Life & Letters Magazine Fri, 19 Oct 2018 21:19:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Written in Stone: Studying the Relationship Between Ancient Writing Systems and Their Writers Fri, 19 Oct 2018 16:49:48 +0000 Beyond the classrooms in Waggener Hall and deep in the archives on prehistoric scripts, Cassandra Donnelly found her calling.

Donnelly, a graduate student in the Department of Classics at The University of Texas at Austin, was awarded a visiting fellowship in the Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems (CREWS), allowing her to study prehistoric writing systems at the University of Cambridge on behalf of the European Research Council.

Donnelly’s initial interest in Early Writing Systems was inspired by the vast archives at the university’s Program for Aegean Scripts and Prehistory. Instituted in 1986 by UT Austin classicist Thomas Palaima and located in the campus’s Waggener Hall, the archives contain photos, secondary sources and a library filled with the works of Aegean scholars such as Alice Kober and Emmett Bennett.

But throughout her initial studies, Donnelly found that much remained undiscovered about the writers of Cypro-Minoan scripts — an undeciphered writing system originating from the island of Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age. The missing links inspired Donnelly’s focus for her fellowship, which will center on people from the Late Bronze Age who were educated in the intricate writing systems, and how they reshaped those systems to serve their own purposes.

Cassandra Donnelly, a graduate student in the Department of Classics.

“The history of writing tends to focus on writing coming out of the bureaucratic power centers, and less so writing on the margins of Bronze Age society,” Donnelly says. “I am interested in how these marginal players, likely participants in international trade conducted outside of the palatial economy, appealed to the technology of writing in shaping their identities.”

Donnelly adds that she is looking forward to the amount of time and freedom she will have to research and is eager to join a large group of scholars who share her enthusiasm for exploring the history of ancient writing. She anticipates debating with other CREWS scholars on the intercommunication of writers and traders of the Bronze Age across all of Cyprus.

“The opportunity to freely and conveniently exchange ideas and receive and provide criticism will be an incredible boon to my research,” Donnelly shares. “When conducting comparative work of the nature I am doing, it is beneficial to have an interdisciplinary team of experts to ensure your research remains grounded.”

The CREWS Fellowship is the first program that endorses academics from around the world with an interest in a wide array of disciplines to come together to survey and analyze early writing systems.

“The program is incredibly important for helping the next generation of scholars in Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean scripts, of which I consider myself a member, to form an international community of scholars,” Donnelly notes.


Here Comes the Song: The Personalities Behind Your Favorite Beatles Lyrics Fri, 05 Oct 2018 17:51:00 +0000 Feature image:  Copyright Eddie Adams. Eddie Adams Photographic Archive. UT Austin’s Briscoe Center

If Paul McCartney would have written “Yesterday” based on the first words that came to his mind, the song would sound like a concupiscent teen singing about breakfast:

Scrambled eggs, oh, my baby, how I love your legs…

The melody of the song, which has been broadcasted on American radio more than 7 million times and holds the record for the most recorded song in history, came to him in a dream. When he awoke, he hurried to the piano in his loft to play it, but the words didn’t come quite as easily. So, he scribbled down some simple lyrics to help commit it to memory, until he later found the perfect words to pair with it:

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…

“The way we look at the world is reflected in our language,” says Jamie Pennebaker, an expert in linguistic psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. “So, if I’m a young guy, looking around, eager for love, sex and attraction, it’s going to reflect in the language I use and the references I make.”

The Beatles, who’s members were all around 20-years-old when Beatlemania exploded onto the pop music scene, had their fair share of schoolboy fun with their lyrics. Take the song “Why don’t we do it in the road,” a song written after McCartney witnessed two monkeys causally procreate in the middle of a path in Raipur, India; or consider the backing vocals for “Girl,” which the band deceitfully assured their producer were “dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit.”

McCartney explained the innuendos in a recent interview with GQ magazine: “It’s kind of pathetic, but actually a great thing in its pathos because it’s something that makes you laugh. So, what’s wrong with that?”

Over the years, Beatles have also been slammed and banned by radio stations for their lyrics that allegedly alluded to drugs, for example “Fixing a Hold” or, more popularly, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” But their massive audience of baby boomers, who may have also been experimenting with sex and drugs at the time, never seemed to mind the references. The band spent a record 1,278 weeks on the Billboard chart, 175 of which were at number one.

“People are commonly influenced by songs that hit them between the ages of 14 and 22. That’s why your parents tend to listen to ‘oldies’ music in the car,” Pennebaker adds. “The Beatles were writing about love and topics associated with coming of age. It was relevant to their generation and sounded different than music from just five years before. That’s why they had such a mass appeal.”

But, just as everyone does, the Beatles and their lyrics changed over time, reflecting their different experiences and reckoning with the new society that was evolving around them. “They captured it so well,” Pennebaker remembers.

Over a decade ago, Pennebaker, along with Keith Petrie at The University of Auckland and Børge Sivertsen at the University of Bergen, began researching the lyrical personalities of the Beatles, both collectively and as individual songwriters.

