Announcement: Workshop with media artist Samuel Cepeda this Friday

This week we’d like to direct your attention to a workshop happening in the Department of Anthropology. The Intermedia Workshop will host Samuel Cepeda, a media artist from Mexico, who will offer a workshop on “Research and remediation techniques in the critical study of media.” Cepeda is currently a full time artist and researcher working on his dissertation at Tecnológico de Monterrey in the PhD program of humanities studies in science and technology.

Je2vCRXZCjuAe7h_hdPW5t2YZicHzK05bTEff7Lv5YFr-s5IOazFkHADhqQUgc30XGJSK_imHtnu5KhV9aBtBISoeEXjRyZ45fOtwB3JJsPIfG_t7RB9wjozJ4Go7OqaJl1A-TNBKRcxbsL_ZPBTiEbu_hxqT44RQWimEJYFCLs6f2cJMGfjuCK-8r9hDif5y_aQ5fl3IpxD_p0M_MbeaJxRkZl3SXh OLwNDF-UxNzXc6YTQK0FuIv0K7XA4Rn1OhC8y7I73pyU6D6Oe0NCtsqLC_LQpJFiwEUsopd-0jPzWcvVRJCBCHit3N3CEd1MUd9vPobBlSkDOIkhgoZC2sH32awlUkNtpmfQj2ZiVzg_pX8WRTrsYQRu2il1-KC3fGdBfxfht5Wh8aXWVKz4Zf06Z3tA-CXr_gJFQ_titxnFVHPlhYA71TRpDBzsE1SHere is some additional information on the workshop, which takes place this Friday, May 8 from noon to 2:00 in the Intermedia Workshop (SAC 4.120):

The research of contemporary culture frequently implies paying attention to the symbolic production in different media, as well as the material and semantic consequences of its remediation. The researcher, in order to understand the symbolic production within a group or culture, needs to deeply comprehend it as a creator too. In this workshop, through the practice of various remediation techniques we’ll approach a way of theorizing while producing.

The workshop is free and open to the public.

Announcement: Screening Blackness series continues next week


One of our favorite things to do here at AMS :: ATX is to draw your attention to some of the great events happening around UT. This week was the first installment of the Screening Blackness series called “The Black Leading Lady: Olivia Pope and ABC’s Scandal.” Nicole Martin, PhD candidate in the Department of Theater and Dance, will be screening episodes of the hit ABC series Scandal and leading a discussion about key topics from each episode, including race, gender, and sexuality. Nicole sent along the following description of the event, which continues next Monday, October 20 at 12:00pm in the ISESE Gallery at the Warfield Center:

When Scandal premiered in April 2012, ABC became the first major network to feature a Black woman protagonist in a primetime drama in nearly forty years. The show follows Olivia Pope who, with her team of associates, manages the public relations crises of Washington D.C.’s elite while hiding her own illicit interracial affair with the President of the United States. Created by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice), Scandal is one of the highest rated dramas currently on television making Olivia Pope, arguably, one of the most influential figures for contemporary Black female representation.

Week one of the series, “Desirability and Sexuality: Scripting the Black Leading Lady” focused on the construction of Olivia Pope as a black woman protagonist through the lens of sexuality. Discussion centered on the visual and embodied markers of Olivia Pope’s subject position vis-à-vis elements of costuming, character interaction and narrative structure. Attending to the scriptive moments of the show revealed the series’ strategic navigation of race, gender, and sexuality. In particular, audiences addressed the “double-reading” that occurs when observing Olivia Pope’s relationship with the President. This “doubleness” simultaneously activates a long history of sexual violence against black women’s bodies while also challenging the tropes of black womanhood that continue to dominate mainstream television.

Week 2, October 20, 2014

“Navigating Patriarchy: Black Masculinity, White Masculinity and Black Womanhood.” Watch: “A Door Marked Exit” (Season 3, Episode 10). This week will interrogate the assertion of power through character navigation of patriarchy.

