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Robert Vega, Director FAC 18 / 2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200 78712-1508 • 512-471-7900

Faculty Profiles - American Studies

Dr. Randolph Lewis – Film Studies, Indigenous Media, and US Cultural History
Dr. Nhi Lieu – Migration and Ethnic Studies, Asian American Studies, Media and Popular Culture Studies
Dr. Shirley Thompson – African-American/African Diaspora Studies

DR. RANDOLPH LEWIS


Academic Background: Ph.D., American Studies and B.A., History Honors - The University of Texas at Austin

What made you decide to go to graduate school?
I had mentors like HRC director Tom Staley and the late historian Bob Crunden who made a life of the mind seem important and appealing. But as a first-generation college student, I was often in the dark about what to expect. I couldn’t even explain the concept to my grandfather, an East Texas logger with a third grade education.

What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
Then as now, I was interested in the collision of film and politics. As Americans become ever more “mediated” in relation to various screen-based technologies, it seemed to me that film studies allowed me to get at some fundamental questions about contemporary life. Then in graduate school I had the good fortune of coming across the political filmmaker Emile de Antonio. That led to dissertation, and eventually a book, about a remarkable artist who imagined a different way of representing the reality of our country.

What is your area of specialization?
As a scholar and sometimes filmmaker working at the intersection of American Studies and Cinema Studies, I focus on the documentary tradition, indigenous media, and the relationship of art and politics in the US. Simply put, I have a fundamental interest in the politics of creative expression.

What topics do you teach at UT?
My major teaching fields are Film Studies, Media Studies, and American cultural history in the twentieth century. I enjoy teaching lecture courses like “Main Currents in American Culture” as well as small seminars such as “The Politics of Creativity” and a new signature course called “Cinema of Subversion.”

What is your current research focus?
After having published the first book devoted to an indigenous filmmaker (Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker) in 2006, I am continuing to write about indigenous media for reasons both intellectual and political. My current book project, Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground, examines the intersection of cinema and Navajo culture over the past hundred years, moving across nearly a century of southwestern cinema. It provides a new way of thinking about the Western at the same time that it explores new trends in Native American cinema.

Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by American Studies scholars in the U.S. or around the world?
American Studies scholars have been hotly debating questions related to race, identity, transnationalism, and globalization for more than a decade. The next challenge is figuring out how to transfer the insights of our discipline to the broader public. At a time when our country seems to have lost its way, American Studies might provide insights and answers about who we are and who we might aspire to be.

Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate? And would you recommend research for undergrads
Yes, I completed a senior thesis in the History Honors program about the concept of generation in the novels of Evelyn Waugh. . I recommend participating in research, as it gives you a small taste of graduate school. If a senior thesis seems like bitter medicine to you, then grad school will probably be toxic. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the experience, then grad school might be enjoyable.

What makes a good grad student?
Creativity, diligence, and patience. A blend of persistence and flexibility. A desire to understand the world in order to change it. Ingenuity in the face of bureaucratic indifference.

What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to an American Studies graduate program?

  1. Show us that you can write well because the admissions committee reads the writing samples with great care.
  2. In addition, students should visit the department in person---no one should join a department at which they haven’t met the faculty.
  3. Finally, applicants need to make a plausible case for what they hope to accomplish and with whom they intend to study. Too many applications are silent about such details. Explain precisely who you want to work with and why, and remember that it’s possible to change direction later.

What are the top five American Studies graduate programs in the US?
Yale University, University of Minnesota, Brown University, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and of course UT, which has long been considered one of the top two or three graduate programs in American Studies.

What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the program?
An interdisciplinary degree from a program that puts a premium on good writing and original thinking is strong preparation for a number of jobs in publishing, filmmaking, museums, journalism, and academia.

Download Dr. Lewis' Profile

DR. SHIRLEY THOMPSON


Academic Background: Ph.D., History of American Civilization and A.M. & A.B., History, Harvard University – Cambridge, MA

What made you decide to go to graduate school?
I enjoyed the conversations I was having among peers and scholars in the university setting and wanted a career that would allow me to have thought-provoking discussions on a regular basis. I recently found a picture of myself as a seven-year-old wearing a T-shirt that says “I Love School.” I think that sums it up!

