Life & Letters Magazine http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu Mon, 10 Jun 2019 17:51:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Books: Spring 2019 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/06/books-spring-2019/ Thu, 06 Jun 2019 19:55:37 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15810 A SAMPLING OF TITLES FROM OUR COLLEGE COMMUNITY:


Frontier Assemblages: The Emergent Politics of Resource Frontiers in Asia
Wiley (Antipode Book Series), March 2019
Edited by Jason Cons, assistant professor, Department of Anthropology; and Michael Eilenberg

Frontier Assemblages offers a new framework for thinking about resource frontiers in Asia. It traces the intertwined economic processes — cultural, spatial, material, ecological and political — that create resource frontiers at particular times and places. Contributors offer rich ethnographic and historical studies of both spaces of extraction and production, mapping a set of radical transformations unfolding across Asia.


The Politics of the First World War: A Course in Game Theory and International Security
Cambridge University Press, March 2019
By Scott Wolford, associate professor, Department of Government  

World War I is the perfect case study for teaching international relations. This book uses 13 historical puzzles to provide readers with a rigorous yet accessible training in game theory, with each chapter showing, through guided exercises, how game theoretical models can explain otherwise challenging strategic puzzles.


Children and Globalization: Multidisciplinary Perspectives
Routledge, April 2019
Edited by Hoda Mahmoudi; and Steven Mintz, professor, Department of History

Globalization has carried vast consequences for the lives of children. It has spurred unprecedented waves of immigration, contributed to far-reaching transformations in the organization, structure, and dynamics of family life, and profoundly altered trajectories of growing up. This book’s contributors – leading historians, literary scholars, psychologists, social geographers, and others – provide fresh perspectives on the transformations that globalization has produced in children’s lives.


A True Blue Idea (Series in Fairy-Tale Studies)
Wayne State University Press, April 2019
By Marina Colasanti; Adria Frizzi, lecturer, Department of French and Italian Studies

This collection of fairy tales and illustrations revisits traditional characters and themes in order to connect their ideas and relationships to those of modern society. The book ties in the old with the new, all while spinning the threads of classic, childhood tales.




Where We Come From
Penguin Random House, May 2019
By Oscar Casares, associate professor, Departments of English and Mexican American and Latina/o Studies

Where We Come From Bridges the gap between modern immigration policy and the effects of history through the lens of a Mexican-American family in Brownsville, Texas placed in a precarious position between strict rules and sacrifice.





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Books: Winter 2018/19 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/06/books-winter-2018-19/ Thu, 06 Jun 2019 19:52:35 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15809 A SAMPLING OF TITLES FROM OUR COLLEGE COMMUNITY:


Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place 
Cornell University Press, Dec. 2018 
By Youjeong Oh, assistant professor, Department of Asian Studies

Pop City examines the use of Korean television dramas and K-pop music to promote urban and rural places in South Korea. Building on the phenomenon of Korean pop culture, Oh argues that pop culture place-selling mediates two separate domains: political decentralization and the globalization of Korean popular culture.


Human Performance Optimization: The Science and Ethics of Enhancing Human Capabilities
Oxford University Press, Dec. 2018
Edited by Michael D. Matthews and David M Schnyer, professor, Department of Psychology and Dell Medical School

This volume addresses current, science-based approaches to optimizing human performance. Collectively, the topics integrate performance optimization strategies across several disciplines, a common theme being the need to include ethical considerations in any approach. The book concludes with a summary of attainable and emerging approaches to performance enhancement.


A Nation of Immigrants Reconsidered: US Society in an Age of Restriction, 1924-1965
University of Illinois Press, Jan. 2019
Edited by Maddalena Marinari; Madeline Y. Hsu, professor, Departments of History and Asian Studies; and Maria Cristina Garcia

This book explores how the political and ideological struggles of the “age of restriction” — from 1924 to 1965 — paved the way for changes that followed. The essays examine how geopolitics, civil rights, perceptions of America’s role as a humanitarian sanctuary, and economic priorities led government officials to facilitate the entrance of specific immigrant groups.


The Garden of Leaders: Revolutionizing Higher Education
Oxford University Press (New York), Jan. 2019
By Paul Woodruff, professor, Department of Philosophy

Most universities claim to prepare their students to be leaders, but few have tailored their curricula or teaching methods to leadership. What do leaders need to learn? Woodruff proposes a curriculum heavy in the liberal arts, taught by methods that promote independence and encourage students to lead in teamwork.


When Democracy Trumps Populism: European and Latin American Lessons for the United States
Cambridge University Press, Jan. 2019
Edited by Kurt Weyland, professor, Department of Government; and Raúl L. Madrid, professor, Department of Government

Citing experiences with populist governments in Europe and Latin America, this book examines the potential impact of President Donald Trump on democracy in the U.S. It argues that the strength of our political institutions, along with the president’s limited popular support, should prevent Trump from seriously undermining U.S. democracy.


Considering Comparison: A Method for Religious Studies
Oxford University Press, Feb. 2019
By Oliver Freiberger, associate professor, Departments of Asian Studies  and Religious Studies

This book provides a thorough analysis of comparison in the study of religion. It proposes an analytical framework of the comparative method and an approach that helps to confront its greatest challenges: decontextualization and essentialization. The author also argues that comparison is indispensable to religious studies.


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Books: Fall 2018 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/06/books-fall-2018/ Tue, 04 Jun 2019 18:41:44 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15735 A SAMPLING OF TITLES FROM OUR COLLEGE COMMUNITY:

Vasari’s Words: The “Lives of the Artists” as a History of Ideas in the Italian Renaissance
Cambridge University Press, Sept. 2018
By Douglas Biow, professor, Departments of French and Italian, and History

Vasari’s Words places the Lives of the Artists within the context of the modern discipline of intellectual history by exploring — through an analysis of key words — how this foundational book of art history is designed to address from beginning to end a variety of compelling ideas circulating in late Renaissance Italy.


