Life & Letters Magazine https://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu Wed, 17 Apr 2019 20:24:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Don Graham Commentary: “The Grapes of Wrath” has Outlived Its Relevance https://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 https://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 https://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 https://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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Student Projects Shine During Dean’s Research Reception https://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/04/student-research-shines-during-undergraduate-research-week/ Fri, 19 Apr 2019 18:23:42 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15613 On April 18, a group of hand-picked liberal arts students who have conducted exceptional research projects presented their posters at the Dean’s Research Reception. College faculty and staff, administrators and Dean Randy Diehl all gathered to learn about the outstanding work liberal arts students have conducted.

The annual event is a part of UT Austin’s Undergraduate Research Week, which is hosted by the Senate of College Councils and the Office of Undergraduate Research in the School of Undergraduate Studies. Colleges and organizations across campus coordinate events throughout the week to showcase the work of undergraduate student researchers.

Learn more about six of the 16 featured researchers and their projects in the Q&A’s below.

A Nation Imagines Womanhood: State Feminism and Nationalism in Postcolonial Egypt

Sarah Ahmed is an International Relations & Global Studies and Middle Eastern studies senior from Cairo, Egypt and San Antonio, Texas. Her project focuses on the ways in which anticolonial nationalism and state-building rely on preexisting gender structures, specifically in the case of Egypt in the wake of the Revolution of 1952.

How did you decide on your topic?

Before transferring to UT, I was a Political Science freshman at the American University in Cairo. In my Political Science 101 class, I was assigned a group project on Nasserism, the ideology that developed alongside the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser. What my groupmates and I found was that Nasser was a charismatic leader who was dedicated to securing the rights of the oppressed. During his leadership, Egypt played a major role in the Nonaligned Movement, expanded the rights of the working class, and stood against imperialist and colonizing forces in the region. I was enchanted by Nasser’s vision and his dedication to opposing injustice.

A few years later, I read about Dorreya Shafik, an organizer and writer who marched 1,500 women to storm Parliament in 1951, went on a hunger strike to protest the absence of women in the committee formed to draft the new constitution in 1954, and spoke on an international scale on behalf of Egyptian women. Although she was initially an ardent supporter of the Revolution and Nasser’s leadership, she grew disillusioned by Nasser’s uniparty system and the regime’s means of consolidating power as they built a new nation. In 1957, after criticizing Nasser in a letter addressed to the United Nations, Dorreya was put under house arrest and her name was banned from being printed in any publication. Banished into oblivion and erased from history, Shafik died in obscurity in 1975 when she threw herself off of her 5th floor balcony.

To me, hearing the story of Nasser as an international leader for liberation and that of Shafik as a woman consciously erased from history, I felt that there was an incongruency. I wondered how a story like Shafik’s could develop under the leadership of a man so dedicated to securing the rights of his people. I wanted to understand this contradiction and how it came about. I began examining the history of the feminist movement in Egypt, as well as the relationships between nationalism and gender. I then found that to answer the woman question that plagues all leaders throughout history, Nasser implemented state feminist policies. I worked to answer the questions of how Nasser’s state feminist project fit into his larger nationalist vision of modernizing Egypt, and how the regime’s focus on state feminism reflected broader patterns of using gender as a mechanism of national organization.

What were your findings?

I found that although Nasserist state feminism created unprecedented educational and employment opportunities for women, these policies tied women’s economic livelihood to the state, creating a dependency on the government and guaranteeing women’s support. Generally, state-building, lawmaking and construction of national identity are built on existing gender constructions and work to recast the roles of women to reflect the goals of the male leadership of the country.

What kind of effect could your research have?

My research adds to a small body of work on state feminism in Egypt, and I am honored to be contributing to the study of the lives of Egyptian women by Egyptian women. It is rare for Egyptian women – or Middle Eastern and North African women broadly – to be written about in a way that is not laced in orientalism, and I am working to do them the service of being written about as people and not merely subjects. Both adding to an often-ignored study and approaching it in a way that emphasizes the humanty of the people I am writing about is valuable in itself. 

Counter-Narratives to Counter Violence: The Importance of Community-Led Development in Eastleigh, Nairobi

Sylvia Feghali, an urban studies and sustainability studies senior from Qatar, researched the narrative around terrorism and violence in the Horn of Africa as it has been woven into a global characterization of the Somali community.

How did you conduct your research?

I focus my studies on the Somali community in Nairobi, Kenya asking: How can Somali community-based organizing build peace when embedded in systemic violence? Can orientalist narratives be challenged through community reclamation of representation in a way that inspires change?

