Announcement: Undergraduate Honors Thesis Symposium Today!


Here at AMS::ATX, we love to draw your attention to the awesome work our American Studies undergraduates do, and so we’d like to invite you to the Undergraduate Honors Thesis Symposium this evening, Wednesday, April 22. Please join us in Burdine 214 at 5:00pm to celebrate the work of some of our stellar undergraduates, who will present portions of their thesis research.

Here is a lineup of tonight’s presentations:

Courtney Michelle Luther – “Pregnant in Prison: Orange is the New Black and the Reproductive Justice Crisis in Prisons”
Kevin Machate – “Promise Me”
Misael Mendoza – “Popped Open: Containment and Domesticity in Pop Art”
Lindy Nesmith – “An Evolution of the Delta Blues from the Disreputable Margin to the Respectable Sinner”
Shannon Schaffer – “Mental Illness in America: A Personal Odyssey”

Undergrad Research: Interview with Alyse Camus and Taj Bruno

We are so pleased today to feature an interview with Alyse Camus and Taj Bruno, two American Studies undergraduates who were recently awarded an honorable mention for the 2014 Dean’s Distinguished Graduates award. We sat down with Alyse and Taj last week to chat about their thesis research, their time in AMS, and their future plans.

In addition, Alyse and Taj will be presenting at the American Studies Undergraduate Honors Symposium this Thursday, April 17 at 5:30 in Burdine 214. Come by to hear about their theses, as well as those of another three stellar undergraduates. Details here.


Alyse and Taj on a research trip to the New York Public Library

Tell us a little about your thesis project.

Taj: My thesis explores the relationship between the American Jewish community and the celebration of Christmas, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. What I’m really focusing on is the internal debate that emerged in the Jewish community regarding the permissibility of Jews taking part in Christmas celebrations and the controversy over that. I’ve looked at an article that was published in the Christian Century in 1939 by a Reformed rabbi who declared that it was absolutely wonderful for Jews to partake in Christmas and it was even a way to bolster the Jewish faith by Jews taking part in a religious practice that was in part derived from the Jewish faith. Another archive I’ve consulted is the Center for Jewish History in New York City and the New York Public Library.

Alyse: My thesis moves between two different departments, American Studies and Slavic Studies. I’m looking at Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was essentially the poet of the early Soviet Union but he also happened to be absolutely fascinated by America. In 1925 he came to America, really to New York and Chicago, did a cycle of poetry, and wrote a travelogue called, in translation, My Discovery of America. In scholarship this is essentially treated as a Soviet criticizing America as this terrible place simply because he was a Soviet and writing from the perspective of the Soviet Union. I’m trying to look at it more as Mayakovsky having valid critiques of America that were valid and identified by American and foreign observers around the same time. So I’m really trying to explore the unique relationship that Mayakovsky had with America before, during, and after his visit, and how his views shaped the Soviet Union’s early impressions of America. There aren’t a whole lot of Mayakovsky archives in America, so I’ve pulled mostly from the texts that he published and from a couple American newspapers–The Daily Worker was kind of responsible for promoting lectures he did while here, and Russkii Golos, a Russian language paper out of New Yorkpublished something about Mayakovsky almost every day of his trip, so it’s been really great to look back through those archives.

What has been a favorite class or assignment in American Studies that led you toward this project?

Taj: There was an American Studies class I took on amusement and understanding specific populations and amusement in America. We had a lot of liberty to choose the topics we wrote about, and I remember writing a paper on the Jewish American population and the relationship between Israel and America. I remember becoming inspired by the fascinating relationship that is ongoing between American and Israel and this helped me focus in on the Jewish American population in America and understand their history, their position, and the different things that they’ve gone through. My paper looked at Jewish American identity through the lens of advertising. It focused on the representation of Israel in American advertising regarding tourist culture.

