Life & Letters Magazine Mon, 18 Nov 2019 15:59:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Yiddish on the Rise Mon, 18 Nov 2019 15:59:17 +0000 The Yiddish language is deeply rooted in Jewish culture, typically passed down from generation to generation. Though not currently one of the most studied languages, scholars say that Yiddish is breathing new life and may even be on the rise.

“The number of Yiddish speakers is already increasing. Everyone thinks of it as a dying language, but that is not true,” says Itzik Gottesman. “Demographers say that over the next 50 years there is going to be an explosion of the Yiddish language.”

Gottesman is a professor at The University of Texas at Austin who teaches classes in Yiddish language and culture, including courses in Jewish Folklore and immigrant Jewish life in America. He was also the former managing editor of The Forvetz, better known as the Jewish Daily Forward, the oldest ethnic newspaper in New York.


Though Hebrew is the Jewish language of prayer, Yiddish had been the main spoken language of Ashkenazi Jews for more than a thousand years. With the burgeoning importance of the Yiddish language came a tremendous civilization and way of thinking, forming the basis of American-Jewish life.

Gottesman believes that studying Yiddish can open up a whole new avenue of connections and resources. 

“Being a smaller language has its advantages in that you can probably go into any city in the world and connect with the Yiddish world there and be welcome. You can’t really do that with larger languages,” Gottesman says. 

Because the language is beginning to grow quickly, the opportunities for research and discovery are growing as well. There are a number of things that academics have yet to explore in terms of art, literature, women’s studies and even politics. 

“There are also cutting-edge Yiddish artists, writers and musicians outside the academic world, including younger writers and younger artists,” Gottesman notes. “There is just so much that has not been studied.”

Yiddish has always been an important part of Gottesman’s life, stemming back to his childhood. His mother, a Yiddish poet, drew him into the Yiddish literary world where Gottesman developed a particular interest in folklore.

After writing his dissertation on Yiddish folklorists, Gottesman began directing a blog called Yiddish Song of the Week, which is based on his fieldwork and that of others as part of an ongoing project for the An-Sky Institute for Jewish Culture

“The idea behind the blog is to post songs that nobody knows, to expand the repertoire of Jewish singers and also to show the inner life of Jews in Eastern Europe,” Gottesman says.

Gottesman looks forward to the growth of the language and the breakthroughs in research and exploration that will follow. He hopes that, soon, many others will see Yiddish for the extraordinary language that it is.

“Yiddish resonates with intimacy and affection and is the Jewish language that English can never be,” says Gottesman. “It is our heritage.”

To visit the Harry Ransom Center and view the I.B. Singer papers – the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize – click here!

Rising Stars: Q&A with the 2019 Larry Temple Scholars Fri, 08 Nov 2019 14:46:42 +0000 Starting the semester with an extra $11,000 in the bank is an experience that two liberal arts sophomores have every fall, thanks to the Larry Temple Scholarship Endowment.

The award was established by the UT System Board of Regents to help outstanding liberal arts students enjoy university life and learn from their campus experiences.

The 2019-20 Larry Temple Scholars are Isaac James, a Plan II and government major from Arlington, Texas, and Mercedes Holmes, a government and philosophy major from Seabrook, Texas.

Recipients are selected based on their superior academic merit, extracurricular activities and financial need. The scholarship is also renewable for the student’s junior and senior year, provided that scholars maintain a 3.5 GPA, stay enrolled full-time and remain in the College of Liberal Arts.

For more than 25 years, the Larry Temple Scholarship Endowment has been recognizing students to honor Larry Eugene Temple, a prominent public servant and UT Austin graduate.

Read more about this year’s Larry Temple Scholars in the Q&A’s below.

Mercedes Holmes
Seabrook, Texas
Government, Philosophy

What made you want to apply for the Temple Scholarship?

Of course, the generous financial aid of the scholarship helps me to focus more on what I do here at UT, and less on figuring out how to stay at UT. However, as a first-generation college student, the doors to meeting people and making connections can be just as difficult to open as they are to find. What really made the Temple Scholarship so appealing to me is the unique and valuable opportunities, exposure and guidance it offers. A scholarship like the Temple Scholarship can really aid first-generation students like me to recognize and fulfill our true potential.

What was your upbringing like?

I was raised by my two wonderful grandparents with my two little brothers, and my two sisters, who are also my best friends, lived nearby with our mom, and our dad lives and works overseas. Though we’re slightly more fragmented than what may be the usual, my family is very close and they’re a support system I’m blessed to have.

How did you choose your majors?

The love of my (high school) life was the speech and debate team. Exposing myself to so many versatile and complex issues cultivated my interest in policy and politics, making a government major my obvious choice when enrolling at UT. Speech and debate also gifted me a love and appreciation for the art of argumentation, which made a philosophy class for my first semester at UT a no-brainer. By the end of my freshman year, I had become a double-major in government and philosophy. 

What is your proudest accomplishment?

One of my proudest personal accomplishments was going natural. Until high school, I was sufficiently terrified to show my natural curly hair to the world. I was conditioned into thinking my natural Black hair was embarrassing, wild, dirty and ugly—that I needed “good” straight hair to be nice, neat, normal and pretty. Going through the years-long process of transitioning, embracing and nourishing my natural hair was one of the best things I could have done for my self-acceptance and self-confidence. Particularly since hair is one of many avenues taken to try to demean Black people (both historically and today), it is important to me that I allow myself to be authentic and unapologetic about my hair, especially as I traverse through academic and professional spaces.

What do you believe is the value of getting a liberal arts education?

Liberal arts is not just a set of certain disciplines, but a method of education. Problem-solving is a necessary and inevitable part of any discipline, and a liberal arts education teaches students not only how to solve problems, but how to identify and define problems as well. The critical thinking and curiosity at the core of my liberal arts education are undoubtedly skills us Longhorns need to change the world. 

What’s your favorite thing about studying liberal arts?

While studying the liberal arts, one learns about the world at large and about oneself. My favorite thing about studying liberal arts is just how much I can grow as a person, while learning to help society grow as well. 