Week 3, October 27, 2014

“Toward Freedom: Black Feminisms and Black Female Representation.” Watch: “The Price of a Free and Fair Election” (Season 3, Episode 18). This week will consider how to write and read for resistance in representations of black female subjectivity.

The event is sponsored by the John L. Warfield Center For African and African American Studies. Hope to see you there!

Alumni Voices: Carly Kocurek

Back on September 12 here at UT, the department hosted a great talk by one of our recent graduates, Dr. Carly Kocurek, who discussed “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ms. Pacman.” Before her talk, we sat down with Carly to discuss her current research as well as her time at as a graduate student at UT.


What will you be talking about today?

Today I will be talking about the nostalgia for what gets called the golden era of the video game arcade, which I position roughly between 1972 to 1985 (there’s some wiggle room in there). There’s been a real vogue for new arcades and archiving projects both formal and informal, so I’m talking about that, but I’m also talking about what’s at stake in this resurgence of interest in arcades, and what people are actually trying to preserve or longing for when we they talk about a kind of arcade that many of us didn’t experience firsthand. I’m positioning all of this within the context of the current culture wars of gaming.

How did you get interested in this topic? Is it part of a larger project?

I’m wrapping up my book, which doesn’t yet have a title (that’s the last thing that happens in that process), but it’s about the classic arcade and the creation of the gamer that happens around the classic arcade. Even though that term is used later, from the 1990s forward, there’s already an emerging idea in the 1970s of who plays games. The word “vidiots” is used — there’s actually a little magazine called Vidiots — that was published for what we would now call gamers and was sold through arcades. I got interested in that because I was interested in gender and games and the assumptions about who plays games and why. I wondered, when did we start assuming that women don’t play games, and why did this happen? If we look at media history, especially when we look at how many different media are considered feminized, for example film or television (there’s strongly gendered traditions there that we generally think of as feminine) it appears peculiar that we think of games as being something that is “for boys.” Looking at that early coverage of games, I wondered, what are we saying about games, who are we saying they are for, why are we worried about who games are for? I argue that there are a lot of factors that influence this, including the Cold War and the Space Race and the technological anxieties of the time, as well as the ongoing crisis of masculinity in the U.S. in the twentieth century and especially after World War II. There’s also the story of the coin-op industry itself, which was trying to look respectable and really struggled — still does — with looking respectable. They saw these young, clean-cut men playing games as a good way to stake their claim for respectability, saying, “Look, we’re doing good things for the kids!” But what happened is that we have all these images of boys playing games, which is powerful and narrows down who designers think they are catering to.

There’s something at stake here that is important and needs an intervention, needs to be exposed. I think there’s a lot of good in gaming, even though we often hear about the terrible misogyny and racism in the gaming world. The gaming industry employs a lot of artists and there’s a lot of emphasis on design and teaching social behaviors and imparting important skills which people value and love, and that’s why people are so passionate about gaming. But what does it mean when that is not open to everyone? That is the real question.

How does your work build on what you did as an American Studies graduate student at UT?

This work is an update and expansion of what was at one point the final chapter of my dissertation. It has been a few years, so that work has moved and changed quite a bit in part because of something I started to notice–the recent revival of the classic arcade, with places like Barcade in Brooklyn. I wondered, how come Dave and Buster’s is a place that corporations have events? There’s Pinballz in Austin, which is a really wonderful arcade, and my neighborhood in Chicago has an arcade called Emporium.

This all started when I was working on my dissertation at UT. My original question was, why do we think games are for men and boys? I could ask people why they think that now, but there’s actually a historical process that helps us understand this. It’s not a “natural” occurrence. I was also really interested in what young women are doing with pop culture and how they are responding to and through pop culture.

Do you have any advice for current graduate students about how to get the most out of their time at UT?