Between 1962 and 1970 the Beatles released more than 300 songs on 12 studio albums, 13 extended plays (EPs) and 22 singles. At the beginning of their career, the Beatles lyrics were full of positive emotion and references to love and sexual experiences — think “Love Me Do” (1962), “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1962), “Twist and Shout” (1963), and “All My Loving” (1963). The early songs were also very present- or future-oriented, researchers say.

“Earlier songs were characterized by a sense of immediacy, based on the usage of present tense, small words, first-person singular and low usage of articles,” Pennebaker explains. “The use of these words highlights the degree to which someone is living in the moment.”

But as time went on, the Beatles lyrics became more melancholic and psychologically distant, using more negative-emotion words. Pennebaker and his co-authors found that newer Beatles songs used less-social words, which indicates less concern with social relationships. Similarly, their use of larger words increased, signifying both intellectualization and emotional distancing.

“Along with emotional changes, their lyrics became more complex and intellectual over time,” Pennbaker says. “While early songs were related to personal experiences and feelings, later songs were more often written about other people.”

Consider the White Album, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this November. Compared to previous albums, the White Album sounded starkly different. The Beatles had just returned from several weeks of Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, a seeming turning point in the Beatles’ life cycle where each member began to branch out and explore their own interests, including John Lennon’s special love interest in Yoko Ono and budding heroin addiction.

According to the Beatles Bible, the album marked the first time the Beatles released songs without all the Beatles on the track:  Lennon produced “Revolution 9” with Ono and “Julia,” a tribute to his late mother, solo; while McCartney’s “Wild Honey Pie,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “Blackbird,” were all recorded without other Beatles members.

Separately, Lennon’s lyrics tended to look inward and focus on his own personal distress — a possible result of his traumatic upbringing, being left by both of his parents, paired with his later struggles with divorce and addiction, researchers speculate.

Lennon’s lyrics were higher in negative emotion and cognitive mechanism words, as if he were reflecting on and trying to make sense of events in his own life, researchers say. Just listen to the words of the songs “Help!,” “I’m a Loser,” or “Don’t Let Me Down.” Interestingly enough, Pennebaker adds, Lennon had a heavy influence on bandmate George Harrison’s lyrical style, as heard in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and “Long Long Long.”

McCartney’s lyrics, however, kept a tighter focus on collective orientation — think, “We can Work it Out” or “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band” — with frequent use of the words “us” and “we.”

Lennon explained to David Sheff in “The Playboy Interviews:” “[McCartney] provided a lightness, an optimism, while I always go for the sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes.”

Perhaps influenced by a more stable background and strong support from his musician father, McCartney’s songs were far more varied and complex lyrically than Lennon’s work and often took on the perspective of others, Pennebaker says. Consider the song “Blackbird,” which McCartney has said was written for blacks in America amid the civil rights struggles.

“In the Beatles repertoire there were some songs that Lennon and McCartney agree are complete collaborations,” Pennebaker says. “If you study the lyrics of those songs, you’ll find they are completely different than either one of their individual styles. Their collective mind was much more positive and focused on the present.”

Pennebaker’s observation seems to be one that McCartney finds most gratifying. In his interview with GQ, McCartney said: “One of the nice things about music is that you know that a lot of people listening to you are going to take seriously what you say in the song. So, I’m very proud of the fact that the Beatles output is always really pretty positive. It’s all really “let it be.” So, it’s hopefully a good message. I particularly like that.”

There’s no denying: The Beatles were the rock heard ‘round the world, from Liverpool to Las Angeles. Each member of the Fabulous Four brought something unique to the Beatle’s sound, allowing them to captivate audiences with messages of love, sex, anger, chaos and confusion against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, harshening race and gender tensions and a rise of the hippie counterculture movement. Still today, they are defined by their creativity and celebrated for their undying influence, “Here, There and Everywhere.”

Catch Paul McCartney, headlining at Austin City Limits October 5 and 12.

Feature image:  Copyright Eddie Adams. Eddie Adams Photographic Archive. UT Austin’s Briscoe Center


Alumna Bianna Golodryga Joins CBS This Morning as Co-Host Wed, 03 Oct 2018 20:04:36 +0000 Liberal Arts alumna Bianna Golodryga has been named co-host of “CBS This Morning.” She graduated in 2000 from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and a minor in economics.

She began her television career as a bureau producer from the New York Stock Exchange for CNBC, where she produced live coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a reporter and anchor, Golodryga covered the Boston Marathon Bombings and the 2016 election. Throughout her career, she has reported for The Wall Street Journal, ABC, Yahoo!, CBS, CNN and more.

Golodryga is a 2018 recipient of the Pro Bene Meritis award, the highest honor bestowed by the College of Liberal Arts. She has also served on the Chancellor’s Council, the President’s Associates and is an active alumni volunteer for the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.

