Life & Letters Magazine Fri, 06 Jul 2018 16:47:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Future is Female: Young Women Inspired to take on NEW Leadership™ Roles Thu, 05 Jul 2018 18:44:50 +0000 With more running for political office than ever before, women have moved beyond breaking ceilings and on to breaking records.

But there’s still more work to be done.

This year, more than 2,500 women filed for national- or state-level candidacy in a bi-partisan effort to increase female representation in politics nationwide, where women currently hold 20 percent of all congressional seats and less than 25 percent of state legislator positions. To ensure female political representation continues to grow, The University of Texas at Austin Center for Women’s & Gender Studies brought the national NEW Leadership™ program to Texas for its seventh consecutive year.

A panel of female local government leaders speak with conference participants at Austin City Hall.

“I thought it would be interesting to learn more about why women are so underrepresented and what we can do about it,” said Rhie Azzam Morris, a history senior at Sam Houston State University. “I learned to compromise my strategies and not my values, and that many of my attributes that the world teaches women are deficits are actually gifts, such as owning my space, speaking up and not being afraid to ask questions.”

The non-partisan, weeklong summer institute, established at Rutgers University, is designed to empower women — especially women of color — to participate in political leadership roles by introducing them to current political professionals and creating an open dialogue about women in leadership and politics.

“This is the first and only program of its kind in Texas,” said the center’s director Susan Heinzelman, a UT Austin associate professor of English. “NEW Leadership™ Texas strives to instill the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for effective political engagement and community organizing and asks women to get involved in politics by working on campaigns and issues that further their own values and beliefs about how to improve society.”

This year had the most diverse cohort to date, conference organizers said. The 38 participants ranged from 19 to 45 years old, hailed from 28 colleges and universities across the state, and represented the full length of the political spectrum and diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Students worked in groups to learn more about their civic responsibility

“I learned that there are so many people from all walks of life that you will have a lot in common with,” said Kimberley Giden, a political science major at the University of Houston-Downtown. “I’ve learned that you should judge less, observe more and find a common ground with all those you come into contact with.”

Conference participants take a seat at the Texas State Capitol.

According to the 2018 Texas Civic Health Index, political participation in Texas remains extremely low. Based on figures from the 2016 general election, the state ranked 44th in voter registration and 47th in voter turnout among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. NEW Leadership™ Texas would like to change all of that, Heinzelman said.

“I realized I was not at the conference to just work on my perceived weaknesses, but to see my strengths and understand how they can be used to make change,” said Meagan Biscamp, a social work junior at St. Edwards University who was inspired by the conference to start an Ignite Texas chapter at her school to empower young women to become civically engaged and run for office.

Other graduates of the program have gone on to run for city councils, lead campaigns, intern in Washington, D.C., and work in groundbreaking areas of political technology, conference organizers said.

“The self-care sessions, meeting amazing women, and learning about women and their role in politics made me feel empowered,” said A’breanna Harrison, a junior education major at Hardin Simmons University. “It fueled me to help myself to help the worldI felt like I could accomplish anything I put my mind to.”

The 2018 NEW Leadership cohort outside Austin City Hall.

Fight Like a Girl:  How Women’s Activism Shapes History Tue, 03 Jul 2018 16:12:49 +0000 Alice Embree doesn’t know what came over her the first time she stood up against injustice. She just knew it was the right thing to do.

Along with her friends Karen and Glodine and the rest of the Austin High School drill squad, Embree had just sat down to order at a restaurant in Corpus Christi when a waitress approached Glodine, the sole African American on the squad, and said, “Honey, we just can’t serve you here.”

“They won’t serve Glodine. We need to leave,” Embree recalls saying almost instinctively to her teammates, but they wouldn’t budge, muttering the excuse, “but we just ordered.”

“It was as if the decorum of the place was more important than the principle to everybody else,” Embree says.

Alice Embree, April 2018. Photo by Sarah Lim.

She and her two friends were the only ones who left to eat lunch at Woolworth’s, which was integrated at the time, before meeting back up with the rest of the group. That moment, she says, foreshadowed becoming a freshman at The University of Texas at Austin in 1963 when its dormitories and sports teams were still segregated and in a city that was still enforcing poll taxes.

“We’d been raised to believe certain things about the country and suddenly they appeared not to be true at all, like ‘we’re all created equal,’” scoffs Embree, who came to UT to study anthropology, though she admits her major might as well have been “SDS” — Students for a Democratic Society, a 1960s student activist group of the New Left.

Candidate for Vice President of the Student Assembly Alice Embree, supporting the SDS stand, addressed the Texas Veteran’s rally during the campaign, 1967. Photo by The Cactus, 1967, Vol. 74, Texas Student Publications, Inc.

By the mid-1960s, the pressures of the draft for the Vietnam War and disparities between race and gender populations were becoming intolerable. There was an outcry for peace, demands for true equality, and an uproar of women defying gender norms in the name of liberation.

“That was the environment that changed me into an activist,” Embree says.

Raised Voices, and Suspicions

Embree became involved with SDS after she was handed a copy of the Port Huron Statement —the group’s manifesto — while walking through UT’s West Mall. From there she began working on an underground, counterculture newspaper called The Rag, which was founded in 1966, first as a typist and later as a writer. It was a time when women in the office pushed to have their voices heard.

The Rag really embraced women’s liberation while a lot of other underground newspapers literally imploded,” says Embree. In each week’s issue, The Rag shared viewpoints on the black struggle, the farm workers’ movement, women’s liberation, free speech, anti-war protests and other social grievances that the local and national papers weren’t reporting.

“We wanted to have an alternative view to the media,” says UT law professor Barbara Hines, who came to UT in 1965 to study Spanish and Latin American studies while also getting involved with The Rag and women’s movement. “Remember, this is a time way before the internet. There were limited viewpoints you could access in the media.”

