Undergrad Research: A Conversation with AMS Senior Max Mills

As part of UT’s Undergraduate Research Week, our department will be hosting its 5th Annual Undergraduate Honors Thesis Symposium, to be held on Friday, April 22, 4-6pm, in Burdine 436a. Today, we feature a conversation with one of our undergraduate senior thesis writers: Max Mills. Here, he describes some fascinating findings from his research, as well as some of his favorite moments that emerged from majoring in American Studies. Enjoy!

Max 22 Birthday

Why did you major in American Studies?

Coming into UT, I had no idea that the American Studies Department existed. I actually only signed up for Intro to American Studies for my second semester because it fulfilled a flag requirement. The class was taught by Dr. Engelhardt, and it was essentially a course investigating the evolution of gender in America. I was hooked after the first day, but it was the lecture on the importance of Tupperware in American culture that made me realize that I needed to be an American Studies major. The courses that I took later down the road confirmed that I made a great choice. I liked what I was able to learn from an American Studies education, and the interdisciplinary nature of the field really appealed to what I wanted to get out of my time at UT. I mean, who else can say that they learned about the importance of Marxism in American film, the impact animals had as agents of American Empire, or the connection between video games and the military à la the “military-entertainment complex” during their college career?

Do you have any favorite memories from your time in American Studies?

There are too many!! But one that comes to mind is from an assignment in Dr. Davis’ Animals and American Culture 370. We had to bring a cultural artifact that related to factory/ industrialized farming, and so I decided to bring an empty carton of eggs. Her class was the last one I had on those days, and so I carried this carton of eggs everywhere I went with me. I mean, everywhere. And for some reason, everybody reacted to me as if I had a scarlet “A” embroided on my chest. I kept getting asked questions like “What’s the deal with the carton of eggs?” It was a cool way of being able to engage with my colleagues about factory farming and once again reinforces how awesome the American Studies Department is.

What is your thesis about, and why did you decide to write a senior honors thesis?

My thesis is an investigation of the integration process of Waxahachie Independent School District, a process that took about eighteen years after Brown v. Board was decided. While many schools in the South did delay school integration for many years, there are several reasons why I decided to write about this topic in Waxahachie. For one, it’s a history that is incredibly personal to me. Not only is it about the community that I grew up in and care for, but there is also a deep family history that runs through this narrative. My grandfather was the assistant superintendent that was hired to help implement the full desegregation of the school district in 1970. There is also, probably not surprisingly, a lack of community history regarding this process. Even though the memories of integration are held within many community members, I felt that a comprehensive history needed to be preserved for future generations.

What kinds of sources do you draw upon in your research?

Most of my sources were primary documents: school board minutes, newspapers, and yearbooks. I also interviewed a few community members that were former students of the all black schools in Waxahachie, as well as the two superintendents that helped integrate the district in 1970. When I was doing archival research in the school administration building in Waxahachie, I actually got to dig through the physical board minutes and correspondence with the office of Housing, Education, and Welfare. Getting that close to history was amazing.

Has your thesis research yielded any surprising findings?
I knew that white supremacy was manifest in my town, but it was the extent of white supremacy that really took me aback. Reading things like “First KKK wedding in Texas occurs in Waxahachie,” and seeing a high school yearbook cover of a black field worker kneeling before a white overseer made me realize what kind of history I was going to expose and write about.

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At first I was worried about upsetting people in my community. But that’s Waxahachie history, and avoiding it or choosing to ignore it is counterproductive to progress, and is even dangerous. I hope that this thesis can spur some much needed conversations about race and place.

How has American Studies prepared you for your post-UT life? Majoring in American Studies has been the most transformative experience I’ve had at UT. Aside from a collection of facts that makes me awesome at dinner parties and trivia nights, the critical reasoning skills I have picked up from the American Studies department will come in handy in whatever I decided to do with my life. Majoring in American Studies has changed the way I perceive the world I live in and how I interact with that world. It has led me to question and contemplate profound moral issues, such as “What is the America we want to live in?” and “What is the responsibility of our America?” These are questions every American should be asking and pondering if we are to make our time on this tiny planet more bearable. The University’s motto is “What Starts Here Changes the World.” Majoring in American Studies has made that more possible for me.

