Undergrad Research: A Recap of the 5th Annual Honors Thesis Symposium

Today, we share with you this fantastic recap of last week’s Senior Honors Thesis Symposium, where three of our stellar seniors shared findings from their undergraduate theses. Rebecca Bielamowicz, also a senior and Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Honorable Mention, shares with us her take on the event. Enjoy!

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Max Mills, “In the Belly of the Cotton Kingdom: An Investigation of School Desegregation in Waxahachie, Texas”

Supervisor – Dr. Mark Smith

2nd Reader – Dr. Steven Marshall

Senior Max Mills conducted his yearlong project on the process of school desegregation in his hometown of Waxahachie, Texas, a community approximately 30 miles south of Dallas. Waxahachie, though no Little Rock, still resisted school desegregation through their adoption of piecemeal, halfhearted policies that did not guarantee full integration with “all deliberate speed.” It was not until 1970 that the Waxahachie Independent School District adopted district-wide desegregation policies and built a new high school that both whites and blacks could attend, and it was not until 1972, a full 18 years after the passage of Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, that the district was deemed sufficiently integrated by visiting federal agents.

Citing a lack of a comprehensive history of the desegregation process in WISD as the motivation for his project, Max went to work. To document this process, Max investigated old Waxahachie yearbooks, city council minutes, and conducted interviews with black and white students who had experienced the desegregation process firsthand. Yearbooks were visual proof of the ludicrousness of “separate but equal:” bathrooms and classrooms for black students, when compared side by side to their counterparts at the white high school, were pathetically dilapidated. The city council minutes demonstrated the extent of city officials’ foot dragging when policies to desegregate schools were perpetually tabled. Finally, interviews with former students yielded a range of different realities experienced under different district policies: Ira Gay, Jr., attended the white high school under the district’s 1965 Freedom of Choice Plan, which allowed Waxahachie students, both black and white, to attend whatever school they wanted to. He was the only black student at the white high school and said his presence caused little resistance. Conversely, Jackie Mims was forced to attend the white high school in 1968 after federal agents demanded that the district integrate their 10th, 11th, and 12th grades or face dissolution. “It wasn’t our school,” she said, and noted the violent fights that occurred often between white and black students. Interestingly, all white former students who Max interviewed asked that they remain anonymous and said they were “fine with integration” and argued that teacher resistance that was the real problem.

While memories of this process may differ, it’s hard to argue with today’s reality: as of 2010, 28 percent of black families in Waxahachie lived below the poverty line compared to 3.5 percent of non-Hispanic white families. Education promises equal opportunities for all, but it’s falling short. Max closed by stating the importance that lies in confronting Waxahachie’s history: although it is painful, it is necessary to do so in order to move forward.

 

Molly Mandell, “DIY Cuba”

Supervisor: Dr. Randy Lewis

2nd Reader – Dr. Steven Hoelscher

Senior AMS major and journalism minor Molly Mandell was able to put both of her degrees to use in her thesis project. Motivated by the sparse or inaccurate coverage Cuba has received throughout her lifetime and more recently since Cuban-U.S. relations have been on the mend, she took four trips and spent over three months collecting data in the country. While most coverage reinforces stereotypical understandings of Cuban life in the American imagination, such as antique cars, cigars, and beaches, her goal was to document what Cuban life was really like. Her initial focus was to photograph and interview farmers who were practicing sustainable, pesticide-free farming, but once she spent more time in the country, she realized that do-it-yourself or “maker” culture was flourishing seemingly everywhere in Cuban life.

When she asked Cuban linguistic graduate students why there wasn’t a word or phrase in Cuban Spanish to describe this “do it yourself” culture, they said it was because it wasn’t novel, but it was just their way of life. Although Molly’s project focused on Cuba, her findings shed an illuminating light on American culture. When she returned to the United States, she experienced what she called reverse culture shock: in the United States, more and bigger is always better, and something that would never have been thrown away in Cuba would probably be tossed out here without so much as a second thought. Informed by these observations, she makes the distinction between lifestyle DIY and essential DIY. Lifestyle DIY is often practiced by upper-middle class consumers and facilitated by products like Make magazine or websites like Pinterest. In contrast, Cubans practiced what she calls essential DIY, which, although it can be a deeply fulfilling and enjoyable practice, stemmed from economic necessity and a lack of other resources.