What advice would you give to incoming students? 

Study abroad! Especially if you have never been abroad or traveled much before. Coming into UT, I thought it would be financially irresponsible, if not impossible, for me to study abroad. However, there are financial resources and aid here at UT (and from third parties) that make studying abroad pretty feasible. One of the biggest things I learned studying abroad in Beijing, China, the summer following my freshman year was to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The confidence and perspective you gain from studying abroad will really help you take full advantage of the opportunities around you back in the U.S. The sooner you get that sort of experience, the better!

What are your goals for the future?

I have always said I want to do good work, and do good work well. I love that there are so many possible paths for me to walk down and explore at UT. I aspire to maintain the same kind of flexibility that will allow me to answer the call of public service in whichever ways I can offer the most. In the near future, especially, I think this would include taking my higher education beyond the undergraduate level so I am enabling myself to have the right tools to accomplish the work I want to do.

Isaac James
Arlington, Texas
Plan II, Government
LGBTQ Studies minor
Isaac James smiles happily in front of a flower bed with a variety of plants, wearing a patterned blue shirt.

Why did you choose your major?

I was never really interested in government until the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges (marriage equality) case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Still closeted at the time, the decision affected me in ways I couldn’t yet comprehend. My understanding of the positive change that can result from government action, and my desire to influence and participate in relevant institutions, began to develop as a result of the Obergefell decision. 

What was your upbringing like? 

I was raised by my amazing parents, Rich and Lisa James, alongside two younger siblings, Seth and Maya. My parents met as social work majors at UT (!) and their dedication to helping others in their personal and professional lives has heavily influenced my desire to help others in my future career. 

What is your proudest accomplishment? 

Coming to terms with my sexuality, and emerging a stronger person as a result, is what I’m most proud of. As difficult of an experience as it was, however, so many LGBTQ+ individuals have to experience the same struggle with even greater adversity. While it’s important to recognize my own pride, it’s also important to amplify the voices of those who lack the same privileges I am so lucky to experience. 

What is your favorite thing about studying liberal arts? 

Liberal arts has a wide array of subjects that allow for continual excitement and interest. One semester I might be studying Jewish civilization and the next learning about problems in modern biology. This breadth of subject focus includes a depth of learning that emphasizes critical thinking and writing skills. 

What do you believe is the value of getting a liberal arts education? 

A liberal arts education has benefits that can apply to any field of study, including engineering, business and science. I am confident that the writing, reading and critical thinking skills I’ve already developed as a student in the College of Liberal Arts will be applicable to any career I choose to enter following graduation. 

What made you want to apply for the Temple Scholarship? 

Beyond the monetary award, the Temple Scholarship provides for interaction and conversation with inspiring civic leaders in the City of Austin and the State of Texas. In high school, I had the opportunity to participate in a similar program called the Richard Greene Scholar Program, where I participated in a variety of internship roles with government and business leaders serving the City of Arlington. I learned so much about civic responsibility and leadership in this role, and I am thrilled for the opportunity to participate in a related experience on an even larger scale.

What advice would you give to incoming students? 

My advice would be to get involved on campus and throughout Austin. Taking advantage of the resources at UT and in the community is vital to making the most of your time as an undergraduate, and pursuing personal passions can serve as an impactful form of both self-care and academic enrichment. 

What are your goals for the future? 

In the near future, I hope to continue advocating for the LGBTQ+ community on campus through the implementation of resources that increases accessibility of gender-inclusive spaces on campus. More long term, I hope to attend law school and work to achieve change through service at an organization like the Human Rights Campaign or Lambda Legal.

With or without Netflix, there will be a new chapter for The Last Czars Thu, 07 Nov 2019 16:03:42 +0000 November 7th marks the 102nd anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, but many questions about that pivotal event have been left unanswered, including those surrounding the remains of two other Romanov children, found in 2007.

The six-part docuseries The Last Czars (2019), currently streaming on Netflix, strives to answer some of these questions through its lively retelling of the turbulent and tragic period, beginning with the death of Alexander III in 1894 and ending with the execution of his son, Nicholas II, and his family in 1918. 

Unlike other period dramas, which often recreate events using a more sensationalist and dramatic approach loosely based on the facts and realities of the time, The Last Czars aims to shed new light on some familiar, if misunderstood, historical figures, by challenging popular narratives and stereotypes about the Romanovs and that period in Russian history more generally. 

The basement where the Romanov family was killed. The wall had been torn apart in search of bullets and other evidence by investigators in 1919. The double doors leading to a storeroom were locked during the execution.
Grigori Rasputin (1864-1916)

With the help of British and American historians — myself included — who guide viewers through critical moments in Nicholas’ rule and provide analysis of the political and social conditions of the day, this “vivid and transporting documentary” draws the audience into the complexity of the events and compels us to see the historical figures as human beings driven by their own fears, obsessions, and calculations unfamiliar to modern viewers. 

Take for example Nicholas II, who struggled to produce an heir, and then fought to keep secret the fatal illness of his son, Alexey, so he could maintain the appearance of a stable monarchy at the helm of a powerful Russian Empire. While not downplaying the scandalous behavior of the “mad monk” Rasputin, the series succeeds at presenting him as a true — if misguided — spiritual seeker with a strong sense of religious duty, who became something of a “personal Jesus” to the pious and mystically inclined Nicholas and Alexandra. 

This more sober take on Rasputin serves as a welcome counterpoint both to the mainstream American view, particularly common among younger viewers, of him as a magician, partly based on his portrayal in the animated film Anastasia (1997), and to a recent revisionist trend in Russian media that, after decades of vilifying him, now extolls Rasputin as a spiritual leader and honorary saint, as seen in the recent big-budget TV mini-series Grigoryi R. (2014), rumored to be streaming on Amazon Prime soon.

While the royal family and its troubles are the centerpiece of The Last Czars, the story that frames all six episodes is the mystery of Anna Anderson, an enigmatic young girl confined to a mental institution in Berlin after attempted suicide in 1920. For decades, many fervently believed that she was the Grand Duchess Tatiana or Anastasia, one of the Romanov daughters, until a DNA test gave a definitive answer about her true identity. 