Her role on “CBS This Morning” began October 3 when she was welcomed by co-hosts Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell and John Dickerson. Golodryga is a familiar face on the program, reporting live from her hometown of Houston on the aftermath of Hurrican Harvey, and filling in as a co-host since 2017.

Read more about Golodryga and watch a video of the announcement on the CBS News website.

Photo by Brian Birzer

Us, But Better: Q&A with Liberal Arts Council President Michaela Lavelle Thu, 20 Sep 2018 18:13:54 +0000 Michaela Lavelle is a psychology and humanities junior from Arlington, Texas. She is president of the 2018–19 Liberal Arts Council, an organization nearing its 40th year as the official student voice and governing body for the college. The LAC gives students a voice in the academic affairs of the university by voting in the Senate of College Councils, provides community service opportunities for its members and helps liberal arts students have their voices heard on campus.

Learn more about LAC and Lavelle’s time at UT Austin in the Q&A below.

Why should students get involved in Liberal Arts Council?

LAC is a great organization filled with passionate and inspiring people who really care about making our educational experience the best it can be. You join committees that are putting on events and talking to the Deans of the college and writing and passing legislation to not only try and fix problems students are having, but highlight the resources and assets of our student body.

What are LAC’s biggest plans for this year?

We have a lot of really amazing events in the works right now and a lot of policy ideas we are excited to (hopefully) push through. Our committees are working hard to flesh out their ideas, but one I can give a sneak-peek into is focused on combating the chaos and confusion of registration by setting up an event where students can help advise each other on what classes and professors to take.

What motivated you to run for president?

Liberal Arts Council has been my home on campus since my first semester at UT. When LAC was getting ready for elections, I thought a lot about how much love I have for the organization and the work that we do, but I knew we as a council could be more efficient and effective and I had ideas for how we could make that happen. My vision for an “Us, but better” council really pushed me to run.

The 2018-19 Liberal Arts Council Executive Leadership Board. Photo by Phil Butler. From left to right: Diversity Director Jacob Hood, President Michaela Lavelle, Communications Director Christine Vo, Membership Director Anilya Krishnan, Internal Director Leslie Villacorta, Financial Director Roshni Mahendru, Liberator Editor-in-Chief Grace Schrobilgen, Administrative Director Delaney Tubbs, Vice President Chloe Kersh.

What are your goals as president?

A lot of my goals center on internal reformation and making sure LAC is achieving our goal of being representative of and helpful to the student body by increasing our visibility on campus. Many students in COLA don’t know who we are or if they know who we are, they don’t know what we do. I created a publicity committee under the lead of our communications director, [Christine Vo], and Christine’s hard publicity work has already created a huge boost in our recruitment success, so I am excited to watch that committee grow.

What’s your favorite memory at UT Austin so far?

Oh wow. I think one of my favorite memories is actually when two of my roommates and I locked ourselves out of our apartment after a spontaneous trip to Mozart’s. We all thought the others had a key but none of us did. We had to wait in the hallway for our third roommate, whose phone was dead, to come home from her sorority formal to let us in. It was a night of chaos, but it was a lot of fun (my roommates may argue with me on that, but I stand by it).

What is your proudest moment?

This may sound corny but I think my proudest moment was last fall, sitting in the grass outside of Calhoun Hall listening to the students in my FIG [First-Year Interest Group] share what they were proud of themselves for doing in their first semester in college. I was super nervous about being a FIG mentor at the beginning of the year, but meeting with my FIGlets, as I affectionately refer to them, was always the highlight of my week. It was amazing to get to experience their first year of college alongside them and I was so proud of them for truly conquering their first semester. They all handled it with an enthusiasm that was contagious. I was and continue to be immensely proud of them.

Members of the 2018-19 Liberal Arts Council. Photo by Phil Butler.

What are your professional ambitions following graduation?

I am still trying to flesh out my plans, but I want to (idealistically) pursue a Fulbright Teaching Assistant Fellowship, followed by a PhD in Cultural Anthropology studying either differing views of the Child across the world, or how notions of self and beauty are passed down from generation to generation across the world.

What has studying liberal arts meant to you?

The thing I love most about my liberal arts education is I get to examine the world keeping in mind the people who inhabit it. I think so often in other fields, the “humanness” of what we are studying escapes us. It is important to know the specifics of how cell respiration occurs and its relation to Leber hereditary optic neuropathy. But to me, what’s more interesting, what matters, is how the woman who contracts this disease when the male to female ratio is 4:1, can advocate for herself in the doctor’s office, how the intersections of her identity inform the ways institutions such as banks will react to her loan request to pay for treatment, the history and the government behind, why people go bankrupt paying off hospital loans. The “why” and the “who” have always been more important to me than the how. That’s not the case for everyone, but I think liberal arts has taught me more than anything that phenomena don’t exist in a vacuum. There are always people involved, and that matters too.

For more information about Liberal Arts Council, visit Liberal Arts students can reach out to Lavelle directly with any issues or concerns at

Liberal Arts students curious about more leadership opportunities on campus can visit the Liberal Arts Frontiers leadership page.