Alyse: One of the earliest classes I took in American Studies was Intro to American Studies with Elizabeth Engelhardt and it was focused on masculinity and femininity in American culture. I had never really explored masculinity before and I had never heard American History explored from that perspective. I thought it was interesting to look at changing gender roles as not necessarily an explanation of cultural shifts, but just one of the many lenses you could look through. At the time it was just an exceptionally new concept for me. During her class I became really drawn to this time period of 1900 to World War II because there is just so much going on and it feels like almost everything is in a constant state of flux. Her class made me realize that there was so much going on at this time that I hadn’t ever considered and to me that was very eye opening.

What’s next? Where are you headed after graduating this spring?

Taj: For the past year or so I have been working at my parents’ medical device company in quality assurance, and while that sounds dry, it is actually pretty fascinating work. I make sure the company stays within the guidelines of both international and domestic standards. What that means in layman’s terms is that when foreign or domestic governments set out new or revised standards for selling the medical device in those countries, I make sure that the company complies with those regulations. It’s fascinating work and I’m able to readily apply my research skills to international business.

Alyse: Well, after I graduate I’m going to take some time off before pursuing a graduate program. I’ve been looking at everything from History to Comparative Literature and I’m just not quite sure yet which direction I want to take. So, I figure that taking a step back from everything will give me some much needed perspective and let me flesh out my options a little better. To do that, I’m going to move to Los Angeles with one of my friends while she works on her Master’s. To be honest, I’m not yet sure what I’m going to do once I’m there, but I’ve always been the kind of person who just figures it out as I go along. I have a lot of different interests and options so I’ll see where they happen to lead me. In all of the free time that I’ll have because I won’t have a thesis to write, I’m actually hoping to work on translating the poems Mayakovsky wrote while in America. Most of them have never been translated to English and there are 22 of them, so it’ll keep me busy!

Alumni Voices: Recent Grad Publishes Book on Austin Music in the ’60s

Today we are thrilled to feature an interview with one of our recent graduates, Ricky Stein, who has published a book based on his undergraduate thesis, Sonobeat Records: Pioneering the Austin Sound in the ’60s. We sat down with Ricky to discuss his book, his time in American Studies at UT, and what’s next for him and his research on Austin music.


What was the inspiration for this project?

Music and musicology have always been what I go for. I grew up listening to all the great rock records and got endlessly interested in music. My other interest is in my hometown of Austin and its history. Austin has, I think, a history that you don’t hear a lot about. It’s not on par with some of the other major cities in the country, but it has a really nice little history. I was also interested in seeing how it went from being a sleepy college town, a settler’s town, really, to this up-and-coming city on the rise known throughout the country. The thing with Sonobeat, well, that was a gift–it’s amazing what can happen after one conversation. One minute I was working as an intern at KLRU and this guy says I should check out this website, Sonobeat Records, because he knew I was interested in Austin music. I checked it out and two weeks later got invited to participate in the senior thesis class taught by Dr. Janet Davis. I’m so glad I did that, because it dawned on me then that I had a chance to write about this local story.

How did you go from writing an undergraduate thesis on Sonobeat Records to writing a book?

It occurred really naturally. I am also a musician and worked for about ten years before going to college. For a long time I tried to get a record deal and then when I finally went to college the book just happened. I was so lucky, because it’s a really good topic and people are interested in it, especially because Austin has become the music town it has become. When I interviewed one of the musicians who was in a band signed with the Sonobeat label he knew of a publisher, The History Press that does city and local histories. He got me in touch with them, and they read the thesis I had written. They liked it and asked if I could expand it, double it, basically. And we drew up a timetable and they drew up a contract, and it was too cool–a little less than a year later I expanded it into a book and now it’s published.

We had an event this past Sunday at Antone’s Record Shop–there was a book signing, and we had one of the Sonobeat bands playing, The Sweetarts. I wish more students went to Antone’s Records, because I always loved going there when I was at UT and I wish I got out there more. It has a perfect location, right by campus, and they specialize in these old records, the old vinyls. We’re also doing a book signing this week at Waterloo Records on Thursday at 5:00.

