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.



Grad Research: E3W Roundtable Features Elissa Underwood as Panelist

A hearty welcome back from spring break (at least for you UT folks) from all of us at AMS :: ATX. We’re kicking off the week by sharing what promises to be a fascinating panel discussion featuring one of our own graduate students, Elissa Underwood, as a panelist.

Details below from the official event announcement:

In advance of the 12th Annual Sequels Symposium, the second Prequels event of Spring 2013 will focus on the work of Peter Caster, one of the conference’s keynote speakers and a distinguished alumnus of the English department. Caster’s recent book, Prisons, Race, and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Film (2008), is grounded in the proposition that “the history, literary and otherwise, of the United States is indivisible from that of its prisons.”

Inspired by this work, a panel of graduate students, faculty members, and activists will offer perspectives and narratives that capture the realities of the American prison industrial complex. This discussion will open with a brief video montage of scenes from TV and film that best represent how American popular culture depicts the national prison system. In response to this montage, our panelists will share how their work reveals and communicates the realities of prison life in the United States. Panelists include Melissa Burch (Graduate Student, Anthropology), Rebecca Lorins (Texas After Violence Project), Elissa Underwood(Graduate Student, American Studies), Benet Magnuson (Policy Attorney, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition), and E3W’s very own Barbara Harlow, who will serve as a moderator and respondent. We hope you will join us and add your voice to the discussion.

Alumni Voices: Dr. Carolyn de la Peña, Director of the UC Davis Humanities Institute and Prof. of American Studies

Today, we feature some words of wisdom from Dr. Carolyn de la Peña, currently director of the University of California at Davis Humanities Institute and Professor of American Studies. Her books include The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American (2003)  and Empty Pleasures: The Story of  The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda (2010). She graduated with a Ph.D. in American Studies from UT in 2001.

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?

Right now I oversee a large staff and work on grant proposals and events and am an advocate for humanities funding and research. In my own research I’m looking for ways that I can work with scientists and nutritionists on questions of health, technology, and the body. So much of my brain space is taken up thinking about the humanities at large–all of the disciplines and interdisciplines that comprise it and how it differs in important ways from the sciences and social sciences. I didn’t do these things at UT in our smallish program. At UT I was very interested in defining American Studies (what are our methods? why can’t we have a real theory class? how are we different then NYU?). I really wished that the program would give me more direction–have a more “inky” stamp to put on my work and my approach. Now I’m less interested in defining AMS, or worrying about whether my work fits in American Studies, and more interested in just being a humanist and working with different methodologies depending on the research or administrative problem I’m tacking.

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Announcement: Introducing the UT American Studies 2012-2013 Departmental Theme, “DREAM”

The Department of American Studies is introducing a theme that will create common threads among course offerings, discussions, and departmental events throughout the 2012-2013 school year. Dr. Janet Davis explains what kinds of conversations we might have about this year’s theme: DREAM.

The word “dream” has rich and variegated meanings in American life. The American dream offers the ideal of social mobility as a distinctly American ethos. On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King reckoned with the aspirational potential and deep contradictions of this American value in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington:  “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” Dreams are a central part of our nation’s political and cultural language. “Dreams from My Father,” is the title of President Obama’s bestselling memoir. On June 15, 2012, the president issued an executive action to put the Dream Act into effect.

The lexicon of dreams has saturated pop cultural productions throughout American history:  “Dream On”; “Dream Girls”;  “Teenage Dream”; “California Dreamin”; “Dream Weaver”; “All I Have to Do is Dream”; and more. In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe’s surreal poem, “A Dream Within a Dream,” asked ominously, “Is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?” Sigmund Freud treated dreams as a portal into the human subconscious. When Freud traveled to America in 1909, he visited Dreamland Park at Coney Island and was fascinated by its pantheon of dizzying rollercoasters, lights, tunnels, and fragrant machine-spun candy floss. Myriad cultural forms embody the ways in which American dreams are pleasurable, whimsical, aspirational, hopeful, fearful, nightmarish, and denied.

The Department of American Studies invites you to consider the significance of “Dream!” in the American experience. During the 2012-2013 academic year, each of our course offerings will touch upon the ways in which our designated word enriches our understanding of American culture and society.  Thus, we structure this year’s inaugural word as an invocation and an imperative. Dream!