replica of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory populate the space along with two brick slave cabins from Georgia, a tenement farmer’s house, and a Cotswold cottage from England; an eclectic group of structures, to be sure. I was also surprised that so many people were eager to visit a museum that celebrated Ford given Detroit’s economic struggles. I wanted to understand the village and it became the focus of my dissertation.

Contrary to my initial reaction to the village, I found that in many ways Henry Ford’s conception of preservation was not atypical. Instead, Ford’s approach was similar to nineteenth century preservationists who defined the activity broadly. Preservation might mean, for example, creating a replica. The village’s interpretation of the past was, however, clearly linked to Ford’s own complex, and at times contradictory worldview. The village’s history after Ford’s death also proved fascinating. New administrators tried to maintain Ford’s vision while continuing to attract new audiences. Throughout the village’s history, administrators tracked visitor reactions to the site. Using journals written by guides, marketing surveys, and internal reports, I was able to consider how visitors encountered the village and how their responses informed the site¹s interpretive programming. Finally, the archives showed how the site’s marketing approach and interpretation were entangled with the history of the Detroit metro area. My book is a substantial revision of my dissertation and uses the village as a case study to examine the many contexts that shape history museums.

How is the work that you’re doing right now, as a scholar or a teacher or both, informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

My approach to teaching is influenced by the work I did at UT as an undergraduate and graduate student. As an undergraduate I took Main Currents with Mark Smith and as a graduate student I was a teaching assistant for Julia Mickenberg, Janet Davis, and Elizabeth Engelhardt. I still have my notes from all of these courses and have consulted them many, many times when writing my own lectures. We are also extraordinarily lucky that our program allows graduate students to design and teach their own courses. I still use much of the material that I developed during my time as an assistant instructor.

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?

The AMS Department does a great job of offering graduate students professional development opportunities. Take advantage of these. Take time to talk to faculty about how they approach research, teaching, and service. These conversations may not help you the next day, but will prove invaluable as you start your career. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there professionally–attend talks, work on publications, present at conferences, and definitely attend all happy hours.

Announcement: The winter edition of The End of Austin is here!

The End of Austin is back in action with its Winter 2015 edition, which features articles, photographs, and video on chicken shit bingo, the light rail, Plaza Saltillo, and lots of other Austin-y things. In case you haven’t heard, The End of Austin is an award-winning digital humanities project based in the Department of American Studies at UT that explores urban identity in Austin. This edition features an article on the Colorado River and water in Austin by UT AMS alumnus Andrew Busch and an article by PhD candidate Brendan Gaughen on Dazed and Confused.


Check it all out here!

Undergrad Research: Postcards from Texas

We love to feature student work here on AMS :: ATX, and today we are pleased to direct your attention to a project by Dr. Steve Hoelscher’s Spring 2014 Intro to American Studies class, Postcards from Texas. We mentioned this project previously here on the blog, and we’re thrilled to show you its latest iteration. The Postcards project is a blog that features photographs and text created by students that reflect on various concepts–previously the American Dream, and this time around, mobility–and what they might mean today.


Here is a description of the project from the Postcards website:

Over the past couple of years, undergraduate students in Prof. Steven Hoelscher’s Introduction to American Studies class at the University of Texas at Austin researched competing notions of American identity in a two-step project. Beginning with the inspirational model of Magnum Photos ongoing Postcards from America series, students were asked to explore one segment of the U.S. visually, through photography. First, each student considered a complex cultural phenomenon—“the American Dream” in 2012 and “Mobility” in 2014. Second, students then recorded their thoughts in the form of a photographic image in Texas. In these original photographs—and in the detailed, unedited captions that accompany them—the extraordinary range of how American cultural life is envisioned comes into full view.

What follows are visual documents of the hope and confidence that often come naturally to college students, but also, in many cases, an equal recognition of life’s injustices and uncertainties. A composite, multifaceted picture of modern America emerges from these photographs: of idealism and pragmatism, the political left and political right, acquisitiveness and a rejection of materialism, arguments for traditional family values and LGBT rights, conformity and insurgency.  Together, these postcards from Texas—of cotton fields and strip malls, millionaires and homeless men, junkyards and mansions—complicate glib calls for an unproblematically unified America. They also demonstrate the creative energy and thoughtfulness that has always been central to “the American dream”—whatever it means – and to American mobility.

