Undergrad Research: Overview of Undergraduate Honors Symposium

Last week, the Department of American Studies had the pleasure of featuring the work of six exceptional undergraduates at the first annual Undergraduate Honors Symposium. The students presented their thesis projects, with topics ranging from resource extraction policy to the American coming-of-age narrative. These projects take the form of thesis papers as well as websites, documentary theater pieces, and novellas.

Presenters with their instructor, Dr. Janet Davis

The evening began with a presentation by Miriam Anderson on hydraulic fracturing. Miriam offered a charming and funny visual presentation on the natural gas industry and its detractors set to the words of Dr. Seuss‘ The Lorax.  Miriam also shared her website, which explains the economic and environmental impacts of the fracking process from multiple perspectives. Miriam was followed by Julie Reitzi, who discussed the drug war in Ciudad Juarez, focusing on the involvement and responses of women and youth. Julie’s presentation provided perspective on a much talked about issue, and she shared striking images of women and youth who are both implicated in and responding to the violence and poverty in the city, including Las Guerreras, a group of women on pink motorcycles who distribute food and other supplies to impoverished neighborhoods. Rounding out the first half of the night was Kelli Schultz, who described her ambitious documentary theater project, “Our TEKS,” which is a play based on the controversy surrounding recent changes to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills by the Texas Board of Education. Kelli discussed her process and inspiration for creating the play, which draws on circus imagery and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. For more information on Kelli’s production, check out our post last week, and head on over to the Winship building April 30 or May 1 at 8pm.

David Juarez presents on Jack Kerouac

The second half of the evening featured presentations by David Juarez, Alexandria Chambers, and Laci Thompson. David led off the second half with a description of his project on Jack Kerouac’s early years of devising fantasy sports games, which David reads as early writing exercises for the budding Beat writer. David shared a number of images and score sheets from these whimsical and impressively detailed games, illustrating the way that the young Kerouac exercised control over a life that was often depicted as lacking it. Alex Chambers followed David’s presentation with a discussion of American boy’s choir schools, focusing on two in particular: the St. Thomas Choir School in New York City and the American Boy Choir School in Princeton, New Jersey. Alex’s thesis project took the form of a novella that introduces the choirboy school upbringing into the American coming-of-age discourse, and she shared a wickedly funny selection from the beginning of her novella. The final speaker of the evening was Laci Thompson, whose eloquent presentation described the multiple representations of the night in Western thought and literature. Laci’s thesis centers on the unique contributions of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith to this discourse of the night, and Laci ended her presentation with a strong call for academics to own their passions and to “have more fun,” because that is what rock music like Patti Smith’s is, first and foremost, all about.

Laci Thompson presents on Patti Smith

The evening of presentations was a fabulous success. It was wonderful to be able to chat with the presenters in group discussion and in one-on-one conversations afterward. I was particularly struck by the range of topics and formats represented by these thesis projects. One of the particular strengths of American Studies scholarship is the way it encourages both innovative themes and innovative forms, and both were on display at this event. It is clear that these senior AMS students are headed toward greater and greater things, and the Department should be proud to call them alumni.

Stay tuned for more photographs from this event! And remember to follow us on Twitter for updates on new posts!

Undergrad Research: A Trip to the Archives in NYC, Part 2

Note: this is the second of two installments about David’s archival research trip. The first can be found here.

New York City at night
I landed at La Guardia, took a taxi to the apartment building on W 71st street, unloaded my bags, and finally sat down in New York City, contemplating everything I would see over the next few days. The Berg Collection wouldn’t open until Tuesday—it was Saturday when I flew in—so I had two full days of sight-seeing available to me and I took advantage of it. I visited Times Square, the Empire State Building, Liberty Island, Ellis Island, NYU campus and Washington Square Park, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station, the site of the World Trade center, The Strand, and up, down, and around Central Park on a tour-bus. By mid-week, I was used to catching the subway and disembarking near Bryant Park, a brief walk away from the ice skating rink and, most importantly, the Stephen A. Schwarzmann building, the iconic section of the New York Public Library. After two full days of exploring Manhattan from top to bottom, I was ready to begin the research that brought me to New York in the first place.

There is always a difference between what we expect to happen and what actually happens. I expected the Berg reading room to be an unsettlingly quiet room, observed by predatory librarians making sure that the timid, silent researchers at the tables didn’t destroy the priceless artifacts in their hands. But in reality, the room’s acoustics reminded me of the sixth floor of the PCL where occasional conversations and the jostle of books and pencils on the desks aren’t followed by an agitated, “Shh!” It was also staffed with helpful, caring, and most importantly, smiling, librarians ready to assist me however they could.

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Undergrad Research: A Trip to the Archives in NYC

Note: this is the first of two installments about David’s archival research trip. The second will be published tomorrow.

This January I was fortunate enough to take a trip to New York City and conduct research at the New York Public Library for my honors thesis, “Making the Team: The Real and Fantastical Sporting Life of Jack Kerouac.”

Before the trip was even conceivable, though, I was in the midst of applying to graduate schools for the fall 2012 term. Graduate school has been an aspiration of mine since high school, and now, nearly five years later, I was finally applying and taking my first steps into a new tier of my academic career.

It was hard to convey to other people how terrified I felt in approaching such a critical moment in my life. As I completed each application, I grew anxious about submitting them. This was the first time that I was really taking a stand for myself and my future. Graduate school was part of the plan, but that plan was never set in stone. It was only what I had imagined for myself thus far. For the first time, I started to imagine different paths for my future that didn’t involve graduate school.

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Undergrad Research: On Jack Kerouac and Sports

Kerouac, Kerouac

I have a confession to make: I am addicted to Jack Kerouac, and I’m pretty damn happy about that fact.

Since my junior year of high school, when I first picked up a copy of On the Road (leant to me by one of my favorite teachers, Amelia Bligh), I have been obsessed with his life and works, and those of his associates—Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Cassady, Snyder, etc. I think my extensive collection of over seventy Beat-related books can attest to that fact, not to mention the posters, the albums, and the films.

What always amuses me is that I didn’t react to On the Road the same way that most people do. I’ve heard stories of people reading it and suddenly wanting to pick up a rucksack and hit the road. I respect anyone who can just get up and go like that, but that’s not really my style. I hate driving.

No, when I first read that book, I wanted to hit the road in a different way; I wanted to explore it mentally, psychologically. I was passionate for the movement of Kerouac’s prose as it hurtled down the page. There’s nothing like being on the road, but there’s also nothing like hearing people talk about it as sincerely, as hauntingly, and as mythically as he did. The road I wanted to experience was literary, not literal.

It’s been five years and I’m still on the road with Kerouac. I’ve read nearly all of his novels, most of his poetry, and chunks of his short stories, correspondence, and journals. I’ve also read several biographies, watched documentaries, and explored analytical studies and interpretations of his works. It hasn’t always been a pleasant ride: the more time you spend with a person, the more you discover their faults and weaknesses. Kerouac was a troubled man, not unlike the other writers and artists he encountered. There were times when I had to step back and reevaluate my appreciation of him, my adoration. Even now, reading and hearing about his dismissal of his only daughter, his hate-filled rants about his wives and his friends, and, of course, his alcoholism, I wonder if I should stop the car and find a bus station somewhere.

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