Staged: Show Trials, Political Theater, and the Aesthetics of Judgment
Columbia University Press, Sept. 2018
By Minou Arjomand, assistant professor, Department of English

Theater requires artifice; justice demands truth. Are these demands as irreconcilable as the pejorative term “show trial” suggests? Drawing on a rich archive of postwar German and American courtroom dramas, Staged weaves theater history and political philosophy into a powerful and timely case for the importance of theaters as public institutions. 


Preserving German Texan Identity: The Reminiscences of William A. Trenckmann, 1859-1935
Texas A&M University Press, Sept. 2018
Co-edited by Walter L. Buenger, professor, Department of History; and Walter D. Kamphoefner

The annotated autobiographical writings of William A. Trenckmann show how a member of the state Legislature and a German-language newspaper editor preserved the German language and culture through the struggle over prohibition, the tumult of World War I and the assaults of the Ku Klux Klan.


Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas
University of Georgia Press, Oct. 2018
Edited by Daina Ramey Berry, professor, Departments of History, and African and African Diaspora Studies; and Leslie M. Harris

Sexuality and Slavery places sexuality at the center of slavery studies in the Americas, examining consensual sexual intimacy and expression within slave communities as well as sexual relationships across lines of race, status and power. Contributors explore sexuality as a tool of control, exploitation and repression and as an expression of autonomy, resistance and defiance.


From Psychology to Morality
Oxford University Press, Oct. 2018
By John Deigh, professor, Department of Philosophy and School of Law

These essays belong to the tradition of naturalism in ethics and are arranged to follow the lead of Aristotle and Hume. The collection of 12 essays includes three that advance a new and controversial theory of punishment.



Race and Cultural Practice in Popular Culture
Rutgers University Press, Oct. 2018
Edited by Domino Renee Perez, associate professor, Departments of English and Mexican American and Latina/o Studies; and Rachel González-Martin, assistant professor, Department Mexican American and Latina/o Studies

Rather than reaffirm static conceptions of identity, authenticity, or conventional interpretations of stereotypes, these essays bridge the intertextual gap between theories of community enactment and cultural representation, focusing on race as an ideological reality.


Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice
The Ohio State University Press, Oct. 2018
By Casey Boyle, assistant professor, Department of Rhetoric and Writing 

Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice proposes rhetorical activity be understood as an embodied, material practice. Its guiding proposition is that a posthuman rhetorical orientation helps us understand how information technologies organize and exercise bodies at various levels of scale that are irreducible to those authorized solely through a humanist paradigm.


The Oxford Handbook of American Women’s and Gender History
Oxford University Press, Oct. 2018
Co-edited by Lisa Materson, alumna, Plan II; with chapter contributions by Diana Ramey Berry, professor, Department of History and Nakia Parker, doctoral student, Department of History

This book takes the reader throughout history, discussing the roles of women and how gender shaped culture and politics in North America. The Handbook includes a pathbreaking chapter on nineteenth slavery co-authored by UT Austin history professor Diana Ramey Berry and UT Austin doctoral student Nakia Parker.


Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster
Doubleday, Nov. 2018
By H.W. Brands, professor, Department of History  

Brands tells the story of how America’s second generation of political giants — Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster — battled to complete the unfinished work of the Founding Fathers and determine the shape of American democracy.



Confronting Underground Justice: Reinventing Plea Bargaining for Effective Criminal Justice Reform
Rowman and Littlefield, Nov. 2018
By William R. Kelly, professor, Department of Sociology; and Robert Pitman

Confronting Underground Justice examines plea negotiation, criminal prosecution, public defense and pretrial justice systems and identifies a variety of problems and concerns with each. Kelly and Pitman offer ways to fundamentally reinvent plea negotiation, pretrial decision making, criminal prosecution and public defense to effectively reduce recidivism and save money.


Indispensable Reading: 1,001 Books from ‘The Arabian Nights’ to Zola
I.B. Tauris, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing, Nov. 2018
By Wm. Roger Louis, director of British Studies and professor, Departments of History and Middle Eastern Studies

This project stems from a 150-book recommended reading list for students in the College of Liberal Arts. The other 851 books described in this volume are Louis’ own “indispensable” recommendations — works he deems as readable, distinctive, important and influential, including classics and recent works.


The Clinician’s Guide to Anxiety Sensitivity Treatment and Assessment 
Academic Press, Nov. 2018
Edited by Jasper Smits, professor, Department of Psychology and Dell Medical School; Michael Otto; Mark Powers, research associate professor, Department of Psychology and Dell Medical School; and Scarlett Baird, graduate student and research assistant, Department of Psychology

Evidence-based strategies for clinicians looking to treat, assess and better understand anxiety sensitivity in their patients are examined in this book, which delivers detailed guidance on the theoretical background and empirical support for anxiety sensitivity treatment methods, assessment strategies, and how clinicians can best prepare for sessions with their clients.

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Finding common ground in water http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/06/finding-common-ground-in-water/ Mon, 03 Jun 2019 22:21:18 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15680 When pressed to summarize the path of his wide spanning career, Paul Adams offers one word,  “discourse.” Adams, a professor at UT Austin’s Department of Geography and the Environment, is interested in how people discuss often contentious subjects and what makes these communications more or less successful.

As a geographer of media and communication, Adams has undertaken diverse topics such as biases present in maps accompanying news articles, how cell phones and social media use location data, and which media platforms are most effective for conveying environmental messaging.

