Grad Research: Jeannette Vaught on teaching the mystique of the cowboy

One of our department’s chief strengths is that it gives advanced graduate students the opportunity to create and teach their own small classes for undergraduates. Today, Ph.D. candidate and instructor-of-record Jeannette Vaught relates a fascinating unit she created for her class, “The Cowboy Mystique in American Culture.”

By presenting science as a central part of cultural history, I show students how scientific inquiry responds to cultural pressures. In the first unit of my “Cowboy Mystique in American Culture” seminar, I paired selections from Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization about Theodore Roosevelt’s constructed sense of masculinity with “Agassiz,” a chapter from Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club detailing battles between various nineteenth century scientific race theories. To offer a concrete example of how race, gender, and science were entangled with politics, in class we analyzed Roosevelt’s use of the term “race suicide” in his own writings. By the end of the class, students understood that Roosevelt’s valorization of manly virility was deeply tied to emergent scientific anxieties about whiteness in the face of immigration and imperialism. Such transformative realizations eventually led the class to question the cultural pressures that shape current scientific debates, and to learn how to approach them from a historical, not polemical, position. In the Unit wrap-up, several students commented that they’d had to “break up” with TR (he’d been their favorite president!) after they’d learned to turn their critical eye towards his identity. The “Roosevelt as Bad Boyfriend” discussion was fun, for sure, but it resounded with students’ developing critical thinking skills.  Music to my ears! 

Grad Research: Graduate presentations abound this semester


We recently highlighted some of the folks presenting at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting in Los Angeles November 6-9. But our students and faculty present all over the place. Here are just a few examples of the exciting new research UT AMS grad students are sharing around the country this semester:

Andrew Gansky

Graduate student Andrew Gansky recently attended the Society for the History of Technology Annual Conference in Dearborn, Michigan, and took part in the SIGCIS Workshop. His presentation was titled, “The Meaning of Life in the Automated Office.” Here’s what Andrew had to say about his paper:

Many previous studies have looked at computer automation, or the displacement of human workers with computerized processes, through the lenses of labor and economics. However, the effects of automation extend far beyond the workplace. I examine automation as a fundamentally social technology, which helps engineer human relationships as technological feedback loops. In this paper, I focus on Control Data Corporation’s proposals to computerize and automate the American Indian national education system during the 1970s, and critique the application of teaching machines as the displacement of human care and responsibility for maintaining a functioning educational system.

Josh Kopin

Graduate student Josh Kopin presented his paper, “A Cosmonaut in Palomar: Seeing, Showing, and Imagining In Gilbert Hernandez’s Heartbreak Soup” at the the International Comic Arts Forum. Josh sent us the following snapshot of his paper, and he has a longer description of the event here:

Although the Palomar of Gilbert Hernandez’s Heartbreak Soup comics is something of a backwater, a small town where news always seems to come late, Hernandez populates it with characters who have dreams that go beyond the town’s limitations, even as he centers their lives there. Although they could easily be trite or descend into kitsch, the stories set in Palomar are involved in defending the dignity of those characters and the legitimacy of what they want, both in the context of the small town and outside of it. Perhaps the most instructive of the many ways that Hernandez mounts this defense is the way he relates his characters’ imaginations to visual culture external to Palomar; this talk will discuss the ambivalent relationship that Palomar has with outside visual influence, beginning specifically with the moment in the 1985 story “Space Case” when Luba’s daughter Guadalupe, recently introduced to the mysteries of the cosmos, looks out her window and finds the churning sky of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. In order to illuminate the relationship between seeing and imagination, in order to figure out of if Guadalupe sees the same thing we see, I will approach questions of seeing, showing, and imagination in Hernandez’s work by further investigating the music teacher Heraclio’s relationship with and attempted dissemination of high art, and the presence, in “An American in Palomar,” of American photographer Howard Miller, who embodies Palomar’s conflicted relationship with seeing and showing as he looks at the town and the town looks book at him. These investigations will show both that, for Hernandez, ambivalence, perhaps even doubt, is the key to dignity and legitimacy, and that in his supposedly beleaguered backwater we can find a metaphor for comics’ relationship to other kinds of art.