Announcement: Foodways Texas Joins UT AMS!

American Studies is happy to announce the recent addition of Foodways Texas to our department! As many of you know, Foodways Texas and AMS have worked together for a few years now. AMS Ph.D. candidate Marvin Bendele is the Foodways Texas executive director, and our very own Elizabeth Engelhardt serves on their executive board.

foodways logo

Foodways Texas is an organization founded by scholars, chefs, journalists, restaurateurs, farmers, ranchers, and other citizens of the state of Texas who have made it their mission to preserve, promote and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas. By joining and supporting Foodways Texas, you become part of a movement to preserve the vibrant foodways of Texas through oral history projects, documentary films, recipe collections, and scholarly research. Foodways Texas highlights the state’s distinctive foods and food cultures at their annual symposium, supporting educational food-based seminars, promoting local food networks, and partnering with universities and other non-profit organizations to educate future generations about Texas food histories, cultures, and emerging trends.

They have also worked closely with other centers on campus, like the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, which houses their oral history archive–a growing collection of oral histories, documentary footage, menus, advertisements, cookbooks, and other ephemera from farmers, ranchers, chefs, pitmasters, and restaurant owners from around the state. Several of the interviews were done by members of the AMS community, and they are available online here. Foodways Texas has already released four short documentaries and will show new films at the upcoming conference.

This year’s symposium, Farm to Market 2014, will be held from March 20 to 22 in College Station. Scholars and professionals will gather to discuss Texas crops, the history of Texas markets, urban farming, and farm labor, among other topics; as well as eat some very delicious and educational food. Foodways Texas also holds biannual barbecue camps in College Station in January and June of each year. Unfortunately, June’s upcoming camp is already sold out. As we all know, Austin judges barbecue by length of wait-time, making the barbecue camp the greatest in the state.

In honor of our new addition, go forth and snack!

Stories from Summer Vacation: Brendan Gaughen Researches Place Collecting

In the last gasp of summer, here are a few words from Brendan Gaughen, who spent his summer taking several trips across the nation for his dissertation research –

I’m finally doing some dissertation research and did some traveling this summer to do some interviews and generally report on what I saw.  I’m looking at specific ways people interact with the places they visit and how some treat travel as a form of collecting, how technology facilitates or enables these practices, and the ways in which some of these practices can function as a sort of voluntary surveillance.

Geo-Woodstock, Lakeland FL

Geo-Woodstock, Lakeland FL

This is the largest annual gathering in North America for a community of practitioners of a GPS-based hobby called geocaching, in which people hide containers, post the coordinates online, and others go out and find them.  It’s pretty simple but some of these so-called “geocachers” take things to the extreme, turning the hobby into a full-time occupation.  There are more than 2 million geocaches hidden around the world, and an entire cottage industry has sprung up in the last several years catering to this community.  Geocachers often hide objects as a way to memorialize places they find significant, though non-geocachers (“muggles,” borrowing a term from Harry Potter canon to describe those without wizard powers) generally have no idea these containers exist.


Extra Miler Club Convention, Reno NV

This is the only formal annual meeting for this group of people with intentional travel goals, generally that of visiting all 3141 counties in the United States.  Many members document their accomplishments by taking a photograph of themselves at every county line sign; others attempt to do certain things in each state (such as play golf, eat at a Dairy Queen, etc).  I spoke at length with one couple who drove their RV through all 48 states in a very circuitous manner, stopping to get an envelope stamped at the post office in every county seat in the US, something that had to happen during business hours Monday thru Friday.  They had a page for each county with a postmarked envelope, self-photograph in front of the courthouse, and short write-up about what the town was like.  This personal archive totaled 20 binders, something I would love to explore in further detail.