Among his most recent projects is an attempt to address water scarcity in a corner of the world not particularly fond of words like “climate change” and “conservation.” The Texas Water Stories study is part of UT’s Planet Texas 2050 research initiative. Adams’ field site is the Texas Panhandle region at the state’s oft-forgotten northwest tip. So far north, in fact, that when presenting his work at a recent Planet Texas 2050 showcase, Adams noted that the region was partly cut off in an earlier slide.

The Panhandle is a flat, dry, windy place described as a desert by settlers and initially deemed unfit for farming. Yet anyone flying over the region today would see a polka-dotted surface of crop farms, their round shape a result of the center-pivot irrigation system that allows agriculture to thrive in such an arid climate. Much of the crops are used as animal feed for meat production industries that have sprung up alongside. This transformation of the landscape was made possible by the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast, underground water source that spans eight U.S. states and provides about 30% of the groundwater used for irrigation in the country.

Aerial view of center-pivot irrigation farming in Kansas. Image: NASA

Water flows into the Ogallala far too slowly to replenish what is currently used. With temperatures rising and precipitation waning in the Panhandle, many wells are already drying out. Without appropriate conservation action, the region may only have a few decades of aquifer water remaining. And here lies the problem — how does one create a discourse about conservation in a region where environmentalism is viewed with suspicion? Adams believes that using water sources like the Ogallala as a starting point can facilitate the process.

“People can talk about water and that’s basically what our whole project is,” he says. “Getting people to talk about a very scarce resource that’s tremendously important.”

Over the last year, Adams made several trips to the Panhandle and West Texas to interview farmers and others whose livelihoods depend on the aquifer. It’s a politically conservative part of the world and Adams notes the irony that some of the people who will be affected most directly by climate change are those who dismiss its existence and who elect officials that oppose conservation legislation. The disconnect is seen in Texas’ water code, which insists on using the word “production” rather than “extraction” or “consumption” when describing the pumping of water from the aquifer. According to the law, everyone owns the water under their property, despite the seemingly obvious fact that this water is a liquid a part of a larger, shared resource.

“Essentially, what Texas law says is that the water doesn’t move,”Adams explains.

But water does move and how much water one person pumps on their property directly affects the levels of neighboring wells. Efforts to slow the Ogallala’s decline and to mitigate the effects of climate change in general would seems to be in everyone’s best interests. So why isn’t the message reaching this important audience?

The sprinklers that produce those circles of green.
Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When confronted with rejections of climate change, scientists and environmentalists tend to double down on their data and claim that opponents simply don’t grasp the concepts. But Adams found that the farmers he interviewed have a highly sophisticated understanding of environmental factors impacting their crops. Moreover, many have already witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand. But because climate change has become increasingly politicized, they describe their observations in ways that sidestep what they view as an unwelcome liberal ideology. They don’t accept global warming, but will readily acknowledge that “seasons are evolving,” that winter comes later, that storms are more severe than they were in previous decades.

Adams sees this as an opportunity to reframe the discourse. As much as it pains scientists to use the term “weather” when discussing changes that span decades, working with this terminology may allow them to get past the point of just trying to convince Texas farmers that a thing called “climate change” exists. Even within our interview, Adams is actively reframing, preferring to describe his work as “building a better dialogue” over my somewhat combative “forming a more persuasive argument.”

One thing both Austin liberals and Panhandle conservatives do agree on is the need to adapt to a changing environment. Farmers know that the Ogallala is a finite resource and those who live in regions suffering from increased drought conditions know that there is less and less precipitation to work with. Many are willing to conserve water even if they view legislation mandating such conservation as government overreach. Those whose wells can no longer sustain irrigation have already switched over to so called “dry land farming” and are well versed in techniques for retaining moisture in their soil. They know that water is the limiting factor in their ability to grow crops.

“There’s a habitual response on the part of academics to emphasize climate change, to pile on masses of data, to talk about how complicated it is, to explain that it relates to the fossil fuel-based energy system,” Adams says. “These are messages that are being lost in translation and my radical contribution is to say, this is not a successful form of communication.”

Climate change may be seen as a belief to be accepted or rejected based on one’s political identity. But the importance of water and the need to stretch this resource is a conversation worth having.

Featured Image: CCO Creative Commons.

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Design Thinking http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/05/design-thinking/ Fri, 31 May 2019 18:43:24 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15741 Daunting problems require new ideas and a new way of thinking — design thinking.

Design thinking is a human-centered, creative, problem-solving method. It encourages a variety of approaches towards finding solutions, emphasizes experiential learning and is quickly becoming a relevant skill within many organizations. Fortune 500 companies, top business schools, and universities across the nation are turning toward design thinking as a critical 21st century skill.  

“At its core, it is fundamentally a way of thinking and doing—oscillating between reflection and action,” explains Tamie Glass, an associate professor in the School of Architecture who leads a three-day Design Thinking workshop at The University of Texas at Austin, alongside Julie Schell, from the School of Design and Creative Technologies.

April Design Thinking workshop. Photo by Maria Limon

The school partnered with the College of Liberal Arts’ Human Dimensions of Organizations program to host two on-campus workshops in 2019. The first, hosted in April, served a general audience; but the upcoming workshop, scheduled for July 24-26, will be geared toward educators.

“The instructors do a good job of taking things that we’re already doing subconsciously and evolving that into something that could be better,” says Adam Green, a business professional who participated in the April workshop. He also commented on Glass and Schell’s teaching philosophy, which blends formal design education practices with established principles from learning science. “We’ve always been told to understand our employee’s strengths and weaknesses, and Design Thinking introduced smart teams, where you identify people’s personality types and group them together strategically.”