How did your work in American Studies prepare you to do what you are doing now?

One of the things I really love about American Studies and one of the reasons I chose it as my degree was the interdisciplinary nature of it. It’s like history meets anthropology, sort of. I’m a culture junkie; I love film and music and art and history and literature, and that’s literally what I wake up thinking about in the morning. So American Studies spoke to me directly because it fit what I was interested in. I think the class I took that most stands out to me is Main Currents in American Cultural History, one of the courses that every American Studies student takes. We studied cities; the professor focused on studies of places like Chicago, New York, the Rust Belt, and we studies Los Angeles when we were talking about the twentieth-century rise of the Sun Belt from Los Angeles to Houston. I found that really interesting–the evolution of the American city–so that definitely had a big influence on writing the book. The broad scope of American Studies is great–there’s a lot of room for research there.

What’s next for you?

I have applied for the Texas State Historical Association conference. I’m on a team with a couple of grad students that is headed by Jason Mellard who is a really brilliant musicologist and American Studies professor at Texas State. He was a big help for me as I was working on the book, and his book on Progressive Country just came out from the University of Texas Press. My topic for the panel is the East Austin music scene, which you don’t hear a lot about–the juke joints of the 1950s back when Austin was a segregated city. I’m not sure where the research will go, but I want to do as much research as I can and continue writing. I loved writing this book–the whole process was so cool and came so naturally. It’s something I’m really proud of. So I hope to do more of that, and I am gearing up to apply to grad school and I want to be a professor of American Studies or History and read and write for as long as I can.

Undergraduate Research: Interview with Amanda Martin, Recipient of the Rapoport-King Thesis Scholarship

Today, we’re pleased to share with you an interview with one of our undergraduates, Amanda Martin, who recently received the Rapoport-King Thesis Scholarship. Congratulations to Amanda on this incredible accomplishment!

What was/is your favorite class in American Studies?

I took a Beats Literature class last semester with Dr. Meikle. I really loved that class. It was kind of refreshing to dive into the literature and live vicariously through these rugged souls. My life looks quite different. I really enjoyed that. I usually take the more intense cultural studies, critical thought classes, which I love, but it’s nice to take something different every once in a while, so I really enjoyed that class.

What are your research interests? Tell me a little about your thesis project.

My thesis is inspired and fueled by personal interests that I have in female identity in America and how it is constructed and maintained by women. I’m really interested in gender studies, obviously, and my thesis focuses specifically on examples of women who claim individual empowerment through partaking in beauty processes or traditional gender roles that can be perceived as regressive by feminist scholars. So I look at these complex, contradictory examples. For example, I’m looking at a pole dancing fitness studio called Brass Ovaries, which is interesting in itself. Even the title gives this idea of empowerment, and I’m hanging out with them and taking photos. Obviously, pole dancing has a lot of connotations for women in our society, but they see it as a really empowering thing, embracing their sexuality. They’re not really frilly about it. I have pictures of them in their Converse, these kick-ass women. I like trying to understand this and grapple with these ideas I’m not really certain about. As I’m trying to understand it, photography is a really useful medium especially with something complex like this.

What are your post-graduate plans?

I’m currently applying to a couple of graduate programs–probably not as many as I should, but I’m also open to the idea of taking a year off and doing photography and figuring life out if the grad school thing doesn’t work out immediately. I’d love to continue studying American studies at a graduate level because in a lot of ways it fuels my photography, that curiosity. I’m always being introduced to new ideas about American culture that make me want to jump into it, take pictures, and get to know people. So I’d love to go to grad school.

Why did you ultimately decide to study American Studies?