Alumni Voices: Prof. Angie Maxwell (University of Arkansas) on the South and Donald Trump

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Prof. Angie Maxwell, Diane D. Blair Professor of Southern Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, has penned a new piece exploring southern identity, whiteness, and Donald Trump’s rise for Virginia Quarterly Review. We’ve reproduced an excerpt below, but for the full article, click here.

Southern whiteness is not just about race. Yes, that is how it started. But as Southern whites faced the changing twentieth century, they became the “other” or foil to American identity. Each time the criticism poured in, they defined themselves in opposition to a growing pantheon of enemies. Southern whiteness expands beyond racial identity and supremacy, encapsulating rigid stances on religion, education, the role of government, the view of art, an opposition to science and expertise and immigrants and feminism, and any other topic that comes under attack. This ideological web of inseparable strands envelops a community and covers everything, and it is easily (and intentionally by Donald Trump) snagged.

Announcement: Dr. Heather A. Williams, “The Emotional Violence of Slavery”

We would love to draw your attention to a series of events transpiring on campus TODAY (Tuesday, March 29) at 4:00pm and tomorrow (Wednesday, March 30). Dr. Heather A. Williams (The University of Pennsylvania) will be delivering two Littlefield Lectures: today’s is entitled “The Emotional Violence of Slavery” and tomorrow’s is “Murder on the Plantation.”

The events will take place in the Glickman Conference Room in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) Building, and they are sponsored by the UT History Department.

For more information about Dr. Williams, see her faculty page here.

Announcement: Dr. Maurie McInnis appointed UT Provost and Professor of American Studies

Maurie McInnis

Earlier this week, University of Texas at Austin’s President Greg Fenves announced the appointment of Dr. Maurie McInnis as the University’s executive vice president and provost. In addition to her duties as the provost, Prof. McInnis will also be appointed as Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities #1 in the Department of American Studies.

Prof. McInnis has long taught undergraduate courses in American Studies and Art History, including an innovative multi-disciplinary lecture class focused on the history and culture of the slave South. A former Chair of University of Virginia’s American Studies program, her interdisciplinary scholarship focuses on the relationship between politics and art in early America. Prof. McInnis’s most recent book, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade, was awarded the Charles C. Eldredge Book Prize from the Smithsonian American Art Museum for outstanding scholarship in American Art and the Library of Virginia Literary Award for non-fiction. Her scholarship has been long engaged with public history, and she has worked regularly with museums and historic sites. More details on Professor McInnis’s scholarship, research and accomplishments are available on her website.

We are delighted to welcome Maurie McInnis to both the College of Liberal Arts, and the Department of American Studies!

Faculty Research: Dr. Mark Smith writes on the Pledge of Allegiance for the Austin American-Statesman

Dorothea Lange pledge of allegiance

Have you read today’s Austin American-Statesman? If not, check it out for a new op-ed piece by Dr. Mark Smith about the history of the Pledge of Allegiance – a history that extends back to the late 19th century.

We’ve printed an excerpt below and the full piece is available here.

The Pledge of Allegiance is thus our pledges of allegiance. It has always symbolized, as Bellamy intended, the union of a nation of different nationalities, religions and regions into one strong and cohesive whole. It stood for the vision of Bellamy’s hero, Abraham Lincoln, of one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

But, as time has passed and we face continuing crises, we have defined the nation in increasingly narrow political terms and have used the pledge to symbolize these political views. Today, there are two movements from the right and left to amend the pledge: the first, which ends “liberty and justice for all, born and unborn”; and the other, which inserts Bellamy’s original “equality, liberty and justice for all.”

Announcement: See these talks at the Texas Book Festival

The annual Texas Book Festival is upon us this weekend, so we’ve curated a list of events that would be of interest to friends of American Studies for your perusal and planning.