Unlike many underground newspapers, The Rag at The University of Texas at Austin embraced women’s liberation. Here, women of The Rag and “Mother Smith” (right) work on layout, February 1974. Photo by Alan Pogue.

Despite the university’s attempt to stifle their editorial voices and printers around town refusing to print material with such crude language and radical viewpoints, The Rag pressed on.

Cries for liberation spread like wildfire at UT and across the U.S. as women came together in consciousness-raising groups to discuss their experiences.

“I guess you have to understand that women didn’t do that before, that that was such a novel approach,” Embree says, adding that against the backdrop of the civil rights, free speech and anti-war movements, women began to understand their story as a social structure.

“You’re in a framework that’s like a prison under patriarchy. Whether you like it or not, you have all these barriers and all these things and expectations that encircle you,” says Martha Cotera, who participated in the Chicano and women’s liberation movements. “The patriarchy has control over our reproductive lives, control over economic lives, control over our thinking and cultural lives, control over everything to keep the cage in place.”

These women looked at a variety of issues, building off of questions asked in the civil rights struggle and the war struggle, and they began to consider and challenge the age-old expectations of wifehood and motherhood and push for autonomy as sexual beings, Embree says. They examined employment barriers and pay scales, realizing the concept of “the glass ceiling” before it even had a name.

The Rag, October 30, 1967.

“It was eye-opening for all of us because I think it was the first time that women really talked about the socialization and the objectification of women and the discrimination against women,” Hines says.

Off campus, there were no female firefighters, police officers, or EMS workers. And if a woman tried to enter one of those professions, it was either through a lawsuit or a threat of a lawsuit, Embree explains. By 1968, women made up only 7 percent of doctors, 3 percent of lawyers and 1 percent of engineers and were making 40 percent less than men for the same jobs nationwide. And campus was a reflection of that. There were few female graduate students and even fewer female faculty members.

“To go to law school or medical school was to make a political statement,” says Hines. She was classified as “Disloyal No. 3, known to sympathize with members of the Communist Party” in a 100-page FBI file detailing her involvement in the women’s liberation movement — though Hines says she was never involved with the Communist Party.

It seems there had been a mole attending The Rag and women’s liberation meetings. “Source stated that women’s liberation is basically opposed to male chauvinism to the point of eliminating the wearing of brassieres and clean attire in order not to be a sex symbol,” the FBI file continues. “The group also favors abortion.”

Getting Organized

It was a time of mass domestic surveillance in the U.S. under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who trained the agency’s eyes and ears on anyone suspected of posing a political threat.

Some fears circulated around the possibility of a phone tap at the Y, where Hines and other women ran a birth control counseling center in a small room next to The Rag’s office. At the time, birth control was not available to anyone who wasn’t married or engaged — or had some form of acne that could only be cleared with the pill’s high dosage of progesterone, Hines adds, offering one way women were able to get around the restriction.

Their operation seemed low risk enough to advertise in The Rag, but eventually women started asking questions about abortions.

“We sent women who had money to other states where it was legal, but primarily we sent women to a doctor in Eagle Pass — well, he was actually in Piedras Negras, just south of the border,” says Hines, who is also affiliated with the UT Austin Immigration Studies Initiative.

The group became concerned with their liability under conspiracy laws as aiders and abettors and reached out to one of the only lawyers they thought would be willing to help: Sarah Weddington, who recounts in her book, A Question of Choice, the conversation she had with the student group that sparked her decision to take on the case of Roe v. Wade.

“If you think back to 1970, there was not a woman gynecologist in Travis County. You couldn’t get birth control prescriptions unless you were married, except for one doctor. Women had no resources whatsoever to help them control reproduction. All of these things kind of kindled change,” Embree says. “We brought attention to that, and then we began to make changes.”


Austin women activists began to call foul on issues related to domestic and sexual violence. In working with the Mexican American Business and Professional Women — “a safe name that hid radical work” — Cotera helped open the Austin Rape Crisis Center in 1974 and the Center for Battered Women in 1977.

“We did a lot in bringing the churches around, and the police and the courts around to negotiate services for rape victims and victims of domestic abuse,” says Cotera, who learned about the terrors of domestic abuse when living in Crystal City, Texas, and working with teachers who were sheltering women and children who suffered domestic abuse.

“I learned how risky it is to host abused families in a house with the potential of angry spouses locating them and endangering everyone in the house, including the host,” Cotera says. “That’s when we arrived at the idea that you needed to have a neutral territory that was well-secured to keep people safe.”

Barbara Hines, April 2018. Photo by Sarah Lim.

On campus, Cotera focused her efforts on organizing ethnic studies education and establishing the university’s Center for Mexican American Studies.

“Things weren’t happening fast enough, so we took off with other educational activists to start our own independent college,” says Cotera, describing the idea that led to establishing Jacinto Trevino College in Mercedes, Texas, in 1969. “It was a way to do it quickly, to educate more teachers.”

Passport photo of Barbara Hines, 1971. Photo by Alan Pogue.

Though she laughs and admits the whole idea sounds crazy now, she knew the importance cultural institutions would have in providing a real, holistic education to students, so much so that she also helped establish Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center and ardently supported the Mexic-Arte Museum within the same decade.

“When you’re at the bottom, every little gain that you make, you’re happy for,” Cotera says. “I thought our movement might last forever and go on and on and on.”

Untold History

“It’s amazing to me how important this history is here that isn’t told,” says Laurie Green, a UT Austin history and women’s and gender studies professor who argues that most of the narratives about the women’s liberation movement focus on the Northeast, the Midwest or the West Coast, not the South and certainly not Austin, Texas.

This omission sparked the idea for her fall 2017 class assignment — a women’s activism memoir project in which Green’s students would interview women’s liberation activists who had either attended UT or lived in Austin in the ’60s and ’70s, including Cotera, Embree and Hines.