What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
My dissertation was called “The Passing of a People.” It was a cultural history of 19th century New Orleans that used the identities and experiences of French-speaking free people of African descent (Creoles of color) as a lens for thinking about race, language and gender in the city, nation, and Atlantic world more broadly. I eventually published it as Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans (Harvard, 2009).

What is your area of specialization?
Both American Studies and African American/African Diaspora Studies are interdisciplinary areas of study which means they are driven by research questions rather than a strict adherence to any particular disciplinary methodology. For example, if I am interested in the experience and legacy of slavery, I will consider (and attempt to analyze) plantation ledgers, slave testimony, fictional accounts of slavery and mastery, landscapes of slavery as they existed in the past (as plantations, for example) and as they continue to exist in the present (as prisons or universities, for example). This is not to say that we do not respect the more discrete fields of history, literary criticism, sociology, architecture and planning, ethnomusicology etc. Rather, we try to forge connections among them and to critique their limitations when appropriate.

What is your current research focus?
I am currently in the early stages of a project which traces out some of the legacies of slavery for African American encounters with property and ownership. Specifically, it explores the interwoven concepts of race and property value from the vantage point of African American historical memory, political economy, and expressive culture. This project is situated at the intersection of legal and economic discourses; it seeks its evidence in literature and performance, material and expressive culture, things and ideas. The project draws on the methodologies of cultural history, literary criticism, performance studies, ethnography, and critical theory.

Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by American Studies scholars in the U.S. or around the world?
American Studies scholars weigh in on a wide range of topics, from the politics of incarceration to land use to social networking to the battle over immigration. The “War on Terror” and an Obama-esque politics of “post-racialism” have served as a springboard for some charged debates in our field. In general, American Studies scholars have been particularly insightful in highlighting the ways in which cultural matters (such as music, sports, food, style, religion, etc.) intersect with those that are traditionally understood as strictly political or economic matters. In particular, American Studies scholars have tended to focus on the broader politics of race, gender, class, and sexuality in the U.S. Also, in the last ten to fifteen years, scholars in our field have begun to think more critically about how the national identity and national interests of the U.S. have played out and continue to play out globally in the context of transnational economic and political systems.

Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate? And would you recommend research for undergrads
I wrote a number of 25-30 page research papers as an undergraduate, but my most significant project was my senior thesis, “’Born in Strife, But Indestructible’: The Battle of the AME Bishops and the Founding of St. Paul Community Church, Harlem.” When all was said and done, it was about 5 chapters long, 120 pages or so. It was based on sermons and other church records I found in the basement of my late grandfather who had been a minister in Harlem and who had followed African-American migrants from South Carolina to New York City. I was able to situate the church he founded in the 1940s in the larger context of African-American migration, urban culture, race and class in the World War II era, and African American theology. The process was grueling but rewarding: a great opportunity to learn about my family history and the deep history of a vibrant neighborhood. I would definitely recommend extensive research projects for undergrads. It takes more than a semester (or the couple of weeks at the end of a semester) to really immerse oneself in a project.

What topics do you teach at UT?
My grad and undergrad level courses have included: US Cultural History to 1865; Atlantic Slavery in History and Memory; Black Representations of the South; Property in American Culture; France, America, and the Problem of Race.

What makes a good grad student?
The best graduate students are both systematic in their attempt to build a body of knowledge and curious enough to pursue idiosyncrasies.

  • They are able to take constructive criticism.
  • They have enough stamina for the long haul.
  • They love to write. The only way to complete grad school is to write your way out!

What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to an American Studies graduate program?

  1. Research faculty interests in programs you are applying to. Make sure there are people whose interests correspond to some extent with yours. Do not hesitate to contact them to get a sense of how they will be as mentors and how the program in general will serve your needs. In addition to impressing the admissions committee with your engagement with and knowledge of our program, you want to make sure you land in a place that is right for you.
  2. Apply for external fellowships (such as the FordNSF, etc.) at the same time you are applying for admission. External funding will give you more flexibility and will often put you in touch with a community of scholars beyond your particular program.
  3. The graduate school personal statement serves a different purpose than the personal statement in an undergraduate application. While your personality and experience should come through in the statement, the admissions committee is much more interested in your sense of the field, particular projects you have in mind (if any), and why you think our program is the best fit for you.

