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.

Undergrad Research: A Conversation with AMS Senior Max Mills

As part of UT’s Undergraduate Research Week, our department will be hosting its 5th Annual Undergraduate Honors Thesis Symposium, to be held on Friday, April 22, 4-6pm, in Burdine 436a. Today, we feature a conversation with one of our undergraduate senior thesis writers: Max Mills. Here, he describes some fascinating findings from his research, as well as some of his favorite moments that emerged from majoring in American Studies. Enjoy!

Max 22 Birthday

Why did you major in American Studies?

Coming into UT, I had no idea that the American Studies Department existed. I actually only signed up for Intro to American Studies for my second semester because it fulfilled a flag requirement. The class was taught by Dr. Engelhardt, and it was essentially a course investigating the evolution of gender in America. I was hooked after the first day, but it was the lecture on the importance of Tupperware in American culture that made me realize that I needed to be an American Studies major. The courses that I took later down the road confirmed that I made a great choice. I liked what I was able to learn from an American Studies education, and the interdisciplinary nature of the field really appealed to what I wanted to get out of my time at UT. I mean, who else can say that they learned about the importance of Marxism in American film, the impact animals had as agents of American Empire, or the connection between video games and the military à la the “military-entertainment complex” during their college career?

Do you have any favorite memories from your time in American Studies?

There are too many!! But one that comes to mind is from an assignment in Dr. Davis’ Animals and American Culture 370. We had to bring a cultural artifact that related to factory/ industrialized farming, and so I decided to bring an empty carton of eggs. Her class was the last one I had on those days, and so I carried this carton of eggs everywhere I went with me. I mean, everywhere. And for some reason, everybody reacted to me as if I had a scarlet “A” embroided on my chest. I kept getting asked questions like “What’s the deal with the carton of eggs?” It was a cool way of being able to engage with my colleagues about factory farming and once again reinforces how awesome the American Studies Department is.

What is your thesis about, and why did you decide to write a senior honors thesis?

My thesis is an investigation of the integration process of Waxahachie Independent School District, a process that took about eighteen years after Brown v. Board was decided. While many schools in the South did delay school integration for many years, there are several reasons why I decided to write about this topic in Waxahachie. For one, it’s a history that is incredibly personal to me. Not only is it about the community that I grew up in and care for, but there is also a deep family history that runs through this narrative. My grandfather was the assistant superintendent that was hired to help implement the full desegregation of the school district in 1970. There is also, probably not surprisingly, a lack of community history regarding this process. Even though the memories of integration are held within many community members, I felt that a comprehensive history needed to be preserved for future generations.

What kinds of sources do you draw upon in your research?

Most of my sources were primary documents: school board minutes, newspapers, and yearbooks. I also interviewed a few community members that were former students of the all black schools in Waxahachie, as well as the two superintendents that helped integrate the district in 1970. When I was doing archival research in the school administration building in Waxahachie, I actually got to dig through the physical board minutes and correspondence with the office of Housing, Education, and Welfare. Getting that close to history was amazing.

Has your thesis research yielded any surprising findings?
I knew that white supremacy was manifest in my town, but it was the extent of white supremacy that really took me aback. Reading things like “First KKK wedding in Texas occurs in Waxahachie,” and seeing a high school yearbook cover of a black field worker kneeling before a white overseer made me realize what kind of history I was going to expose and write about.

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 11.37.12 AM Cotton Boll picture

At first I was worried about upsetting people in my community. But that’s Waxahachie history, and avoiding it or choosing to ignore it is counterproductive to progress, and is even dangerous. I hope that this thesis can spur some much needed conversations about race and place.

How has American Studies prepared you for your post-UT life? Majoring in American Studies has been the most transformative experience I’ve had at UT. Aside from a collection of facts that makes me awesome at dinner parties and trivia nights, the critical reasoning skills I have picked up from the American Studies department will come in handy in whatever I decided to do with my life. Majoring in American Studies has changed the way I perceive the world I live in and how I interact with that world. It has led me to question and contemplate profound moral issues, such as “What is the America we want to live in?” and “What is the responsibility of our America?” These are questions every American should be asking and pondering if we are to make our time on this tiny planet more bearable. The University’s motto is “What Starts Here Changes the World.” Majoring in American Studies has made that more possible for me.