Undergraduate Research: Andrea Gustavson on teaching undergraduates at the Harry Ransom Center

We love it when we can draw your attention to the awesome teaching our grad students do and the exciting research our undergraduates do. Today, we’d like to point you toward the Harry Ransom Center’s newsletter, Ransom Edition, where our very own Andrea Gustavson talks about her work teaching undergraduates in the archive. 

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Teacher Andrea Gustavson shares photography materials with undergraduate students in her class “American Images: Photography, Literature, Archive.” Photo by Robert V. Reichle.

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Undergraduate in the class “American Images: Photography, Literature, Archive.” Photo by Robert V. Reichle.

Here’s a taste of Gustavson’s article:

In the fall, I taught a class called “American Images: Photography, Literature, Archive” that made extensive use of the collections at the Ransom Center. Each week, the students and I explored the intersections between photography, literature, and archival theory using the Center’s primary materials as the foundation for our discussions. On Mondays and Wednesdays we met to discuss the week’s reading, closely reading passages or images and making connections to contemporary events. On Fridays the students had the opportunity to view rare manuscripts and photographs that illustrated, extended, and even challenged many of the concepts we had discussed earlier in the week. Over the course of the semester, the students worked within a variety of written genres as they built toward a final project for which they conducted their own original research.

Check out the full article here.

Gustavson is a PhD candidate in American Studies here at UT and she worked as a graduate intern in Public Services and as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Ransom Center in 2010–2014.

Announcement: Patrick Jagoda to deliver talk, “On Difficulty in Video Games: Mechanics, Interpretation, Affect”

We’re excited to announce the first in a series of four talks here in the Department of American Studies at UT Austin. Patrick Jagoda, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago, Co-editor of Critical Inquiry and Co-founder of Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, will be giving a talk called, “On Difficulty in Video Games: Mechanics, Interpretation, Affect” at 4:30pm on Monday, February 2, in Burdine 436A. Jagoda has been with us this year at UT as a Harrington Fellow, and we sat down with him a while back for an interview, which you can check out here.

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Here’s a description of the talk from Jagoda:

In a 1978 essay, literary critic George Steiner observes that a sense of difficulty in poetry became a major aspect of aesthetic experience in the late nineteenth century and extended, by the twentieth century, to new forms of visual and aural expression. This talk takes up videogames as a crucial medium for making sense of aesthetic difficulty in our time. As a way of mapping the cultural stakes of videogames to the early twenty-first century, I examine three types of challenge that games generate: mechanical, interpretive, and affective difficulty. All three forms of difficulty demand continued analysis, but I argue especially for the importance of attending to the third category of demanding affects and emotions. New media scholarship is already becoming more adept at accounting for elements such as aesthetics, interactivity, software, platforms, and media history. It has not yet done justice, however, to the complicated ways that digital media, and games in particular, generate and alter affects. This talk posits that the types of experiences that register as difficult within cultural consciousness, as they do in a variety of unique ways in the context of gameplay, can help animate the values of contemporary American media and their effects on the sensorium. A fuller sense of affect in videogames is necessary to better understand the ways that games serve as unique ideological forms — and might also structure, limit, and even enable more complex practices of play in the United States.

Five Questions with Dr. Phillip Barrish

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Today we continue our ever-popular series, 5 Questions, where we sit down with American Studies faculty and affiliate faculty members to chat about their research and teaching. Today we bring you an interview with Dr. Phillip Barrish, Professor of English and author of The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism (Cambridge UP, 2011).

What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

Luckily for me, my favorite project is the one I am working on right now, which has to do with the medical humanities. More specifically, I’m interested in what I’m calling the Healthcare Policy Humanities, or the Healthcare Humanities. A lot of work by literature scholars in the medical humanities has focused on representations of doctors, patients, and the illness experience, as well as on narrative medicine, which has to do with the stories patients tell doctors and the stories doctors tell patients—that is, the patient-doctor interface. I’m really interested in how literature and narrative relate to what could be called the political economy of healthcare, that is, for example the kinds of issues we are grappling with now around Obamacare and the healthcare crisis in our country. How has literature reflected, directly or indirectly, on questions such as who pays for healthcare, who has access to what kinds of healthcare, what is the role of government in providing healthcare? What role do stories, language, and metaphor play in the dynamics of how institutions, individuals, practices, and professional modes messily intersect to produce a healthcare system.