For me, it was really important to have a hobby or something that I was spending a lot of time on that didn’t have to do with school. Sometimes that was volunteer work, sometimes it was sports, it just depended. I think it made my writing a lot better, because I spent a lot of time freelancing and blogging and things like that. I also think it’s good to have a backup plan, and that’s not just because the job market is terrible, which I think everyone gets told all the time, but also because you might realize that you want to do something else. I think keeping in mind that you are actually a person and not just a graduate student is really great. When I was going through the death spiral of the job market my last year, I was making a plan for what I might do instead. For me, I would have gotten a game design certificate at ACC and looked for a job in the industry. That’s not the right fit for everyone, but that would have been an okay path for me. We have alumni that teach at really amazing high schools, or run really excellent nonprofits or make documentaries or work for the state department. All kinds of things. Thinking about how you would apply your interests later is a good thing to do.



5 Questions: Dr. Patrick Jagoda (UChicago), Donald D. Harrington Faculty Fellow in American Studies

Patrick Jagoda 2014

We’re extremely excited to share the news with you that Dr. Patrick Jagoda, from the University of Chicago, has been appointed as a Donald D. Harrington Faculty Fellow in American Studies. Dr. Jagoda will be joining our campus community for the 2014-2015 academic year. AMS :: ATX had a conversation with him over email about his research interests, interdisciplinarity, his scholarly path, and teaching. Enjoy!

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

As far as opening interview questions go, that’s a difficult one. Since I’m a new media scholar, I’ll start off with something like a hypertext menu. Or perhaps a constellation of projects. I see my work as stretching across the humanities, arts, and even the sciences. My recent and current work falls into several different categories: a book project about what I call “network aesthetics,” co-editorial work on two special issues (one on “New Media and American Literature” for American Literature, the other on “Comics and Media” for Critical Inquiry), a series of essays about games and play, the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab that I co-founded with medical and health researcher Melissa Gilliam at the University of Chicago, and a number of practice-based game and interactive narrative projects.

My most consuming writing project in recent years has been my Network Aesthetics book. I hope to complete a full version of this manuscript during my time in Austin. My opening gambit with this project is that, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, a fascination with interconnectivity has become attached to the concept of the network. During this period, the network emerged as both a key architecture and metaphor of a globalizing world. The language of networks spread quickly across disciplines as a way of describing the Internet, the economy, terrorist organizations, and various ecological formations. More recently, really since the 1990s, the interdisciplinary field of network science has expanded to include a range of research on complexity, self-organization, and systemic resilience.

The language of networks is something we often encounter in fields such as biology, computer science, mathematics, and neuroscience. But they have also occupied a central place in the humanities. In my case, I’m offering a transmedia analysis of the relationship of networks to popular aesthetic forms that mediate our experience of these structures. My work examines narrative, visual, and procedural art forms that encourage a critical, even transformative engagement with the network as a dominant category of life. So I’m tracking networks through maximalist novels from the late 1990s such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld, network films such as Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, TV series such as David Simon’s The Wire, computer games such as Jason Rohrer’s Between, and the avant-garde new media form of alternate reality games such as Jane McGonigal’s Superstruct.

While Network Aesthetics has been my most consistently engaging project, one of my favorites has been an alternate reality game (or ARG) that that I directed in April 2013 in Chicago. This game was entitled The Project. It was made possible by a wonderful Mellon Fellowship in Arts Practice and Scholarship that was awarded by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. Let me attempt a summary. For starters, the experience was a collaboration with Sha Xin Wei, the Montreal-based Topological Media Lab, and students at the University of Chicago. I would describe The Project as an experimental and pervasive experience. It told a single transmedia story through social media, performative role-playing, responsive media environments, and a series of live games. Over the game’s three and a half weeks, numerous players explored and joined three conspiracy groups involved in a shared enterprise. They played together online and across the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.