I did a lot of secondary research on theory—both my own grounding theoretical framework at the intersection of feminist political geography and post-colonial theory, as well as development and security theory to understand the policies and ways of thinking that have perpetuated conflict and violence in the community I studied.

I also conducted critical discourse analysis of newspaper articles from the Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation. This included articles from 1989, which were only accessible via the work of archivist Birungi Kasfah at the Makere University Library in Kampala, Uganda. I also analyzed articles from 2013 archived online. Both years were selected as they corresponded with moments of tension between the Kenyan state and people of Somali heritage.

One of the newspapers Feghali used in discourse analysis. The screening discussed exemplifies systemic discrimination against Somalis.

Finally, I base much of the heart of this work on an intimate, but virtual, case study of the Awjama Cultural Centre, a Somali cultural center and research library in Eastleigh, Nairobi, home to over 300,000 Somali Kenyans and Somali refugees. I conducted phone interviews with the founder and director of the Centre, Fardowsa Jama, and kept in close email correspondence with her and several staff members at the Centre. Part of their success as a community center is due to their vibrant social media presence which connects people across the community both physically in Eastleigh and beyond.

My research “site” in many ways became Awjama’s Facebook and YouTube channels. I studied the programs they put together, the ways they market and present themselves, the community’s engagement with their pages, and the ways in which community members engaged with one another on Awjama’s platforms. I wove all these studies together to understand how Awjama, as a community-based organization has produced new ways for Somali people in Nairobi to engage with the city and reclaim their voice.

Somali women perform at the 4th annual Somali Heritage Week, where the Somali community connects with people across Kenya to showcase and celebrate Somali issues and culture. Photo courtesy of the Awjama Cultural Centre.

What element of your research do you find most fascinating?

It was all incredibly fascinating. My favorite part was linking everything together. The theory offers different perspectives through which to read the same kinds of material. The history offers context that also alters readings. Looking at state-scale understandings of a problem and finding ways to connect this to embodied, very personal experiences poses another challenge and way of thinking. Factoring in the way the media and public perception has power gives it another spin. I think the most fascinating element was just how different each piece of my research was, but that they all had to in some way be in conversation with one another for the entire picture to come together.

Was were your findings?

The Somali community in Kenya experiences violence and discrimination normalized by policy and media. Preventing violence depends on empowerment of local, sustainable peace-making efforts that consider intimate community needs. Grassroots activism as demonstrated by Awjama Cultural Centre empowers Kenyan Somalis to heal from historic violence, to cultivate pride in culture, community, and individual accomplishment, and to connect with Kenyans in productive ways.

Representation and Resistance in Online Video Games: Queergamers and Transgressive Play

Luke Hernandez is a government and Mexican American and Latina/o studies junior from San Antonio, Texas. He is a University Leadership Network and Gateway Scholar, as well as a 2018-19 McNair Scholar. His research is the first steps into understanding how online video games and players interact with one another in a way that constructs gender and sexuality in the real world. Currently he’s focusing on queer video game representations and the theory of “QueerGaming” and how that impacts communities.

How did you conduct your research?

The research is an ongoing project. I have just done a literature review about the intersections of media studies and queer theory. For the future, I want to conduct an ethnography of people who have played games in addition to a comparative analysis of the literature.

There are two areas that I’m analyzing in my project. Queer representation, in this case, is confirmed/canon queer content that is purported by the game company. “QueerGaming” is the phenomena of what most of my research is about and it means how a person “queers” the game, which allows many things to be exemplified.

What element of your research do you find most fascinating?

How it’s possible to apply the theory and methodology to games that were not previously thought of being “queer” or impacting the queer community. It’s the many possibilities that fascinate me and what helps me strive to go more in depth with this kind of research.

What kind of effect do you think this research could have?

People underestimate the impact video game culture has on society. The inquiry of finding the correlation between violence and video games is the first thing that people have in mind on the subject of researching video games. I plan to shift the paradigm of why people play video games and what that looks like. I believe that video games lend themselves to the experimentation and construction of sexualities/genders, which needs to be documented and analyzed.

No Place We Won’t Go: Chinese Traders in Kampala, Uganda

Devon Hsiao is a senior majoring in humanities and Korean and a member of the Feminist Geography Collective. For her senior thesis project, Hsiao examined the personal experiences of Chinese traders in Kampala, Uganda, and how their attitudes and experiences either support or challenge dominant narratives in the field of Chinese-African relations.

How did you decide on your topic?

I first came into contact with the idea of China-African relations in my internship at UNICEF China in 2016, which really informed and shaped my academic interests. In the humanities program, you design your own major and course of study, so I have focused on taking classes in African studies, Asian studies and history. I knew that for my thesis, I wanted to do something on narratives in China-African relations, so my advisor Caroline Faria and the Feminist Geography Collective helped me narrow down the scope of my research topic to the specific case study of Chinese traders in Uganda.