Through stunning photographs and tidbits from interviews, Molly told us of the people she met and the projects they were working on. One jack-of-all-trades English tutor, German tutor, and seamstress, sewed on her great, great grandmother’s sewing machine. Although she sewed, she admitted that her real passion was knitting and crocheting. She shared with Molly a picture of herself proudly wearing her first crocheted dress she created at 16. White and full length, it took her three months to complete. We also heard about Damian, who wandered the streets of Havana searching for materials from old paint cans, cars, or refrigerators that he could use to make his artwork because art supplies are difficult, if not impossible, to find in Cuba. He had plans to renovate an old factory to turn it into a space where he and other artists could work. Navis biked 25 kilometers each way to earn a business degree from the university. When she saw that there was a dearth of bike shops, she used her degree and knowledge of bikes to open one.

The profiles Molly conducted were genuine, detailed documents of contemporary Cuban life that have gone untold by American reporters, and she plans to turn this project into a full-fledged e-book in the near future.

 

Liz Garlow, “Manifesting Outward: A Prosopography of the Feminist Spirituality Movement in Central Texas”

Supervisor: Dr. Jeffrey Meikle

2nd Reader: Dr. Martha Selby

AMS senior Liz Garlow conducted a prosopography, or the study of a historical group, on three feminist spirituality groups in Austin and its immediate surrounding counties. The feminist spirituality movement, or FSM, is a form of cultural feminism that emerged out of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s. FSM is pluralistic faith practice that is informed by neo-paganism, lesbian separatism, Jewish and Christian feminism, New Age, and Native American spiritualities. Founders of the FSM were unsatisfied by the patriarchal and oppressive religions they had access to, so they left to create their own. The religion does not have one holy book, one leader, or one headquarters, but encourages women to do what it is that works best for them, and many identify as Wiccans. Ultimately, FSM is a political and spiritual movement that aims to transform the lives of the women involved.

Although the FSM has only been found in the English-speaking world, it is not endemic to Austin. While conducting research, Liz realized that histories of the FSM existed only about the West Coast and communities in Madison, Wisconsin. This lack of a comprehensive history of the movement in Central Texas motivated her research. She conducted interviews with the founders of three FSM organizations in the area: The Reformed Congregation of the Goddess – RCG 1st Austin Circle, Tejas Web, and the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Spirituality Group. The women she interviewed all strongly identified as feminists and were in their late 50s and early 60s. These organizations started popping up around Austin in the early 1980s, but their existence was not well documented through pictures or other media. However, they are still active today, although the age of its members tends to be older.

Understanding the role religion has played in shaping American life is an important domain to investigate, and Liz’s work is an important contribution. She ended her presentation with a thought-provoking excerpt from one of her interviews with a founder: “What does it say about a culture whose religious icon is a dead man on a cross, tortured, naked, and bleeding, compared to a culture where the central religious icon is a woman on a throne giving birth? What are that culture’s values, what are that culture’s attitudes, and what kind of institutions would that culture produce?” She leaves it to us to answer these questions.

All photos by Dr. Steve Hoelscher.

Alumni Voices: Matthew Hedstrom Featured on ShelfLife@Texas!

Today over at ShelfLife@Texas, UT American Studies alumnus and historian Matthew Hedstrom shares details about the evolution of “Post-Protestant spirituality” and his book, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (Oxford 2012).

hedstrom

The following comes to us from the interview with Hedstrom up at ShelfLife@Texas, in which Hedstrom discusses his inspiration for the project and what he hopes his readers will get out of The Rise of Liberal Religion:

I was a graduate student in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, looking for new ways to think about religion in the modern United States. Basically, I wanted to think about religion as a phenomenon not just of churches or other formal institutions, but as a part of culture more broadly. Also, in a related way, I wanted to think not just about official theology and ritual, but about religious sensibilities—about spirituality.

As I was thinking about all these things, I came across a set of sources about religion and reading in the 20th century and thought, “Ah ha! This is how I can access the stories I want to tell.” So I began studying the history of religious books and reading in the 20th century, because I quickly came to see this as one of the most important ways that religion happens outside of church, especially in a consumer-oriented society like ours.

