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Teaching Texas: Classes explore unexpected details of life, land and legend in the Lone Star State


If you canvas the state from the El Paso desert to the Nacogdoches forests, the Perryton ranches to the Starr County colonias, you’ll know there’s no one Texas. The Texas of lore, depicted on license plates and postcards, may feature cowboys, tumbleweed and oil wells, but the real Texas is as diverse as its landscape, as colorful as a small town flea market.

Two locomotives at Crush, Texas

The deliberate crashing of two locomotives in Crush, Texas, outside Waco, on Sept. 15, 1896, was one of the most highly publicized events of the late 19th century.

Photo: The Texas Collection, Baylor University

Across The University of Texas at Austin campus, students have the opportunity to meet, explore, dissect, imagine and create Texas through a wide variety of courses that capture the breadth of the state. A quick glance at the fall 2003 course catalog reveals courses as varied as Germans and Swedes in Texas, Native Plants, Lonestar Literature and Film and Geological and Mineral Resources of Texas. A sampling of those courses offers unexpected details about the state known for its great expanses of land and independent spirit. For example:

  • The first Holly of Texas music wasn’t Buddy Holly, but rather Mary Austin Holley, cousin of Stephen F. Austin, who wrote a “Brazos Boat Song” after a trip up the river and in 1804 wrote an 1800-word treatise on the importance of music in American lives.
  • There is a 100 million-year-old volcano within the city limits of Austin.
  • Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Texas in 1528 and discovered small groups of Native Americans. The Apache and Comanche arrived later.
  • J. Frank Dobie, the late folklorist and University of Texas at Austin instructor, was called “Mr. Texas” by people inside and outside the state.
  • Tejanas, women of Spanish/Mexican descent delivered in the popular imagination through recent musical artists such as Selena, have been living in Texas for 300 years.
  • On Sept. 15, 1896, more than 40,000 people flocked to the newly formed town of Crush, Texas, to watch two locomotives in a staged head-on crash. The event killed two people and inspired Ragtime composer Scott Joplin, a Texan, to compose “The Great Crush Collision March.”
Mance Lipscomb

Guitarist and songster Mance Lipscomb played an eclectic repertoire reported to contain 350 pieces spanning two centuries.

The Texas students encounter in the classroom goes beyond its trivia and into its heritage and the creation of its future.

“I look at Texas music as an historical idea,” says Dr. Kevin Mooney, who teaches both Musics of Texas and Women in Texas Music. “The idea of Texas music changes over time, and so we look at Texas music as a part of history, a changing history.”

Although Lota May Spell, who was the second woman to receive a Ph.D. from the university, wrote the first history of music in the state back in 1936, the academic study of Texas music is relatively new. Mooney first introduced the course Musics of Texas a year ago, and the course has been extremely popular. Students learn that the music of Texas is inseparable from the history of Texas.

“I always begin the course by asking students, ‘What is Texas music?’” says Mooney. “I expected students to answer ‘Willie, Waylon and the boys.’ I’m surprised to discover that many come in recognizing that Texas music is a diverse music that reflects the diversity of the state’s people.”

Students study American Indian contributions to Texas music, as well as musica Tejana, German contributions, and jazz, blues, hillbilly and ragtime. In Women in Texas Music, artists such as Janis Joplin and Lydia Mendoza, who received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton in 1999, are explored.

Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson’s reaction against the conservatism of Nashville is at the root of progressive country music and Austin’s lively music scene.

Photo: © Wally McNamee
Center for American History

Texas music has left its indelible mark on American music, from Ornette Coleman, who developed a style of jazz called free jazz, to blues legend Mance Lipscomb. And Mooney admits that no study of Texas music would be complete without looking at Willie Nelson.

“When he performed on the pilot of Austin City Limits in 1974 and sang ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,’ the song became a national hit and he put Austin on the map,” Mooney says. “Willie Nelson was an outlaw, rejecting the conservatism of Nashville where he just didn’t fit in. He brought his own musicians to Austin and really founded the progressive country music scene that is so alive today.”

While students only now have the opportunity to study Texas music on campus, they’ve been able to study Texas literature for more than 70 years. The course Life and Literature of the Southwest has been offered since 1930, when J. Frank Dobie introduced it. But it didn’t enter the curriculum without a fight.

Dobie was himself something of an outlaw, styling himself the “chief ramrod” in the courses he taught and calling the newly built Tower, a building he disliked, “the Doric wheat elevator.” Meanwhile, his name was becoming synonymous with Texas literature as he published books on vaqueros and gold seekers.

In 1929 he bumped up against the conservative faculty in the English Department when he wanted to offer a course in Southwestern literature. He was told there was no such thing. Dobie’s response has become legendary: “Well,” he said, “there’s plenty of life in the Southwest, so I’ll just teach the life.”

J. Frank Dobie

J. Frank Dobie was a spokesman of Texas and the Southwest and initiated the study of Texas literature at the university.

His course, English 342, is still offered today. Whereas Dobie had to conquer the topic with a scarcity of texts—this was long before paperbacks—professors teaching the course today can choose among a large number of excellent Texas writers. Larry McMurtry, Katherine Anne Porter, Américo Paredes, Cormac McCarthy and Sandra Cisneros regularly make their way into students’ backpacks.

“I think students are regularly surprised at the quality and diversity of the literature, more than anything,” says Dr. Don Graham, one of several professors who regularly offers sections of English 342. “There is this perception that Texas is this place of backwards rednecks driving pickup trucks and throwing beer bottles. Our great writers disprove that.”

Graham says that if most people had to choose one novel to represent Texas, it would be McMurtry’s 910-page “Lonesome Dove.”

