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Graduate Student Profiles - American Studies

Eric Covey - Cultural Geography, Feminist and Queer Theory, and Orientalism and Imperialism 
Daniel Gerling – Progressive Era Americans and Excrement
Allison Wright - Women’s & Gender Studies, Popular Cultures, Critical Media & Cultural Studies


Allison Wright

wright Graduate Program: Ph.D., American Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; Dissertation Topic: Cheerleading in American Culture

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., English, cum laude, Trinity University – San Antonio, TX

What is life like for an American studies graduate student?
PhD candidacy is a period composed largely of unstructured time. This is both positive and negative. To be a successful graduate student requires discipline; when days present themselves without a built-in schedule, the opportunity for procrastination is great. It is very easy to prioritize socializing over schoolwork. However, balance is key. In my first official meeting as an American Studies graduate student, the graduate advisor at the time ended our meeting by telling me that I shouldn’t forget to have a life. Austin is a fabulous city in which to do so. What this means, though, is that maintaining focus and staying goal-oriented are vital to finding the balance between work and play.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The American Studies program at UT is full of talented, creative people who research and write about the history and culture of the United States from often-unexpected angles. It is undoubtedly the most supportive environment of which I have ever been a part.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
My dissertation is an examination of cheerleading in American culture. Broadly speaking, I argue that popular cultural representations of cheerleaders are connected to larger social movements throughout the history of the United States. It is not a coincidence, for example, that in the immediate aftermath of the passage of Title IX and during a second wave of feminist action, we see a literal killing off of cheerleader characters in literature and film.

Where are you in the graduate school sequence?
I am in candidacy. (Past the qualifying oral exam but before the dissertation defense.)

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
While I am not currently serving as a Teaching Assistant or Assistant Instructor, I have held both of these positions in the past. The former is less time-consuming, allows for a sharp focus on your own coursework, but also less engagement with students since your job consists mostly of grading assignments and holding review sessions. The latter- serving as an AI- proved to be an exciting and rewarding experience for me. The ability to create my own courses, serve as the primary instructor, lead seminars, and engage with students in meaningful ways is unmatched in my years as a graduate student. Teaching is often time-consuming and doesn’t always leave room for research and writing, especially the first couple of years – this is when a strong dedication to priorities is important – but it is a skill that will serve you well if a career in higher education is your goal.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
As an undergraduate, expectations were clear: go to class, read books, study, take tests, write papers. While American Studies graduate coursework looks a lot like this from the outside, it is an exercise in self-motivation. Going to class, doing the reading – that’s all up to you as the student. There are no tests (to speak of). The writing usually comes in the form of lengthy end-of-semester seminar papers. Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint. And it’s a marathon that repeats itself every semester.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Do your research. Know the differences between the various American Studies graduate programs. One of them might serve your interests better than another.
  2. Visit as many campuses and programs as possible to get an idea of fit.
  3. Apply for as many types of funding as humanly possible as often as possible.

What websites would you tell a friend interested in American studies to check out?
There are two “interesting” websites to which I would direct those interested in American Studies. The first is …And Everyday Life, an American Studies blog whose contributors are all professors (a number of whom are UT alumni). They write about American culture and its emphasis on how cultural expressions “change our understandings of race, class, age, gender and sexuality, and vice versa.” The second is The Lazy Scholar, a site devoted to “introduc[ing] students, educators, and others interested in American Studies to the incredible wealth of archival material that can be found online.”

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Ten years from now I’d like to be an Associate Professor, teaching and writing in a supportive academic environment not unlike the department in which I’ve trained.