What are the top American Studies graduate programs in the US?
American Studies and African-American Studies Programs are not officially ranked, but I would say (in no particular order), for American Studies: The University of Texas at Austin; the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Harvard University; Yale University; and the University of Minnesota. Also in no particular order, for African American/African Diaspora Studies: The University of Texas at Austin; Princeton University; Duke University; Northwestern University; and Harvard University.

What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the program?
This varies widely. Those with American Studies degrees are professors in fields ranging from American Studies to Communication to History to English, creative writers, singer/songwriters, archivists, editors, engaged in museum and curatorial work, and public historians among other professions.

Download Dr. Thompson's Profile

DR. NHI LIEU


Academic Background: Ph.D. and M.A., American Culture, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, MI; B.A., History and Women’s Studies, University of California – San Diego, CA

What made you decide to go to graduate school?
Originally, I went to college to seek a professional degree but when one of my undergraduate professors told me about graduate school, I was drawn to the idea of pursuing a career that allowed me to research, write, and think critically. Academia has continued to provide me these opportunities.

What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
My intellectual pursuits emerged from my interests in history and culture and my personal desire to comprehend the dynamism of the contemporary world that surrounded me. This is what motivated me to study and theorize the present along with the competing narratives of memory, notions of identity, and political dimensions of culture that characterizes our times. For my dissertation, I analyzed various forms of popular culture such as live music variety shows and videos, beauty pageants, Internet websites, and other cultural forms created by and for the Vietnamese audiences to examine how sites of culture contributed meaningfully to our understanding of the ways in which ethnic identity is constructed, negotiated, mediated, and re-fashioned. Writing to counter existing narratives that pathologize Vietnamese subjects as traumatized refugees, my work argued that the formation of identity for Vietnamese Americans must be viewed through a series of previously neglected sites of popular culture because these sites are repositories of memory and desire for subjects of the Vietnamese Diaspora.

What is your area of specialization?
My field examines culture, history, politics, and social and economic forces affecting the Americas through an interdisciplinary lens. I was trained in cultural, ethnic, and media studies so I examine every subject of study through the prism of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

What topics do you teach at UT?
U.S. cultural history, ethnicity and popular culture, immigration and consumer culture, Asian American studies, theories on transnationalism and Diaspora, gender and beauty culture.

What is your current research focus?
I just completed a book project that was a revision of my dissertation topic on Vietnamese popular culture and the construction of identity. I am currently working on a new project on gender, globalization, and beauty practices.

Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by American Studies scholars in the U.S. or around the world?
Transnationalism, globalization, neoliberalism. Debates about Citizenship. Race, ethnicity, and immigration issues. War and the Middle East, American imperialism. Current events inspire new investigations.

Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate?
Yes. I did research projects every summer. I applied for fellowships and research assistantships that enabled me to work for and with professors who mentored me and helped me develop my own research interests.

What makes a good grad student?
One needs to be very committed for many years; loves to learn but has the humility to be challenged intellectually; and has patience to endure the life in pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake. The rewards in this field are NOT monetary.

What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to an American Studies graduate program?

  1. Learn as much as you can about the program and the faculty you are likely to work with. Make sure there is a fit. If you want to study something that the program doesn’t offer or specialize in, chances are, you will not be accepted because no one will be able to work with you.
  2. Communicate—be prepared to express yourself intellectually on paper, by email, etc. Demonstrate your ability to thrive in a rigorous environment.
  3. Be open to new experiences, challenges, disappointments.

What are the top American Studies graduate programs in the US?
It really depends on what you want to study but this is a general ranking: University of Southern California, American Studies and Ethnicity; Yale University; University of New York; University of Minnesota; University of Michigan; and The University of Texas at Austin.

What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the program?
Academia (teaching at liberal arts colleges, research universities, state schools, or community colleges), journalism, law, museum work, public works, community organizations, consulting work for various topics of cultural, social, political relevance.

Download Dr. Lieu's Profile

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