“I wanted this history to be real for them and understand that this is their history — this is our history,” Green asserts.

To ensure these women’s stories wouldn’t vanish from history as many often do, Green partnered with the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History to archive the transcripts and recorded interviews between the students and activists in a permanent collection that will soon be accessible for others to study for years to come.

“Women’s history is a very rich and lively kind of study, especially when we really reach deep into the lives of these activists who define activism in a very broad way,” says Jacqueline Jones, professor of history at UT and chair of the department. “Yet, a lot of that has been lost to us. That’s why this project is so important.”

Oftentimes, women’s activity of the past is painted with a very broad brush, garnering titles such as “first wave” or “second wave”— both of which were described for the first time in a 1968 New York Times article, “The Second Feminist Wave,” which outlined the demands of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Classifying these eras as “waves” can be problematic because they compress all women activists and all their struggles from the mid-19th century to the late-20th century into just two compartments: the women’s suffrage movement, which ended in 1920 with the 19th Amendment, and women’s activism of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Many UT activists in the project didn’t describe themselves with the word ‘feminism,’ which they identified with older women in NOW. They used ‘women’s liberation,’” says Green.

Women protest in support of the Equal Rights Amendment at the Texas Capitol, April 1975. [Center] Martha Cotera holds “Liberty, Justice, All” sign. Photo by Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

“The term ‘feminist’ can hinder our understanding of women’s activities in the past because women who were very outspoken, very active, who seemed to be breaking norms at the time, were not always acting on behalf of all women,” says Jones, whose recent book, Goddess of Anarchy, delves deep into the formidable life of Lucy Parsons, a quintessential agitator of the late 19th and early 20th century who spoke of growing inequality and the rights of workers who were being displaced by machines, but was most certainly not a “feminist.”

“She was not sympathetic to women reformers. She really felt that they were just kind of tinkering with the capitalist system and that it needed to be destroyed,” Jones says. “It would have been unusual to find women, especially in the 19th and well into the 20th century, who had a view of universal womanhood; most women defined their place in the society within the context of their own kin, religious, class, ethnic, racial or regional group, and not exclusively according to their gender.  Of course, to a certain extent that is the case today as well.”

Universal Womanhood

In fact, NOW, which was first headed by Betty Friedan — who is often credited for sparking the so-called second wave with her groundbreaking 1963 book The Feminine Mystique — has been criticized for operating under the ideas of “white feminism.” Rather than rallying behind the more radical views of women’s liberation, local and national groups of older, more privileged women seemed to prioritize political power.

 “In Texas, when Anglo women decided not to give minority women equal status within the National Women’s Political Caucus — when minority women were over a big majority of the feminist movement throughout the nation — then I knew it wasn’t going to last,” Cotera says disappointedly. “They marginalized radical women, they marginalized minority women and they focused on power over everything. When you’re focused on that, you don’t last. You don’t build institutions.”

Latino students protesting outside of the Main Building on the University of Texas campus, January 1972. Photo by Marlon Taylor, Prints and Photographs Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Things began to fall apart on the national level as women of color challenged the idea that white, heterosexual women represented universal womanhood.

“If Betty Friedan says, ‘Let’s all go leave our homes and work,’ that’s great, but who’s going to take care of Betty Friedan’s children?” That question is posed by Lisa B. Thompson, a UT Austin associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and women’s and gender studies. She points out the reality of white, middle-class, married women going out and bringing “another white income into the home while paying a woman of color to take care of their kids and clean their house,” adding that the lowest-paid women are those working in child care.


“How does your feminism take into account those differences?” she asks. “That’s something we have to change — those who have the blow horn need to use it to amplify the issues of minority of underrepresented women and girls.”

Even before the women’s liberation movement, the suffragists faced their own battles along sectarian lines.

“When people see these images of white women in their white Victorian dresses with their lavender sashes in front of the White House, they get the idea that the suffrage movement was a white women’s movement,” Green says. “But black women were suffragists too.”

A civil rights protester demonstrating in Austin with a sign using President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s initials, which reads, “Let’s Begin Justice in Austin!” 1964. Photo by Texas Student Publications Photographs, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Green offers an example of the first big suffrage march on Washington, D.C., in 1913 when organizers decided to appease southern white women by directing black women to march in the back. But Ida B. Wells, a crusader against lynching at the time, wouldn’t have it and ultimately stepped in line with the Illinois contingent during the march, Green says. Others joined in.

“Every movement has its contradictions,” Green explains. “There’s not a movement where suddenly you’ve reached the pinnacle and everything is important. There’s always this working out of history and clashing ideas even within movements.”

Hines recalls debates within their campus groups about race and class and whether a person of color should be aligned with the black liberation struggle or the women’s liberation struggle, admitting that much of the national movement centered on organized groups of white women.

“We didn’t really have that term of “white privilege” or perspective of looking at what we take for granted, or what is so engrained in how things work, or the myriad of experiences, of steps ahead, or advantages you have as a white person in our society,” Hines says. White privilege wasn’t defined until the 1980s when people began to understand and define the inner workings of systemic oppression.

Coming Together

In 1989, Kimbrelé Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles, introduced her theory of intersectionality.

“If a black woman was being discriminated against, the law was asking her, ‘Were you being discriminated against as a black person or as a woman?’ It’s both,” Thompson says. “Intersectionality is taking into account my race, my gender, my class, my sexuality.”

Martha Cotera, April 2018. Photo by Sarah Lim.

The theory built on the idea of being a “womanist,” a term introduced by Alice Walker in her book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden. Walker writes: “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”

“It’s a deeper shade of feminism. My culture is the lens through which I see feminism,” Thompson says. “And another way black feminists are intervening is by pushing others to ask themselves, ‘What are your concerns as a mother?’”