Download Allison's Profile


Eric Covey

covey
Graduate Program: Ph.D., American Studies, The University of Texas at Austin;Research Interests: Mercenaries, Soldiers of Fortune, and the United States in Africa

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., American Studies, The University of California – Davis, CA

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
My typical day as a graduate student is never typical. Some days I spend eight hours grading undergraduate papers. Others I read and write from when I wake up to when I go to bed. Most of the time I am drinking a lot of coffee, while trying to stay in shape and not go crazy. It turns out that grad students love winter and summer breaks as much as undergrads! That's when we carry out a lot of our own research, and if we're lucky we relax a little so we can mentally prepare for the next semester.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The coolest thing about the graduate program in American Studies at UT is the wide range of things that the professors and graduate students study. We write about everything from photography to barbecue to immigrant life in the Americas.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
I write about mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, and private military contractors in Africa. I am interested in the ways in which violence circulates between the United States and Africa.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
As an undergraduate, I wrote a senior thesis about In-N-Out Burger, a popular Southern California fast-food chain. My advisor was Carolyn de la Peña, who got her PhD in American Studies here at UT in 2001.

Where are you in the graduate school sequence?
I arrived in Texas in August 2006 and spent my first two years at UT taking graduate courses and writing a report in order to earn my MA. After that, I took one more semester of coursework, and then had three semesters to read 300 books divided into four subject areas. That was followed by a two-hour comprehensive oral examinations with four professors. Now I am writing a prospectus, which explains what my dissertation will be about.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
I currently work as a TA in Aerospace Engineering, a grader in Pharmacy, and as an assistant for a Professor in the Center for Women's and Gender Studies.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
I don't think I had the normal undergrad experience, since I was 32 when I got my BA. The most obvious difference to me has been the level of commitment required. It seems like I spend the bulk of my waking hours doing "grad school stuff." That probably isn't for everyone, but I enjoy it.

Do you have a tip for students interested in applying to a program like yours?
Start preparing early. It takes time to research schools, prepare for the GRE, and make an informed decision about your future. It's the only future you have, and it's worth it.

What websites would you tell a friend interested in American studies to check out?
Texas Republic of Barbeque

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years, I'd like to be working as an associate professor at a university on the west coast. But I'll be happy if I am living someplace with lots of public lands and able to pay my bills.

Do you have a grad school survival tip you would like to share?
You'll meet people in grad school who you will know for the rest of your life and with whom you will share important bonds. Cherish them.



Daniel Gerling

danny
Graduate Program: Ph.D., American Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; Dissertation Title: “American Wasteland: A Social and Cultural History of Excrement, 1861-1914”

Other Degrees: M.A., English and B.A., Philosophy, Eastern Illinois University - Charleston, IL

Why did you decide to complete an advanced degree in American Studies?
I came to the Ph.D. program in American Studies at UT after completing a B.A. in Philosophy, an M.A. in English, and after a year in Amsterdam doing graduate work in Philosophy and Cultural Analysis. I enjoyed studying language, culture, and thought, but I was ultimately frustrated by the lack of historical grounding in the coursework I’d done. American Studies seemed to offer the historical backbone I’d sought without the intellectual rigidity I’d known some History programs to have. And that is really what I love the most about American Studies—it demands the same academic rigor of the more traditional historian, but encourages the practitioner to use a variety of methodologies in order to unearth the social and cultural (and sometimes intellectual) realities of American life.

I should note here that I’d never seriously considered the possibility of teaching when I started the program. I felt that the program would give me the opportunity to achieve the level of cultural literacy and knowledge I felt a resident of this country should have. I was also in part motivated by the type of writing found in The Atlantic or Harper’s.