For me, The Project was one of my first sustained opportunities to immerse myself in practice-based research. My team approached art, through this game, not simply as the production of an object or a performance but as a mode of inquiry. Like several other scholars in new media studies and the digital humanities, I’m interested in thinking about the act of making, especially in the form of collaborative creation, as a way of developing, testing, and transforming concepts. This particular game explored the possibilities and limits of play in an early twenty-first century media ecology — one that includes screen-based entertainments, social media networks, and a blurring of work and play. One reason that this project was among my favorites was that it enabled me to grapple with these issues in a more robust way than theory alone might have allowed. It also gave me the chance to assemble an exceptional transdisciplinary team of designers, writers, and thinkers.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations within academia or within society as a whole?

That’s another capacious question. In academia, I see my primary work fitting in with the fields of American studies, new media theory, post-1945 literary criticism, critical theory, and game studies. More broadly, I’m committed to making sense of the humanities in a digital and transmedia moment. I’m invested in imagining transdisciplinary collaborations that enable researchers to tackle multi-scalar problems that exceed traditional field divisions.

Let me break that down a bit. My Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, in particular, focuses on a kind of applied humanities work that pushes against existing methods and canonical texts. I started this lab with a medical and health researcher, so it’s not even a pure humanities lab. But so much of our work begins with the humanities and the arts. We use digital storytelling, board and card games, computer games, and emerging new media forms to explore social and emotional health issues, social justice, and civic responsibility. The projects are not restricted to the academy though. We work with high school youth on the South Side of Chicago, which is an especially disadvantaged part of a city that remains spatially and racially segregated. Our collaborative projects incorporate local youth, but they also bring together university faculty and game designers hired to work in the Lab, as well as graduate and undergraduate students, visiting artists and designers, and community organizations. Scholars from the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the arts join our design, development, play testing, dissemination, research studies, and evaluation work. So our team is really diverse. We’ve already created a number of projects. For instance, a pervasive game about economic disparities and inequitable access to medical services. And a web-based transmedia story about sexual violence. And an alternate reality games related to STEM and new media education. I see all of these projects belonging to the emerging discipline of the digital humanities and new media studies.

As I think about the question, I realize you asked about my work “fitting in” with academic and social processes. I keep fixating on your phrase: “fitting in.” I should note that I’m also drawn to moments when my work doesn’t seem to “fit.” For example, at the University of Chicago, I started a Mobile Experiments Group with one of our full-time Game Changer designers, James Taylor. Even as “experimental” has become a buzzword that carries the clichéd dimensions of a word such as “interdisciplinary,” for me it still describes a meaningful kind of practice and thought. Or perhaps an improvisational orientation toward knowledge. For me, the experimental stands in contrast to another clichéd category of the “innovative.” Philosopher Brian Massumi associates the experimental with a sense of uncertainty and the opening of thresholds of potential. In the sciences, experiments are sometimes designed to test fairly certain hypotheses or to add minor details to something we already know. But an experiment can also embrace forms of failure that teach us just as much, if not more. For that reason, our experimental games group encourages hypothesis testing, but also reflective uncertainty, generative failure, ephemeral thought, and improvisational processing. We begin with affective states or theoretical concepts (say, “jealousy” or “passing”) and use those as the basis for creating quick game prototypes that respond to or explore those concepts. We do our best to dwell in the ambivalences and messy contradictions of the concepts with which we’re grappling instead of trying to comprehend or pin them down. Games, here, are not finished products but a medium of thought that works through mechanics, processes, procedures, networked actions.

In any case, I see a tension in my work, hopefully a generative one. My ambition is to expand existing conversations, especially through forms of community and collaborative “fitting” that expand digitally-oriented research. But I also strive to find meaningful ways not to fit in. Given the assumptions and presuppositions that inhere in any discipline or institution, that second piece is the real challenge.

What is your background as a scholar and how does it inform and motivate your current teaching and research?