Jeannette Vaught

PhD candidate Jeannette Vaught organized the panel “Beyond the Laboratory: Animals and the Culture of Scientific Knowledge” for the annual meeting of the History of Science Society in Chicago. The following description of the panel and her contribution to it comes to us from Jeannette:

This panel looks at places where animals and science intersect beyond a strict research setting. Investigating material from across the globe, spanning the sixteenth century to the present, the panelists show how the use of animals in the production of scientific knowledge gets at larger questions about how scientific knowledge is used, what cultural anxieties it informs, and how animals continually shape the definition of science. Jeannette will join the panel, made up of scholars from a range of institutions, home disciplines, and career stages, to present her talk “Envisioning Living Tissue: Race, Animality, and Conflicts Over Vivisection in 1920s America.” This paper considers the battle over vivisection in 1920s America, showing how arguments for and against the practice depended on problematic conceptions of race and animality.


Alumni Voices: Kimberly Hamlin, Asst. Prof. at Miami University in Ohio

Today we have a new dispatch from Dr. Kimberly Hamlin, an alumna of our graduate program, who shares some fascinating and useful advice from her experiences at UT and beyond. Hamlin is assistant professor of American Studies and History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her first book, From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America will be published in early 2014 by the University of Chicago Press.  For her article “‘The Case of a Bearded Woman’: Hypertrichosis and the Construction of Gender in the Age of Darwin” (American Quarterly, December 2011), Hamlin received the 2012 Emerging Scholar Award from the Nineteenth Century Studies Association. She completed her PhD in American Studies at UT in 2007.

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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?

Both my research and my teaching are very much informed by the work that I did in American Studies at UT. My book, which will be published in a few months, began as my dissertation. While there were many revisions along the way from dissertation to book, the central question remained the same: what did evolutionary science mean for women living in the nineteenth century when many gender roles were defined by the myth of Adam and Eve?

My next book project, a biography of freethinking feminist Helen Hamilton Gardener – a woman who played a key role in the passage of the 19th amendment and later donated her brain to Cornell University to prove that women’s brains were not inferior to men’s—is also informed by my experiences at UT, not so much in terms of content but in terms of my desire to connect my scholarship to readers who may or may not be academics. One of the strengths of the AMS program at UT is that faculty encourage students to share their research beyond the academy and often model how to do this with their own research (here, for example, I am thinking about Professor Elizabeth Engelhardt’s work on barbecue).

One of the great benefits of having gone to UT was the opportunity to teach my own courses for four years. Before I taught my own courses, I was not 100% sure if graduate school was for me, but as soon as I was able to design my own syllabus and spend a semester working through it with students, I knew I was in the right field. At UT, I served as a teaching assistant for two semesters, then I taught in the rhetoric department for several semesters, and, finally, I developed and taught several sections of a class in the American Studies Department (“Women in American Culture from Seneca Falls to ‘Sex and the City’”). The ability to teach while still in graduate school not only helped me prepare for life as a professor, it also allowed me to begin connecting my scholarship with my teaching at an early stage. For example, my dissertation project—and later book—actually grew out of a connection I made while preparing the course packet for my class on “The Rhetoric of Feminism.” In putting together this course packet of pro and con feminist arguments from the 1790s till the present, I noticed that nearly everyone writing prior to 1900 mentioned Eve. So, I wondered, what happened to feminist thought when Eve became optional as a result of the broad-based acceptance of evolutionary theory? The answers to this question form the basis of my forthcoming book.