Design thinking unlocks innovation, or the continuous pursuit of original thinking and action, explains Glass, who uses variations of the method in all aspects of her work as both an educator and a practicing designer.

“Designers are trained to work iteratively to reframe problems, challenge assumptions, and prototype possible solutions,” Glass says. “The beauty of design thinking is that it offers non-designers a way to occupy the mindset of a designer and learn new strategies for addressing problems in their life and work.”

Both Glass and Schell believe design thinking could be adapted to address and solve a lot of real-world problems, including those faced by schools and their students.

April Design Thinking workshop. Photo by Maria Limon

“I think a lot of the most pressing problems we’re facing in the world don’t have known solutions, like poverty and hunger,” says Schell, the executive director for Extended and Executive Education in the School of Design and Creative Technologies who found herself exploring the discipline to better help her students solve extremely demanding problems, such as learning difficulties, access to education, and inequity in work and school.

“Design thinking sparks creative solutions for complex social and organizational problems that have no known solution. It generates ideas that might not have otherwise been thought of through more traditional problem-solving methods,” Schell offers.

For the July workshop, Schell is eager to share ways in which design thinking might help educators solve intractable, real-world issues by using design oriented problem-solving skills to explore issues in and out of the classroom in a new light.

“We want to transform the way people are thinking and give them the tools they need to be successful in any workplace, even educational environments, where educators, administrators and students have to work together to face and overcome new roadblocks every day,” says Schell.

To learn more about Design Thinking, or to sign up for the educator’s workshop in July, visit: https://hdo.utexas.edu/design-thinking/

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Austin Plants Urban Roots http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/05/austin-plants-urban-roots/ Tue, 21 May 2019 18:25:28 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15684
Max Elliot with an intern on the farm. Photo by Bill McCullough

“Food will not solve food injustice.”

It’s a strange sentiment from an urban farmer whose East Austin farm has nourished the community for the last decade. But Max Elliott, the executive director of Urban Roots community farm, knows better than most how America’s framework of economic and racial inequality permeates its food system.

“If you look at neighborhoods that are typically affected by unequal food systems, it’s predominantly underserved communities, predominantly communities of color that don’t have access to healthy affordable foods,” Elliott says. “And there are five zip codes in Austin that don’t have access to a full-service grocery store. Those are the neighborhoods that also have higher incidence of diet-related diseases, and typically those neighborhoods do not have people that are involved in the solutions.”

The most common fixes to such problems often involve emergency relief like food pantries. While much of Urban Roots’ produce does support food pantries, its mission ultimately advocates for a total reorientation of the food system itself, including more sustainable production practices, equitable distribution and affordable healthy food.

Those are the very same food justice initiatives Urban Roots accomplishes seven days a week on its East Austin farm site, and they take place through the vehicle of youth leadership.

“It’s a kind of social change,” Elliott says. “If we can give young people the chance to have a strong connection to where food comes from, to really use food as an opportunity for them to understand how they can serve their community while building life, job and leadership skills, we’re creating this next generation of food leaders to be a part of solutions.”

Interns working on the farm. Photo by Ashley St. Clair

The makeup of Austin’s agricultural community reflects the city’s long history of segregation and institutionalized racism. Investment in young people, then, is a strategic move for food justice leaders looking to create a new generation of food-conscious youth.

But filling the farm with high school students also stems from a desire to capture their idealistic spirit. “Young people remind adults of ourselves, and put our work in greater context and perspective,” Elliott says. “Young people bring a lot of energy, a lot of optimism, and they’re excited about sustainability and food access. We can learn from them.”

The term “young people,” like every aspect of Urban Roots, is carefully chosen. Farm staff cultivate a particular culture that discourages words like ‘teens’ or ‘kids’ in order to emphasize the agency, responsibility and potential each high school intern offers to Urban Roots and their community.

Though food is a byproduct, rather than the express goal, of Urban Roots, the three-and-a-half-acre farm produces upwards of 30,000 pounds of sustainably grown fruits, vegetables and herbs every year. More than 40 varieties of produce are distributed among farmers markets, restaurants and food pantries across the city.

If that poundage sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. And most of it comes from the labor of paid high school interns.

Qwynci Bowman on the farm. Photo by Kasey Williams

“When people ask me about working on a farm, I’m like, yeah, it’s pretty much everything you expect but without the animals. Because we’re really in it,” Lehman High School senior Qwynci Bowman says. “There are really only a few things that we don’t do as interns, like drive the tractor. But that’s pretty much it.”

If you come by Urban Roots on any given day of the week, you’ll see Bowman and other interns harvesting, weed whacking or backpack spraying with non-chemical pesticides; on Saturdays you’ll see them lead volunteers in those same tasks.

Wednesdays are reserved for farm work by students from the Alternative Learning Center, who Urban Roots welcomes as part of community and youth leadership initiatives. And if you stop by on a Thursday, you’ll get a chance to see college-age alumni of the high school internship program leading volunteers. After completing their seasonal internship with Urban Roots in high school, alumni are welcomed back to the farm to lead volunteers and sell the produce they grow at local farmers markets.

Paul Mannie, now an Access and Inclusion Coordinator at The University of Texas at Austin, was part of one of the first generations of interns at Urban Roots nearly ten years ago. In college, he joined up with other graduates of the program to determine what an alumni program could look like.

The Urban Roots internship was Mannie’s first job, and he remembers the rigorous and rewarding nature of the work.

“I knew that the program was on a farm, but I didn’t know that we were going to be doing as much farming as we did,” he laughs. “Once we got to the summer it was very intense, but definitely fun work. It was a space to learn about perseverance because at school there wasn’t anything that I had to do, and that was one of the first true responsibilities I had. It was something to get used to, for sure.”