My scholarly interests began to take shape during my undergraduate years. During my time at Pomona College, I completed a double major in English and philosophy and spent considerable time in creative writing courses. After that, I did my PhD work in English, at Duke University, where I simultaneously earned a graduate certificate in Information Science and Information Studies. During those years, I specialized in twentieth and twenty-first century American literature and media, as well as critical theory. I continued to pursue creative work on the side and, gradually, noticed my initial interest in fiction transform into a related interest in game design and new media art. Then, just prior to my faculty appointment in the English department at the University of Chicago, I received a two-year Mellon postdoctoral teaching fellowship in new media (also at UChicago). During that time, I did additional research in television and game studies, while also laying the institutional groundwork for the game lab that Melissa Gilliam and I launched officially in early 2013. In those years, I began to collaborate closely with artists and designers, as well as researchers in medicine, health, and even economics.

So, as you can see, especially in recent years, I’ve made my way through numerous disciplines. But the study of American literature, culture, and media has always served as a through-line for all of my teaching and research. Since I’ve already said a fair bit about my research, I’ll add something about how this trajectory has shaped my teaching. I see my courses falling into three broad categories: 20th and 21st century American literature, media studies, and theory-by-design. Even as there is plenty of overlap, these groupings map onto my own overarching interests in English and American Studies, media studies and digital aesthetics, and creative writing and game design.

In the first category, American literature, I would put courses such “Terrorism in Fiction, Film, and Media” and “American Hauntings” that I taught at Duke University. I would also add recent University of Chicago courses such as “New and Emerging Genres” that focused exclusively on American literary and media productions from the last 25 years.

In the second category, media studies, I would include courses that I began teaching at the University of Chicago such as “Virtual Worlds,” “Critical Game Studies,” “New Media Theory,” and “American Television.” I would also include a PhD seminar that I co-taught with visiting professor Eivind Rossaak entitled “Network Aesthetics | Network Cultures.” This last course was especially exciting to me since it attracted graduate students from English, Cinema and Media Studies, Art History, and even the social sciences.

In the third category, theory by design, I would include courses that combine either literary texts or critical theory but culminate in substantial creative productions. For example, I taught a course on “Digital Storytelling” in which students studied the history of electronic literature, interactive fiction, and narrative-based games and, for their final project, produced collaborative digital stories of their own. Another experimental course that fell into this category was “Transmedia Games: Theory and Design.” I co-taught this course with visiting professor Sha Xin Wei. The group read critical theory throughout the quarter but, instead of requiring seminar papers, we asked our students (both advanced undergraduates and graduate students) to create modules of an alternate reality game for their final project. This course felt truly transdisciplinary. In fact, we cross-listed it in English, Creative Writing, Cinema and Media Studies, Theater and Performance Studies, and Visual Arts. We included students from all of these disciplines and several others.

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

In a couple of my recently published essays, and pieces I’m working on at the moment, I’ve been starting to think through the concept of so-called gamification. Gamification is the use of game mechanics in traditionally non-game activities or processes. It continues to be a major design component of social media, marketing, job training, and motivational apps. Since we’re talking about the future here, I can use a fuzzy affective word (with a grateful nod to Sianne Ngai) and say that I’m interested in the implications of gamification for contemporary America. I think of it not merely as a design strategy but as a form that economic, social, and cultural life takes in the present. Games, both as metaphors and as forms, have become such a major part of everyday life and our cultural imagination. I find this development, by turns, to be both encouraging and insidious. Gamification is bound up, in different ways, with the contemporary state of behavior modification, disciplinarity, education, entrepreneurship, social disparities, and a leisure economy. In many ways, this paradigm marginalizes or even forecloses play (which could not be more different from leisure) in the present. As Ian Bogost insists, it is really necessary to make a sharp distinction between “gamification” and “games.” So the obsession with gamification makes me curious about games that challenge or exceed this way of doing business. Even more so, I’m drawn to forms of play that are still possible or emergent in the early twenty-first century. This includes avant-garde and DIY videogames, transmedia experiences, and even non-digital play activities. It involves spaces where play unfolds without the structure of a formalized game. Or atmospheres in which game rules and objectives are minimized or peripheral. Or situations in which game rules serve as creative constraints. In any case, given the interdisciplinary nature of the UT-Austin American Studies department, I’m really eager to think through some of these fledgling ideas when I arrive.

