5 Questions: Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor, African and African Diaspora Studies

Browne Picture

Today we share with you an interview with Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies department and affiliate faculty member of the American Studies department. Dr. Browne and American Studies senior Rebecca Bielamowicz discussed teaching in the public school system, black feminist thought, the politics of creative expression, and her new book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015). And, you’re in luck: the conversation was so engaging that we expanded it beyond our usual five questions. Read on for a fascinating discussion!

 

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

Oh that’s a good question – nice – and I like that you put teaching first because that’s so important to me. So my scholarly background, I grew up in Toronto and I went to school at the University of Toronto for undergrad, master’s degree, and PhD. In between that I got a teaching degree, and so I actually have background teaching kindergarten and the second grade as well, too. And so one of the things that was important in my graduate studies was that in the program that – so I’m a sociologist, but the program that I was in was sociology and equity studies, and so it wasn’t like an add on, it was something that was really important to the department’s political project, and I think that comes in to how I think about how we can see the world sociologically, it’s also about equity as well, so I think that kind of influences my teaching.

After I did the teaching degree, I wanted to go into a master’s in education in the field of education. I was interested in pursuing those issues around social justice and equity in the public school system and so – but when I went there, sometimes you get a little sidetracked with some things, and I was kind of interested in those same things but as well as a cultural studies approach to looking at sociology and so that’s how I ended up in more of the, I guess more of the academic track as opposed to public schooling.

How was teaching the younger kids?

It’s hard. That was the hardest job I’ve ever had. A different type of hard because you’re on every day, there’s so much prep work to do, of course there are always, and I’m sure it’s changed a lot now where it’s been ramped up, but there’s always these metrics and benchmarks and testing and everything that you have to do. There’s oftentimes that you have to create spaces for them to learn through play or other things, and so it was tough, I’ll tell you that. My mother was a teacher, so I have a great – she was actually teaching at the same school as me for one time – but it was a great appreciation for the labor that they do. It’s no joke. They are really putting it in and they’re often not given the respect they deserve and the schools are not given the money they need. It is the toughest job but so important. And they’re great – to see the students, some of them are finished with university now, you know, that was such a long time ago.

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Teaching Stories: AMS students create 1990s zine

 

It’s no secret that American Studies courses are among the most fascinating, enriching, and fun at UT. Today, we bring you a feature on a unique creative assignment that one of our Ph.D. candidates and Assistant Instructors, Brendan Gaughen, created for his undergraduate 311s course, “America in the 1990s”: a 1990s era zine.

Here’s what Brendan had to say about the project:

During the semester, students read about and discussed the activist and community-building potential of zines and this assignment was inspired by a desire to have students participate in something creative and collective, using a format that was quite popular in the 1990s.  In addition to creating a single-page visual representation of their final paper (a topic they had been researching and writing about for most of the semester), students submitted a 2-3 page reflection paper describing why they chose particular images and text and how this creative visual format allows them to convey something different about their project than a typical research paper.  Being a class about the cultural history of the 1990s, having students contribute to a collective zine seemed like an obvious choice for an assignment and I am quite impressed at what they created.  Doing the layout was more complicated than I anticipated (it required cutting everything in half and reassembling four different halves per two-sided page), but the result is something tangible that students can hang onto as a memento.

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.

5 Questions with Dr. Mark Smith

Today we are pleased to present the next in our series of interviews with American Studies faculty and affiliate faculty members: 5 Questions. We recently sat down with Dr. Mark Smith, whose research interests include the history of social science and the cultural history of alcohol and drugs.

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1. What was your favorite project to work on and why?

I’m sure my answer’s going to be a little bit different from the other people who I think would talk about their research projects, but I think I’d really like to talk about the teaching that I’ve done around the issue of alcohol and drugs, which is something I just chanced into. In fact, I started working at a drug and alcohol treatment center, and I realized that there was a lack of historical and sociological background to see where that stood, particularly where it stood in the issue of cultural history. And what I’ve done is I’ve been able to give a series of classes to different people that deal with the issue of drugs in various permutations. Someone once told me that in scholarship, the question is whether you do more and more about less and less, that is, your focus becomes wider and wider; or whether you do more about less and less. The second is clearly what you do when you write books. Teaching gives the opportunity to do the former. I’ve taught three classes. I taught the original class, a seminar in the American cultural history of alcohol and drugs, and I’ve taught that primarily as an upper division undergraduate class. And I’ve also taught an upper division class for Plan 2 which treats the issue from a public policy standpoint, and now I’m teaching an undergraduate class on alcohol and drugs from an international standpoint, pointing out the fact that alcohol has been handled differently in places like Sweden and Finland and Africa.

2. How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

You know, if you asked me ten years ago, I’d have a very clear answer for that. I deal in cultural history; I believe that I was the second person who taught both parts of the cultural history survey. My perspective is always to provide a general overview on the issues involved. I’ve always done that, that’s always been my interest. I was one of the first people to teach Introduction to American Studies. But my feeling is not to plunge myself into a topic- and maybe not even come out- my interest is providing a background so that people in important contemporary fields like Gender Studies or Queer Studies can have background and context. To that extent, I think I’m very much rooted not only in these issues that are coming up today, but those issues that have come up in the past and hopefully the future as well.