However, despite these findings and the much-publicized interment of the last Romanovs in the Peter-Paul’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg in 1998, the story of the last czars is not yet over. Currently, the Russian Orthodox Church opposes the burial of the remains of the other two children, Tsarevich Alexey and the Grand Duchess Maria, found in 2007, in the family sepulchre and demands a new round of tests to confirm the identities of all family members. So, there might yet be a new chapter in the Romanov story.

As someone passionate about teaching Russian history and culture, I greatly enjoyed this opportunity to share my knowledge of the period with a wider audience, and look forward to the secret history that will unfold with these new discoveries, Though a silver-screen sequel isn’t likely to happen for The Last Czars, one can only hope that the success of the docudrama would lead to the creation of more series in this hybrid genre, combining excellent entertainment, archival footage, and narratives by experts in the field. 

The final resting places of the Romanov family and their servants in St. Catherine’s Chapel in the Peter and Paul Cathedral. The names of Maria (third from right) and Alexei (far left) on the wall do not have a burial date inscribed at the bottom. Image by Dennis Jarvis.

Marina Alexandrova, Ph.D., is an associate professor of instruction in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches a variety of courses in Russian language, culture, and history, and is currently working on a research project that explores the connection between the tsars and their spiritual advisors. 

Inhale. Exhale. Analyze. Mon, 28 Oct 2019 19:59:42 +0000 Mehdi Haghshenas’ signature course “What We See, What We Believe” focuses on critical analysis of media, but he begins the class with a meditation. For three minutes we all close our eyes and slowly breathe in and out. When the meditation is over, Haghshenas says quietly, “You are in the now.” And he’s not wrong. I was almost late to observe his class and ran the last two blocks, cursing the unreliability of Austin’s public transportation the whole way, but now I’m calm and ready to pay attention with only the faintest urge to check my email.

These meditations will employed on and off throughout the semester, but just two weeks in they already seem to be having a positive effect. Haghshenas addresses the room in a soft, non-authoritarian voice, but the hum of pre-class conversation vanished the moment he suggested we begin the meditation. Students shush each other in the rare instances when peripheral conversations threaten to encroach on the communal discourse. Today’s class is a group discussion, when students have the opportunity to present the readings and films they’ve been studying thus far. They’re organized, articulate and they’ve actually done the reading. Did I mention this is a group of mostly first-year students many of whom are taking the class to fulfill a requirement?

Signature courses are part of the university’s core requirements and their goal is to strengthen students’ skills in areas like writing and critical thinking while also exposing them to subjects that may be outside of their planned area of study. This means that classes are often composed of students from fields other than the liberal arts. Haghshenas, a senior lecturer of sociology at UT Austin, welcomes the opportunity to engage with such a diverse population.

“They come from different backgrounds, races, cultural heritages, and social classes,” he says. “Some of them are interested in science, some of them are interested in the liberal arts. But somehow we find this unity in diversity that encourages them to think and to open their minds no matter what perspectives they have.”

Haghshenas received the Holleran Steiker Award for Creative Student Engagement in 2017 and, more recently, a Student Council Endowed Teaching Award. He is especially proud of the latter, he says, “Because it came from the hearts of those who matter the most.”

Over the next few months, Haghshenas’ students will learn how reality is socially constructed and examine the many ways in which media content shapes our perceptions and opinions and determines where we focus our attention. This includes everything from how news outlets’ hyperbolic coverage of violence paints an inaccurate picture of relative dangers (Americans are far more likely to die of heart disease than from anything as headline worthy as a terrorist attack) to the stifling nature of rigid gender norms and unrealistic beauty standards to the ways in which racism is built into our very language.

Special emphasis is placed on how these topics affect students outside of the classroom and how they can live less stressful and more rewarding lives by questioning some of the messages they receive from various media.

“Reality is an agreement we make at any given time.” Haghshenas explains.

We can’t and shouldn’t try to separate ourselves from society, he stresses, but we can be more aware of the fact that much of what we accept as “true” is shaped by people who don’t always have our best interests at heart. Take for example the so-called crack epidemic of the 1980s, which the class reads about early in the semester. While crack did cause real harm in poor urban areas, it never posed the threat to average suburban Americans that was portrayed in the news of the time. Nonetheless, politicians used the scare to win votes and public support for policies that exacerbated our mass incarceration crisis without addressing any of the underlying issues that contribute to drug use in vulnerable populations.

The class discussion I observe covers the crack panic and other instances in which established media outlets uncritically reported information from government officials that would later be proven false. One student comments that reading about this has caused them to lose faith in the media. Haghshenas, however, cautions against abandoning the idea that news sources can be accurate.

“Don’t lose faith,” he advises. “But use critical analysis.”

Another student points out that it helps to get information from multiple news sources. Still another reminds the group of the importance of reading beyond the headlines, citing examples from the course material in which dissenting views (with more accurate information) could be found if readers moved past the front page. The class is using what they’ve learned to collectively build a more comprehensive knowledge, which is one of the goals of these discussions. Part of Haghshenas’ approach to the teaching of critical thinking is helping students uncover and articulate what they already know.

I’m generally skeptical of the term “mindfulness” as it is frequently used by new age charlatans selling overpriced yoga pants and healing crystals. Before talking with Haghshenas, I would have thought it an odd pairing for critical analysis. But it turns out the two practices have something in common — both are ways of stopping to pay attention, whether to the implications of media messaging or simply to the present moment. During the pre-class meditation Haghshenas says, “We take nothing for granted.” At the time, I took this to mean appreciating the moment we’re in. But an equally accurate interpretation might be a call to rational thought, to scrutinizing information presented to us rather than passively accepting it as fact.

Haghshenas’ combined focus on critical analysis and mindfulness aims to make students not just more cautious consumers of media, but also better people. Education, he feels, too often focuses on competition and self-advancement, on getting the right job after graduation.

“A living curriculum should also encourage human values,” he says. “Self-confidence, responsibility, compassion, community service, and good character. Just as the end result of true knowledge is to develop wisdom, the end result of education is to develop character.”