We’d like to draw your attention especially two events with American Studies participants. The first is a discussion moderated by Dr. Steve Hoelscher: “A Long Walk Home,” featuring Magnum photographer Eli Reed. Eli Reed: A Long Walk Home presents the first career retrospective of Reed’s work. Consisting of over 250 images that span the full range of his subjects and his evolution as a photographer, the photographs are a visual summation of the human condition. This event will take place at the Contemporary Austin – Jones Center (700 Congress) at 2:00 PM on Saturday.

The second is a discussion moderated by Dr. Shirley Thompson: “Negroland.” Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and memoirist Margo Jefferson recounts growing up in a small region of African-American upper class families in Chicago during the civil rights movement and the genesis of feminism. With this point of view, Jefferson discusses race, identity, and American culture, through her own lens. This event takes place at the CSPAN-2/BookTV Tent at 12:00 PM on Sunday.

Here are some other things to do, too – enjoy!

Reagan: The Life (Saturday)
10:00 AM – 10:45 AM, C-SPAN2/ Book TV Tent

In his newest biography, historian H. W. Brands presents Ronald Reagan as one of the most influential presidents of the twentieth century. Brands traces Reagan’s life from humble beginnings to Hollywood actor to his rise as a politician and president.

The History of Franklin’s Barbecue (Saturday)
10:00 AM – 10:45 AM, Texas Tent

Get hungry for some barbeque with Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay as they talk about their new book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto.

Jacksonland (Saturday)
11:00 AM – 11:45 AM, C-SPAN2/BookTV Tent

In his latest work, Jacksonland, NPR host and author Steve Inskeep dives deep into an era of change that spanned the country and shaped the future. The Trail of Tears, the Five Civilized Tribes and the acquisition of Jacksonland are important pieces of American history, all of which have two things in common: Andrew Jackson and John Ross.

That Day (Saturday)
11:00 AM – 11:45 AM, The Contemporary Austin–Jones Center (700 Congress)

Join renowned photographer and Texan Laura Wilson as she discusses what it takes to capture the many facets of the unyielding, ever-changing West in her new book That Day: Pictures in the American West.

Talk of the Town (Saturday)
11:15 AM – 12:15 PM, The Sanctuary at First United Methodist Church (1201 Lavaca, enter from Lavaca St.)

Fans! Join two writers who are fans of each other. Jonathan Lethem and Adrian Tomine as they talk about their new respective collections, Lucky Alan and Killing and Dying, which explore humor, identity, and emotional vulnerability in both realistic and absurd landscapes.

The Dystopian Mirror Reflects the Past (Saturday)
11:45 AM – 12:45 PM, Capitol Extension Room E2.016

Whether the starting place is a reimagining of the Lewis and Clark voyage or a historic Texas War, the future is bleak. Join Benjamin Percy and Zachary Thomas Dodson, two futuristic masterminds, as they unravel the mysteries of the past and the ways in which it predicts our future.

The Art of Politics (Saturday)
2:00 PM – 2:45 PM, Capitol Extension Room E2.026

Join poets Mark Neely and Juliana Spahr as they discuss their latest collections and address tackling current events through poetry. From terrorism to environmental issues, two poets converse about their eloquent, witty works.

Place and Race (Saturday)
2:00 PM – 2:45 PM, C-SPAN2/BookTV Tent

Authors Wendy S. Walters and Jason Sokol discuss the dynamic and complicated course of civil rights over the past several decades in America. Racism emerges in unexpected locations, and the ways in which people resist, cope, and consent are not predictable.