3. What projects or people have inspired your work?

Within alcohol studies, probably the best books that I know are W. J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic, and then recently, on Prohibition, Daniel Okrent came up with a book called The Last Call. I think those have really been useful. Clearly, Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, about Vietnam, and Frances FitzGerald’s book Fire in the Lake have been books that really had a lot to do with my understanding of the kind of world that I had grown up in. More recently, George Chauncey’s Gay New York, a work that you might think would be narrowly focused but instead tells you a lot more than you think it ever could. There are many amazing works on slavery, but the one that first opened my eyes at a very unprogressive time was Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution.  And then sometimes there are books where you think you’re not going to be interested in the topic at all and you’re surprised. There’s a man who died much too young by the name of Roland Marchand who wrote a book called Advertising the American Dream. This is one of the big books, ambitious books, books that you just look at and go, “Wow, this is amazing!” and you’re reading them and you’re taking notes and you do that for two whole days. I think that’s why a lot of graduate students have a “fear and loathing,” to use Hunter Thompson, in reference to the whole concept of the comprehensive exam fields. And to me, maybe that was my greatest scholarly experience in a way. Not only because you have a sense of accomplishment, but because you wind up reading books that you would never read. If you were just interested in alcohol and drugs, you would never read Marchand’s book. And that’s just a sampling of the books that have influenced me.

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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.

Departmental Theme: Marxism in the U.S. and the Insecurity of “Progress”

Today, we are happy to feature some thoughts on the departmental theme, Security/insecurity, from one of our American Studies instructors, Sean Cashbaugh, who is currently teaching a course on Marxism in American Culture.

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In the first section of The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously explore the historical emergence of capitalism via the rise of the bourgeoisie, the class that wrestled the western European world away from feudalism and built it anew in capitalist terms. Upon reading it, one gets the sense that Marx and Engels were in awe of the bourgeoisie, impressed with their historical accomplishments, but also utterly terrified, as they were roundly critical of the incredible costs of their incessant drive for profits, and their drive for new means of generating them. In a famous passage, they write:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.  All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

I’ve always read this passage as a description of what life under capitalism feels like. It’s a commentary on the profound sense of insecurity economic “development” and “progress” generate, on the sense of disorientation and uncertainty felt by those subjected to and exploited by the whirlwind of capitalism’s expansion. Though Marx and Engels wrote of the tumultuous world of 1840s Europe, it’s not hard to think of life in twenty-first century America in these terms: when information travels at light speed, when economic forecasts seem dismal, and when there’s no foreseeable end to U.S. led military conflicts, it’s difficult to imagine anything “solid” at all. I suspect it’s a feeling that resonates with the youth of today, especially when secure images of the future seem difficult to sustain in light of the aforementioned pressures.

Since its emergence, Marxism has grappled with these processes, and Marxists have attempted to understand and change such conditions. Marxism has a long history in the United States – it is difficult to imagine the twentieth century looking as it did without it – but it’s a history that many have ignored, suppressed, or dismissed as irrelevant or downright dangerous, a threat to national security. In Marxism and American Culture, we engage with this history in America, exploring the writings of Marx, as well as their reception, circulation, and transformation in the United States. Ideologies of race, gender, and nationality shape this history. To explore it in all its complexity, students in my class read diverse works of Marxist theory from throughout the American twentieth century, such as the writings of C. L. R. James and Subcommandante Marcos.  We read novels that draw upon, expand, and critique Marxist themes like Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio: From the Thirties. I also push them to think through Marxism: they examine popular cultural texts like Jaws and we consider what Marxists have argued about such texts. In the end, it is a course that seeks to explore and complicate the relationship between two things: this “thing” called “Marxism” and this “thing” called “American Culture.” As my students have said, those “things” resist any certain definition, and the relationship between them is less stable, less secure than you would expect.

Departmental Theme: The American Superhero and American (In)Security

Today we’re very pleased to share with you this reflection from Andrew Friedenthal, one of our Assistant Instructors here in AMS, about integrating the 2013-2014 departmental theme, SECURITY/INSECURITY, into his teaching this semester:

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In my class, The Myth & History of the American Superhero, the departmental theme of security/insecurity is inherently a part of the course material. The history of the superhero in America is inextricably linked to a history of feeling insecure, from two young Jewish men creating Superman in response to Nazi aggression overseas to a renaissance in superhero films in the years following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Superheroes are often called our “modern myths,” but what they actually are is simpler than that – they are symbols of our hopes and fears, our highs and our lows, our feelings of safety and apprehensions about infringements on that safety. In a sense, they embody our feelings of security and insecurity about yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

As a class, we watch the 2012 blockbuster film THE AVENGERS and then spend a significant amount of time teasing out its political implications.  A movie that features shadowy government organizations, the wide-scale destruction of Manhattan, and a man wrapped in the American flag cannot help but be rife with echoes of our contemporary struggle with issues of security in a post-9/11 world.