How did you conduct your research?

My data was mostly gathered during two months of fieldwork in Kampala, Uganda, using a multi-method approach. I conducted interviews (pictured) and a survey in Mandarin, as well as participant observation, retail mapping and some archival work in the Makerere University library.

What were your findings?

The Chinese small-scale traders in Kampala, Uganda, are mostly located along William Street in the Nakasero region of the city, and are wholesale businesses that sell shoes and bedding. Their experiences differ depending on whether they are the owners of these trading businesses or contracted employees, but in general my findings suggest that when examined at this intimate level, the Chinese government rhetoric of China-African relations as “South-South cooperation” and “Win-Win Development” do not hold up.

Devon Hsiao

What kind of effect do you think this research could have?

I hope that my research challenges how people talk about not just China-African relations, but international relations and globalization in general. So much of the discussion on political economy and trade relations is conducted through this macro-level institutional lens concerned with things like trade deals, million-dollar contracts and loans etc. I believe there is real value in examining micro-level personal interactions in evaluating globalization and trade.

Too Often Unheard: The Narratives and Medical Experiences of Misdiagnosed Black Women

Thomaia Pamplin, an English postbaccalaureate student and Mellon engaged scholar initiative fellow, studied the narratives of misdiagnosed women from a specific lower-income neighborhood in Houston to discover the factors that lead to delayed healthcare, or lack of access to quality healthcare.

How did you decide on your topic?

I grew up in the same community. My education has opened my eyes to the numerous discrepancies throughout this community. I hope that my findings contribute to bettering the resources for my community.

How did you conduct your research?

I took one-on-one, face-to-face interviews with participants. I drew similarities between their stories and also looked into the historical, geographical and economic statistics of this region.

What were your results?

This research has uncovered two main findings: First, that historic determinants, such as gender and racial identity, have created a culture of acquiescence and compliance in black women in regards to their health. Second, that revelations of self-advocacy help black women seek proper treatment and improve their health.

What kind of effect could this research have?

I hope this research assists people who feel not in control of their own healthcare. I hope that it also opens the eyes and ears of those healthcare professionals who might knowingly or unknowingly neglect a certain demographic of patients.

How this project impacted your future plans?

My goal is to become a physician. This project has impacted how I want to practice in the future, and increased my desire to serve lower-income and underserved populations.

Sport as Nation: A Rhetorical Analysis of FC Barcelona’s Catalanism

Emily Vernon is a Rhetoric & Writing and anthropology senior from The Woodlands, Texas. She analyzed the way coverage of FC Barcelona by different newspapers reflected their views on Catalan culture, even in sports coverage.

Can you describe your research project?

My thesis is a rhetorical analysis of FC Barcelona’s Catalanism between 2014 and 2018. For a good part of the last century, the soccer club has been employed as a political vehicle in the fight greater Catalan autonomy. That role has significantly changed since General Francisco Franco’s death in 1975; globalization and the increasing popularity of European soccer abroad have made the club’s games a hotbed for protests.

I analyzed articles from two Spanish-language newspapers — one of which leans left-of-center and is printed in Barcelona, and the other which leans more right-of-center and is printed in Madrid — about a variety of subtopics to better understand the rhetorical methods employed to effectively politicize a nonpolitical actor. There is nothing inherently political about a soccer team, and I hope that my research gives insight into the power of words in constructing identity and shows how that identity morphs with globalization.

How did you decide on your topic?

I played soccer for almost fifteen years and saw first-hand the importance players, parents and coaches placed on something as trivial as youth soccer. The emotions tied up in competitive games were always perplexing, and largely influenced my later college research. I find the cultural importance of sports a fascinating topic of study because it tells us so much about our society’s organization, our values and our creation of and tendency to abide by associated truths.

Additionally, as an anthropology and rhetoric & writing double major with a minor in information studies, I see this project as being the culmination of my undergraduate career at UT. Sports play a crucial cultural role, and understanding how they become politicized relies heavily on an understanding of the ways people grapple with information.

What were your findings?

The discourse presented in both papers recognized FC Barcelona’s global brand, but the framing of that brand was highly oppositional. The Catalan paper El Periódico paralleled this internationalism with a welcoming discourse, but nonetheless consistently framed FC Barcelona as disadvantaged in larger league decisions and paralleled their treatment to that of Catalonia under Franco. The Madrid paper, El País, aggressively worked to dismantle modern FC Barcelona’s representation of Catalonia, ultimately framing the club’s internationalism as oppositional to its role as a safeguard of Catalan culture.