It’s funny how it happened. I actually went into undergrad as a Public Relations major. I took a journalism elective because I was still interested in photography, and I had a journalism professor who totally tore apart the advertising industry and PR and was offering a critical analysis that I’d never been introduced to. It was the first time I thought, hey, you can look at things critically, and things aren’t just a given, or naturally occurring, things are very constructed. So I ended up taking an AMS course on a whim as a history credit, and again I was introduced to this idea of critical cultural analysis, and I just loved it. So I immediately went in and added it as a second major, mainly because I thought it was awesome. I thought, I have my journalism degree, but I can do this for fun on the side. That’s how it started, but I’ve really fallen in love with the field and I want to keep going with it.

Amanda Martin is a senior studying American Studies and Photojournalism. She grew up in College Station, Texas. Amanda is currently employed by Texas Performing Arts as a student photographer and also pursues various other freelance photo opportunities. To view her work, visit

Stories from Summer Vacation: Emily Roehl Brings “Nature’s Nation” to Austin on Friday

Today’s story comes from Ph.D. student Emily Roehl, who shares a glimpse of her Master’s thesis in a new artist book coming to Austin this Friday.

This summer has been like so many summers before it: full. For the past four years I have taught reading classes to students ranging from Kindergarteners to retirees, and I stay busy in my “downtime” with (what else?) part-time jobs. But for the past two summers, I have managed to squeeze in a little independent artist book publishing, and this summer—today, in fact—I am busily preparing for the release of my fifth book.

Previously on this blog, I have shared glimpses of the work I have done with Mystery Spot Books, an independent artist book publishing venture based in Austin and Minneapolis that produces small run artist books that explore ideas of land, site, history, tourism, and American material culture. Our fifth book, second eponymous, is Mystery Spot 2: Nature’s Nation, and it features the work of seven artists from Austin, Omaha, and Minneapolis. Last May, we successfully Kickstarted the project, raising funds through individual donations to print the book, and over the past week we have unveiled the finished product at launch events in Minneapolis and now Austin.

This book holds a special place in Mystery Spot Books’ growing catalogue for me, because this is the first time that portions of my Master’s thesis have appeared in print. My thesis is a multimedia project created on Prezi, and it has only lived in digital form over the past two years. In Nature’s Nation, I resurrect (so to speak) sections of narrative from the thesis about my grave, a plot of land I happen to own in rural Nebraska on the site of my great-great grandfather’s homestead. There’s nothing quite like death (one’s own, especially) to get the artistic juices flowing, and in a piece appropriately titled “six feet,” Chad Rutter and I pair words and images to communicate the range of attachments, positive and negative, that assemble at a site as emotionally charged as one’s own grave.

The most exciting thing about this book, however, is the amazing work contributed by the participating artists. All of our previous titles feature the work of Chad Rutter and myself. This is our most ambitious project yet; this time around, we are thrilled to present the work of Caleb Coppock, Paula McCartney, Kate Casanova, Lex Thompson, and Pamela Valfer. Placing all of this work in the same volume provides multiple perspectives, conceptual and aesthetic, on the landscape. Plus, the work is completely gorgeous.

Kate Casanova, from “Floating World”

To get a closer look at the new book and to peruse other Mystery Spot Books titles, join Emily at grayDUCK Gallery in South Austin on Friday, August 17 from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. Drinks and desserts will be served, and books will be available for purchase.

Undergrad Research: Overview of Undergraduate Honors Symposium

Last week, the Department of American Studies had the pleasure of featuring the work of six exceptional undergraduates at the first annual Undergraduate Honors Symposium. The students presented their thesis projects, with topics ranging from resource extraction policy to the American coming-of-age narrative. These projects take the form of thesis papers as well as websites, documentary theater pieces, and novellas.

