Faculty Profiles - Spanish & Portuguese
Dr. Arturo Arias - Latin American Literature and Culture
DR. ARTURO ARIAS
Academic Background: Ph.D., Cultural Studies (Latin American Literature and Culture), University of Paris-Sorbonne – Paris, France; M.A. & B.A., English Literature, Boston University – Boston, MA
Area of Specialization: Central American Literature
What made you decide to go to graduate school?
I am also a fiction writer. But, as a scholar, I wanted to know if literature itself was useful or not, from a social perspective. It was my inquiry into the role that literature, and culture in general, played in society, and helped shape political thinking, that led me to an advanced degree. I did not want to write novels if they were useless to society.
What was your dissertation topic when you were in grad school?
“Ideologies, Literature and Society during the Guatemalan Revolution 1944-1954.” It showed how literature of that period responded to radical social transformations in my home country.
What is your current research focus at UT?
I live for writing, my own fiction in the summer and winter breaks, and research the rest of the year. My present research is a book-length study of emerging Maya Literature in Guatemala. Its study will enable me to further theorize the nature of identity politics, the concept of narrative textuality, and bring closure to the debate on testimonio, a concept that I had already problematized in my latest book, Taking Their Word: Cultural Dialogues, Central American Signs. For further clarification of the application of my theorization, I will compare emerging Maya literature to other indigenous literatures in Chiapas, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Is there a hot topic currently being discussed by scholars of Latin American literature in the U.S. or around the world?
Yes. After peaking in the first half on the 1990s with subaltern studies and its debates on testimonio, Latin American cultural studies seemed to enter an epistemological and institutional crisis by the end of the century. Some critics believed that a hyper-deconstructive dynamic and a theoretical saturation, led scholars to lose sight of the object of study. A will on the part of critics to identify with the subject also contributed to a reification of abstract categories. Nonetheless, Walter Mignolo and Aníbal Quijano’s concept of the “coloniality of power,” conjoined with their corollaries, colonial semiosis, border gnosis, geopolitics of knowledge, and post-Occidentalism, operating sometimes as epistemic metaphors deployed to move thinking beyond Western and Eurocentric conceptualizations, provided a new way of framing the issues of cultural production and agency. Mignolo framed these issues, while recognizing Quijano’s contribution, in his book Local Histories/Global Designs (2000). The popularity of those concepts can be attributed in part to the re-emergence of indigenous issues in the Americas, as exemplified by the Nobel peace prize awarded to Menchú in 1992, the emergence of the Zapatista movement in 1994, and the election of Evo Morales as Bolivia’s president in 2004 after years of grassroots agitation in the Andes.
Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate?
Yes. I did. I helped collect Latino student memories of growing up in the U.S. and record their personal histories, differences with their parents and grandparents, and public school experiences. I would certainly recommend undergrads to participate in research. It gives them for the first time a taste of what being a professional in a field they like is about, and breaks them away from an interiorized sense of being a “student,” that is, someone conceived as a minor, as immature, simply accumulating knowledge without a clear sense or purpose. Research offers a glance of what the other side looks like, and helps students focus on whether they want to pursue graduate work in their chosen field, or a field they like, or not. It also helps students understand what fields other than the traditionally professional ones which their parents usually push (law, medicine) look like, how they operate, and why.
What topics do you currently teach at UT?
I am in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, so I teach Latin American literature and culture at both the graduate and undergraduate level. These courses go from surveys of 20th century Latin American literature to specialized graduate seminars. However, I am a well-known expert on Central American literature, with a special emphasis on indigenous literature, as well as critical theory, race, gender and sexuality in postcolonial studies.
What makes a good grad student?
There is, of course, no clear-cut answer. Generally speaking, graduate school involves four components: coursework, research, qualifying exams and a dissertation. Coursework develops expertise across a wide spectrum. Specialization is obtained via research into some specific question or issue that a given student favors or chooses depending on their interests and idiosyncrasies. These studies are meant to be individualistic. The students are mentored, but they learn to do research by themselves on a topic that is unique to them, and on which they are making a contribution that is new — though with the close guidance of their adviser. Therefore, communication with their professors and other graduate students is an integral part of the process of graduate school. Intellectual ability is certainly necessary. So is writing ability (in both Spanish and English), speaking ability (in both languages as well, and also in Portuguese), a solid academic preparation overall in both the humanities and social sciences to be able to not only read high volumes of literature, understand it and critique it, but also to be able to read a high amount of theory and social sciences, and make relational conclusions as to how they all deal with each other and inform each other, understanding all knowledge as holistic and an integral part of all communities in the world. Therefore, motivation and maturity are also a must.
What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to you program?
- Display your ability to communicate in Spanish and/or Portuguese.
- Evidence knowledge of cultural theory and/or culture at large.
- Show your good disposition, intelligence, maturity, and individuality in both your written application and when visiting the program.
What are the top Spanish & Portuguese graduate programs in the US?
In Spanish and Portuguese, I would say that No. 1 is NYU. No. 2 is Pittsburgh. No. 3 is Duke. Afterwards I would say it is between UT Austin and Michigan, though Minnesota and Yale are also contenders. It should be noted that the top three are all private universities. UT Austin is at the top of the public universities along with Michigan and Minnesota, and above UC Berkeley, which used to be No. 1. Of the ivies, only Yale would be in our category, with all others, Harvard included, below UT Austin. Stanford has also gone down, and Miami is going up.
What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the Spanish & Portuguese graduate program?
From a PhD, most of them choose to become academic scholars as well. But some prefer diplomatic work, administration, usually related to cultural matters, educational institutions, museums or foundations, and, needless to say, working in the many ways that one can in all areas related to language teaching and its many variants, whether at the university level, or at other levels such as a district’s school system, anywhere in the world for that matter. Many go to Latin America, but we have alumni in Australia, China, Europe, and even Africa, and, as far as we know, they have all been successful. From an M.A., many who prefer not to teach in high school or a community college, often combine it with either another program (MBA, MA in Latin American Studies or in some other area or field), to become administrators, journalists, TV workers, film directors, join the legal field in all its variants, diplomacy, etc., with strong roots in the art of dissecting language and texts of any kind, something they find extremely useful in just about any field one can imagine. Because of the nature of our program (Spanish and Portuguese), most of these alumni work of course in institutions linked or requiring the usage of these languages, and often become important bridges between the US and Latin America.