Illustration by Abriella Corker

Dreams of El Dorado Mon, 21 Oct 2019 14:49:01 +0000 The rapid growth of America came as a shock to some, as it was the only country whose expansion occurred with such little government supervision. 

In Dreams of El Dorado, author H.W. Brands recounts the rich history of the American West. Beginning with the purchase of the Louisiana territory, which propelled future Western expansion of the once Atlantic-facing nation, Brands details the true stories of settlers, miners, natives and missionaries as he delivers an inside look into what shaped the history of America as it stands today.

How much do you really know about Lewis and Clark’s journey? What is the real story behind the American cowboy? Learn more about the book from our Q&A with the author.

Dreams of El Dorado
Basic Books, October 2019
By H.W. Brands, Professor, Department of History

What are the main themes of Western history and expansion in America?

Three themes characterized the American West in the 19th century: 1. The headlong pursuit of opportunity (the Dreams of El Dorado of the title). 2. Chronic violence (among whites, indigenous peoples, blacks and foreign immigrants in nearly all possible combinations). 3. Irony and paradox (the dreams often blew up in the faces of the dreamers; the individualism of the frontier was made possible by the collective largesse of the American public; the least populated region of the country was also the most urbanized; among other examples.  

How was the expansion into Western America both similar and different to expansion of other countries during the same time?

In no other country was expansion pursued with so little government supervision. In Canada, the Mounties kept a close eye on the frontier; in Russia the czar’s police watched everyone closely. This difference is the main reason the American West developed faster and more fully than the frontier regions of other countries.

Where does the romantic idea of cowboys originate from?

On the Texas plains, Anglo cowboys learned from Mexican vaqueros how to tend the animals descended from escaped Spanish cattle. A cowboy led a lonely, hard life, but mounted on his horse, etched against the prairie sky, he was the closest thing America produced to a knight on his steed. He came along just as the frontier was disappearing; he was put out of business by the railroad. So, to the romance of his habits was added the tragedy of a lost way of life. It all added up to an irresistible basis for a myth that had endured to the present.

What was the biggest obstacle that Lewis and Clark faced on their journey?

Ignorance. Lewis and Clark didn’t know where they were going, how they would get there, or what they’d find on the way. Which was the point of the expedition of their party, officially called the Corps of Discovery.

How did the expedition’s encounters with the Blackfeet, the Crows and other tribes shape the relationship?

The Lewis and Clark expedition put the Indians they encountered on notice that the Americans were coming. Some welcomed the approach, others didn’t. But all understood that a new chapter in the history of the West was opening.

How did the tribes react to missionaries?

Some parts of some tribes welcomed the missionaries, as providing a reliable source of valuable technology: metal tools, guns, textiles. Some embraced Christianity. Others realized that settlers would follow missionaries, and worried from the start. When the missionaries and settlers brought smallpox, measles and other diseases, some of the Indians turned violently hostile.

What was the effect of emigration on the native peoples of Oregon? Of California?

The arrival of thousands, then tens of thousands of immigrants effectively doomed the indigenous peoples of the Far West. Most died from disease, some in warfare. Some were hunted down in deliberate genocide.

How did James Marshall’s discovery of gold shape California’s future economy?

The discovery of gold made California the most cosmopolitan spot on the planet, with gold-hunters drawn from every inhabited continent. It also gave California a risk-embracing culture that proved the seedbed for the Silicon Valley gold rush of the late 20th century. 

What were the biggest problems San Francisco faced as one of the most rapidly growing cities?

Arson, organized crime and a lack of civic culture (everybody wanted to be off in the mines making money).

How did the Civil War’s politics serve Western interests?

The Civil War gave the Republicans a hammerlock on the national government, allowing them to implement their pro-West policies, including the Homestead Act and the funding of a transcontinental railroad.

How did the acquisition of horses change the ways of native tribes such as the Cheyennes and Comanches?

It revolutionized their culture, making them fully nomadic and able to strike militarily hundreds of miles from their home territories.

What was the cause of the U.S. declaring war against the Nez Perce – a tribe that was seen as peaceful and typically allied with American armies?

As usual, whites wanted land the Indians occupied. And since whites voted and Indians didn’t, the laws were written and enforced to suit them. The Nez Perce war began when members of the tribe under Chief Joseph refused to leave their land peacefully.

See the Unseen: Help our Vets Heal Through Art and Performance Tue, 15 Oct 2019 18:19:30 +0000 We miss a lot that is important in life because we are busy with our day-to-day concerns. When we do have leisure time, we choose mindless activities for good reasons. It does our souls good to vacate our minds.  Right after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 traumatized our

nation, our president advised us: “Go down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

It is possible to do both: to step outside our lives as a distraction and to take notice of important pieces in the puzzle picture into which our lives fit.

2,500 years ago, the ancient Athenians, upon whom we modeled our democracy and our civic values, did both. Their annual public festivals explored serious human problems through performances of comedies and tragedies, art forms they invented and perfected. They laughed at truths about ongoing wars and the misguided policies of misguiding political figures, even as their soldier fathers, husbands, sons and brothers were risking and losing their lives. The very soldiers who had just been in combat made up a large part of the audience.

They also explored the human experience — why we feel and act as we do — through epic song contests and tragic plays. Their themes still give us lots to think and talk about.

I sat down with Iraq War veteran combat medic Jenny Pacanowski whose play “Dionysus in America,” co-directed by US Marine Corps veteran Johnny Meyer and Karen Alvarado, transformed UT Austin professor Paul Woodruff’s translation of Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae to express truths that she and other women share — women veterans and women whose lives are intertwined with men profoundly changed by war.

After decades of studying historical human responses to experiences of war, I know that women’s perspectives are hard to find. Women’s lives have long been nearly invisible collateral damage of male soldiers who do not come back from war or come back emotionally as strangers. Women have long drowned in the seas of sorrow war creates. The names of eight women get lost among the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC.

So, after reading Jenny’s play, I was curious as to who she was and what issues a modern woman war veteran would have that would lead her to write a play based on a truly terrifying ancient Greek tragedy. So, I asked her.