Texas heat, intense labor, and an approximately thirty-hour workweek tend to foster a bonded group of interns. But the lasting friendships created on the farm are, in some ways, by design.

Each season, Urban Roots attracts a broad applicant pool and adds dozens to a growing waitlist after a thoughtful and rather informal interview session where recruits play games, mingle and learn about agriculture. The applicants the staff selects are rarely, if ever, chosen for their farming qualifications.

Interns working on the farm. Photo by Ashley St. Clair

Bowman remembers walking into the interview wearing professional clothes and seeing everyone else in jeans. “Right off the bat,” she says, “I could tell it was a different kind of experience and a different job.”

As a member of the close-knit alumni program with more than a year of farm experience, Bowman got the privilege of interviewing potential interns, which she says was “wild, a huge 360.” When told by staff that she would ‘just know’ who was going to be a good fit for the farm, she said at first she didn’t understand but could eventually tell.

“I started to get it,” she says. “It was honestly just people that were eager, excited, not even people that knew anything about farming. Just people that were really excited and willing to try new things and be good communicators and good friends to other people interviewing.”

Despite the intentionality in every aspect of Urban Roots, from the care taken to maintain the health of the soil to the people selected, the farm itself is unique in its celebration of inefficiency. More crucial than development of produce is the development of leaders in a cohesive, diverse group setting.

Much of the sharing takes place in the field, as interns work side by side. But Elliott and other farm staff also set up regular workshops, where interns talk about their experiences in the context of discussions on food security, food deserts and sustainability.

“The conversations that we curate in these everyday workshops invite a certain kind of vulnerability and trust, and we’re hiring for a diverse pool so that the youth and fellows can really learn from each other’s very different perspectives,” Elliott says. “And that’s especially powerful talking about food justice.”

Last November, the city of Austin approved two 15-year lease terms for a nine-acre plot of land for Urban Roots in Dove Springs. The southeast Austin neighborhood is considered a food desert, as it remains one of the five areas in the city without access to a full-service grocery store.

For years, the land has been empty. It was first set aside to house a recycling facility rejected by residents of the adjacent neighborhood. Other proposals — for industrial use, a dog park, more housing — were each rejected in turn by neighborhood contact teams or by city appraisers. Eventually, the city of Austin decided simply to hold onto the land as a future resource for public infrastructure.

That was when Urban Roots came along. Elliott approached the neighborhood leaders with his proposal for an urban farm, and Dove Springs, as well as local food organizations already operating in the area, were quickly excited and supportive of the proposition.

“Moving into Dove Springs will give us a chance to evolve from being a youth development organization only to doing community development and engagement and thinking about how we can raise awareness about the importance of equitable food access and adjusting food systems,” Elliott says. “That second farm site will give us a chance to build the infrastructure to diversify our programming, too, so we’ll have a culinary teaching kitchen that will allow us to get more involved in workforce development and job training.”

Interns working on the farm. Photo by Ashley St. Clair

The open and gradual nature of the plans are by design. One of the few certainties about the new site is that it will be a model of sustainable farming practices and a destination to celebrate all the ways urban agriculture can develop community. The details will be driven by the needs and wants of the Dove Springs community itself.

“We’re excited to do that research over the course of a year so that we can provide these opportunities for young people and be a really thoughtful neighbor to that community as we slowly build the infrastructure for that farm to come to fruition,” Elliott says. “We want to take our time and be thoughtful.”

Urban Roots had to get the support of the city’s Food Policy Board to make a favorable recommendation to City Council. Property appraisals had valued the land at 2.3 million dollars, so garnering support for a farm rather than something more profitable was no mean feat.

“From an economic perspective, the best use would be to rent it out to someone for industrial use,” Elliott says. “It’s not something that we could ever afford. Usually urban agriculture thrives in cities that have some kind of urban decay, where there’s a lot of excess land because the economy is really slow. But to have urban farming thriving in one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., and for the city of Austin to invest in nine acres to say that a youth community farm is the best investment for the land is a huge opportunity for all of us in food justice.”

Over the summer, Urban Roots invites the community to the farm for lunch to hear the testimonies of interns. One Saturday, this opportunity for Bowman to tell her story launched her farther than she had been able to imagine and led to the construction of a garden at Lehman High School.

Qwynci Bowman on the farm. Photo by Kasey Williams

“I live in Kyle, so there aren’t as many healthy food options, and that’s something I mentioned in my story about my life,” Bowman says. “And a woman approached me afterwards, and was like, ‘I feel your vision, that’s amazing. I want to give you a pledge to start this project.’”

“So now I have a garden at my school just because of that moment,” she adds. “Urban Roots has absolutely impacted the way I see food and how I want to spread food to other people.”

However the farm may grow, it is clear it will continue to be a bastion of sustainability, diverse learning and intentionality. Urban Roots remains a labor of love that thrives on the openness and optimism of high school interns and college-age alumni.

“You have to lean into the farm,” Bowman says. “That’s a very popular saying on the farm. Lean into the awkwardness, lean into the experiences. Because when you do that, that’s when you’ll get the most out of the program.”

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Don Graham Commentary: “The Grapes of Wrath” has Outlived Its Relevance http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/05/the-grapes-of-wrath-has-outlived-its-relevance/ Mon, 13 May 2019 20:14:09 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15671 Eighty years after John Steinbeck wrote the classic American novel The Grapes of Wrath, it remains a hardy perennial on many high school reading lists. But a casual survey of sixty-six upper-division English majors at the University of Texas in March of this year reveals that forty-nine students have not read the novel and that of the seventeen who have read it, twelve of them did not like it, with comments ranging from “meh” to “hated it.”