There are plenty of excellent books by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and economists about the historical evolution and current state of the U.S. healthcare system, but I want to look at those issues through a literary lens. (I’m an Americanist so it’s the U.S. context that most interests me, at least for now.) For example, I have an article in the most recent issue of the journal American Literature called “The Sticky Web of Medical Professionalism: Robert Herrick’s The Web of Life and the Political Economy of Healthcare at the Turn of the Century.” I’m currently in the early stages of researching an article/book chapter provisionally called “Healthcare Policy and Dystopian Fiction.” Here I’m less interested in dystopian works that extrapolate from the often disturbing implications of cutting-edge developments in medical technology, many of which have to do with reproduction: genetic engineering, cloning, surrogate pregnancy, but also such things as new organ-transplant technology. As fascinating and disturbing as such literature often is, I want to focus on a related but different aspect of dystopian medical imagining—dystopian literature and films that focus at least as much on the seemingly more quotidian issues of healthcare access, distribution, and funding. Two great recent examples are the 2013 movie Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp and starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and Chang-Rae Lee’s 2014 novel, On Such a Full Sea. If anyone reading this interview has additional ideas for texts, I’d love to hear them!

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations within and outside of academia?

Throughout my career, I’ve tried to be conscious of how my scholarly work might speak to issues, tensions, and problems that are important to us today. I think this dialogue is clearest in my current project, because the question of healthcare’s political economy is one that obviously a lot of people are thinking about and debating. Indeed, elections may turn on it.

What kinds of projects or people have inspired your work?

I went to graduate school in the early 1980s at Cornell, which was known for having a theory-heavy English department. I was fascinated by post-structuralism and by the emphasis placed by post-structuralist literary critics on close reading, which I had come to from a more old-fashioned training in college in formalist close reading. Some of the early people who inspired me in graduate school would be Barbara Johnson at Harvard, who died tragically several years ago from cancer, and Jonathan Culler and Mark Seltzer at Cornell. Since then I’ve not gone against my training, because post-structuralism still informs my own thinking and reading practices, often in subtle ways, but I’ve extended my graduate student training into looking at literature in its relation to other discourses and practices in our society. Among American Studies scholars, for example, I love the work of Janice Radway, whom I was able to take classes with as an undergraduate. Not untypically for scholars of my and subsequent generations, I’ve been inspired by feminism, critical race studies, new historicism, cultural studies, queer studies, and affect studies.

What is your scholarly background and how does that background motivate your teaching and research now?

I grew up in a New York City, middle class, third generation Jewish immigrant family. When I was in college and even my first couple years of graduate school, a lot of my favorite texts were British. For a long time I thought about working in nineteenth-century British literature. But I had a feeling then that I wanted to be able to address the kinds of issues and problems American writers were dealing with in the U.S. context. Ultimately, I went into academia because I felt I was better at it than I was at some other things. I thought I’d go to graduate school for a few years and see if I liked it. I did like it, and here I am.

What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

It’s always hard for me to think beyond my current project, especially when I’m still in the early stages. My mind is so full of different directions in which I might take my current work. So I’m going to have to defer answering that question. Ask me in a couple of years.

In one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

American Studies means, to me, mutually stimulating disciplinary approaches to issues and histories I care about.


Phillip Barrish is the author of American Literary Realism, Critical Theory, and Intellectual Prestige, 1880-1995 (Cambridge UP, 2001), White Liberal Identity, Literary Pedagogy, and Classic American Realism (Ohio State UP, 2005), and The Cambridge Introduction to American Literary Realism (Cambridge UP, 2011). His current research explores fictional representations of health-care systems in the United States from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Announcement: Reading Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”

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On Wednesday, October 29, AMS core faculty Dr. Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernandez and Dr. Mark Smith are participating in a round table of historians and literary scholars celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath by reflecting “on the context and controversies surrounding the book’s representation of poverty and dispossession in the United States during the Dust Bowl Era.” The event is at 3:30 PM in Garfield 4.100. We hope to see you there.