Jenny grew up in small town Pennsylvania and now lives in Bethlehem, a once-thriving steel manufacturing center. Her father had been a U.S. Marine. She was 22 years old when 9-11 hit. But Jenny did not go to Disney World. She went into the U.S. Army in order to “help people, save lives, do something good for others in need.” 

Jenny Pacanowski served as a combat medic.

After training and duty in Germany, Jenny went to Iraq and served along the Syrian border and in the Sunni triangle. When she returned home, promises made by recruiters about college loans were not kept. She and other vets could not get needed services and recalls her time at the VA with “older vets with deadened eyes,” who easily go unseen.

For years she struggled with Post Traumatic Stress, medicating herself with alcohol and even heroin. Until one day, she took control of her own life and started on her long way back in writing workshops under Jan Barry, well-known as an editor of Vietnam-period poets and as a tireless worker in veterans writing workshops. Soon, Jenny founded and now runs the organization Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving (WVET). She makes the acronym come true for many women.

Through writing plays and helping other veterans write out what is inside their bodies and souls, Jenny says, “I can take my trauma jackets off and the audience can hold it for me for a while.” 

We can hold the jackets of all our veterans, including Jenny, and share in the same kind of experience as the Ancient Athenians in the month ahead. Her play will be performed October 10-20 at The Vortex, coinciding with the inaugural Austin Veterans Arts Festival, the heart-soul-and-brainchild of U.S. Navy veteran Glenn Towery, which will kick off on October 12.

Professor Tom Palaima, a MacArthur fellow, teaches seminars on war and violence in the Department of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Three Questions to Ask When You’re Stressed Out Tue, 08 Oct 2019 18:59:39 +0000 From big class presentations and midterms to navigating the social scene and balancing a large workload, the school year — and life in general — brings on stress, but asking yourself three questions can help fight anxiety with curiosity rather than panic.

Jasper Smits, a psychology professor and director of the Anxiety & Stress Clinic at The University of Texas at Austin, has a stress-filled job teaching, researching and treating anxiety disorders. His clinic provides affordable services to the Austin community while training doctoral candidates in a clinical setting. An overarching goal throughout his research, teaching and clinical efforts is to encourage healthy stress-response behaviors — especially when they can curb the effects of daily anxieties associated with school, work and life.

It takes just a little self-evaluation and a lot of courage exposing yourself to those fearful but otherwise safe situations, which you can work up to by asking yourself these three questions:

Illustration by Abriella Corker and Thuy Nguyen, UT Austin LAITS.

1. What is causing the stress?

Anxiety and fear happen when we’re faced with a threat that we don’t feel we have the resources to take on. These threats send signals to our brain via what we see and hear and tap into our memory to reflect on what happened the last time we were in that situation. Most of the time these memories are not good, thus exciting our fear.

To ease your nerves, it’s important to identify what is triggering your stress before you determine how to handle it.

“The first question you may ask is: What triggered my reaction? Was it a person, a situation, a sensation or a thought or an image? Whichever it is, because I feel fear, I must be thinking that something bad is about to happen. What is my concern?” says Smits, who is also a faculty researcher in the Anxiety & Health Behaviors Lab. “The next question is: Is my concern valid?”

Illustration by Abriella Corker and Thuy Nguyen, UT Austin LAITS.

2. Is it a true alarm or a false alarm?

Once you have identified the culprit, it’s time to determine whether you’re overreacting — or “overestimating the consequences,” as Smits kindly phrases it.

To determine whether what you’re experiencing is a true or a false alarm, ask: “What is the danger? And, is it possible I am off in my predictions?”

The differences are striking. A true alarm is one that poses a real, intense threat. For example, if a bear is running toward you, your body will respond impulsively, sparking physical changes — heightened heart rate, heavy breathing — that prepare your body to either stay and fight or run for protection.

These panic, fight-or-flight responses are essential for survival. “We are still here as a species because of true alarms,” Smits says. But, they are not going to get you through your next history exam.

Anxiety disorders and most of the stress we experience day to day are false alarms. Like true alarms, false alarms induce bodily sensations — suppressed appetite, increased heart rate — that can be dangerous to your health if experienced long term. False alarms, however, are unnecessary because they are a result of inaccurate predictions of harm.

“Stress sets in when we’re telling ourselves that something bad is going to happen — for example, when we focus on potential, major consequences of our perceived failure,” Smits explains. “We need to come up with ways to challenge those predictions.”

Taking the time to recognize “I could totally be wrong about this” will save you from dwelling on something that could happen and refocus your attention on what you can do to ensure it does not.

Illustration by Abriella Corker and Thuy Nguyen, UT Austin LAITS.

3. What can I do to fix it?

“Anxiety can be a motivator,” Smits asserts. “It helps us prepare, get into gear, and deal with future threats. But overcoming it takes courage.”

Anxiety is fueled by something we’re trying to avoid — whether that’s public speaking, awkward social encounters, writing a 15-page research paper or being graded on how well you understand the Pythagorean theorem. But there are ways to feel more at ease when facing these difficult situations.

It requires taking what you may feel are great risks.

“You have to get back into the situation if you want to start feeling more comfortable in it,” Smits points out. “It’s not the rationale people don’t get; it’s finding the courage to do it.

“So, if you find yourself willing to take a risk, you need a support system, and you need to set goals,” he adds, offering an example. “If presentations scare you, sign up for Toastmasters with a friend to practice public speaking. Then maybe after a few classes, you go without your friend to test the waters on your own.”

The ultimate goal is to become comfortable being uncomfortable in order to create a “memory of safety,” Smits says. So, the next time you’re faced with a similar challenge, your brain can recall the dozens of positive, safe memories you’ve created associated with that situation, making you feel more prepared to take on the next.

“The first time is going to suck,” Smits says frankly. “Do it again, quickly and in succession. The more you do it, the better you get at it and the less anxious you’ll start to feel over time.”