 My own guess is that the novel ‘s length is a problem for some millennial attention spans and that its portrait of dirt-poor American “Okies” seems too remote from the bounty of American life in this century to hold the attention of today’s students.

Apart from these assumptions, I have my own problems with Steinbeck’s most celebrated work. I think the novel feels dated. One is the language of the characters. Though Steinbeck is capable of a kind of folk lyricism at times, at other times the characters speak in an unconvincing  hick dialect. The second problem is an outgrowth of the speech; sometimes the language feels condescending. And there is a a good deal of backwoods sexual comedy that feels strained as well. The fact is, Steinbeck in this novel sometimes seems closer to Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road than to, say, the people of the same class who inhabit William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

The novel has a glorious history and that’s certainly worth remembering. Published in April, 1939, it was a runaway best seller with 430,000 copies in print by February, 1940. It won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, but despite its sales and popularity, the novel sparked widespread condemnation. Newspapers in Oklahoma ran articles with titles like “Grapes of Wrath? Obscenity and Inaccuracy” and labeled the book a “morbid, filthily-worded novel.” Oklahomans were especially upset at misrepresentations of the state’s geography, and with good reason: Steinbeck did not visit Oklahoma during his research for the novel.

California was equally critical of the novel. The Associated Farmers of California denounced the book as a “pack of lies” and “Jewish propaganda.”A sizable number of citizens, both in Oklahoma and California, strongly objected to Steinbeck’s portrait of Okies suffering from exploitation by bankers and big land owners in their home state only to encounter even more repressive law-and-order policies in the Promised Land of California.

But the book’s popularity remained strong and was helped along by John Ford’s celebrated film of 1940starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. The film was a box-office hit and Ford won the Academy Award for Best Director and Jane Darwell the Best Supporting Actor Award for her portrayal of Ma Joad. Although it still has high ratings among some film critics, I don’t think it holds up well at all.

The novel’s standing gained much from academic criticism in the 1940s and 50s. Critics zeroed in on allegorical Christian elements, tracing the Christ-like arc of preacher Jim Cacy (i.e., JC), who helped along such interpretations with passages like: “I ain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus…But I got tired like Him, an’ I got mixed up like Him, and I went into the wilderness like Him….” He also gets killed like Him. Following Casy’s death, Tom Joad, in a famous speech near the end of the novel, takes up the Christ-like mission: “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one…” and he continues, “I’ll be ever-where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”

This kind of proletarian appropriation of messianic impulses has proved irresistible to latter-day Tom Joad wannabes such as Woodie Guthrie (“Tom Joad”) and Bruce Springsteen (“The Ghost of Tom Joad”).

Fortunately the contemporary reader today has the option of reading another novel about Okies written at the same time as The Grapes of Wrath—Sonora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown (2004).  Babb, a native Oklahoman, in fact met Steinbeck in California and shared information with him about the lives of the people he was writing about. Her novel was turned down for publication in 1939 because Steinbeck’s was already making such a splash. In 2019 you can be the judge of which captures best that troubled time in the American West.

Don Graham holds the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professorship in American and English Literature at The University of Texas at Austin.

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Grading Brain Health: How Educational Experiences Impact Cognitive Functioning Later in Life http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/05/grading-brain-health-how-educational-experiences-impact-cognitive-functioning-later-in-life/ Mon, 13 May 2019 16:52:27 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15664 High school experiences follow you long after you’ve graduated, shaping your professional success and even your health. Now, researchers are investigating how it could contribute to your future brain health and maybe even impact your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s Disease.

University of Texas at Austin sociologist Chandra Muller researches how educational experiences shape life course outcomes, an area of expertise that helped garner $12.9 million from the National Institute on Aging for a national research project on how racial, ethnic, and other social inequalities in educational experiences impact cognitive functioning later in life.

“A major puzzle for researchers is to understand why and how disparities in education, race and ethnicity and even region impact who is protected against cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease,” says Muller, a faculty research associate in the university’s Population Research Center. “Even though most people have good cognitive functioning in their 50s, some show early indicators of impairment. Almost certainly the social environment they grow up in shapes who functions well as they age. And of course, genes also matter.”

The five-year study, led by University of Minnesota sociologist John Robert Warren, will rely on data from 25,000 surviving members of the High School and Beyond (HS&B) cohort — a nationally representative group of people who have been interviewed on several occasions since they were high school students in 1980, and a dataset Muller has a particular affinity towards.

Muller has worked closely the HS&B dataset since her first research experience as a graduate student, studying under the principal investigator who started the HS&B study for the US Department of Education. Recently, she led the HS&B Midlife Follow-Up study. And now, she looks forward to using the dataset once again with researchers from University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Colombia University to study how early disparities impact cognitive functioning at midlife.

To learn more about the study and how it could help move the needle forward on Alzheimer’s and dementia research, we asked Muller the following:

How common is cognitive impairment? When in the lifecycle do most people begin to experience it?

Cognitive impairment is relatively rare among people in their mid to late 50s, the age of our sample. But it presents disproportionately in certain population subgroups and among people in certain regions of the country like the “stroke belt.”  We expect that fewer than 10 percent of our sample members will show early signs of mild cognitive impairment. Additionally, our study involves collecting other indicators of risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s, including genetic.

Are there certain populations more susceptible to cognitive impairments?

People who grow up in the stroke belt are at higher risk, and African Americans are at higher risk. Our study is a national sample and has a relatively large number of people who grew up in the stroke belt and also a large number of college educated African Americans. We are hoping that we can disentangle the effects of education from race and place in understanding the risks.

Where do you think these sorts of population discrepancies stem from?