Martha and Juan Cotera packing up books for their move to Mercedes, Texas, in 1970, where they helped found Jacinto Trevino College. Photo courtesy of Martha Cotera.

Black activist pioneers such as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells — who were involved with anti-lynching campaigns — were fighting a women’s issue, she explains. “Some people will say lynching is a race issue, but if you’re a mother, and you’re giving birth to someone who is going to be lynched, it’s a woman’s issue.” That is why it is important for women activists today to rally behind the Black Lives Matter movement and work to end police brutality, adds Thompson.

“Police brutality toward both men and women is an issue that runs through a lot of 20th century American history, particularly when there was so much movement from rural areas into the cities,” Green says. “It became an important part of history that angered black communities and affected mainstream politics.”

She says today it is important to ask what’s new and what’s not new. “The violence isn’t new, but having a national movement and a reaction to a national movement — that is new.”

In organizing the 2017 Women’s March on Washington after the election of President Donald Trump, people feared history might repeat itself and upper-middle-class white women would again hold the reigns. “Same old, same old,” some criticized.


“Ultimately, the people organizing it recognized it was so important for people to come together. And the march changed,” Green says. Protecting civil rights and taking a stand to end  violence were two of the eight unity principles outlined by the women’s march committee, which was made up of African Americans, Latinas, Muslims and whites.

The march became the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, with more than 4 million people participating in 653 marches across the country. It was followed later in the year by the unprecedented and viral #MeToo movement, a cry echoed by millions in 85 countries to end sexual harassment and violence.

Agents of Change

Although the numbers are impressive, it still doesn’t paint a true picture of womanhood in the U.S., Thompson says, pointing out that black women voted for Hillary Clinton at 92 percent, while more than half of white female voters voted for Trump.

“A friend of mine created T-shirts that say, ‘Vote like a black woman’ because she believes that black women are the only ones consistently voting in the best interests of the country,” Thompson says. “Who’s supporting progressive causes? Black women are. White women need to have a conversation across their own community — talk to their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces — that is what is going to make the biggest difference. That’s the real hard labor. It’s easy to march at the rally with a sign and wearing a pussy hat.”

A little girl offering a peace sign to anti-Vietnam War demonstrators during a march in Austin, circa 1968-1972. Photo by Tom Lankes/American-Statesman, Prints and Photographs Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Movements are about values, most of which are instilled in people by their families, their homes and their schools. Activism is a natural progression that stems from that, Cotera says.

“When I was in school, we actually had civics classes. I was taught that if you are in a political space, then you have to respect that space and be the best you could be — in other words, citizenship,” Cotera says. “They’re not teaching that anymore. I don’t know if it’s a plan to develop uninterested and uninvolved citizens or what, but I was raised to be extremely aware of your responsibilities as a citizen, and I just don’t see that anymore.”

Like schools, youth organizations such as the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls, 4H and the Y organizations also fostered good citizenship, but involvement in those organizations is on the decline, says UT Austin anthropologist and women’s and gender studies professor Pauline Strong.

“One way of creating change is to develop young people to think of new possibilities and think of themselves as having the ability to create new possibilities,” says Strong, who is also the director of UT’s Humanities Institute. “So, in between these organizations and changes in the future are the young people who are being socialized as agents of change.”

Since the 1960s, the Girl Scouts, in particular, put a strong emphasis on developing female leaders. “They really do train young people to gradually take leadership roles themselves. So, there’s a lot of planning things by the youth themselves, and I think that’s a really good model,” she says.


But Strong worries that this model is hard to come across outside of these organizations, suggesting that there’s much more — and perhaps too much — play structured by adults and that many youth leadership roles have the character of “a sort of play-acting thing.”

“It has to be real,” Strong says. “There have to be roles for young people to really make decisions. They have to have the opportunity to make a mistake.”

Strong believes youth organizations are well equipped to address some of today’s most pressing issues: “Youth organizations do try to get kids into challenging environments outside. They try to introduce kids to those who are different than themselves and provide strong role models, who are both adults and older youth.”

Most importantly, these organizations provide young people with a community within which they can learn, grow and create change together. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that young people can be the most important agents for change.

Just as Cotera, Embree and Hines came into activism through the injustices they had witnessed in the world around them, so too will future generations.

“We became addicted to the concept that we could change things, and when you inject that into people, it’s magical and buoyant,” Embree says. “Coming together with people can be transformational, and I think that what we’re seeing today will work its way through changing this country.”

Recommended Reading: 

Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical
Basic Books, Dec. 2017
By Jacqueline Jones, chair and professor, Department of History




Celebrating the Rag: Austin’s Iconic Underground Newspaper
New Journalism Project, Oct. 2016
By Alice Embree, alumna, Department of Anthropology (’82); Thorne Dreyer and Richard Croxdale




The Chicana Feminist
Information Systems Development, June 1977
By Martha P. Cotera




Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class
University of Illinois Press, Aug. 2009
By Lisa B. Thompson, associate professor, Department of African and African Diaspora Studies




Living in a Material World: Philosopher Galen Strawson tackles a few of life’s nagging questions Mon, 02 Jul 2018 22:53:47 +0000 Writer and actor Stephen Fry says Galen Strawson “opens windows and finds light-switches like no other philosopher writing today,” and novelist Ian McEwan simply dubs Strawson “one of the cleverest men alive.” High praise for this UT professor of philosophy, who discusses his latest book, Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, The Self, Etc. with Life & Letters editor Michelle Bryant.

How did you come up with the title?
I came up with it as soon as I was asked for a title, without reflection, and sent it to Edwin (Edwin Frank, editor of the New York Review of Books) half as a joke, although it was an accurate description of the contents of the book.

What do you hope the readers will take away from your new book?
If one is a philosopher, one can easily find oneself spending most of one’s time trying to correct false views. Some of them are wildly false. I think it’s worthwhile to let people know that some philosophers were mad enough to deny the existence of consciousness (This is the subject of Chapter 6, “The Silliest Claim”). Sometimes philosophy is a bit like public life, in which “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect” (as Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710).