Affording Jane Austen Mon, 07 Oct 2019 16:05:38 +0000 In The Lost Books of Jane Austen, Janine Barchas explores the burgeoning popularity of Jane Austen’s novels beginning in the nineteenth-century. Through photographs and unique historical perspectives, Barchas shares some of the earliest and cheapest reprints of Austen’s work that brought the author recognition in the working-class, leading to the reputation she has today.

Learn more in our Q&A with author Janine Barchas, the Louann and Larry Temple Centennial Professor in English Literature.

The Lost Books of Jane Austen
John Hopkins University Press, October 2019
By Janine Barchas, Professor, Department of English

How was Austen’s reputation reshaped in the Victorian Era?

Jane Austen, born in 1775 and publishing during the 1810s, was a stranger to the moral restrictions of the Victorian Era, which officially started in 1837. Yet the Victorians refashioned Austen’s reputation to suit their starched ideal of a proper woman writer. For this Victorianizing of Austen, scholars blame the biographies by her relatives that promoted the genteel public image of “dear Aunt Jane” with a falsified (think airbrushed) author portrait in 1870 (created more than half a century after her death). The posthumous false portrait became so influential and ubiquitous that it now circulates on the ten-pound note. But in point of fact, some of the fussy adjusting and prettifying of Austen’s reputation may have been a reaction to her growing popularity among the hatless masses in cheap editions. 

Where do you think Austen might be in history had her novels not sold for such affordable prices?

I tend to rely on facts and admit that even friendly hypotheticals make me nervous. All I can observe with confidence is that the cheapness of reprintings in the nineteenth century helped to promote and lock in the astonishing literary fame Austen now enjoys. However, and just between friends, might Austen have risen to the top of today’s literary charts if her stories had remained accessible only as rarified and expensive editions — such as was the case in her own lifetime? My gut says “no.”

Who was Richard Bentley and why was he so important in furthering Austen’s renown?

London publisher Richard Bentley (1794-1871) is widely hailed as the Prince Charming of Austen’s reputation. Bentley awakened the slumbering public interest in Austen when he reprinted her, starting in 1833, as part of his “Standard Novels” series. Each novel was priced at 6 shillings in a single-volume format. I, however, argue that, although Bentley’s elegant volumes proved important catalysts, they were not as accessible or “cheap” as his advertisements have (mis)led scholars to believe. Instead, I focus on the far cheaper and lesser-known Austen reprints of his competitors, who were newly targeting the working classes with far cheaper books (priced between ½ and two shillings) that sold at railway stations and bookstalls.  However, precisely because of their intolerable cheapness and low production values these “lesser” versions were never systematically collected by scholarly libraries and, as a result, not studied or considered in the history of Austen’s reception. 

Sense and Sensibility from The Lost Books of Jane Austen

Can you tell us about her readership during the 19th and 20th centuries?

I found evidence to suggest that, from roughly the 1840s to 1940s, Jane Austen appealed to a far broader readership than seems expected of her today — a readership that effortlessly crossed class, gender, age and national boundaries. By means of modern resources such as and other online archives, I was able to trace the proud signatures in actual old copies to real men and women — who were members of the working classes as well as the educated elite, coal miners and domestic servants, school children and aging sea captains. The lives of these real readers offer depth and specificity to the standard reception history of Jane Austen, which flattens facts with references to a generic “nineteenth-century reader.”

What was the reasoning behind Austen’s books becoming even cheaper ‘Penny Delightfuls’?

In the 1890s, penny editions aimed to provide the poor with better books than the sensational Penny Dreadfuls on which Britain’s lawmakers were then blaming the rise in urban crime. Two newspaper men, both towering figures in the publishing trade, William Thomas Stead (1849-1912) and George Newnes (1851-1910), reasoned that as long as better books cost close to a day’s wage, it was ridiculous to expect they would be bought by “the poorer millions.” Working in tandem, Stead abridged Pride and Prejudice for a mere penny while Newnes printed in two penny parts the complete text of Sense and Sensibility — its miniscule type requiring good eyesight. Physically, these penny editions were ugly little ducklings. Roughly stapled and glued, each unadorned text was printed in tiny type on cheap paper, resulting in books barely larger than a small modern paperback and a lot thinner. Penny editions of prose classics were seen as social improvement projects, intended to stimulate a “Reading Revival” among the working poor of worthy fictions.

Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey from The Lost Books of Jane Austen

How did you locate the editions that you share in the book?

Low-born books seldom make it onto the shelves of scholarly libraries at elite institutions, where rarity and authority go hand-in-hand. Instead, cheap books live the hard lives for which they were destined. This project began with a few survivors found floating among eBay offerings and other commercial sites. But locating books that libraries do not tend to preserve and that bibliographers do not always record proved hard. I needed to find private collectors with unorthodox tastes who might help a researcher they did not yet know. My project gained traction only after two private collectors, one in Texas and another in the UK, learned of my research through early publications and offered me access to their books. Only once I was able to benefit from their decades of collecting (40 years each!) did my own project truly take shape. 

Mansfield Park from The Lost Books of Jane Austen

Of all of the Austen novels you were able to track down in writing this book, which was the most interesting find and why?

Perhaps one inexpensive 1890s edition of Mansfield Park, commissioned by the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon society of the Midlands town of Hanley and stamped with the “P.S.A.” logo, stands out as one of the most surprising eBay finds. This rare survivor proved a once-proud book trophy in a temperance society’s social club that was comprised of young coal miners and potters in an area of England whose heavy industrial pollution earned it the name of Black Country. All the Hanley members of the PSA society were laboring men, most of them performing the type of back-breaking work that did not require literacy. Jane Austen proudly being shared among dusty nineteenth-century coal miners, barrow loaders and clay blungers kinda blew my mind. 

To learn more about Jane Austen visit:
Austen in Austin
The Harry Ransom Center; “Stories to Tell” gallery on the ground floor
On view through Jan. 5, 2020  

“I hope the exhibition will get folks thinking about whether research libraries should also make room for copies whose “importance” is of a different nature altogether— copies with a lowly provenance but a high impact on reception history,” concludes Barchas, who curated the Austen in Austin exhibition.

Why the most popular candidate in a close election will probably lose Thu, 19 Sep 2019 19:05:33 +0000 The Presidential elections of 2000 and 2016 were controversial, in part, because it seemed like the wrong person won.