To learn more about research in the College of Liberal Arts, visit the undergraduate research frontier site.

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Comics in the Classroom https://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/04/comics-in-the-classroom/ Wed, 17 Apr 2019 20:24:26 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15464 Rikke Cortsen is occasionally surprised to remember that not everyone she meets is an avid reader of comic books. She’s been reading comics of one sort or another since her childhood in Denmark, as evidenced by the hundreds of colorful volumes lining her office bookshelves.

“Working in comics you always run into the discussion of high culture and low culture and everybody says that it’s not really a thing,” she says. “But then you tell people you have a Ph.D. in comics and they giggle and you realize it’s still a thing.”

Cortsen, a visiting lecturer at UT Austin’s Department of Germanic Studies, sees comics unquestionably as art and also as a valuable teaching tool. While only one of her UT course offerings, Northern European Comics,focuses on the form specifically, she employs comics in all her classes as a means of teaching both language and culture.

Belgian comics icons Tintin and Snowy. Image: Belamp.

The medium is especially useful in language classes, where students who had previous bad experiences in the subject often view their language requirement with a bit of dread. Humorous comics can enliven the learning of basic language skills, Cortsen explains, citing a translated Calvin and Hobbes strip she shows her Danish class that conveniently features multiple conjugations of the action of eating worms. And breaking up text into smaller pieces goes a long way toward reducing the anxiety of reading in a foreign language. Students might encounter just as many unfamiliar words in a series of comic panels as they would in a book excerpt, but because the former appears easier they’re more likely to persevere.

Cortsen stresses that comics are also great for teaching visual literacy, something educators often forget in crafting the requirements of a well-rounded degree plan. While most people acknowledge the complexity of literature and the skills needed to interpret it, there’s a tendency to assume that we know how to read images intuitively. But images too can have multiple meanings. When Cortsen’s students look closely at comics and discuss what they see, different interpretations quickly emerge.

“That leads us on to this discussion of what are some of the many layers and could it be that the artist also drew this panel so that what you saw and what you saw are both in there at the same time,” she says.

While the field of comics scholarship has grown considerably since Cortsen attended her first conference, misconceptions about the medium’s artistic merits persist. One such assumption is that the images in comics exist merely to illustrate text, an outsourcing of the work that would otherwise be done by a reader’s imagination. But there are many ways text and image can interact. A story might be divided between the two, with text and image each providing different information. Images can even oppose rather than support text, undermining the words of an unreliable narrator, for example.

But the quality that perhaps most fascinates Cortsen is comics’ ability to visualize time in a way that moving image media like film and television can’t.

“Interesting things can happen with time and space in comics because of the way the medium is set up,” Cortsen explains. “You can have things that are technically the past, and the present, and the future right next to each other on a page. And the reader can put them together and navigate that.”

So, while comics are occasionally called by the more scholarly-sounding moniker “sequential art,” the way they are read is often far from a straight line.

Superman, not a fixture in Denmark. Image: David Bruyland.

Ever aware that many students’ only concept of the medium are superheroes, Cortsen aims to include as many styles and genres of comics in her classes as possible. I admit to her that I had written off comics due to that very ignorance before discovering various indie comic artists in college. Had I grown up in Denmark, I might have been less of a snob about it. The Danes are prolific readers of comics, and superhero narratives are not big there. When they do crop up, it’s usually in the form of satire.

While still more cape-strewn than that of Northern Europe, the U.S. comic landscape is changing, as well. Cortsen says she’s excited to see more diverse protagonists not just in indie comics, but also in the mainstream. Even the Marvel and DC dominated superhero industry is starting to realize that marketing to only one demographic may not be a winning strategy. (Recall the enormous success of the Black Panther movie if you have any doubts.)

However, amidst the ever-growing catalog of comics there are bound to be some duds. No one would say, “I don’t like books” just because they’d read one bad novel, yet one bad comic book experience can lead readers to assume they hate the medium as a whole.

“As with so many other artforms, there are good comics and there are not so good comics,” Cortsen says. “No matter who you are and what your interests are, I bet you I can find you a comic that you will find interesting.”

For those who want to experience the comics of Northern European first hand, Cortsen has some recommendations to get you started (all of which are available in English translations):

Munch by Steffen Kverneland (Norwegian)
Artist biography of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.

Book of Hope by Tommi Musturi (Finnish)
An old couple prepares for the last sections of life and the man remembers the past.

Fruit of knowledge by Liv Strömquist (Swedish)
The cultural history of the vulva told in an up-beat humorous fashion.