The other project I’m really excited about is a large-scale alternate reality game that I’m planning with Melissa Gilliam and our Game Changer Chicago Design Lab for July and August. Well… I think “excited” is the right word. But you know, that excitement is bundled up with various forms of apprehension, contemplation, flexible optimism, expectancy, intensity, stress, preoccupation, collaborative experimentation, over-planning, logistics, and various other components that are part of a long-term, collective thought. The basic idea is to follow up on a pervasive learning game called The Source that we ran last summer for 140 high school youth over 5 weeks. We’re planning to have even more players this year, to take greater risks with collective and emergent storytelling, and to embed more robust evaluation mechanisms into our research. But the game is essentially an interactive science fiction narrative that teams of youth will traverse while solving challenges, puzzles, and mini-games linked to science and technology themes. They will also be learning some new media skills. To explain it another way, this upcoming game will be a transmedia scavenger hunt with a robust narrative and concrete learning outcomes. Every aspect of the project is transdisciplinary and, by necessity, there are so many moving parts. Fortunately, we learned a fair bit about how to run this kind of game last summer. So, while remaining excited about the future, I hope to be mindful of our past experiences and incorporate them as much as possible into the current design process.

Okay, last one’s a bit of a curve ball, and is the hardest question we ask: if you had to describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say?

Ha! And here you may regret that you employed a game metaphor (or a sports metaphor) with “curve ball.” Since I study games, I’m interested in both making sense of and playing with the rules of any game. For instance, the game we’ve been playing (you know, “5 Questions”) includes a few rules. The first one is that (in a shot reverse shot manner) you ask me a question and I offer an answer of adequate length. The other implicit rule is that there will be exactly 5 questions total.

But rules are meant to be tested and broken. So, if you’re willing, let’s try a slightly different game and see what happens. I’ll take a cue from one of my college mentors, David Foster Wallace, who would sometimes have interviewers answer their own questions as an opening to less predictable results. So: If you had to describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say?

I think the best way to describe American Studies is metaphorically, because its interdisciplinary breadth resists simple definition and evocative imagery seems particularly suited for the task… so I would say that American Studies is an ivy plant: a breathing organism that reacts to its environment, at once clinging to and burrowing into ostensibly impenetrable walls to create, ultimately, a vast and complex network of life. I guess that means I’m using imagery that relates to your work, albeit unintentionally!

Your “network life” formulation brings to mind something that a couple of non-Americans (who nonetheless very much belong to this discussion) had to say about the study of America. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari call America a “special case.” Their account of America tends toward the romantic, drawing heavily on the sociopolitical potential of the 1960s and 1970s, while also reaching back to texts such as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. They do capture something of the crucial kinetic energy that’s implicit in your sentence. For them, America is so fascinating because it brings together the tree and the channel, the root and the rhizome (to continue with your floral imagery), as well as disciplinary and control societies. It becomes a generative figure for thinking both structural and historical paradox.

In any case, whatever American Studies was in an area studies configuration or an earlier interdisciplinary moment, I look forward to seeing how this constellation adapts to emerging concerns that include transnational theory, practice-based research, new media studies, and the digital humanities — just to name a few. At a personal level, I’m perpetually grateful to this field for sustaining my own promiscuous intellectual appetites and transdisciplinary curiosities. And I’m very much looking forward to engaging with the UT-Austin American Studies community during the coming academic year.

Undergrad Research: Interview with Kevin Machate

This past December, American Studies senior Kevin Machate was named one of UT’s “Most Impressive Students” by Business Insider. We sat down for a chat with Kevin about his experiences in American Studies, working in the film industry, and where he sees the two intersecting.

Say a little something about yourself and what you do in the film industry. 