Professor’s Play “Monroe” reveals the ripple effect of racial violence Tue, 18 Sep 2018 15:47:41 +0000 If every action produces a series of consequences, imagine life if slavery or Jim Crow had never existed. Now, consider what has happened because they’ve existed.

That’s where the idea for Lisa B. Thompson’s play “Monroe” sparked.

“I want audiences to consider the ripple effect of racial violence on families and communities and how that continues for generations,” says Thompson, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

Lisa B. Thompson

“Monroe,” onstage at the Austin Playhouse through September 30, follows Cherry, a young African-American woman who, after the lynching death of her older brother, must decide whether preserving her family’s roots justifies living under Jim Crow in rural Louisiana in 1946.

Thompson was partly inspired by her own family history. Her father, from Lake Charles, and her mother, from Monroe, both migrated from Louisiana to the San Francisco Bay Area, during the Great Migration — a period from 1916-1970 characterized by a movement of more than 6 million African-Americans from the segregated south to the urban north.

Thompson actually wrote the play as a Stanford University graduate student in the nineties and had not revisited it for years until a friend suggested she submit it to local festivals. So, she did, and Monroe was a hit. It won recognition at the Austin Playhouse’s 2018 New Play Festival and was selected by director Lara Toner Haddock to open the 2018-19 season.

Austin Playhouse presents Monroe by Lisa B. Thompson, pictured: Kriston Woodreaux and Marc Pouhe. Photo courtesy of Austin Playhouse.

“When I found out that Lisa had actually worked on this play in grad school, I was stunned because it reads as such a contemporary piece,” Toner Haddock told KUT. “It’s set in 1946 but the themes, the subject matter, the way it deals with the violence against the African-American community feels like this is the play that needs to be told right now.”

Austin Playhouse presents Monroe by Lisa B. Thompson, pictured: Carla Nickerson and Deja Morgan. Photo courtesy of Austin Playhouse.

Thompson understands her play’s timeless value and hopes her audiences will make connections between the Jim Crow era, when thousands of black people were lynched, and today.

“Lynchings were often done on the courthouse lawn in front of hordes of white citizens who came to witness it while wearing their Sunday best, sometimes with their young children,” Thompson says. “Today’s extrajudicial killings come to us as viral videos on social media and in the news; hordes of citizens consume these murders while drinking their morning coffee or during a break at work.

“How should we move forward in the aftermath of continued racial violence?” she asks. “How do we confront this legacy?”

Thompson is also a faculty affiliate in the Department of English, Department of Theater and Dance, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, as well as the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at UT Austin.

To Paint is to Write: The Study of Mithila Folk Art Thu, 30 Aug 2018 15:15:13 +0000 In English, writing is very different than painting. But in Hindi, and specifically in the landscape of Mithila folk art, “to paint” is “to write.” The distinction could be a phenomenon of grammar, or it may have to do with the fact that the tools of this trade are more like pens than brushes.

As an apprentice artist during my year as Fulbright scholar in India, I learned to paint in the Mithila style. In a surprising way, this hands-on course of study will help me — more than years of academic preparation could — “to write” my dissertation, a study of economic development in India, for the Department of Asian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, my home as a Ph.D. student.

With the help and generosity of two of India’s most celebrated contemporary folk artists, Manisha Jha and Santosh Kumar Das, I was taught to use the delicate metal nibs, which characterize authentic Mithila art today, also known as Madhubani painting.

Lazarowicz’ painting of two birds in katchini style. Photo courtesy of Katie Lazarowicz.

“Madhubani” refers to the political district in Bihar, located in North India, where this art form was first documented by the British in the 1930s. “Mithila” refers to a larger region, expanding over the Himalayas into Nepal; Mithila corresponds to a culture, an ancient kingdom, and the heroine of the Indian Ramayana epic, princess Sita. We are told that such paintings were made for Sita’s wedding and that this art form was used to adorn mud walls, serving as a type of ritual manual for religious rites of passage for centuries.

Mithila art is recognizable by the bold lines giving shape to religious and natural motifs. Since its rise in popularity in the 1980s, traditional iconography (such as Hindu gods and goddesses) filled the tourist marketplace. Today, it can be found as a design on clothing, housewares, notebooks and on canvas in some higher-end galleries.

Lazarowicz, center, works on a Mother Goddess painting in preparation for the Durga Puja Festival. Photo courtesy of Madhubani Art Center, Director Manisha Jha, New Delhi

As a visual language, it has evolved to represent autobiographies, and some often political commentary on issues like domestic violence and women’s health and religious violence. When these are expressed on paper, “painting,” takes on an ever-greater sense of “writing,” as people share their stories. Paper is where my story as an artist began.

It took a few months before I could dip the nibs, which look and feel like calligraphy pens, with confidence. One must mix acrylic pigments with water until it has the viscosity of something not quite ink, but not quite paint. The proportions shift subtly based on seasons and environments, and the quality of these poster paints is inconsistent, in spite of being industrially produced.