Where are you in the graduate school sequence?
Seven years after beginning the program, I’m now in the final stages of dissertation writing (don’t get scared; my wife was also a graduate student and we had two kids along the way), and I enjoy it a great deal. The program is paced in a way the keeps you motivated. After two years of coursework (2.5-3 and a short thesis if you enter without an M.A.), you begin the legendary “orals” process. At the beginning of this process you choose four areas of study that will ideally prepare you for your dissertation. One of these areas must be American Civilization. Two areas must be subjects you can major in (mine were History with a focus on foreign policy and Film with a focus on documentaries), and one can focus more specifically on the topic that interests you (mine was “pop culture and empire”). For each area, you find a professor with whom you create a list of 50-100 books that you will be expected to read and know. After 9-12 months (in my case a bit longer), you sit at a table with your four professors for about two to two and a half hours to answer mostly open-ended questions to show that you’ve read and synthesized these books. In my opinion, this part of the program is the most agonizing and most useful one. On the one hand, what a luxury it is to be able to have the time and resources to read several hundred books in the four areas you find most compelling. On the other hand, being grilled by four professors on an enormous body of information ranks fairly low on my most-favorite-things list. Back on the first hand again, it shouldn’t be too difficult to crystallize a dissertation topic considering all the exposure you’ve had to the literature in your areas.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
Choosing a topic was different for me though. I was able to design and teach a course on the cultural side of U.S. foreign relations, but I really wanted to write something completely fresh, perhaps a little funny but important, and something the average person would be interested in reading. The domestic cultural environment of early-twentieth-century filibusters in Central America (my backup topic) didn’t quite fit those criteria, so now I’m writing a history of poop…er…American poop. If you’ve ever wondered where Progressive Era Americans defecated, how they defecated, and how they discussed excrement, so did I. And so have many others, I imagined. It’s a topic historians have tended to shun entirely. The more I researched excrement, the more I discovered how it was politicized, how it was used as justification for racial and ethnic discrimination, and how Gilded Age and Progressive Era attitudes toward excrement ended up shaping our current attitudes. We spend billions of gallons of water flushing away a relatively good fertilizer and then spend billions of dollars for synthetic fertilizers. So one of the things I’m trying to figure out is how American attitudes toward excrement played a part in creating the sort of logic necessary to justify such waste.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
I’m dedicating this year to finishing my dissertation, but I’ve held various TA and AI positions. I was a TA in American Studies for two years—which was an invaluable experience in preparing to teach my own courses. I taught an introduction to American Studies course last summer, and I taught the previously mentioned course on cultural diplomacy for the past two semesters. Even though I began the program with no intent to become a teacher, I’ve found that those three terms as an AI with my own classes was by far the most rewarding experience I’ve had in graduate school—in part because it was a joy to finally put all of that knowledge from orals into meaningful practice. Writing a dissertation, however, is its own brand of fun. Every few months I visit a relevant archive to dig up primary sources. I recently visited the New York Public Library and UT’s own excellent physical culture archive, the Stark Center. And in the following year I’ll travel to the American Medical Associations “fraud archive” in Chicago and the National Archive in Maryland. I also got to go to the Netherlands for a conference a few months ago and will go to North Dakota and San Antonio for conferences in the next few months. The majority of my days, though, are spent working through the materials I’ve found at archives and keeping a good perspective on my work by reading secondary sources. It’s actually quite fun.

What advice do you have for students interested in applying to a program like yours?
As far as advice goes, I don’t have much to say. Everyone’s goals, experience, and way of adapting to grad school life are so different. If you apply for a program like UT’s American Studies, I highly suggest researching the faculty and crafting your statement of purpose to fit their research interests—and be specific and clear in doing so. Before they let you in to the program, they want to know that they’ll be able to help you in your own research and writing. I think it also helps to make contact with some of the faculty to ask questions or to discuss how the program might help you achieve your goals.

What careers might an American Studies graduate find after graduation?
American Studies grads--with M.A.s or Ph.D.s--end up doing all sorts of interesting things besides teaching American Studies. Many end up teaching in other departments (History, English, Communications, Engineering, Law, to name a few). Some work in museums. Some work for the State Department in various capacities (the AMS curriculum uniquely prepares you for the foreign service exam).

Do you have any last words to share with undergraduates?
All in all, I’m very glad to have joined this program. The department is diverse enough to make it interesting, but it’s small enough so that you can relate to the professors on a human-to-human level. The curriculum exposes you to a wide variety of sources to the point where if you don’t know the answer to something, you’ll at least have an excellent idea of where you can find the relevant information. And the department does a great job in preparing you for a career in teaching.

Survival tip
Seek some sort of balance. In the first few years when you have three classes per semester on top of a TA job, it’s extremely difficult to do anything other than reading and preparing. But I suggest trying to balance your work with yoga or forming a city league kickball team—something to get your nose out of books for a short time.

Download Daniel's Profile

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