Announcement: Interview with Timothy Donnelly, Reading on April 25

The Department of American Studies, in collaboration with the Department of English and the Michener Center for Writers, will host “The Art of Constraint and the Poetics of Surveillance,” an interdisciplinary conversation about the interaction between literature and the contemporary police state, on Friday, April 25 at 6 PM in the AVAYA Auditorium (POB 2.302). As part of this event, we are incredibly excited to feature award-winning poet Timothy Donnelly, author of The Cloud Corporation (2010), who will be reading new work.  Last week, we had the chance to speak to Donnelly about his work, his teaching, and the role and responsibility of literature in the post-9/11 world.

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Your book The Cloud Corporation borrows language from the Patriot Act and the 9/11 Commission Report.  How did this idea come to you?

Thanks for asking! There are a few poems in The Cloud Corporation that were constructed exclusively from language taken from sources such as those you mention. To write the first of the poems this way, “The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports,” was proposed to me by my friend the poet Geoffrey G. O’Brien. He suggested I should let 19 pages of the Patriot Act provide me with my vocabulary, since it had in mind to take things away from me, partly. The first page would supply the words I had to choose from in the making of a poem’s first tercet, the second page would give me the words I had to choose from for the second, and so on. Also, once per line I was allowed a word from a second source text, and I had to use the same second source throughout the poem. I chose Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” I liked the idea of doing a mash-up of language from a document designed to compromise civil liberties with that of a big fat freedom anthem—plus, I love the song and listened to it over and over while writing the poem, which took several long days to write. That was way back in 2004.

Then I wrote “Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” which used language from Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” and the 9/11 Commission Report, in 2005. In this one I reversed my allegiances—it was the prime text, the Shelley, I sympathized with, while the second source text I held in suspicion. First and foremost these poems are formal experiments, attempts to see what can be done with a limited and unlikely lexicon. But they can also be approached as attempts to reclaim the language of power and domination and convert it into a language of freedom and play. They are both at once, I suppose. But I wouldn’t want to overemphasize the political import of all this industry, although I can’t pretend not to have chosen my source texts for their political character, for their rhetorical designs—I just don’t like the idea of making inflated claims for my poetry. And the truth is, I think some purer-minded readers might even consider them misguided and irresponsible, too mongrel and ambiguous, messed-up in their message delivery system. A few people have cited one of them, “The Dream of Arabian Hillbillies,” which uses language from Osama bin Laden’s fatwa against the United States and Israel and from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies, as the book’s most tacky moment. And I’m okay with that. I want my work to have all the messiness of life, wrestled into art. I don’t want my poems to be platforms for performing the awesome rightness of my political sensitivity. I don’t like piety in any of its forms.

 

Do you see your work as engaging politically with—for lack of a better term—the post-9/11 world? How so?

Ah. Well, I feel like it would be self-aggrandizing and even a little untrue to say yes, so I’ll say…sort of. I feel insincere confusing my work with full-blown, position-taking political engagement, which is of course something I endorse per se and undertake in my fashion. But that’s not what I do in my poetry. What I do is more concerned with the psychological or, say, the personal experience of political and social realities, the sorrows, the guilts and grotesqueries of our culture. Like emanations of what it feels like to be alive now. A now that, yes, after 9/11, has seemed different from what it was before. Not only because of the shifts in consciousness in the aftermath of the attacks but also because war, economic collapse, environmental crisis, etc., had or have become more pressing realities than they appeared to be before.

But again, I think of the poems as dealing with these realities not directly but as they impinge upon an individual consciousness—but maybe you wouldn’t exclude that from what you mean by “political engagement.” It is a way, I guess, of implying a value. For example, if I refer to capitalism as “the circuitry that suffers me to crave // what I know I’ll never need, or what I need but have / in abundance already,” perhaps that’s critique enough to say that the poem is political. But if I suggest I used to think about falling in front of a train so my family could live off the insurance money because I just wasn’t earning enough of it the traditional way to keep us afloat—is that political? I’m not so sure. By “political” I assume we mean, to quote the OED, “involved, employed, or interested in politics; that takes a side, promotes, or follows a particular party line in political debate.” I don’t think I’m doing that, or maybe everyone is, to some degree? Oh, I think underneath it all there might be something I’m trying to get to, or at, that I haven’t quite formulated.