Working six days a week alongside professionals was grueling work. Artists often work on the floor. Challenges of the first six weeks included bruises, calluses and strain on the eyes. Eventually, I found the rhythm together with women whose hands moved with the swift confidence of professional musicians whose instruments become extensions of their bodies. I rarely found a workshop not filled with song and humming, colors and lines flowing.

My paintings are a record of my progress. Every painted corner comes with a story – not about me, but the communities of artists who taught me: New babies, weddings, family members getting jobs, losing jobs, moving, opportunities, holidays, fasting days. I became a part of the larger community of “Madhubani painters.”

Seven years of Hindi, trips to India and academic work unlocked many doors but left me looking at this industry from the outside. Taking up an apprenticeship did something unexpected: I acquired more than the skills of a painter, but I adapted a type of physical literacy with the work. Often researchers collect data, my data is was written on my body.

Decoding the Language of Love Mon, 20 Aug 2018 16:01:03 +0000

“She looked at him through the light.
She saw the pride and the interest on that handsome, poetic face, with the edgy cheekbones under the scruff, as he’d worked through the day without shaving.
She saw both in his eyes, pure gray in candlelight.”

Excerpt from “Year One” by Nora Roberts

The secret to romance is out, though it doesn’t seem like such a secret. After all, people have been writing and reading about it centuries.

Romantic fiction is one of the most lucrative genres in the industry, drawing in more than 70 million readers across the United States — 85 percent of which are heterosexual females between the ages of 25 and 39 — and raking in annual profit of more than $1 billion. And while the genre is labeled as “fiction,” its vast readership and enticing prose divulge some truths about our society.

“Stories reveal how we think and feel about the world around us,” says Kate Blackburn, a psychology postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Texas at Austin who studies language patterns and what they say about an individual. Her latest research, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, delves into words used in some of the most popular romance novels (published online by Smashwords) to unveil some of women’s most intimate views on romance.

“This study shows the fundamental way language reflects the way we think, feel and view others — or in this case, the nature of human sexuality,” Blackburn points out. “Identifying which words stimulate women between the pages, may also help their partners stimulate them under the covers.”

Read our full Q&A with Blackburn below:

How does literature reflect social norms and romantic values?

Blackburn: In many ways, stories are a snapshot of our culture. Past research used Harlequin and Silhoutte novels to learn more about women’s preferred qualities in mates, such as wealth, fitness and commitment. In our study, we follow that line of thinking by looking at the language used in romance novels to help understand more about how women perceive romance.

Have there been any major shifts throughout history in what romance novels suggest about social norms?

Sure, take the 1920’s romance novel. It was way more passionate and sexually expressive than romance novels written ten to twenty years prior to that. Some have argued that this shift in sexual expression mirrored what was happening at the time: Women had just earned the right to vote and were entering the work force in much larger numbers than before. It could be that this new-found freedom opened the opportunity for sexual expression.

What words do readers tend to gravitate toward in romance novels?

Interestingly, we found women were attracted to words that communicate sexual intentions, such as chuckle or moan. In a sense, these words may be tapping into the way readers explore or imagine sexual communication strategies and rehearse for the real thing.

What words were commonly used that surprised you? What words were left out?

We found that female readers appear to enjoy novels with a strong preference for sexual words, such as kiss, sensation and sex. But, some sexual words were missing. While words referencing male body parts were commonly used, female body parts were referenced less frequently in popular romance novels.

Why are there so many references to facial features in romance novels?

Evolution tells us that when women look for a mate they often scan the face for cues that signal good health — good skin and symmetry, that sort of thing. Additionally, we know that romantic partners may focus on the face to increase affection or romantic feelings. So, when words, such as mouth or grin appear it may signal a potential romance to the female reader.

Are there any other commonly used words that tie to our evolutionary past?

Commonly used primal words, such as growl, may reinforce certain cultural scripts we have about the typical romance story. In a way, romance stories create situations where the male is dominant and has a primal need to seduce his love interest.

Have you looked at whether men or women tend to be the authors of the most popular books?

This is a great question. We do know that almost 84 percent of romance novel writers are women. Unfortunately, in this study we only looked at female romance novel writers. It may be that men who write romance novels use different words to tell a romantic story. And, in doing so, their words may reveal male perceptions about women’s expectations of romance.

Psychology undergraduate researchers Omar Olvarez and Ryan Hardie also contributed to this study.

A Shoemaker’s Dilemma: Q&A with English Alum and Author Spencer Wise Tue, 14 Aug 2018 18:54:04 +0000 Set in contemporary South China, The Emperor of Shoes is about a young Jewish Bostonian preparing to take over his family’s shoe business. But he ends up falling in love with a factory worker who may or may not be using him as a pawn to start a pro-democratic revolution in the factory.

For author Spencer Wise, the topic is deeply personal and well-researched. His family has been making and designing shoes for five generations — the last 30 years in China. The book was recently featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and called one of “the seasons most promising debuts.”