Almost certainly the disparities are due to social factors in the environment from childhood on.  We just don’t know what factors. We’re nearly certain that education is a major determinant, but don’t know if it’s because people who are predisposed to Alzheimer’s in later life also complete less education or if education is actually protective. If we did understand the social and environmental factors then we could design more effective policies to keep people healthy.

How will the work you are doing for the $12.9 million NIA project transform the way we diagnose and treat cognitive impairments?

Alzheimer’s is a complex disease that is devastating to the individual and also the entire family of the victim. In developing this project, I’ve been blown away by the passion of advocates for funding research on the disease. I suspect that the roots of the passion are in part related to how devastating the disease can be to both its victims and their loved ones. Our work has been focused on identifying factors, especially related to education, that delay onset or may even prevent it altogether. Interestingly, there are people who have the genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease and never develop symptoms of the disease. Understanding environmental factors like education that protect people could impact large numbers of people.

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From UT to DC http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/05/from-ut-to-dc/ Thu, 02 May 2019 19:06:51 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15656 Lance Gooden exemplified what it means to be a University of Texas at Austin graduate as he stepped into the role of United States Representative earlier this year.

Before being elected to serve in Congress, Gooden held a position in the Texas House of Representatives for District 4. After winning the general election in November of 2018, Gooden is now prepared to take on a larger role in shaping the country within the U.S. House of Representatives for Texas’ 5th Congressional District.

There to watch him swear in on January 3, 2019 was Sean Theriault, a UT Austin government professor and Gooden’s longtime mentor and friend who he’s stayed in touch with since graduating from UT Austin in 2004.

“He is a dear friend to whom I owe a massive debt of gratitude for his positive influence over the years,” says Gooden.

In the fall of his freshman year, Gooden signed up for Theriault’s course Congressional Elections. He enjoyed Theriault’s class so much that he took two more classes with him and traveled with him to Washington D.C. as a part of his undergraduate research team.

“’It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is often true in politics, business, and life,” Gooden says. “The friendships and connections made at UT are just as valuable to me as the knowledge from any class I took, but I credit a wealth of information that I was exposed to at UT for creating the building blocks that got me to Congress 18 years later.”

Before politics, Gooden worked in insurance, a stepping stone towards his political career that enabled him to grow in business experience.

“Different members have different paths to Congress, and my race for Congress just kind of happened when the seat in my area opened up,” Gooden explains. “I don’t know that I was ‘ready’ to run, but I did. And I’m honored to serve.”

When he began contemplating a run for Congress, Gooden reached out to Theriault to pick his brain on the innerworkings of congressional campaigns. Over dinner, the two mapped out a strategy for Gooden’s congressional run.

“During most of the steps of his political career, he kept me informed,” Theriault says. “I was initially stunned when he decided to run for state representative the first time, but upon further thought it made sense.”

Theriault remembers the anticipation he felt as he constantly refreshed the web page to see if Gooden had won the 2018 election. When it was finally called, Theriault was overjoyed and invited Gooden to share the good news with his class. There, Gooden talked with students about how his career has been shaped by the lessons he learned in Theriault’s class many years before.

“Congress is really unpopular these days,” Theriault says. “My hope is that Lance, as well as his newly elected members, transform the body back into one that solves problems. I expect him to gain seniority and become a real leader over the next few terms.”

Gooden believes that his first large measure of congressional success will be in the results of the 2020 elections. However, he hopes for more than election results to be his legacy.

“I hope to be able to leave Congress one day with the satisfaction of having left our nation better than I found it,” Gooden says. “I suspect all my colleagues in Washington would share that hope.”

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The Earth’s Keepers: How Religion Can Guide Environmentalism http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/04/the-earths-keepers-how-religion-can-guide-environmentalism/ Mon, 22 Apr 2019 15:34:51 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15638 If you knew in the next life you’d become a tree, you might hesitate before you cut one down.

Or if you were to become one of the ocean’s fish, perhaps you’d be more careful about how you dispose of certain plastics.

That’s Karma, at least as it’s applied in an environmental context, which might be a productive way to think about the decisions we make that contribute to the looming environmental crisis. 

Nearly 80 percent of people around the world identify with a religious group. And whether those religions believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, they each have a wealth of insight on humans’ relationship and duty to the natural world that can help guide our future actions to protect and preserve the Earth.

In a 1992 address in New Delhi, India, the Dalai Lama spoke about nature: “If we exploit the natural environment in an extreme way, today we might get some other benefit but in the long run we ourselves will suffer, and other generations will suffer.”

In Buddhism, humans are just one form of sentient beings that are on a different level but are not fundamentally different than animals, plants or ghosts. So, modern Buddhists argue that not harming living beings means not harming any other living thing on Earth, be it forests or whales.

“Harming other beings creates bad Karma. So, in your next life, you’re born on a lower level,” explains Oliver Freiberger, an associate professor of Asian studies and religious studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

The goal, he says, is not to be reborn as something seemingly greater than human, but to escape this “suffering” world by overcoming our desires. Extending compassion to all sentient beings helps to achieve that goal.

“The modern world of capitalism and overconsumption is driven by desires,” Freiberger explains. “And succumbing to these things fosters egotism and impedes the escape from the cycle of rebirth and redeath.”

Sure, we can be reborn again and again. But what if the Earth won’t be around for our next life, or the one after?

“In the past, thinking about the earth in the past wasn’t a thing,” Freiberger explains. “The concept of ‘nature’ is very young. And today, religious scholars and leaders are looking to their old traditions for answers.”

In the Beginning

God defined parameters for how man should care for the world He created, but depending on which religion someone follows, expectations may vary.

According to a rather accusatory article by Lynn White published in Science in 1967, the Christian interpretation of creation is to blame for the current environmental crisis.