I think it’s also particularly worthwhile to put the case against the “narrativist” orthodoxy, the view that we all live our lives in a narrative fashion and ought to do so (the subject of Chapters 2 and 8, “A Fallacy of Our Age” and “The Unstoried Life”). It’s just not true that everyone is like this. It’s not true that everyone ought to live like this, and I think it’s helpful to point out that there are other good ways to live.

If you wrote the first essay in 1995 and the last in 2016, do you still agree with your past work? Are there beliefs that you have written about that have shifted or strengthened over time?
 Here you’re picking up on something I talk about in the book — the fact that when I think about myself as I am now, I don’t feel any strong connection to my own past, although I am of course perfectly well aware that Galen Strawson, “GS,” the biological human being that I am, has a past. On the whole, my views have changed very little if at all. The only change that I can think of is something that I touch on only very briefly in the book (pages 169–173). It will seem crazy to some people, but I may as well report it here.

I’m a full-on materialist or physicalist, someone who thinks that everything in the universe is wholly physical. But I also know that consciousness — color experience, emotional feeling, pain, and so on — is real, because nothing in life is more obvious or more certain. I conclude, as I must, that consciousness, consciousness in all its stereo technicolor magnificence, is a wholly physical phenomenon. And that greatly deepens my intuitive understanding of something I already know intellectually: the fact that physics, for all its glory, can’t tell us much about the ultimate intrinsic nature of the stuff of the universe. In fact, it leads me to suspect that consciousness is — must be — among the fundamental properties of physical stuff.

Now for the change of view. I used to think, with the rest of the world, that physical substance, physical stuff, mass–energy, had to have some sort of entirely nonconscious aspect or being, in order to count as physical at all, even if it also had some sort of fundamental and irreducible conscious aspect. I no longer think that this is obvious. And certainly physics doesn’t support the view that physical stuff must have some entirely nonconscious aspect.

Some people will dismiss this as New Age piffle. Actually it’s genuinely hard-nosed physicalism. It’s what hard-nosed physicalism looks like when it really faces up to the evidence, the basic data — which includes all the phenomena of consciousness. “Outright physicalism,” as I say in the book, “is compatible with ‘panpsychism.’”

My favorite essay was “Luck Swallows Everything.” Even if we are not free agents, do you think it’s important for us to hold on to the belief that we are responsible, and if so, why?
Yes, I think it’s very important for us to hold on to the belief that we’re fully responsible for our actions, and I would worry if I thought that this is a belief we could easily lose. I don’t suppose Einstein lost his sense of being a responsible agent, even when he wrote, in a passage I quote in Things That Bother Me, that “if the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord on the strength of a resolution taken once and for all. … So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

If we don’t have free will, what is within our control?
Well, we’re free agents inasmuch as we’re often in a position to do what we want to do or think it right or best to do, and there’s a leading sense of “control” according to which our control of our actions is undiminished in the absence of radical free will. I’m inclined to quote Einstein again: “Schopenhauer’s saying, that ‘a man can do as he will, but not will as he will,’ has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others’. This feeling mercifully mitigates the sense of responsibility which so easily becomes paralysing, and it prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it conduces to a view of life in which humour, above all, has its due place.”

Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, The Self, Etc.
New York Review Books, March 2018
By Galen Strawson, professor, Department of Philosophy




A Right to the City Mon, 02 Jul 2018 22:35:02 +0000 Just south of Manor Road on Airport Boulevard, there’s a dimly lighted blues club where new and old East Austin meet.

There, at the Skylark Lounge, local African American piano icon Margaret Wright plays happy hour on Thursday and Friday nights, giving city newcomers a taste of the bygone culture that once engulfed Austin’s eastern neighborhoods.

The club’s location was once the Airport Bar & Grill, an African American bar catering to the east side’s once most prominent demographic due to the creation of “Negro District” in 1928 amid Jim Crow.

But today, the area appears starkly different as gentrification bulldozes through the streets of East Austin, economically choking out long-term residents who are left with no choice but to uproot and relocate to more affordable suburbs and isolating those who chose to stay from the community they once knew.

“African Americans who were previously so singularly confined to East Austin became singularly displaced by gentrification,” says Eric Tang, a UT Austin associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and a researcher in the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.

Tang began studying the effects of Austin’s rapid development on minority populations after moving from Chicago in 2010, finding that Austin was the only fast-growing major city in the United States to show a decline in African Americans between 2000 and 2010. He has since completed a three-part study on the impact of gentrification on current and former residents of Austin’s east side.

“I couldn’t believe no one had studied this before,” Tang says. The first piece of his study’s series documented how between 2000 and 2010, East Austin’s white population increased by 442 percent, the black population decreased by 66 percent and the Latino population decreased by 33 percent.

“Few people have been able to hang on, and they aren’t hanging on because the changes are beneficial. Rather, they’re hanging on because they feel a responsibility to black and brown East Austin — a right to the city,” Tang says.

In the third and final installment to the three-part study, Tang and Bisola Falola, an East Avenue researcher and UT Austin geography and the environment alumna, interviewed long-term East Austin residents who chose to stay. And although most held negative views of their neighborhoods’ rapid development and raising property taxes, respondents felt change had delivered its deepest blow to their sense of community. Perhaps most telling of that was the decline in the number of children.

“Children are the glue or the common thread that hold a community together, bringing vibrancy and visibility to the neighborhood,” Tang says, adding that children once accounted for 30 percent of the neighborhoods’ population but now make up less than 12 percent.

As gentrification began, families were the first to leave, seeking economic relief and better schools, Tang explains. In their place, passers-by walk their dogs where children once played, engaging with their pets more than with their neighbors.