In 2000, Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by 5 electoral votes after losing the popular vote by about 540,000. And in 2016, Republican Donald Trump garnered 27 more electoral votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million.

Geruso, Spears, Talesara (2019) “Inversions in US Presidential Elections: 1836-2016”

To many, the results seemed like a fluke: What are the odds of this happening, especially twice in the last two decades?

Higher than you probably think, say UT Austin economists Michael Geruso and Dean Spears whose paper on “inversion” elections was recently released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper is part of the University of Texas Electoral College Study and was coauthored by Geruso, Spears, and economics and math undergraduate Ishaana Talesara.

Michael Geruso, UT Austin assistant professor of economics
Dean Spears, UT Austin assistant professor of economics

According to their work, inversion elections are very likely in close elections. Although they’ve only happened four times in U.S. history — 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 — the researchers report an 80% chance that another slightly less popular candidate will win the presidency in the next 60 years if elections continue to be as close as they have been in recent decades.

Those are some pretty good odds. In fact, the researchers estimate that if someone loses the popular vote by within 1%, or 1.3 million votes, he or she has a 45% chance of winning the election. It has nothing to do with who the candidates are, the researchers emphasize, but the trend favors Republicans, who are estimated to benefit from future inversions 77% of the time.

So, we asked Geruso and Spears what this could mean for future elections and the future of the Electoral College:

Q. If the likelihood of an inversion is so high, why have we (U.S. adults) only witnessed it twice in our lifetimes?

We’ve had few inversions primarily because we’ve had few elections in our lifetimes.  Over 40 years, there are only ten Presidential elections. In small samples it’s really difficult to know what the underlying probabilities are. If you flip a coin just 10 times, and it comes up heads twice and tails eight times, that’s not so improbable, even if it’s a fair coin that should come up heads 50% of the time on average. That was the challenge that we set out to meet in our project: To uncover whether the two inversions we’ve seen in 2000 and 2016 were probable events or statistical flukes.  

Q. Why are Republicans more likely to benefit from an inversion election?

Today, Republicans are more likely to benefit from an inversion primarily because each state’s representation in the Electoral College is equal to its number of U.S. Senators plus its number of U.S. Representatives. For a small state like Wyoming, which has one U.S. Representative, the addition of the two Senators to its Electoral College delegation has a big impact on the state’s representation. It means that each individual citizen vote corresponds to a greater share of the Electoral College for Wyoming than for a large state like California and Texas.

Because, by and large, small population states lean Republican, this feature benefits Republican candidates. Interestingly, we calculate that if you removed the two Electoral College ballots corresponding to Senators, it wouldn’t reduce the probability that an inversion occurred. But it would change the partisan balance, replacing likely inversions that would favor Republicans with likely inversions that would favor Democrats. The balance shifts to become close to equal, but the inversion probabilities would remain.

Electoral college map for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 United States presidential elections, using apportionment data released by the US Census Bureau.

Q. What are some examples of close elections that didn’t end in an inversion? Why do you think this was avoided?

1960 is an interesting case. In the most-commonly-told history of the 1960 Presidential election, John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the Electoral College and narrowly won the national popular vote by a little over 100,000 votes. Arguably, however, Nixon received more votes than Kennedy did. On the ballot in Alabama, voters selected electors directly. There were many Democratic electors: some who were loyal to Kennedy and some who were running precisely to oppose Kennedy. If voters for these anti-Kennedy electors are not counted as popular votes for Kennedy, then one published tally shows Kennedy losing the popular vote to Nixon by about 60,000 votes despite winning the Presidency.

That underlines just how fundamentally weird the Electoral College is. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to know whether Kennedy won the popular vote in 1960 because we don’t know how to count votes in Alabama in 1960 because voters weren’t directly casting a ballot for Kennedy or for Nixon.

More broadly, the distinguishing feature of elections that don’t end in inversions is that they aren’t close in the national popular vote. Inversions don’t happen in landslide victories. But in a close election, they are highly likely.

Photo of the Kennedy Nixon debate held in New York on October 21, 1960. This was held at ABC in New York and was the last of the four debates. Image by Associated Press.

Q. Do we have a higher probability of experiencing an inversion election now than at any other point in history?

The probability of inversion is very tightly linked to the expected closeness of the race. If you look at the periods in history where we’ve had close races, that’s where you’ll see inversions. And the last couple of decades have featured some of the closest Presidential races in U.S. history. To the extent you think 2020 will be a close race, you should be prepared that an inversion is likely. That goes for any future election as well.

Q. Given that the chances of voting in an inversion election in a lifetime is more than 80%, should we reconsider our electoral system?

As researchers we wanted to discover and communicate these statistical facts about the Electoral College so that Americans could make their own informed decision on ongoing policy activity like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). The NPVIC would transform the electoral system, without repealing it and without changing the Constitution, so that the popular vote winner becomes President.

Ultimately, each American needs to decide these issues for themselves. But we don’t think anyone should make that decision without first understanding just how likely it is that if nothing changes, we will experience more and more mismatches between the popular vote and the Electoral College outcome.

Q. How would changes to the Electoral College influence the chances of an inversion election?

It turns out that no change to the Electoral College, other than a national popular vote, would eliminate electoral inversions.

The University of Texas Electoral College Study team simulated outcomes under alternative aggregation rules, including changes to state law. One set of simulations eliminated the two elector ballots that each state receives for its Senators. This would make the number of electors in each state more proportional to population. A second change allocated each state’s Electoral College ballots in proportion to the state’s popular vote (up to the nearest whole ballot), rather than awarding all Electoral College ballots to the (possibly narrow) winner of the state.

The exercise clarifies what contributes to inversions: For example, is it primarily about the disproportional voting power of voters in small states? We find that neither change would eliminate the risk of inversions in a close election. Eliminating “winner-takes-all” would cause a larger decline in the chance of inversions but would increase partisan bias — almost all inversions would be won by Republicans. Both changes together leave in place high probabilities of inversions in close elections.