Lincoln Highway centennial celebration, Kearney NE

The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway built in the United States and Kearney is the closest city to the highway’s midpoint (it ran between New York and San Francisco).  A few dozen vintage autos started at either end of the highway and met up in Kearney, so the town was temporarily saturated with Packards, Ford Model A’s, and more cars my dad can more easily recognize than I can.  Aside from witnessing a lot of nostalgia for archaic forms of automobile tourism, I attended some presentations about the history of the current incarnation of the Lincoln Highway Association and its 12-year long effort to map every iteration of the entire route – over 5,000 miles counting all the bypasses, realignments, and modernizations of the route.  Some Lincoln Highway devotees wish to travel as many miles of the original route as possible, and at one stop on our bus tour I watched about 100 people feel compelled to walk a 500-foot stretch of century-old concrete, an original 1913 section of the Lincoln Highway.  I was BY FAR the youngest person there, so it seems this [firsthand] nostalgic feeling toward the Lincoln Highway, and postwar road culture in general, may be in danger of disappearing altogether.


I made many contacts and took extensive notes at all three of these events, which, once I tie in a theoretical framework, will be beneficial for a couple chapters of my dissertation.  I still have to decide how to approach writing about these groups and their members, but these trips have resulted in a ton of raw data, photographs, and interview notes.  Being in these places reminded me that America is a big, fascinating, and complex place, and that there is a certain joy to discovering, interpreting, and complicating aspects of American culture.

Conference Preview: The American Dream and the Spatial Imaginary

Today we continue our series of sneak peeks at the American Studies Graduate Student Conference with a look at another one of the great panels we have in store–“The American Dream and the Spatial Imaginary.”

Photograph by Andrew Jones

Photograph by Andrew Jones

The American Dream and the Spatial Imaginary” is composed of papers that consider the relationship between space, place and literature, art, activism, and identity construction. This panel will take place on Thursday, April 4 from 2:15p.m. – 3:45p.m. in the Texas Union, 4.206 Chicano Culture Room.

  • Vinh Nguyen & Alma Salcedo, “Post-Antebellum Spaces and Places at the University of Texas at Austin: From Lost Cause to Student Activism, Plot of the Land and Sites of Resistance”
  • Paul Gansky, “Creosote and Electricity: Telecommunications, Art, and the United States”
  • Julia Traylor, “‘I Wanted My Tiara, Damn It’: Drag Royalty in Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties”
  • Valerie Henry, “Cattle or Wheat:  Spatial Imaginings and the Production of Local Knowledge in María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don”
  • L.E. Neal, “The Music of Class Mobility:  Identity Construction in Emerging Western Swing and the Texas Centennial”

This conference is free and open to the public. Conference registration (and refreshments!) begin Thursday April 4 at 1:00p.m. in the Texas Union, 3.128 Sinclair Suite. Stay tuned for more sneak peeks!

Recent Grad Research: John Cline’s “Arterial America”

Our graduates do amazing things. Like this: recent Ph.D. John Cline is preparing to walk from New Orleans to Chicago for a project entitled “Arterial America.”  He is raising funds through Kickstarter to support the trip, and there are a mere 24 hours to go! Check out his description of the project:

The original idea behind Arterial America ( was simple enough: get from New Orleans to Chicago. As a music historian—I graduated with a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas last May—the pathway between those two cities is of enormous significance: it’s the distance between Louis Armstrong and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or between Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. But as this project shifted from idle thought to actual plan, it became clear that the way north has historically consisted of many routes, exceeding the bounds of a “Blues Trail” or even of an African American “Great Migration.” They go back to before Columbus, when American Indians followed what we now call the “Natchez Trace” across the states of Mississippi and Tennessee. That same trail was followed by boatmen from before the time of Mark Twain, hoofing it back to their hometowns after floating a raft full of goods to the port of New Orleans, returning with what coin remained in their pockets after the temptations of the Crescent City. The way north consists, too, of railways and roadways, and, of course, boats. And so, the plan is to walk from New Orleans to Memphis, following the back roads and bits of the Trace and Highway 61, catch a towboat from Memphis to St. Louis, and finally hop a train from St. Louis to Chicago. At the same time, I cannot travel the routes that I’m traveling and expect to find the “last of the Mississippi bluesmen.” Rather, what’s important at the outset is to keep my ears and eyes open to contemporary life.

John has raised 72% of his goal and has until Tuesday, January 15, 12:54pm EST to reach 100%. Check out the Kickstarter here and follow John on his project blog here.