In addition, the reason that I have my particular job is very much because of the unique experiences I had in American Studies at UT. In the summer of 2006, when I had written exactly two chapters of my dissertation and was not planning on graduating till 2008, I saw a posting on H-Net for an American Studies scholar with an interest in “public culture.” At UT, I participated in several projects that promoted public history and public culture and knew that I wanted a job that would reward me for engaging with academic and non-academic audiences. For example, through a connection of Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s (then at UT), I served as a research assistant on Ken Burns’s documentary on the national parks the summer after my first year. I also served as the assistant director of the Austin Women’s Commemorative Project which began as a Woodrow Wilson Foundation grant directed by Professor Martha Norkunas. And, finally, as a result of my master’s thesis on the origins of the Girl Scouts, I connected with Austin-area filmmakers Karen Bernstein and Ellen Shapiro and served as the historical consultant on their award-winning PBS documentary “Troop 1500: Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.” I think it is because of these “public” experiences that I got the job I have today.

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?

When I was at UT, I often turned to my friend Matt Hedstrom for advice and generally followed his excellent example. So, since Matt wrote a list in answer to this question for his blog post, I will once again follow his example here. I guess this is also my first piece of advice:

  1. Seek out role models and mentors among the faculty, fellow students, and alumni. 
  2. Enjoy the graduate student lifestyle. I know this sounds odd to say when you probably feel very stressed, overworked, and underpaid. But, trust me, graduate school is a luxury in terms of time, if not money. Take advantage of the flexible schedule, the time for walks and contemplation, hanging out with friends, and reading all sorts of books just because they sound interesting.
  3. Make the most of all that UT has to offer, including but not limited to the American Studies Department. (One of my regrets is that I never went to a UT football game. Even though I do not really care about football, I should have taken advantage of those student tickets!) Many of the best experiences I had and closest friends I made while at UT came from outside the department. Teaching rhetoric was a terrific way to ease into the classroom (because before you apply to teach your own class you teach from a shared syllabus); working at the Writing Center not only improved my own writing but helped me become a better teacher of writing; the History Department’s Gender and Sexuality Symposium provided the core intellectual home for me while writing my dissertation; and working on the outside projects described in my answer above helped me imagine myself as a professional in this field and helped me attain my current position.
  4. Look for projects that can be researched at archives with travel funding. I was fortunate in that I was able to research my dissertation at the major women’s and gender history archives and that they all provided travel funding. So, to the extent possible, look for archives related to your general interests and see if they offer research or travel stipends.
  5. That said, do not look for “trendy” projects. Select a project that truly interests you and that you will be passionate about for the next 5-10 years. Besides, by the time you finish your dissertation/book, what is “trendy” will have changed.
  6. Now that I have also served on search committees, I am going to use a word that makes me cringe a little bit—look for ways to “credential” yourself. If you are interested in women’s and gender studies, for example, complete your certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies. Including on your CV that you completed this certificate program looks a lot better than writing that you are “interested” in women’s and gender studies. If there is a not-for-profit group connected to your research interests, try to connect with them; if you have a pretty solid seminar paper, present it at a conference; if there is an article or paper prize in your area, apply for it; etc. I wish I could just say do #5 (follow your interests), but in this tight job market candidates who do #5 and #6 generally fare much better.
  7. I think this one is actually the most important– Take advantage of living in Austin! Odds are that the place you move next will not be as vibrant or exciting… or have as great food or music! (And the connections you make outside of UT may prove to be equally as helpful as those you make within the university.) So, please go for a walk around Town Lake and eat a breakfast taco and a gingerbread pancake for me!

Security/Insecurity in the News, Sept. 27 – Oct. 11

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Hey there, sports fans! Here’s your biweekly round-up of security and insecurity in the news:

Is ethical parenting possible? (New York Magazine)

Marvel’s Diversity Issue: Screen Output Doesn’t Reflect Open-minded Comics (Vulture)

Videogames are making us too comfortable with the modern surveillance state (The New Republic)

It’s Always Time for a Midlife Crisis: When are people most likely to face a tough stretch? (Slate)

‘Drones might be the future of food’ (The Atlantic)

The state of the American war novel (LA Review of Books)

Die Like a Man: The Toxic Masculinity of Breaking Bad (Wired)

Thomas Pynchon understands the power of conspiracy theories (Salon)

Why are there still so few women in science? (The New York Times)

How music makes us feel better (The New Yorker)

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