“McMurtry is the archetypal Texas writer,” he says. “He’s smart, he’s an intellectual, he’s read everything. And when he’s at his best he just gets under the skin of Texas better than anybody else.”

All these years after Dobie fought for the state’s literature, the estimable Norton Anthology series is publishing a collection of Texas literature this fall, “Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande.” Graham is its editor.

Book jacket for 'With His Pistol in His Hand' by Americo Paredes

Américo Paredes, who taught in the Department of English for nearly 30 years, helped to establish a literary tradition for Texas-Mexican fiction.

Whatever your stance on the current redistricting battle in the Texas Legislature, it’s clear that the nation is paying attention to Texas. This has been the case since David Crockett bid farewell to Tennessee and headed this way. Texas politics have always been colorful and have often brought people to the edge of their seats.

“The whole redistricting fight illustrates the substantive role that Texas plays in national government,” says Dr. James Henson, who teaches in the Department of Government and coordinates the multimedia Texas Politics project. “Things that people think of as boring state level politics that go on all the time really have national consequences, and not just by accident.”

Henson is one of many professors who teaches Government 310L, American Government, a required course that offers students state-mandated instruction on Texas government. The course covers the basic political history of the state, the Texas constitution, the links between politics in Texas and Mexico, and the main characters in a state famous for its swaggering politicians.

“Lyndon Johnson looms large in the state’s history,” Henson says, when asked to name the quintessential Texas politician. “His story has a very local Texan flare to it, and if you look at LBJ’s political history, it’s enmeshed in the national politics of the period. And obviously the Bush family is going to become one of the dominant political stories in the history of the state.”

Lyndon Johnson talks with Ben Barnes

Lyndon Johnson, still considered the quintessential Texas politician, meets with former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes.

Henson is helping pilot the online Texas Politics project, a multimedia project of Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services. When it’s fully up and running next fall, the site will provide information and video footage of everything from political conventions to voters leaving the polls to former Gov. Anne Richards. This resource will support students and the public in studying this key element of life in Texas.

Life in Texas began, however, long before its politics. In Geology and Mineral Resources of Texas, students trace Texas history back through a billion and a half years of Earth evolution.

“Geology is not the study of rocks,” says Dr. Richard Kyle, who teaches the course. “It’s the study of the Earth and how it works. I believe that most societies tend to evolve in an intimate relationship with their physical environment. As we become a more urban society, I think we’re losing some of that connection to the physical nature of our habitation. Part of my reason for teaching this class is to make that available to students who don’t have a lot of exposure to the physical world.”

Some pieces of Texas’ geologic history are easily identifiable. For example, the campus’ limestone buildings bear proof of the state’s oceanic past in the shells embedded in the stone.

Enchanted Rock

The granite dome of Enchanted Rock is part of the eroded remnants of a Himalayan-scale mountain range that dominated this region 1.1 billion years ago.

Photo: Richard Kyle

“We look at the rock record for evidence of what was happening on this portion of the globe,” says Kyle. “For example, around Austin we have the Hill Country with the limestones that formed in a warm shallow ocean 100 million years ago. We examine what was different in this region then that allowed the limestones to form and how later changes created the area as we think of it today.”

Kyle says that only 18,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, Texas was markedly different. The coast extended 100 miles further into the Gulf of Mexico than it does today, and sea level was 300 feet lower.

Kyle’s course also allows students to explore why the Permian Basin had the perfect conditions for the formation of oil, and how Texas monuments such as Enchanted Rock were formed.

The granite dome of Enchanted Rock is just one of the places in Texas abundant in Native American legend. In Native Americans in Texas, taught by Dr. Mariah Wade, students look beyond legend to the proof of Native American life in the state.

Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History book jacket

Tejanas played a largely unrecognized, but significant role in the creation of the state of Texas.

“If you ask people what groups were in Texas, they’ll probably say Apache or Comanche,” says Wade. “It’s unlikely that anybody will actually mention to you any group that was found in Texas around the time of Cabeza de Vaca, which is the first baseline we have as far as who was here.”

Early Native American groups in Texas were small, with populations generally not exceeding 500. And they were abundant. Wade explains that these groups had good hunting and warrior skills among themselves, but were not prepared for the sophisticated warring society of the Apache, which arrived around the mid 1600s.

“They were having problems with other groups up north, including the Comanche and Ute,” Wade explains. “Also, the establishment of the Spaniards in the San Antonio area provided resources like horses and other goods, so trade possibilities drew them as well.”

Students follow the history of the Native Americans, which intersects with the history of the state.

“Native Americans are Texas heritage,” says Wade. “It’s very important to understand them to know what Texas is like.”

El Capitan

El Capitan consists of limestones that formed as a reef in a shallow tropical sea within the Permian Basin of west Texas about 260 million years ago.

Photo: Richard Kyle

In Writing the Tejana Narrative, students not only learn about the heritage of Texas, they take part in creating it.

This writing course, taught by Teresa Palomo Acosta, explores the Tejana, a woman of Spanish/Mexican descent in Texas, over 300 years of history and through the stories of the students in the class itself.

“Tejanas were active participants in the history of the land that became Texas,” Acosta explains.

The course encourages students to recognize their own place in the history of Texas by writing their own Tejana narratives, recording their stories and the stories of their families and others in poetry, short fiction, memoir and essay. Students are encouraged to make use of oral history, interviews and other tools of observation.

“I took the class because of the writing element, and also for personal reasons,” says Rachel Herrera, a Latin American studies student in the course. “It allows me to write about my own personal experience as a multi-racial woman.”

Students take these and other Texas-focused courses for all kinds of reasons: to fulfill requirements, explore their heritage, better understand their environment or satisfy a curiosity. And in the end, these courses give them a better view of the state in which they live and whose future they will be critical in creating.

Vivé Griffith

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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