White based his argument in Genesis 1:26: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

This verse, and on through Genesis 1:29, are the most damaging passages in terms of environmentalism, says Brent Landau, a lecturer in the UT Austin Department of Religious Studies whose work focuses on biblical pedagogies.

“This narrative presents two ideas: One, humanity is the pinnacle of creation; and two, humans have control, or ‘dominion,’ over nature,” Landau says, adding that if there was any question, verse 28 makes the sentiment of conquest clear: “…replenish the earth, and subdue it.”

Landau explains that while these are not strictly Christian texts, these programmatic claims were very important for the development of Christian thinking. Though, there are some hints towards environmentalism within these few verses that may have been overlooked.

For instance, nothing in the creation stories says that humans should eat meat. Genesis 1:29 actually says the opposite: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”

It’s no secret that eating meat takes a huge toll on the environment. In a study published in Science earlier this year, Oxford University’s Joseph Poore found that while livestock produces just 18 percent of food calories and 37 percent of protein, it uses 83 percent of the world’s farmland and contributes to nearly 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The first time man was told to eat meat was in an act of sacrifice after the great floods,” Landau explains.

But the Bible offers more than these few verses for its readers and followers to shape their lifestyles and environmental concerns around.

Stewards of the Earth

Genesis 2:15: “And the Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress and keep it.”

“This is the most influential concept in terms of man’s relationship with nature,” argues Jonathan Schofer, an associate professor of religious studies and an ethicists and expert on the Hebrew Bible. “This verse lays out the very foundational idea of stewardship.”

Before earning his doctorate, Schofer worked for an environmental nonprofit. His office, where he worked to create commercial recycling in a downtown business district in what is now Silicon Valley, was housed in the same building as the original Earth Day.

“In Judaism we talk a lot about this world and ‘the world to come,’” Schofer describes. “So, the aim is to create harmony between humans and the earth to allow for a prosperous society for today and future generations, which involves agriculture and bountiful trees.”

As stewards, Jewish followers are encouraged I’vadah ul’shamrah, “to till and to tend.” Where there is harmony between the individual, society and the earth, rain will come, and all will prosper.

Within this tradition, some rabbis teach that if a man is planting a tree when the messiah comes, he should finish his work before going to meet him. Planting trees will create a more fruitful world for future generations, just as our ancestors did for us.  

In considering how to make things better for the world to come, Schofer describes three forms of modern religious environmental ethics. The first is human-centered environmental ethics, which reasons that we should manage our resources for our society’s benefit. The second puts more emphasis on the rights of the natural world, recognizing that animals and nature should be protected and looked after for their own intrinsic value. And the third is the idea of deep ecology, which regards human life as equal to other components of the global ecosystem and requires humans to learn from and have humility before the power of nature.

What the Hands of Men Have Wrought

Like Judaism, Islam calls for harmony and balance between humanity and nature. And the Qur’an offers an ominous view of how humans may have disrupted that balance:

Qur’an 30:41: “Corruption has appeared in the land and the sea on account of what the hands of men have wrought. That He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order that they may return.”

“What the hands of men have wrought” may be interpreted as social and moral corruption in the form of overconsumption, wastefulness and overexploitation of natural resources. The Qur’an calls on its followers to amend their actions so that harmony and balance can be restored.

“God does not love the wasteful. God does not love the extravagant,” says Hina Azam, an associate professor of Islamic studies at UT Austin. “There’s a lot of potential for environmental responsibility in Islamic teachings that haven’t yet been developed within the frame of sustainability.”

She recalls past visits to her family in South Asia where she would have to bathe using only a bucket of water, so as not to waste any. “You’d be amazed at how little water it actually takes to wash your body,” she explains.

In recounting her relatives’ home life, she highlights their fondness for home gardens, grown, maybe, to reflect the image of Heaven — described in Qu’ran as a garden. Like Judaism, planting trees holds great significance in Islam. One hadith — prophetic saying — states: “If a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him.”

“If you have land that can be planted, it should be planted,” Azam paraphrases Islamic Law. “Anything that is productive should be made productive.”

She describes how much of Muslim culture celebrates and evokes a sense of the natural world. Some chapters of the Qur’an are named for animals, and Muslim home decorations and even Arabic calligraphy dances with imagery of flora and fauna. Qur’an 6:38 reads: “And there is no creature on [or within] the earth of birth that flies with its wings except [that they are] communities like you…Then, unto their Lord they will be gathered.”

“Everything is created by God, and we are a part of nature,” Azam offers. “Humans are distinguished only by our moral responsibility.”

An Enlightenment

What that responsibility is exactly in terms of environmentalism is a new question for religious leaders around the world, and they’re answers are just beginning to scrape the surface.

In 2015, Pope Francis delivered the second encyclical of his papacy, Laudato Si(“Praised Be”). His first tackled moral issues, but the second took others by surprise with its focus on climate change and the environment. He outlines the problem: “The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”

Knowing the influence religious leaders could have, former World Wildlife Fund president Prince Phillip solicited the help of leaders from the five major world religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism — inviting them to an open discussion with environmental and conservation organizations in 1986. The meeting took place at Assisi in Italy, the birthplace of St. Francis, the Patron Saint of Ecology, and later led to the establishment of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) in 1995.

Today, ARC works with 11 major religions, drawing on holy books, sacred sites and other religious assets to design new approaches to forest management, organic farming and educational outreach.

“Our ancestors viewed the earth as rich and bountiful, which it is,” wrote the Dalai Lama in My Tibet (1990). “Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, which we now know is the case only if we care for it.”

For much of history, religion and faith has guided the way humans live, think and behave. And when it comes to conservation, it could be the world’s saving grace.

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