How could inversions still happen? Because many factors contribute to inversions. Popular vote totals depend on the number of voters, but electors are allocated based on the number of persons in the last census — including children and adults who cannot vote. In short, relying only on a national popular vote would eliminate the chance of mismatch between the President and the popular vote winner.

The Color Complex: Student Research Abroad in Ghana Wed, 18 Sep 2019 22:40:19 +0000 This summer, an International Relations and Global Studies senior was awarded the experience of a lifetime when her student research team received the UT President’s Award for Global Learning.  Christina Cho and a team of three other undergraduates traveled to Accra, Ghana, for 10 weeks to research colorism and how to mitigate its effect on mental health.

Cho and her fellow researchers conducted interviews with African-American and Asian-American women in Austin and Ghanaian women and men to understand their different experiences with colorism, specifically skin bleaching and hair perming. The project, titled “The Color Complex,” was advised by Kevin Cokley, director of the Institute for Urban Policy and Analysis.

Read about Cho’s experience in Ghana, the research and how she plans to use her experience to create change at both UT Austin and the University of Ghana in the Q&A below.

What is the UT President’s Award for Global Learning?

The PAGL is a competitive program from UT’s International Board of Advisors that provides funding to seven student teams to take on international projects. Projects can be proposed within three themes: expanding existing research, social impact or entrepreneurship.

How did the idea for your research project come about?

Our team is researching colorism, which is the idea that you have more value if you are closer in proximity to whiteness. People all around the world believe that a slimmer nose, bigger eyes, chiseled jaw, straighter hair and lighter skin makes someone more desirable, successful and intelligent.

Examples of colorism include South Korean women between the ages of 19-29 getting double eyelid surgery, nose jobs and jaw reconstruction surgery. Africans, Asians and Latin Americans take skin lightening pills or use skin bleaching creams on themselves and their babies to get lighter skin. African-American women in the U.S. straighten their hair because they’re told it looks appropriate and more professional.

The Color Complex’s undergraduate research team: Timia Bethea (top left), Christina Cho (top right), Rebecca Chen (bottom left), Vida Nwadiei (bottom right).

One of my teammates, Timia Bethea, was inspired to tackle the issue of colorism after watching the Grapevine’s YouTube video on skin bleaching, one of the many forms of colorism. Her experience as a black woman of normalizing chemically straightening her hair to be “good enough,” or have value, lead her to retrain the way she looked at beauty and self-worth. She brought forth the idea to research colorism to the team. Our team shared our personal experiences with colorism and how it impacted our self-esteem. Ultimately, we felt it was important to address this serious mental health concern. 

How did you conduct your research?

In spring of 2019, we conducted interviews with African-American and Asian-American undergraduate women at UT Austin. In the summer of 2019, we conducted interviews with Ghanaian undergraduate and graduate women and men at the University of Ghana and women and men from the fishing community of Chorkor in Accra, Ghana. After interviewing, we analyzed interview transcripts and wrote a research paper of our findings. The purpose of the interviews at UT Austin was to understand the differences in experiences between different communities of color as colorism is a global issue. The purpose of the interviews in Ghana was to understand peoples’ experiences with skin bleaching and hair perming.

Jamestown, a fishing community in Accra, Ghana.

What do you find most fascinating about your research?

I found it most fascinating that people continue to bleach their skin despite their awareness of the negative effects of bleaching such as skin cancer, infections and thinning of the skin. It is also interesting that the language of skin bleaching products has changed into more ambiguous and less severe words such as “skin lightening” or “toning” despite giving the same negative effects.

How do you think this research could make an impact?

Our research will impact families and people’s self-worth as they will have the tools to talk about and internalize their experience being a person of color. This impact will be mobilized through the creation of separate and specialized social campaigns that will run both at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Ghana. We desire our research to have people do some self-introspection to see why things are normalized.

The night market near Cho’s hostel, where she would grab snacks or late-night meals. 

What was your experience in Ghana like?

It was so unique and heart-warming. I ate so much tilapia, banku, mangoes, and pineapple. I got introduced to my passion for swimming after meeting an incredible swimming coach in Ghana. He trained me. Ghana was a special time for our professors, team and Ghanaian community to connect.

I also got to celebrate 2019 Year of Return with my professor and teammates after visiting the slave dungeons in Cape Coast and Elmina. The Year of Return celebrates the resilience of all the African victims of the Transatlantic slave trade, and seeks to attract millions of African descendants back to Ghana to connect to their ancestry and identity.

The Cape Coast slave castles, where enslaved Africans were kept in dungeons before being sent on ships to more slavery around the world.

What was your favorite moment of your time abroad?

When Dr. Cokley, Dr. Meme Drumwright and her husband, and my other teammates sat on some couches in a circle and talked about everyone’s experience in Ghana so far and what it meant for each person. It was emotionally intimate and I never could have imagined having this special moment with professors I looked up to so much. It was very down to earth and not conventional.

What was the most challenging part of your trip?

When I went to the hospital 3 times from sickness and getting misdiagnosed with malaria…healthcare was rough. It was so difficult to be comforted or feel safe when so many things were out of my control.

How did your experiences abroad change your outlook?

I definitely fell in love with project management. It impacted the way I see my major as an International Relations and Global Studies student by showing me what it means to put aside my habits of working and control over an environment in order to connect with people in a different culture. I also desire to pursue graduate school after this summer.

A common meeting area in the international student hostel. The researchers would meet there with University of Ghana students and Doris Boateng, social work professor and their Ghanaian faculty advisor (second from right).

What advice would you give to other students who are considering studying abroad?

I would say that it is easy to romanticize your international experience before you leave and that may be the most challenging thing once you realize that everything you expected sometimes doesn’t go your way. I advise students that no matter how much research you do on the region you are visiting, stay humble in your understanding because you will have to adjust and relearn a lot of things. I am very fast-paced person who likes to check off things on lists, but Ghana is a very relational country that also takes time when completing tasks. I had to be patient and adjust to a different culture of time and task management.

Lead image caption: A smock maker in Tamale, northern Ghana. 

All photos courtesy of Rebecca Chen.