Presenters with their instructor, Dr. Janet Davis

The evening began with a presentation by Miriam Anderson on hydraulic fracturing. Miriam offered a charming and funny visual presentation on the natural gas industry and its detractors set to the words of Dr. Seuss‘ The Lorax.  Miriam also shared her website, which explains the economic and environmental impacts of the fracking process from multiple perspectives. Miriam was followed by Julie Reitzi, who discussed the drug war in Ciudad Juarez, focusing on the involvement and responses of women and youth. Julie’s presentation provided perspective on a much talked about issue, and she shared striking images of women and youth who are both implicated in and responding to the violence and poverty in the city, including Las Guerreras, a group of women on pink motorcycles who distribute food and other supplies to impoverished neighborhoods. Rounding out the first half of the night was Kelli Schultz, who described her ambitious documentary theater project, “Our TEKS,” which is a play based on the controversy surrounding recent changes to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills by the Texas Board of Education. Kelli discussed her process and inspiration for creating the play, which draws on circus imagery and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. For more information on Kelli’s production, check out our post last week, and head on over to the Winship building April 30 or May 1 at 8pm.

David Juarez presents on Jack Kerouac

The second half of the evening featured presentations by David Juarez, Alexandria Chambers, and Laci Thompson. David led off the second half with a description of his project on Jack Kerouac’s early years of devising fantasy sports games, which David reads as early writing exercises for the budding Beat writer. David shared a number of images and score sheets from these whimsical and impressively detailed games, illustrating the way that the young Kerouac exercised control over a life that was often depicted as lacking it. Alex Chambers followed David’s presentation with a discussion of American boy’s choir schools, focusing on two in particular: the St. Thomas Choir School in New York City and the American Boy Choir School in Princeton, New Jersey. Alex’s thesis project took the form of a novella that introduces the choirboy school upbringing into the American coming-of-age discourse, and she shared a wickedly funny selection from the beginning of her novella. The final speaker of the evening was Laci Thompson, whose eloquent presentation described the multiple representations of the night in Western thought and literature. Laci’s thesis centers on the unique contributions of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith to this discourse of the night, and Laci ended her presentation with a strong call for academics to own their passions and to “have more fun,” because that is what rock music like Patti Smith’s is, first and foremost, all about.

Laci Thompson presents on Patti Smith

The evening of presentations was a fabulous success. It was wonderful to be able to chat with the presenters in group discussion and in one-on-one conversations afterward. I was particularly struck by the range of topics and formats represented by these thesis projects. One of the particular strengths of American Studies scholarship is the way it encourages both innovative themes and innovative forms, and both were on display at this event. It is clear that these senior AMS students are headed toward greater and greater things, and the Department should be proud to call them alumni.

Stay tuned for more photographs from this event! And remember to follow us on Twitter for updates on new posts!

Announcement: Interview with Julie Reitzi, AMS Senior and Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Honorable Mention

We’re thrilled to share with you this interview with Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Honorable Mention and American Studies senior Julie Reitzi. Here, she shares her experiences in American Studies over the past four years. Congratulations, Julie!

What was, or is, your favorite class in American Studies?

It’s so hard for me to pick. I found something great, useful, and perspective changing about every course that I took. This department has really great professors and lecturers.

I think one of the classes that impacted me the most personally, though, was Professor Cordova’s Mexican American Cultural Studies. I came out of the class with a new way of thinking about myself. Both this class and Christina Garcia’s Ethnicity and Gender: La Chicana gave me an identity term that worked for me – Chicana. It embraces the complexity that can exist for people of Mexican descent living in the United States, and also has a political edge. I also came away with a deep sense of the importance of keeping ethnic studies programs alive. I was amazed at how much history I had never even heard about. Some of us were even angry that we had been denied that kind of education.

As far as other influential classes, both Professor Lieu’s Asian Americans in Popular Culture and John Cline’s Global Power of the Funk really helped me grasp cultural studies theory and the importance of deconstructing popular culture. Professor Engelhardt’s Masculinity and Femininity intro course gave me a new way of thinking about gender roles – how they really are something we all participate in shaping. I never imagined a room full of sinister, robed men deciding how gender would operate in the United States, but it was good for me to complicate my understanding of patriarchy, to see it as something less top-down than my earlier conception was.

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