I sat down with Wise, a University of Texas at Austin creative writing alumnus, to chat about his novel and how it explores the clash of Western and Eastern cultures:

What kind of research did it take to write this novel and what inspired you to take on the project?

Spencer Wise (M.A., English, 2009).

Spencer Wise — Like most Jewish novels, this one starts with guilt. My family has been in the shoe business for five generations, and it ends with me. Though it was my choice, I feel guilty for ending this lineage that in so many ways defines me. So, I wanted to connect to what my father and grandfather and great-grandfather knew about this ancient art of shoemaking.

I began writing early drafts of the novel in graduate school at UT, where I began developing the characters while studying under such great writers and teachers as Elizabeth Harris, Oscar Casares, Pete LaSalle and Jim Magnuson.

In the summer of 2014, I did a real apprenticeship, learning every facet of the shoe business while living in the dormitory of a shoe factory in South China. I interviewed many of the workers and made a few deep friendships with younger supervisors who showed me the inner-workings of the factory. Some were even generous enough to invite me to their homes to meet their families.

Before doing research in China, did you know where the story was going?

SW – It’s easy to forget the real people behind our clothes, our shoes, our furniture. So, I wanted to make their stories visible. I’d like to think that’s one of the ways we develop empathy. When I started researching, I was surprised to find that two ancient cultures — Jewish and Chinese — shared this pervasive sense of family as something that’s nurturing and wonderful; and yet, at the same, a yoke or burden, some claustrophobic thing one can’t escape from.

But I didn’t have any clue what the plot was about when I first got to China. The young Chinese people I met were immensely proud of their country and heritage, but showed surprising dissatisfaction toward the Chinese government, its corrupt, hypocritical system and the widening income gap. They seemed angry enough to do something about it.

How do you feel about The New York Times calling it a novel for “our times.”

SW – It’s an honor to be recognized on that scale as an author, but I also think the issues in the book — cultural clashes, globalization, migrant labor, activism — have been relevant for a long, long time. I think when Trump was elected with such a divisive agenda, these issues were thrust into the spotlight, which was lucky for me. But the novel is about a world that’s always been here. One that we mostly choose not to look at it in order to maintain a comfortable quality of life.

To what extent is this book meant to be politically provocative?

Hanover Square Press, June 2018.

SW – Well, certainly it’s a critique of global capitalism and whether or not it can ever be done ethically. But it’s also a book about family business and shoemaking as an art form. When I was writing it, I just wanted to tell the most honest and urgent story I could.

More than anything, it’s a novel about two real people yearning to find their own identities in face of serious obstacles wrapped up in old traditions and heritage and family. How much of that can you lose — as you see in hyper-capitalistic China or in the attenuating levels of religiosity among Jews — before we forget who we are? I don’t have an answer, by the way. I like what Chekov said about “Anna Karenina:” “The job of the novelist is to ask questions, not answer them. Tolstoy asks them beautifully.” I’ve paraphrased, I think.

Though the Dad could be seen as “the evil capitalist boss,” I was surprised to find myself having compassion for him.

SW — The family are self-made immigrants who suffered and worked tremendously hard to achieve the American dream. At the same time, I was deeply troubled by the idea that a Jewish family — like my own — who have been subject to such persecution and discrimination in the past only to turn around and exploit migrant workers in China.

In reality, the factory managers and owners still work 16-hour days. Their lives aren’t very glamorous. So, I think the book portrays the universal human struggle to make a living and support your family by any means necessary. While in China, I noticed that many business people abroad succumb to their exhaustion and inability to speak the langue by hiding in their hotels — a choice that is, I think, subconsciously necessary to create distance between “us” and “them” that makes their jobs possible. 

It certainly seems quite true-to-life. Is it at all autobiographical?

SW — No, no. Not at all! It is funny, but I’ve been asked this question before. I guess I should take it as a compliment that it feels so real. I worked hard to craft characters that the audience would care about: Complex people facing complex problems. That was my aim. But nothing in this novel happened to me. My father is nothing like the dad in the book. And I never tried to take over my family business.

Pursuing a Passion for Service and Justice Thu, 02 Aug 2018 16:16:05 +0000 Milla Lubis, a psychology and social work double major from Allen, Texas, has been awarded the 2018 Randy Diehl Prize in Liberal Arts.

Now in its third year, the $15,000 award was established by donors to support a graduating liberal arts senior who is committing the year after graduation to service for the greater good, be that through work for a nonprofit organization, a for-profit organization that benefits others or the creation of a new nonprofit.

“The intent behind this gift is to encourage liberal arts graduates to use their considerable skills in communication and understanding of other cultures, histories, philosophies and literature to effect a positive change in the world,” said the prize’s founding donors.

Lubis is a prime example of that type of graduate. As a student, she was actively involved on campus, and served leadership roles in the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective (ADPAC), worked as a Voices Against Violence peer educator, joined the first cohort of Interpersonal Violence Peer Support volunteers and was a member of the Texas Orange Jackets.