Today is the last day in the rest of your life by Ulli Lust(German)
Autobiographical account of a young woman’s travels around Southern Europe in the 1980s.

Zenobia by Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman (Danish)
A young Syrian girl tries to cross the Mediterranean to escape the conflict in Syria.

Featured image: morebyless

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What’s in Your Library? https://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/04/whats-in-your-library/ Tue, 16 Apr 2019 17:09:27 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15513 Over a period of five years (2013-18) a Faculty Committee on Influential Books discussed, debated and finally compiled a list of intellectually and culturally significant books to encourage reading by undergraduates and provide inspiration for continued reading by college alumni.

The committee benefited from student suggestions and criticism in drawing up the list that mainly represents books in literature, history, politics and philosophy, but its broader range includes the social sciences and the humanities, science and the arts. Seminal works find their place among others notable for humor and wit and still others for an engaging read, as well as long-range intellectual benefit.

The Faculty Committee on Influential Books included Wm. Roger Louis (committee chair), Robert H. Abzug, Randy L. Diehl, Al Martinich, Elizabeth Richmond-Garza and Steven Weinberg.

150 Highly Recommended Books:

□ Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart

□ Adams, Henry, The Education of Henry Adams

The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights

□ Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism

□ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

□ Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale

□ Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

□ Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice

□ Bailyn, Bernard, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

□ Baldwin, James, The Fire Next Time

□ Balzac, Honoré de, The Human Comedy: Selected Stories

□ Bellow, Saul, Herzog

□ Berlin, Isaiah, The Hedgehog and the Fox

Bhagavad Gita

Bible

□ Blake, William, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

□ Borges, Jorge, Ficciones

□ Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre

□ Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights

□ Bulgakov, Mikhail, The Master and Margarita

□ Bunyan, John, The Pilgrim’s Progress

□ Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France

□ Camus, Albert, The Stranger

□ Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone

□ Carroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

□ Cervantes, Miguel de, Don Quixote

□ Chang, Jung, Wild Swans

□ Chaucer, Geoffrey Canterbury Tales

□ Chekhov, Anton, The Cherry Orchard

□ Churchill, Winston, My Early Life

□ Coetzee, J. M., Waiting for the Barbarians

□ Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness

□ Dangerfield, George, The Strange Death of Liberal England

□ Dante, Inferno

□ Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species

□ Defoe, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe

□ Descartes, René, Meditations on First Philosophy

□ Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations

□ Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov

□ Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

□ Dreiser, Theodore, Sister Carrie

□ Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk

□ Eliot, George, Middlemarch

□ Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man

□ Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth

□ Faulkner, William, Light in August

□ Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby

□ Flaubert, Gustave, Madame Bovary

□ Forster, E. M., A Passage to India

□ Franklin, Benjamin, Autobiography

□ Frazer, James, The Golden Bough

□ Freud, Sigmund, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis

□ Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

□ Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand, The Story of My Experiments with Truth

□ García Márquez, Gabriel, One Hundred Years of Solitude

□ Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

□ Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Faust, part 1

□ Gombrich, E. H., The Story of Art

□ Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs

□ Greene, Graham, The Heart of the Matter

□ Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers

□ Hardy, Thomas, Far from the Madding Crowd

□ Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Scarlet Letter

□ Hemingway, Ernest, The Sun Also Rises

□ Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan

□ Homer, Odyssey

□ Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

□ Ibsen, Henrik, A Doll’s House

□ James, C. L. R., The Black Jacobins

□ James, Henry, The Portrait of a Lady

□ James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience

□ Joyce, James, Dubliners

□ Kafka, Franz, The Trial

□ Kant, Immanuel, “Toward Perpetual Peace”

□ Keynes, John Maynard, The Economic Consequences of the Peace

□ Kipling, Rudyard, Kim

□ Lehman, David, ed., The Oxford Book of American Poetry

□ Lincoln, Abraham, Selected Speeches and Writings

□ Locke, John, Second Treatise of Government

□ Macaulay, Thomas Babington, The History of England from the Accession of James II

□ Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince

□ Mahan, Alfred Thayer, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783

□ Mahfouz, Naguib, The Cairo Trilogy

□ Mann, Thomas, Death in Venice

□ Manzoni, Alessandro, The Betrothed

□ Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

□ Melville, Herman, Moby-Dick

□ Mencken, H. L., The Vintage Mencken

□ Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty, and Other Writings

□ Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman

□ Milton, John, Paradise Lost

□ Moorehead, Alan, The White Nile

□ Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita

□ Newton, Isaac, Opticks

□ Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil

□ O’Neill, Eugene, Long Day’s Journey into Night

□ Orwell, George, 1984

□ Paine, Thomas, The Age of Reason

□ Plato, Dialogues

□ Poe, Edgar Allan, Complete Stories and Poems

□ Prescott, William H., History of the Conquest of Mexico

□ Proust, Marcel, Swann’s Way

Qur’an

□ Rabelais, François, Gargantua and Pantagruel

□ Reed, John, Ten Days That Shook the World

□ Ricks, Christopher, ed., The Oxford Book of English Verse

□ Roth, Joseph, The Radetzky March

□ Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract

□ Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children

□ Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy

□ Said, Edward, Orientalism

□ Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., The Age of Roosevelt

□ Shakespeare, William, Works

□ Shaw, Bernard, Pygmalion

□ Sheehan, Neil, A Bright Shining Lie

□ Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations

□ Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

□ Sophocles, Antigone

□ Southern, R. W., The Making of the Middle Ages

□ Stampp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution

□ Steinbeck, John, The Grapes of Wrath

□ Stendhal, The Red and the Black

□ Strachey, Lytton, Eminent Victorians

□ Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver’s Travels

□ Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome

□ Taylor, A. J. P., The Origins of the Second World War

□ Thackeray, William Makepeace, Vanity Fair

□ Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic

□ Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

□ Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America

□ Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace

□ Trevor-Roper, Hugh, The Last Days of Hitler

□ Trollope, Anthony, The Way We Live Now

□ Tuchman, Barbara, The Guns of August

□ Turgenev, Ivan, Fathers and Sons

□ Turner, Frederick Jackson, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”

□ Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

□ Veblen, Thorstein, Theory of the Leisure Class

□ Voltaire, Candide, and Other Stories

□ Vonnegut, Kurt, Cat’s Cradle

□ Waugh, Evelyn, Brideshead Revisited

□ Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

□ Wharton, Edith, The Age of Innocence

□ Wilde, Oscar, The Importance of Being Earnest

□ Williams, Tennessee, A Streetcar Named Desire

□ Wilson, Edmund, To the Finland Station

□ Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

□ Woodward, C. Vann, The Strange Career of Jim Crow

□ Woolf, Virginia, Mrs. Dalloway

□ Zola, Emile, The Dreyfus Affair: “J’accuse,” and Other Writings

Featured Illustration: Zach Meyer

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The Real Diehl: A Dean Reflects on His Mission https://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/04/the-real-diehl-a-dean-reflects-on-his-mission/ Mon, 15 Apr 2019 13:56:31 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15496 Randy Diehl is a morning person. Rising at 4 a.m., he writes a few emails catches up on his reading and takes a brisk walk before heading to campus to lead a college with 22 academic departments, three branches of the ROTC and more than 500 faculty members. Despite long days and a demanding schedule, he never seems to tire. That’s because he is on a mission.

“At the risk of appearing grandiose, I believe that what we do at UT and at other Tier One research universities is of civilizational importance,” he says. “The founders of our American universities believed that the liberal arts were vital to a democracy, which rests on the shoulders of educated citizens and leaders who know the meaning of liberty and know how to exercise it wisely.”

“The founders of our American universities believed that the liberal arts were vital to a democracy, which rests on the shoulders of educated citizens and leaders who know the meaning of liberty and know how to exercise it wisely.”

Randy Diehl

As a professor, researcher and department chair of psychology, Diehl worked side by side with dozens of undergraduate and graduate students, exploring the mysteries of how people perceive and produce speech. His students would learn how to solve complex problems and develop critical thinking skills, but he also hoped they would develop an unquenchable desire to keep on learning and apply what they learned to making the world a better place.

Whether they knew it or not, that was the outcome Diehl sought for every one of the tens of thousands of students who passed through the college since he became dean in 2007. Regardless of their chosen field of study, he hoped each would graduate equipped for a lifetime of learning and service to others.

Born in Freeport, Illinois, Diehl is something of a polymath in his approach to learning, a voracious reader with a particular bent toward histories. He plows through massive tomes like Neil Kamil’s Fortress of the Soul — more than a thousand pages on the life and culture of 18th century French Huguenot settlers — his eyes light up as he describes the sheer pleasure of reading such a dense and well-researched book. He has read an enormous amount of fiction as well, tracing the development of the novel from Swift to Proust to Hemingway. (He’s currently finishing Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, puzzled that he somehow missed that one along the way.) But Diehl also loves reading about the hard sciences, especially about advances in astrophysics. In sum, he has a curious mind that has suited him well as dean of a college that spans so many disciplines in the humanities, social sciences and languages.

It is a job Diehl would have found unlikely when he joined the UT faculty in 1975. “If someone had predicted that I would one day become a dean, I would have loudly scoffed at the idea,” he says. “What changed my mind? In 1995 I reluctantly agreed to serve as chair of the psychology department, and within a matter of weeks I came to understand that academic leadership can be among the most gratifying experiences a faculty member can have.”