I wanted to be an actor from the time I was very young, but growing up, I didn’t have support for that. I was raised in a military family. It wasn’t necessarily militaristic, but it was very much like, “If it doesn’t make sense to do that, then don’t do it.” Going into the military was the thing my parents wanted me to do. Both parents were military brats themselves, so they thought that at least in the military I would always have a job. Then in 1992 when George Bush decided he was going to do a big reduction in force, we found out that wasn’t necessarily true. I took advantage of that and got out early and came back to Texas. I was 21 at the time, and I decided that I was going to go back to college. But I enrolled and never went.

I got married, went into business, got divorced, moved back to Texas, worked and worked, and then in 2009 lost one of my dogs suddenly, and that was my big eye opener. I knew I needed to do something that was going to be more of what I wanted to do, but I had no idea what that was. So I took a year sabbatical and did as little as I could get away with to regroup and figure things out. I was actually going to re-enlist in the Reserves so that I could get a job because I was waiting tables at the time, and I wasn’t really going anywhere. I had never taken chemistry for this one military program, and I had to have it to get back in, so I started a class in Waco.

Around the same time, there was a call for extras for this movie Sironia, which they were filming in Waco. I volunteered to be an extra, and I got paid minimum wage to go and sit around and do nothing, because they didn’t use me. But a couple weeks later they called me back and said they wanted to use me for this other thing, so I went in and learned a lot because I realized it took three and a half hours for them to film 45 seconds of the movie.

But it opened a door and the same casting director called me back about two months later and asked me to be a police officer on a show called Lone Star that had a lot of big names in it. At this time I was doing a lot of extra work. I did eleven episodes of television and three films in about eight months. For these roles, you don’t have to audition, you just have to look the part and pay attention and mostly sit down and shut up, because there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. So I did that for a while, but I got to the point where I wanted to start actually talking, so I auditioned for a student film at the University of North Texas at Denton and got the part. Being in Waco, I was able to go back and forth to Dallas and Austin. After a year of doing that, I started taking my first professional acting class in Austin, and that was when I decided I needed to move back down here. I had still been taking classes in Waco, but I transferred to UT and kept going.

After I transferred to UT, I started pre-production on the first short film that I produced, which I also co-starred in. After having worked for a while in the industry, I thought, “I can do just as good as these other people are doing,” so I found the scripts, the crew, and a director, and I found another actor. I picked the script because it had minimal locations, it only had two characters, there wasn’t a whole lot of extra stuff–it was just a basic storyline. So that was the first film I produced, and it is now in the festival circuit. It screened in Belarus about a month ago.

The directing part of my work was kind of an accident; there was no one else available to do it at the time. So I said, “OK, I’m going to do this.” And it worked out. Not long after this I got an idea for a film that we just finished and is being edited right now. Me not being a screenwriter, I have to draw on people to help me with that aspect of the film. I have been lucky enough that the same writer has written three of the films that I’ve directed. When you find someone you work well with, you want to stick with the same thing, but at the same time I am trying to branch out so that I’m not always doing the same dumb silly comedies. As an actor I used to get either a cop or a serial killer as roles. Within a month I think I played three different serial killers in three different projects. All of them dies at the end, by the way. Earlier this year when I switched my major to American Studies I realized that I was going to be able to continue the whole film thing in my studies as well. Maybe not every single time, but this last semester I was able to incorporate some aspect of my film projects into all of my classes, or a film that I enjoyed–writing about it or using it for a project.

You talk about putting film into your schoolwork. Does this happen the other way around, where your general interest in American culture informs what you are doing on set?

Not yet, but it does definitely make me aware when I am watching other people’s films or television. In class we talk about Boardwalk Empire and how fictionalized it is even though it is based on historical fact. There are a lot of things that aren’t really accurate. I am very anal when it comes to certain details, and when I see something in a film that is not historically or culturally accurate, it makes me not like the movie quite as much. When it comes to the point that I am making a film with a clear cultural message about something like masculinity or femininity, my American Studies training is definitely going to make me more aware to the extreme, so I will make sure that the details are exactly right even if I am the only one that understands them.