On top of her campus commitments, as a student Lubis interned for Project Vote Smart and Refugee Services of Texas.

This summer, Lubis has been attending Teach For America’s Summer Institute in preparation for her two-year commitment to teaching at a low-income elementary school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where she hopes to improve the lives of her students and increase their opportunities for education.

In addition to recognizing Lubis, the awarding committee was so impressed with English and Mexican American and Latina/o Studies senior Angela Vela’s vision to serve others by establishing a literacy program in Laredo, Texas, that they awarded her an additional prize of $2,500.

Read more about Lubis’ many accomplishments, her goals for the future and the impact the award will have on her in the Q&A below.

How did you react when you found out you’d received the Diehl prize?

Funnily enough, I was on a beach in Mexico in the pouring rain when I found out that I had been selected. I envisioned this trip as a way to celebrate my two degrees, but we were caught in daily thunderstorms. When I received the email, everything melted away and I could not stop smiling.

Milla Lubis

What does being a Diehl Prize recipient mean to you?

Being selected as the recipient of the Diehl Prize lifted a weight off of my shoulders. During my junior year of college, I was sexually assaulted, which led me to experience intense depression, suicidal ideation and trauma. When I sought services I came across a number of issues. I had already used my six sessions at the Counseling and Mental Health Center, and so I would have to find an off-campus provider, which is more expensive. I was recommended to join an intensive outpatient group to address these issues but it was another additional cost.

Throughout college, I saved every cent just in case my health required it. Before committing to Teach for America, I was concerned that our 15-hour work days of student teaching, educator preparation and lesson planning would trigger something and that I would not have the financial means to help myself.  I will not be receiving a paycheck until mid-September and the reality is that mental health services are expensive. The award allows me to pursue my passion of service and justice without worry. I can commit myself to caring for my students by ensuring that I care for myself.

When did you know that you wanted to teach?

Education is the key to achieving equal opportunities for every group. Yet the doors to education have often been barred for children of certain races or socioeconomic statuses. What I learned from community organizers and activists in Austin is that the majority of students of color enter the gateway to incarceration beginning with a referral from the classroom to the courtroom, regarding behavioral issues. This phenomenon is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. I am attempting to disrupt the cycle by taking direct action and becoming a teacher in a low-income school that primarily serves black and brown youth.

Lubis with fellow members of the Texas Orange Jackets at an alumni tailgate.

Can you tell me about your involvement with student organizations on campus?

My leadership in student organizations and service to the University and community has inspired me to dedicate my life to enacting change for the benefit of society. For two years, I served as the Director of Political Engagement and the Director of Community Engagement for Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective (ADPAC), an agency housed within the Multicultural Engagement Center. I spearheaded several community events targeting a variety of topics including immigration, toxic masculinity, feminism and the model minority myth.

Additionally, I worked as a Voices Against Violence peer educator; I taught students that rape culture consists of attitudes, behaviors and actions that condone sexual violence in an attempt to change the current culture. Then I joined the first cohort of Interpersonal Violence Peer Support volunteers when the peer education program ended. I underwent 40 hours of specialized training to offer confidential, emotional support to student victims of sexual violence. The folks who are involved in IVPS are phenomenal. Each person challenges himself or herself to learn continuously and be a patient, compassionate listener. I hope to bring this with me as I step into the classroom.

Finally, as a Texas Orange Jacket, I acted as one of the official hosts of the University and acted a role model for the girls at the Settlement Home, a residential treatment facility for girls who have experienced trauma.

What was your most memorable moment at UT Austin?

My most memorable moment at UT was my induction into Texas Orange Jackets. I walked into Littlefield House not knowing what would come. The women I have had the privilege to know through Texas Orange Jackets have become my friends, collaborators and role models. Sit in on a brunch with these women and you will have complex discussions about the scarcity of mental health services in southern Dallas, educational reform and the separation of families at the border. I am beyond thankful for them.

Lubis (second from right) with other members of the Texas Orange Jackets.

Where did you intern as a student? What did you learn from those experiences?

During my sophomore year, I interned at Project Vote Smart and in my senior year I worked at Refugee Services of Texas as a Social Adjustment Services intern. My internship with Project Vote Smart deepened my understanding of the legislative process. I believe this internship supported my training at the Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) Youth Leadership Summit. I was given a fully funded opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. to participate in three days of advocacy training and leadership development with AAAJ. At the end of our summit, AAAJ organized opportunities for us to speak with representatives from our states. I spoke with Representative Lamar Smith about supporting undocumented students and families, disaggregating census data on Asian American Pacific Islanders and immigration reform. These experiences of community building and voter education helped build the skills needed to lead educational workshops for refugees, asylees, and special immigrant visa holders in my role as a Social Adjustment Services intern for Refugee Services of Texas.

Lubis with other students at the AAAJ Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C.