Diehl says what he came to appreciate — and then to love — was the opportunity to work with colleagues to advance scholarly, educational and service missions.

Randy Diehl visits with graduating seniors who were honored as Dean’s Distinguished Graduates in May 2015. Photo: Phil Butler

It is this mission-driven focus that has helped Diehl remain both resilient and optimistic during his two terms as dean. Barely a year into his deanship, the Great Recession of 2008 sent a shockwave through the U.S. economy that severely curtailed resources allotted to higher education.

“We managed to continue to recruit and retain outstanding faculty despite serious budgetary limits,” says Diehl, who credits the innovative leadership in his college as well as the unwavering support of alumni and donors for helping him continue to build excellence in the college.

“One of the joys of being a dean is reading the scholarly and educational work of faculty being considered for promotion in rank (he has personally reviewed 363 cases as dean), and there is simply no question that the quality of our faculty has improved year after year,” he says. “The percentage of successful promotion cases has continued to rise even as our standards have become ever more rigorous.”

A critical part of building an excellent faculty is recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty, and Diehl says he believes the college has made good on that commitment.

During his terms as dean, two new departments were added, the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies; and first steps were taken to make the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, which launched a program in LGBTQ Studies, a full-fledged department.

“Some of the most ambitious and groundbreaking scholarship at UT is taking place in these very units,” Diehl says.

Another persistent challenge has been the shortage of high-quality space to perform the college’s research and teaching missions. Diehl began to address this challenge when he was chair of the Department of Psychology, leading the effort to build a new home for the department — the Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay Building. Work is now underway for an addition to that building that will bring the groundbreaking research of the Center for Perceptual Systems and the Institute for Mental Health Research together under one roof.

During Diehl’s time as dean, the college has seen the renovation and expansion of many spaces, most notably the Gordon-White Building — which formerly housed the Department of Geography and the Environment — and is now home to Black Studies and Latino Studies.

The most significant construction project of all was a new College of Liberal Arts building that opened in 2013 and was renamed the Sherri and Robert L. Patton, Jr. Hall in 2018. Not only did it mark a transformational moment for the college — the first building on campus specifically dedicated to the liberal arts and its students — it also marked the first time a college at UT had financed its own building.

“When plans for what became Patton Hall were first being discussed, we were told that none of the usual funding sources for capital projects would be available. So, we decided to underwrite the project with existing college funds,” Diehl says. “This had never been done before, but we were able to pull it off with the help of generous donors. We also managed to complete the project $15 million under the original cost estimate, with 14 percent more assignable space than earlier planned — all while adhering to the highest standards of quality and sustainability.”

However, the college’s greatest accomplishment during the past 12 years, in Diehl’s estimation, is not about the buildings, but rather about defending the scholarship that takes place within their walls.“When the mission and values of UT Austin were under attack by certain members of the Board of Regents and others, the leadership of the college joined President [Bill] Powers and members of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education in fighting back with arguments and evidence,” Diehl recalls. “We were successful, in particular, in refuting the claims of the so-called Seven Breakthrough Solutions, which, if implemented, would have destroyed UT Austin’s status as a Tier One research university.”

It wasn’t the first time college leadership was tapped by the university to lead a campus-wide initiative. In 2011, Diehl headed a task force to improve four-year graduation rates, prompting a number of major structural and policy changes that improved four-year graduation rates from 52 to 70 percent in a five-year period. Under Diehl’s leadership, the college also led the university in such areas as student advising, the development of online classes and the consolidation of business services.

Although he officially retires at the end of August, Diehl will doubtless continue to rise at 4 a.m. That is what happens when you are mission-driven and a creature of the liberal arts. The desire to learn, discover and to serve never ends. As Diehl used to tell graduates at the May commencement ceremony, “the liberal arts will give you a life that is richly lived with curiosity, passion and purpose. It will always keep you connected to the wonders of this world.”

FEATURED PHOTO: EMILY NIELSEN

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Looking to a Bright Future https://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/04/looking-to-a-bright-future/ Fri, 12 Apr 2019 18:20:55 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15508 The focus on brain health in this issue of Life & Letters is particularly compelling because our researchers are on the cusp of making dramatic breakthroughs in mental health research, cognitive neuroscience and in other areas that affect the lives of so many.

What excites me about this research is its “translational” quality — our faculty members and students are translating basic research findings into effective interventions in both our Institute for Mental Health Research (IMHR) and in the Center for Perceptual Systems (CPS).

At the IMHR, Chris Beevers and his team — including top talents from across campus in psychology, education, social work, communications and the Dell Medical School — are reinventing the way we treat mental health conditions. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 60 million adults suffer from mental health disorders.