“Most people are white. They spend the whole day walking the dogs. They don’t have kids — they have dogs,” says an 87-year-old African American female respondent whom researchers interviewed.

And although recent developments have led to new restaurants, businesses, supermarkets and parks in the area, more than 90 percent of long-term residents Tang interviewed said they didn’t patronize most new businesses because they are either uninterested or feel unwelcomed. Some respondents even feel as if their new neighbors would rather they just disappear or accept one of the many insultingly low offers on their homes from aggressive investors.

“East Austin has been resilient through segregation, civil rights, desegregation, urban renewal, the drug epidemics of the ’80’s and ’90’s, and the rezoning and redevelopment of downtown,” Tang says. “The people who stayed reflect that very sense of resilience that once encompassed all of black East Austin. As a city, we should be doing more to address these issues of race and culture that profoundly and disproportionately impact our whole community.”

Watch Your Step Mon, 02 Jul 2018 22:17:34 +0000 Walking on natural terrain takes precise coordination between vision and body movements to efficiently and stably traverse any given path. But until now, vision and locomotion have been studied separately within controlled lab environments.

 To better understand how gaze and gait work together to help us navigate the natural world, UT Austin researchers combined new motion-capture and eye-tracking technologies by jerry-rigging a welding mask around an eye tracker — to shade the infrared eye cameras from sunlight — and calibrating the eye tracker with a motion-tracking suit to record gaze and full-body kinematics as participants navigated through flat, medium and rough terrains.

Researchers found that subjects walked quickly with longer strides on the flat terrain, looking down only about half of the time to briefly scan the upcoming path for obstacles. On the medium and rough terrains, steps became shorter, slower and more variable, with participants looking at the ground more than 90 percent of the time to precisely fixate upcoming footholds. For the medium terrain, focus was directed to where the foot would be in two steps; and for the rough terrain, focus was directed two and three steps ahead.

In all of three terrains, participants consistently looked 1.5 seconds ahead of their current location. This finding is similar to look-ahead timing seen in research on other motor actions — stair climbing, driving and reaching — suggesting that this timing plays an important role in human movement.

“Taking this type of research out of the lab and into the real world allows us to observe human behavior in its natural environment,” says Jonathan Matthis, a postdoctoral researcher in the UT Austin Center for Perceptual Systems. “This gives us more opportunity to discover things we didn’t expect, which will help us advance our scientific knowledge to the benefit of improving clinical treatment of gait-related disorders.”

Feature image:  Jonathan Matthis, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Perceptual Systems, observes a research participant in “medium terrain” conditions using a motion capture suit, mobile eye tracker and transparent infrared-blocking face shield.

Photo by Michelle Chiou
Rising to the Challenge Mon, 02 Jul 2018 22:16:16 +0000 Five years ago we opened the doors to a new College of Liberal Arts Building in the heart of campus. It was a milestone event, marking the first time students in our college had a place to call home. Departments and other units once scattered across campus were brought together in new collaborative spaces, as were the branches of our top-ranked ROTC program. In addition, the building increased the university’s stock of much-needed classroom space.

We marked another milestone in September 2016, when Bobby and Sherri Patton donated $20 million to our college and created the Bobby and Sherri Patton Challenge Fund, inspiring many alumni and friends to match that gift with an additional $19 million. It resulted in the creation of more than 50 endowments that will bolster our ability to hire and retain top faculty members and graduate students, provide experiential learning opportunities to undergraduates — including research, travel abroad, internships and community service — and excellence funds that allow the college to support and reward exceptional ambitions and achievements by its students and faculty members.

In recognition of the Pattons’ generosity, the College of Liberal Arts Building will be called Patton Hall, with a formal unveiling in September. This new naming not only recognizes a major gift, but also a transformational moment in our college as we continue to build on some of the nation’s best programs in the humanities and social sciences, including No. 1 programs in Latin American History and Sociology of Population.

We are also investing in areas of research that bring together some of UT Austin’s best minds to address some of the biggest challenges facing our communities. A good example is our Institute for Mental Health Research, where psychology professor Chris Beevers leads a campus-wide team poised to make major breakthroughs in treating a variety of mental health disorders.

Engaging in the highest levels of scholarship and research not only elevates the reputation of our college and the university, but also provides our undergraduates with countless opportunities for learning and discovery that are unique to a major research university. Students in the College of Liberal Arts work hard in the classroom, but they also apply what they learn by doing research in labs and in the field; by working for various companies, nonprofits or government agencies; and by helping others in communities around the world. These experiences prepare our undergraduates for careers beyond graduation while instilling in them the lifelong values and the limitless rewards that come from serving others.

Randy L. Diehl, Dean
David Bruton, Jr. Regents Chair in Liberal Arts

Be Your Authentic Self Mon, 02 Jul 2018 22:13:10 +0000 Dr. Travis Cosban is a Dedman scholar alumnus from New Orleans by way of Katy, Texas. He graduated from UT Austin with a Plan II Honors degree in 2009 before becoming a part of the inaugural class at the Texas Tech University Health Science Center’s Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.

Cosban is an emergency medicine physician at Las Palmas Medical Center in El Paso, Texas. He also works as a locum tenens doctor, traveling to underserved areas around West Texas, and as a clinical faculty member at his alma mater, the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine. He is an executive member of the LGBTQ Pride Board in El Paso, where he focuses on aiding in HIV prevention and connecting the community to LGBT-friendly physicians and pharmacies. At UT, he remains actively involved in the DDS program as a mentor and serves as the chair of the alumni selection committee.

How has the DDS program influenced your life?
I remember when I went to college, I was in an unusual place in life. I knew I was gay and wanted to come out in college, but was unsure when would be the appropriate time to do so. At that time, Larry Carver was head of the program along with his aid Stacey Amorous. They became somewhat of a second set of parents to me. They somehow understood deeply who I was, and support never seemed like it was conditional. With the knowledge that I had mentors in place as well as financial security, I made the leap and came out over Christmas my freshman year. I was fortunate that my parents responded well and my life forged onward.