Let me try to put it this way. At its root, my impulse to write is more or less physical, a drive to create and give shape and organization to material. That material “happens to be,” for lack of a better verb, language, but it might have been something else. I love to cook and often feel that cooking is, for me, another manifestation of the same impulse. There’s also evidence that I might have been a carpenter in another life. But it’s language that’s the medium I work in. And that medium is, as we know, double-natured—physical, or a thing per se, but also significatory. To fully realize the medium, to use it to its fullest, you can’t leave the signification half out of it. Nonsemantic word paintings might catch one’s eye, but in the end, they would be of limited interest. Not that anything is of unlimited interest. Except, of course, the sea. But I know that my impulse is that of a builder first and foremost, and then that of an expresser.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t care about “content.” Because the content of my poems is taken from, or chosen by, my brain, so I feel pretty close to it. It’s just that my impulse to make it into a poem isn’t political. It’s physical, mechanical. Like a bird that makes another nest, just for the sake of it. If it makes it out of shredded tax forms, is that political? Is this making any sense? Like others, I make my poems out of words. The words are like the clay. The clay is quickened into bricks by thought, memory, imagination, feeling—the work of my brain, which sometimes has to do with politics or things of a political character. Which is probably always informed by political realities, and probably reality itself is political. But the poem is the ziggurat I am given to build.

But all that said, the truth is, the most moving responses to the book, to me, have come from people, including those who tell me they don’t ordinarily read poetry, who say it has helped them to articulate how they have been feeling, that it has made them feel accompanied and spoken for. This has been very gratifying. And also a little surprising. Because I would never have dared let myself hope for that. But I also remember that, when The Cloud Corporation came out, there was a review in a Harvard undergraduate literary review that faulted the book for not offering solutions to the problems it confronted. I suppose it’s my sense that if my poems were products of political engagement in the truest sense, then they would have done that. But I really don’t think poetry or any art has to do that. Then again, I’m not a Harvard undergraduate in 2010. Certainly I think it’s enough to have articulated the confusion, even the futility—to give form to how it feels, how it felt, what it was like, to be a human through the times. But in the end the comment that has meant most to me came from my father, who said after reading my poem “Globus Hystericus” in The Paris Review, “I don’t know what it means, but reading it felt like listening to classical music.”

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Announcement: Ethnic and Third World Literatures Sequels Symposium This Week!

This Thursday and Friday at UT, Ethnic and Third World Literatures (E3W) and the Department of English will be hosting the 13th Annual Sequels Symposium. Sequels is an annual event that features E3W alumni and their recently published books. The symposium also includes graduate student panels, highlighting research that intersects with the work of our featured keynote speakers. This year’s guests are Dr.  Eve Dunbar and Dr. Kenneth Kidd. The symposium will feature keynote addresses by Dr. Dunbar and Dr. Kidd on Thursday evening at 7pm in the Eastwoods Room of the Texas Union. Panels will be held Friday from 8:30 to 3:30 in the Eastwoods Room.

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Eve Dunbar graduated from UT in 2004.  She is currently Associate Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor in the Department of English at Vassar College, where she is also an active contributor to the Africana Studies, Women’s Studies, and American Culture programs.  Her areas of specialization include African American literature and cultural expression, black feminism, and theories of black diaspora. Kenneth Kidd graduated from UT in 1994.  He is currently a Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Florida. His areas of specialization include children’s literature studies, nineteenth- and twentieth century American literature, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and cultural studies.

Check out the full schedule here.

 

Announcement: Julia Alvarez Speaks at UT Tonight!

Today! Acclaimed novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez will speak about her life and work with University of Texas at Austin professor, Dr. Jennifer M. Wilks, at 7:00 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium at Homer Rainey Hall. A book signing and reception will follow at the Harry Ransom Center. The event is sponsored by the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies (TILTS) as part of their “Reading Race in Literature and Film” series. It is also sponsored by the Harry Ransom Center, where Alvarez’s archive resides.

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Here is a little more about Alvarez from TILTS:

Alvarez was born in New York City but raised in the Dominican Republic until she was 10. In 1960 her family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic when it was discovered that her father was involved in a plot to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo. Much of Alvarez’s work is considered semi-autobiographical, drawing on her experiences as an immigrant and her bicultural identity. Alvarez’s unique experiences have shaped and infused her writing—from such award-winning novels as How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies to her poetry.

Seating is limited, so get there early! Doors open at 6:30 p.m.