Invisible y Sin Fronteras (Saturday)
3:00 PM – 3:45 PM, Ahora Si Tent (12th & Colorado)

Join Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, Javier Auyero, and Ricardo Ainslie, writers tackling issues of race and place through different genres, as they engage in a wide-ranging discussion of Latino identity in Austin and beyond. (Spanish)

Desde distintos géneros, Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, Javier Auyero, y Ricardo Ainslie trabajan temas de raza, etnicidad, e identidad. Los invitamos a sumarse a la conversación sobre varios tópicos relacionados a la identidad Latina en Austin y en el país. (en español)

Wimmin’s Comix (Saturday)
3:15 PM – 4:15 PM, Capitol Auditorium Room E1.004

Cartoonists Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Anne Opotowsky, and illustrator Aya Morton discuss the role of women in comics, and the influences on their current works. From the subversive Wimmin’s Comix to Anna Tenna and the Walled City Trilogy, the graphic novel genre proves to be inclusive and provocative.

The Wind in the Reeds with Wendell Pierce (Saturday)
4:00 PM – 4:45 PM, House Chamber

With moving recollections of his family, childhood, and artistic journey, Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) relates the story of his mission to rebuild his beloved New Orleans neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina in The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken.

A Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man (Saturday)
4:00 PM – 4:45 PM, Capitol Extension Room E2.010

Join the “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau as he dives headfirst into the inspiration behind his new book, a memoir which is equal parts love story and tribute to New York and the metamorphic power of art.

Invisible in Austin (Sunday)
11:00 AM – 11:45 AM, Texas Tent

Join editor Javier Auyero and some of his collaborating graduate students, Katherine Jensen and Caitlyn Collins, in discussion about Invisible in Austin, an essential study of the growing gap between wealth and poverty in a dynamic and overall thriving city.

Getting Real (Sunday)
11:00 AM – 11:45 AM, Capitol Extension Room E2.014

Saeed Jones and James Hannaham bring the crucial Black Lives Matter conversation to the forefront. Join Texas-native Jones and Bronx-born Hannaham in a cross-genre panel as they discuss how race and racism has influenced their respective texts and their poignantly unique perspectives.

Standing Out, Blending In (Sunday)
12:15 PM – 1:00 PM, Capitol Extension Room E2.026

Join Allyson Hobbs and James McGrath Morris as they share their investigations into the tumultuous history of racial identity in the U.S. in their respective works, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life and Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press.

Grant Park (Sunday)
2:00 PM – 2:45 PM, House Chamber

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Leonard Pitts’ latest novel alternates between 1968, the year of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and Chicago during the election of 2008. Grant Park showcases his talent for addressing racial tensions that are just as relevant today as they were during the Civil Rights era.

Her Texas (Sunday)
4:00 PM – 4:45 PM, Capitol Extension Room E1.026

Multicultural, multiethnic, and multidisciplinary, Her Texas includes stories, essays, memoirs, poetry, song lyrics, paintings, and photographs by 60 Texas women. Some of the contributors are here today to talk about her own Texas.

Faculty Research: Dr. Janet Davis pens NYTimes editorial on elephants in the circus

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We’re pleased to share with you all the news that Dr. Janet Davis, one of our core faculty members, published an editorial in the New York Times this past Sunday. She describes the history of elephants in the circus in light of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s announcement that their traveling elephant performers would be retiring by 2018.

See an excerpt below; the full editorial can be found here.

Elephants have been wildly popular in this country since 1796, when the first one arrived on American soil. Jacob Crowninshield, a ship’s captain from Salem, Mass., landed in New York City with a two-year-old Asian female from Calcutta. He sold the “Crowninshield Elephant” to an enterprising showman for $10,000. Thousands of eager Americans, including President John Adams, flocked to see the animal in taverns and courtyards, where audiences, fascinated by her trunk’s dexterity, plied her with gingerbread and wine. She and her keeper plodded from Rhode Island to New Orleans under cover of darkness for the next nine years because her owner was fearful of giving spectators a “free” look.

Americans at the time were particularly receptive to the Crowninshield Elephant and the many others who followed her, in part, because of nationalistic myth: Thomas Jefferson believed that flesh-eating elephantine mammoths roamed the American West, and he expressly ordered Lewis and Clark to look for one on their trans-Mississippi expedition. Performing elephants gave live, physical form to Jefferson’s notion of the American mammoth.

But that’s not all! Janet also contributed her expertise to this recent CNN piece on the circus’s decision. See that article here.