At that time, I did not have a personal relationship with the truly marvelous Nancy Dedman, but she and her family changed my life in ways I am not sure I will ever be able to adequately convey. They allowed me to be who I was and move past what had been a barrier in my life for nearly a decade. My announcement fazed no one at The University of Texas at Austin, and Dr. Carver would ask about my personal struggles and academic accomplishments just as he had before — with genuine interest. I gained confidence in who I was and the idea that I deserved academic success just as much as any other student.

The Dedman Distinguished Scholars program gave me the ability to not only grow in my academic success but also my personal well-being. The program did all this through the sense of family that it fosters. When you attend a university as large as UT, a small and close-knit family is the best gift any student can ever receive.

Can you describe your experience as a Dedman mentor?
I value my role as a mentor to both prospective and current students. I am not the world’s most traditional of doctors as an openly gay man with a heavy liberal arts and music background. I can be eccentric, as evident from my closet full of sequin jumpsuits and faux fur coats for my annual medical volunteer trip at Burning Man. But within all of this, I value education and humanitarianism. In living openly I believe that by allowing students to see our quirks, we also allow them to see themselves in us. You do not have to be rigid to be successful. You can be your authentic self and in doing so find the things that make you fulfilled. In doing this, I have found not only success, but more importantly happiness with my direction in life. I hope that those are the two things we can give to each of our program’s graduates by the time they finish at UT Austin.

How has your liberal arts education aided you?
While not uncommon, most liberal arts students do not choose to go to medical school and spend their time at work trying to shield themselves from blood. Still, I could not have asked for a better undergraduate education. When it came time to read massive amounts of material in medical school and process the information efficiently, I was thankful for all the reading I had done in college. When it came time to process and reflect on my first time seeing death first hand as a medical student, I was thankful for my philosophy classes and times spent reflecting in a small group on Nietzsche and Sartre. Liberal arts seemed to teach me to do more than write papers — through dynamic classes based in discussion, it taught me the value of seeing another’s perspective. I am thankful for this today as I interact with all walks of life in a high-tension setting.

What do you find most challenging about your work?
The most challenging aspect of work is never the knowledge attainment — it is the emotional challenge. After approximately eight years of graduate education and training, you know the information. But no one tells you how to tell a mother her son that she brought to America from Honduras for a better life just two weeks ago has been stabbed and left in a dumpster. No one tells you how to handle a patient threatening to embalm you for not giving them Vicodin. And no one tells you how to keep a poker face when you need to remove two dozen Skittles from an orifice they do not belong in. Still, you must manage and figure it out because there is no one else to turn to when you are the only doctor in the hospital. Work as an ER doctor is a constant reminder that you do not know everything and you never will.

What do you like to do in your free time?
My most recent endeavor has been to complete an art show of 15 pieces in 2018. I am about halfway done with the goal and have already had three of them snatched up by the El Paso Museum of Art for a collection of local artists. My current art reflects the most poignant or humorous patient encounters I have had during my medical career. It is an interpretation of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), which is United States legislation that provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information. Each patient portrait is significantly de-identified through abstracting their visual image while still retaining key portions of the pathology or narrative. These painting sessions are often accompanied by a trip to Marfa, Texas, where I reside in my small trailer in a quiet field between meals at some of the town’s wonderful local restaurants.

Intern Supreme Mon, 02 Jul 2018 22:01:29 +0000 Bahar Sahami is a Dedman Distinguished scholar from Plano, Texas. She is a senior double majoring in government and international relations and global studies, while minoring in Middle Eastern studies and completing a certificate in global management from the McCombs School of Business. She is a 2018 Bill Archer fellow, an Intellectual Entrepreneurship Citizen scholar, a 2017 UT Honors Day College scholar and the recipient of a 2017 Cactus Student StandoUT Award.

 Sahami has served as the editor-in-chief of the Texas Undergraduate Law Review and president of the Student Conduct and Advisory Committee. She worked as a research intern for the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Government and interned during the 85th legislative session at the Texas State Capitol. Most recently, she has interned with the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Following graduation, she plans to attend law school.

How has being a Dedman scholar influenced you? 
I have found so many ways to grow, to communicate and to challenge myself in the Dedman program. Along with the financial aid to pursue my academic interests, our faculty and fellow Dedman scholars are constantly in communication. For instance, I get to meet up every week with our group, along with Professor Julie Casey and Dean Marc Musick, to talk about anything ranging from my future aspirations, to the nuances of everyday life at UT. Whether we are on a trip to the Davis Mountains, or simply coming together for a family dinner, this program first and foremost sees us as dynamic individuals and encourages us to bond and learn from one another’s struggles and successes. This kind of enriching and energizing space amongst caring and driven people is essential to wellness and intellectual discovery in college.

Can you describe your semester in Washington, D.C., as a Bill Archer fellow?
The Archer Fellowship has been one of my most impactful experiences to date. The best part of this program is the vast number of unique individuals I get to interact with and learn from every day. I have had an amazing experience so far as an intern in the Office of the Counselor to the Chief Justice in the Supreme Court. My bosses at the Supreme Court embody unparalleled professionalism and genuineness, and the Archer faculty have been so supportive as we balance work and classes here in D.C. This fellowship has been a huge privilege, and I’m grateful to be here.

What did you learn from your experience as a legislative intern in Texas?
While it often got very busy in our office, I was surrounded by people who had a large sense of purpose and pride in their work. Along with doing legislative research, I particularly enjoyed our office’s weekly intern discussion session during which our chief of staff would pick an economic or political science text to read and analyze together. My colleagues’ openly bipartisan communication and respect for differing perspectives was also refreshing, an attitude which I have learned to practice in any work environment.