Can you talk a little bit about your future after AMS? What does your next year look like?

I transferred into the program as a senior, so I am crunching everything into one year. But it allows me to only have to take AMS classes and one class for my minor and a language. I’m able to focus on AMS and really figure out what I do want to do next. I want to make my interests in film and pop culture and history converge in a way that hasn’t already been done. I graduate in December and I want to go to grad school.

Anything else you want to add?

My newest film is called Hashtag-RIP. We’re hoping to premier it at the L.A. Comedy Shorts Film Festival in May. It’s about the Hollywood mentality but also about pop culture and Twitter. We are getting the third rough-cut tomorrow; we’re still working on sound and color correction and music. I have a four-time ASCAP award-winning composer doing our score. He’s an old friend who just happens to also work for TV Land on Hot in Cleveland. Pop culture is a big focus in the film. Miley Cyrus gets a mention. Hopefully she will still be relevant. I don’t see her going away any time soon.

Alumni Voices: Allison Wright, Editorial Staff for Virginia Quarterly Review


Today, we’d like to share with you an interview with one of our recent Ph.D. graduates, Allison Wright. Allison is a member of the editorial staff for the Virginia Quarterly Review and also teaches in the Media Studies department at the University of Virginia.

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?

I am on the editorial staff of the nation’s leading literary journal. VQR has published the greatest novelists, poets, critics, and social scientists in America over its ninety-year history, and has received more National Magazine Awards than any other literary quarterly in the nation and more nominations than some well-known magazines (such as Rolling Stone and Esquire). Because of that, our standards are high and the level of expectation we place on ourselves requires a dedication that reminds me very much of graduate school.

On its face, much of what I did as a student in American Studies at UT may not translate to what I do on a daily basis–the work of editing and publishing a magazine. But the focused, intellectual work of graduate school prepared me for this job in a very real way. The nuts and bolts of putting together a magazine–writing, editing, copy editing, fact-checking, image selection–all draw on skills I honed in the American Studies program.

And of course teaching in the media studies department at the University of Virginia, where VQR is located, is a direct result of my time at Texas.

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?

Look for opportunities outside of the department, and say yes as often as possible. In my last year at Texas, I taught writing for the College of Pharmacy and I was a lead teaching assistant for “Classics of World Poetry” and “The American Experience as told through Autobiography,” both of which were offered through the university’s School of Undergraduate Studies. I also served as a rater for the university’s accreditation effort, visiting a wide variety of classes and scoring student presentations. These brought diversity to my CV, and they helped me discern a career path.

Finally, something Steve Hoelscher, who was graduate advisor at the time, said to me during our first meeting back in 2003 bears repeating: Have a life. Meet people who aren’t in graduate school; spend time with them. Volunteer. Find a way to feel like you are making a contribution, however small. The results of those efforts will be transportable once you take your leave.

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Conference Preview: The Dream in Popular Media

Today our series of sneak peeks at the American Studies Graduate Student Conference continues with”The Dream in Popular Media,” a panel that will feature commentary on the American Dream and representations of alternative pasts and hopeful futures as expressed in popular music and comedy.

Photograph by Andrew Jones

Photograph by Andrew Jones

The Dream in Popular Media” panel will feature the following presenters and papers:

  • Jen Rafferty, “‘If the South Woulda Won’: Reimagining the Southern Past in Contemporary Country Music”
  • Sequoia Maner & Yvette DeChavez, “‘Build Your Fences, We Diggin’ Tunnels’: Remixing the American Dream”
  • Carrie Andersen, “‘I Find Human Contact Repulsive’: The Pain of Political Discourse and Community in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm

This panel will take place on Friday, April 5 from 2:15p.m. – 3:45p.m. in the Texas Union,  4.206 Chicano Culture Room.