The CPS is exploring new ways to prevent and treat brain injuries with an interdisciplinary team from neuroscience, psychology, electrical and computer engineering, computer science, and speech and communication. The researchers are making advances in ocular implants that, like cochlear implants, are wired to the brain and therefore bypass damaged organs to help restore sight.

We have the green light to begin planning and construction of an addition to the Sarah M. & Charles E. Seay Building that will bring the IMHR and CPS together under one roof, creating new opportunities for collaboration.

Brain health research is just one example of the learning and discovery that takes place daily across the breadth of our college in the humanities, social sciences and languages. It is work that transforms the lives of our students, and through our service mission it improves the lives of countless Texans, as well as people around the world.

The liberal arts will be in good hands as I turn over the deanship to Ann Huff Stevens this summer. Among her many accomplishments, she was the founding director of the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis, which works across academic disciplines to answer critical questions about poverty in our communities. A professor of economics, she is also a Texas native with roots in Corpus Christi. We are fortunate to be able to bring her back to the Lone Star State.

It has been my good fortune to work with so many talented and dedicated students, faculty and staff members, alumni and friends, and it has been an honor and privilege to serve as dean of the College of Liberal Arts, as a professor and chair in the Department of Psychology, and as a faculty member for these past 44 years at The University of Texas at Austin.

Thanks for the great ride, and Hook ’em Horns!

PHOTO BY LAITS STUDIO

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Team of the Year https://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2019/04/team-of-the-year/ Mon, 08 Apr 2019 14:36:01 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=15520 Out of 145 Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) detachments across the country, Detachment 825 of the University of Texas at Austin was named the Team of the Year.

In making their selection, the national headquarters for Air Force ROTC considers each detachment’s accomplishments. “They make their determination on overall mission impact, the uniqueness of contributions and mission effectiveness,” says Capt. Thomas Hart, instructor of Air Force science at UT Austin.

“Against another 144 detachments, to come out on top is a great way to bring honor to all of the team’s hard work,” says. Col. Paul Tombarge, chair of the Department of Air Force Science at UT Austin. “We’d like to bring in more cadets in the future, so hopefully this will inspire other students to join, try it out, and see if they like it.”

Tombarge describes his own experience as doing just that. He knew little about ROTC or the Air Force Academy when he began college 33 years ago and was well into his freshman year before he decided to join Air Force ROTC at the University of Minnesota. The rest, he says, is history.

Today, he commands Detachment 825 at UT Austin, which is made up of a wide variety of people, including student cadets, who will become second lieutenants in the Air Force upon graduation, and cadre members, or active duty officers who instruct and lead the students.

Offered at more than 1,100 colleges and universities across the country, Air Force ROTC is the largest of the three commissioning sources (the others being Officer Training School and the U.S. Air Force Academy) and prepares students to become officers in the U.S. Air Force while they earn their college degrees at a civilian university.

“Being able to work with the caliber of people that we have, the level of responsibility that we’re given, and seeing the mission completed, are all great aspects of being in Air Force ROTC,” Tombarge says. “An Air Force career can be challenging. There can be long hours and sometimes you can be away from home, but the leadership opportunities, travel, and unique experiences are rewarding in the end.”

Tombarge believes that the UT Austin detachment mirrors UT Austin’s slogan: “What starts here changes the world.”

“We’ve got a lot of great people here, individually doing great things, but when you put us all together that composite thing stands out and rises above everybody else,” Tombarge explains. “The caliber of our cadets and the cadre is outstanding.”

One such cadet is Jillian Wilde, a senior in international relations and global studies. She holds the title of Cadet Wing Commander and the rank of cadet colonel, overseeing all cadet activities, such as military training and physical fitness as well as social functions like the Air Force ball and administering the detachment’s Facebook page.

To Wilde, the most rewarding aspect about being in ROTC is developing as a leader inside of a training environment before entering the Air Force. “You really get to experience and experiment with your leadership style before you become an active duty officer,” she says.

Wilde explains that ROTC encourages students to try new things with a safety net, where students are empowered to take risks. This empowerment breeds excellence, Shader says, which stems from the mentorship that the cadre provides.

“Our cadre members really take an active part in our learning,” she says. “They take their mentorship responsibilities very seriously, and whenever cadets need help or mentoring or leadership guidance, the cadre members are always there for us.”

In looking to the years ahead, Tombarge hopes the cadre will continue to support and inspire cadets to be their best and work towards being named the Team of the Year next year and every year after.

“It’s always hard to win these types of rewards two years in a row, but we’ll see if we can do it,” he says. “We’ve got our bar set high.”

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