What have you found most rewarding in your role as editor-in-chief of the Texas Undergraduate Law Review (TULR)?
I loved TULR not only because it helped me explore my editing and management skills, but also because it gave me the chance to be surrounded by brilliant people with similar goals and interests. While it is rewarding to write or publish something by yourself, it is a unique and especially rewarding feeling to share that achievement with a hardworking group of teammates.

What did studying abroad in Spain teach you?
Studying abroad in Barcelona not only allowed me to sharpen my Spanish and learn about Spanish culture and history, but also to challenge myself amidst the energy of living within a different backdrop. While our surroundings can change unpredictably, our individual being is not swept around so aimlessly. There I learned that to get the most out of my present, I have to take ownership of my personal agency and open myself to genuine engagement in new experiences.

Make Life Extraordinary Mon, 02 Jul 2018 00:09:48 +0000 In 1986, Robert and Nancy Dedman invested $10 million in the College of Liberal Arts to help recruit and educate the nation’s top students. Since its creation in 1989, the Dedman Distinguished Scholars (DDS) program has funded the education of nearly 200 students.

Dedman scholarships cover tuition, housing, books and all other education-related expenses. In addition, the scholars are granted a stipend of up to $20,000 for experiential learning opportunities such as study abroad, research projects and unpaid internships. They also gain membership to the Dedman Academy, a rigorous training and mentorship program to help prepare them for success at UT Austin and beyond.

The program boasts three British Marshall scholars, two Harry S. Truman scholars, one Hertz Foundation fellow, one National Science Foundation fellow and one Rhodes scholar. A founder of the program, an alumnus and a student share what it means to be part of this extraordinary community.

Nancy McMillan Dedman is a philanthropist from Bristow, Oklahoma, and now resides in Dallas. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in history from Southern Methodist University, where she graduated in 1950 as a member of the prestigious liberal arts and sciences honor society Phi Beta Kappa.

What motivated you and Robert to create the DDS program?
First, a desire to “give while living” to an institution that has been meaningful to our family; and second, the recognition of the importance of liberal arts studies for individuals and our nation.

Why do you think studying the liberal arts is so valuable?
The liberal arts teach you skills to not just make a living, but make a life. They prepare you for your first job and for multiple careers, which is especially important given the projected longevity of today’s students. The liberal arts teach the skills that are paramount to a free society — freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, freedom of seeking new truths and freedom of becoming your best self through learning more about our legal, economic, moral, political and cultural origins and aspirations. Finally, they teach you about freedom of choice — to make informed decisions about how to be victors and not victims over whatever challenges or obstacles you encounter in life. Liberal arts develop our capacities, increase our flexibility and expand our horizons for a constantly changing world.

How has the program been most memorable to you?
The joy of seeing the scholars develop a passion for their various disciplines and to see the camaraderie of the scholars and how they help one another academically, personally and professionally.

What are your hopes for the students you support?
 That they achieve their greatest personal and professional potential in life. It is also my hope they will stay involved with the DDS as mentors to improve the quality of experience for future scholars. Lastly, that each scholar has a passion for helping others and building their communities.

What do you wish for the program as it approaches its 30th anniversary?
First, that we will be able to support more scholars in the future. Second, that the alumni network will continue to grow and flourish. Third, that we will continue to enhance the program with experiences and relationships. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The only thing you have remaining at the end of your life are experiences and relationships. Make them extraordinary!”

Recently visiting Marfa with the scholars and my family just reinforced how special the scholars are today and the potential they have for changing our world for the better in the future.

How do you enjoy spending your free time?
Traveling with family and reading great books. I am 90 years young and I am still a voracious traveler and reader.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I have had the opportunity to travel and study with some of the great chefs of the world and that I compiled a cookbook of my favorite family and friends’ recipes.

Defending Humanities Thu, 28 Jun 2018 17:26:39 +0000 Legend has it that Alexander the Great fell asleep with an annotated copy of The Iliad tucked under his pillow, dreaming of Achilles. And when he led his armies into Persia, the Homeric epic and the notes of his tutor, Aristotle, were thrumming in his mind, shaping his vision of great leadership. A story, not just a spear, made him a soldier to remember.

Col. David Harper is bringing the spirit of that ancient rumor to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, by leading the development of its new Humanities Center, which will be built atop Trophy Hill — a treasured campus location— and contain collaborative spaces such as art galleries, theater studios and more. Harper envisions not only a place for cadets to unleash their creativity, but a hub for interdisciplinary work that brings insights from the humanities into defense challenges.

Harper found a passion for book history during his work at the Harry Ransom Center as a graduate student in English at UT Austin. As a professor at West Point, he encourages his cadets to explore literature, assigning novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Between the World and Me and Exit West, a book that imagines a world without borders. They also delve into languages, jazz performance, psychology and sculpting. The cadets even perform their own Shakespearean monologue before they graduate.

These creative explorations into the humanities teach cadets what math formulas can’t — nuance, diplomacy, the power of human will — all just as much a part of the military as firepower.

“Our mission is to develop leaders of character for the nation, and we think the foundation of that is a broad liberal arts education,” Harper says. “That’s why I’m so excited about the Humanities Center, because it represents that side of the military and what we do here at West Point.”

The humanities play a central role in the future security of our nation. The true signatures of a great leader — the power to stir people in the face of failure, to rally them around a cause, to decipher the secrets of an enemy — demand not just the shining artillery of the movies or data whirling in computers, but an understanding of the human mind and heart, given by the study of philosophy, literature, culture and history.

“Seeing the world through a writer’s or a painter’s eye, seeing that connection with the natural world as well as engaging with literary themes, builds a sense of empathy and stewardship toward the people and the planet that we live upon,” Harper says. “When we become leaders making decisions that impact individuals as well as entire countries, we cannot be without that.”