I hope my book raises questions for my readers about the power of consumerism in our society. I hope my readers will come to see that the categories “religious” and “secular” are not very easy to disentangle—that psychology and spirituality, for example, often blur. And I hope my readers will look at religious liberalism as a significant religious tradition in the United States, one with strong ties to Protestantism but not limited to Protestantism. Much of the vitality in modern American religious life is in what might be called post-Protestant spirituality, and I want my readers to learn to see the contours of this phenomenon and to understand where it came from.

Alumni Voices: Dr. Matt Hedstrom, Assistant Prof. of Religious Studies and American Studies at UVA

We are delighted to introduce a new regular blog series! Alumni Voices will feature words of wisdom from alumni of the American Studies program at UT about their experiences in graduate school, their current work, and advice about how we can get the most out of our time while students of American Studies.

Today, we kick off this feature with some insights from Dr. Matt Hedstrom, a professor in the department of Religious Studies and the program in American Studies at the University of Virginia. He graduated with a Ph.D. from UT in 2006, and his book, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century, will be released by Oxford University Press in October 2012.

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?

That’s a hard question, because everything I do is informed by my graduate education. For one thing, I only really learned to read and write as a graduate student. I mean that.  Bob Crunden talked about academic reading as akin to gutting a fish—learning to get quickly at the meat and discard the head and tail—a rather gruesome image that has nevertheless stayed with me. This is not just about efficiency but also about honing the ability to find what matters in an argument. In addition, many of my professors were incredibly insightful readers of student writing, Bill Stott most memorably. I try to write narrative and jargon-free prose as much as possible, following the examples of many of my professors at Texas. This reflects, perhaps, my affinity for history rather than cultural studies, though I don’t want to draw that line too hard and fast. More than anything, it reflects the style of writing I was taught at Texas, and I am grateful for it.

More substantively, the book based on my dissertation is just coming out now (The Rise of Liberal Religion)—so I have been immersed in my graduate research until very recently. Be careful what topic you choose—you’ll have to live with it for a long time!

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Faculty Research: The Theology of Surveillance

Last week, American Studies faculty member Dr. Randy Lewis published a third column in Flow that both fascinates and frightens me. He writes on the theology of surveillance and the very odd presence of cameras in conservative Christian churches. What I find particularly interesting is the psychological response to knowing that one is being watched in a supposedly safe and sanctified space – not only by the eyes of a supreme being, but by security officials. How strange that these sanctuaries might be provoking fear and anxiety as they also claim to offer God’s loving embrace.

Here’s an excerpt, but you must read the whole thing – it’s beautifully written and, as I mentioned, fascinating:

I’m interested in my own feelings about CCTV as well, even surprised by them. Until recently I didn’t know I cared about cameras in sacred spaces at all. Yet I keep returning to religious angles that I’ve never pursued in the past. I wonder who would want surveillance cameras above the pews glaring down at the worshippers? What could be so alarming to a room full of gun-owning, God-fearing middle-aged white people in a small town run by other white people? In other words, who really needs sacred security, and what is so damn frightening that you’d replace the free-flowing calm and compassionate welcome of the idealized church with an ominous sense of lock-down? Apparently, it is not enough that some deacons areliterally carrying guns to Sunday services or that some pastors are literally clasping specially-designed bulletproof Bible holders at the altars. Something else is needed to assuage the fear.

Although I am only beginning to explore these questions, I can hazard this much: terrorism is not their demon of choice. Rather, it is the rank stranger outside the gate. It is the black cloud of evil that can settle anywhere, anytime, in their fretful vision of modern America. It is the vile nature of strangers, of difference, of heathens, but also the evil within: what the pastor might do to the organist, what the children might allege in the nursery—and if they don’t fear these things, the marketing of sacred security explicitly tells them that they should. Thank God—or Gideon Protect Services, or Watchman Security, or Savior Protection, Inc.—that video surveillance cameras, properly installed, will protect the innocent and ward off the wicked. Such is the sales pitch from the companies that I have been researching in this complex economy of fear.

What draws me to this topic is the sheer contrast between the ideal of hopeful refuge and shoulder-to-shoulder togetherness in a sacred space, and the insinuated, carefully marketed anxiety of the security business, forever amping up the threat of looming violence and the necessity of eternal vigilance. Must everything drip with fear?

(side note: as I began writing this, Hall and Oates’s “Private Eyes” came on my Pandora station – “watching you watching you watching you…” – a sign from above through yacht rock)