At Refugee Services of Texas, I served clients who are of different cultures, ages, religions and immigration statuses. While serving my clients, I reminded myself that they are capable and resilient; by doing so I apply strengths perspective. The process of immigrating to the United States as a refugee, asylee or special immigrant visa holder is extremely difficult. If my clients are able to successfully navigate that, then they are capable of overcoming any obstacle that they face. I remind myself that the communities I hope to serve have the inherent strength and ability to advance themselves. We are not saving people; we are providing them the support and services they need to be successful.

What has studying the liberal arts taught you?

My liberal arts education pushed me to search for the root of issues such as poverty, racism and educational inequality. My education taught me to be critical of the ways that systems maintain and perpetuate inequality. Since entering the University of Texas, I have focused my passions towards serving others. The injustices students of color face such as discrimination, stereotypes and negative peer pressure discourage students from seeing themselves as successful, aspiring to attend college and navigating the college application process. These injustices are unacceptable. By understanding how larger issues of racism, sexism and poverty encourage the cycle of educational inequality, I can end it. In my pursuit of degrees in both psychology and social work, I have developed unique skills and perspectives that enable me to achieve one of the core purposes of the University, a life dedicated to “transforming lives for the benefit of society.”

To learn more about the Randy Diehl Prize in Liberal Arts, visit this webpage.

Students who want to participate in campus leadership or land internships should visit the Liberal Arts Frontiers website.

Photos courtesy of Milla Lubis

Four Reasons Everyone Should Study History Mon, 23 Jul 2018 18:25:24 +0000 In the past, STEM and the arts and humanities have largely been taught as unconnected disciplines, but there is more overlap between fields than many realize.

Erika Bsumek, an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and a 2018 recipient of the Regent’s Outstanding Teaching Awards, wants to help students see how different disciplines are connected. In her class, Building America: Engineering Society and Culture, 1868-1980, Bsumek teaches humanities and STEM majors how history, culture and politics have shaped technological advances and, in turn, how technology has restructured society in numerous ways in the process.

Bsumek, who also teaches Native American and Environmental history, strives to help all of her students see the world around them in new ways. She says learning history can be interesting and even fun. The more history they learn, the better prepared they will be to solve the biggest challenges society faces now and in the future. Here are four reasons why she says learning history can help them do that.

  1. It helps us understand how our time is different from or similar to other periods.

In today’s world, where people often cherry pick facts about the past to prove points, it helps to place current events in historical context. History is an evidenced-based discipline. So, knowing how and where to find the facts one needs to gain a fuller understanding of today’s contentious debates can help us understand not only what is being said, but it can also help us grasp what kinds of historical comparisons people are making and why they are making them.

For instance, understanding how Native Americans were treated by both white settlers and the federal government can help us better understand why indigenous communities often resist what many non-American Indians view as seemingly “goodwill gestures” or “economic opportunities” — such as the proposed construction of a pipeline on or in proximity to Native land or a proposal to break up reservations into private parcels. Both kinds of actions have deep histories. Understanding the complexities associated with the historical experiences of the people involved can help build a better society.

  1. History helps you see the world around you in a new way.

Everything has a history. Trees have a history, music has a history, bridges have a history, political fights have a history, mathematical equations have a history. In fact, #everythinghasahistory. Learning about those histories can help us gain a deeper understanding of the world around us and the historical forces that connect us and continue to influence how we interact with each other and the environment.

For instance, when we turn on the tap to brush our teeth or fill our pots to cook we expect clean drinking water to flow. But, how many people know where their water comes from, who tests it for purity, or how society evolved to safeguard such controls? To forget those lessons makes us more prone to overlook the way we, as a society, need to continue to support the policies that made clean water a possibility.

  1. History education teaches us life skills.

In history courses, we learn not just about other people and places but we learn from them. We read the documents or materials that were produced at the time or listen to the oral histories people tell in order to convey the meaning of the past to successive generations. In doing so, we learn that there is just not one past, but a pluralism of pasts. This kind of knowledge can help the city manager and the engineer plan a new highway, city or park. It can also help us navigate our daily lives and learn to ask questions when we encounter people or places we don’t initially understand.

  1. Studying history teaches students the skill sets that they will need in almost any major or job.

Studying history and other humanities can not only pique one’s imagination and engage students, history courses can also help students learn how to take in vast amounts of information, how to write and communicate those ideas effectively, and, most importantly, to accept the fact that many problems have no clear-cut answer. As a result, history classes help students to cultivate flexibility and a willingness to change their minds as they go about solving problems in whatever field they ultimately choose.

Performance in history courses can also be a good indicator of a student’s overall ability to succeed in college. A recent article by the American Historical Association reports that “two national studies that show that college students who do not succeed in even one of their foundational-­level [history] courses are the least likely to complete a degree at any institution over the 11-year period covered by the studies.” Why? The skills one learns in a well-taught history course can help students develop a flexible skill set they can use in their other classes and throughout their lives.


Featured image: Erika Bsumek at the Mansfield Dam located in Austin, Texas. Photo by Kirk Weddle.