Life & Letters Magazine Fri, 14 Dec 2018 16:33:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 New Year, Same You: Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail Wed, 12 Dec 2018 12:00:06 +0000 After we’ve spent all our money on gifts and stuffed ourselves to the brim with endless holiday treats, it’s no wonder many of us see the new year as an opportunity to become a little less broke and little more fit. But come next December, most of us will find ourselves back in the same routine, pining for another opportunity to start fresh.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So why then, year after year, do we make New Year’s resolutions that, for most of us, won’t last through February? How can we end this cycle of insanity?

University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Art Markman says it’s all about training our brains to replace old habits with new habits — which is easier said than done, “especially when we’re fighting against millions of years of evolution that have created mechanisms that want us to maintain our behaviors.”

“The more you understand about how the brain motivates you to act, the more effectively you can help yourself to act in new ways,” says Markman, who taught us a little more about habits and offered us some advice on how to be more successful with our New Year’s resolutions in the Q&A below:

WATCH: How to make a New Year’s resolution stick.

How long does it take to form a habit?

The answer to every difficult psychology question is “it depends.” In this case, habits are memories that relate the situation you are in to the behavior you want to perform. When you are faster to remember what to do than to have to think about what to do, you have a habit.

When the new situation is very distinctive, there is little to compete with the new habit in memory, and you can learn it quickly. The worst-case scenario for habit formation is learning basic math facts. All of them are very similar (involving the same digits), but requiring different answers, so it can take you months or years to get enough repetitions to form a habit.

Most things in your life fall in between. You can often form a good habit in a new situation in 4-6 weeks.

Why do old habits die hard?

Art Markman (Photo by Marsha Miller)

Because habits are memories, they are retrieved from memory automatically. That is, things come out of memory, just because you are in a situation that calls them to mind. As a result, you are constantly being reminded of what you used to do in that situation in the past.

When that old behavior was also enjoyable, then being reminded of the action creates a real desire to perform that action again. That is what happens with the habits we find hardest to change.

What’s happening in our brain when we get cravings or fall back into old routines?

Cravings are interesting. They happen when the habit system suggests a desirable action, but you choose not to perform it. For example, if you are dieting, and routinely eat a piece of chocolate in the afternoon, your habit system will suggest eating a piece of chocolate, and you will have to explicitly resist the urge to do so. Your motivational system will continue to remind you that you have not yet achieved your habitual goal by creating a craving.

The best way to avoid the effect of cravings is to engage another goal and do something else.

“The more you understand about how the brain motivates you to act, the more effectively you can help yourself to act in new ways.”

Art Markman, UT Austin Pyshcology Professor

What’s the best way to ditch bad habits?

Habits aren’t really broken, they are replaced. That is, the memory of the old action will continue to be retrieved and to suggest itself as an option unless you create competing memories. So, for each situation in which you used to engage the old behavior, you now need to find a new behavior to perform so that yourhabit system will be reminded of a different action.

Why do we often fail at keeping our New Year’s resolutions?

There are two big problems with New Year’s resolutions. First, we often state them very abstractly. Behavior change is actually quite specific. You need to engage in particular behaviors at particular times. So, you need to do some work to create a specific plan.

Second, you often focus your resolutions on behaviors you want to stop doing. But, the habit system can’t learn not to dothings. It can only learn behaviors you perform. So, you need to focus on what you will do instead of the old behavior rather than just trying to stop yourself from doing the wrong thing.

What should we keep in mind when making a resolution — or setting any goal — that will help us be more successful?

Smart Change was published in 2014.

When trying to achieve any goal, you need to put in a lot of effort to develop a good plan for when you are going to perform actions that will help you to achieve that goal. It isn’t enough just to want to make a change. You might also want to engage with other people to have them help you along. It can be easy to talk yourself out of behavior change, but friends and family can be a source of strength.

There are a lot of great resources out there for changing behavior, including my book, “Smart Change.” Don’t feel like you have to figure it all out for yourself.

Living Amid History: A Q&A with 2019 British Marshall Scholar Laura Hallas Tue, 11 Dec 2018 17:34:45 +0000 Laura Hallas, a Plan II honors, economics and health and society senior at The University of Texas at Austin, is the recipient of a 2019 British Marshall Scholarship.

The Marshall scholarship will fund Hallas’ graduate education at both the University of Oxford, where she will pursue a Master of Science in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation, and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she will pursue a Master of Science in Public Health.

The scholarship will cover Hallas’ university fees, cost of living expenses, books, thesis research and travel, and fares to and from the United States.

“This scholarship is an incredible honor, but I also feel a real responsibility to use this opportunity to improve public health on the largest scale I can,” Hallas said. “Studying at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Oxford will equip me to deliver on that responsibility.”

As a UT Austin student, Hallas was the editor-in-chief of The Daily Texan, a member of the Texas Orange Jackets and a finalist for the Rhodes scholarship. While earning her bachelor’s degree, Hallas has also been completing a graduate certificate in public health from the University of Texas School of Public Health.

She held internships with the U.S. Department of State, Pathologists Overseas and the Dell Medical School, where she currently works in the Health Leadership Apprenticeship Program helping to address healthcare needs in the community. She also interned with The Dallas Morning News, where she continues to contribute as a freelancer. Last month, the newspaper published a 3,000-word special project piece for World AIDS Day written by Hallas.

“Laura Hallas embodies the multidisciplinary approach to education that strengthens our college,” said Randy Diehl, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “As one of our most ambitious student scholars, she bridges the barriers between science and the liberal arts to explore the ways in which public health can improve to benefit the lives of people around the globe.”

The Marshall scholarship, now in its 65th year, is funded substantially through the government of the United Kingdom. The intention of the Marshall scholarship is to “strengthen the enduring relationship between the British and American peoples, their governments and their institutions,” according to the British Marshall Scholarship website. It was founded as a tribute to the Marshall Plan, which was named for former U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall and through which the United States provided aid to rebuild Europe after World War II.

Hallas is the 26th UT Austin student to receive a Marshall scholarship since its establishment in 1953.

Read more about Hallas and her achievements in the Q&A below.

Laura Hallas

What does winning a Marshall Scholarship mean for you?

As a freshman working both in a hospital and a college newspaper, it’s hard to see how those paths align. At several points in college, I felt like I was pursuing a career path that didn’t exist. But as I have progressed in my education, and planned for graduate school, the relationships between economics and health, writing and policy got clearer every day. To me, receiving the Marshall Scholarship is both confirmation of this path, and a chance to continue drawing on my varied experiences as I begin a career in global health policy.

What was your reaction when you found out you’d been selected?

The panel called me to tell me I received the Marshall just as I was leaving class on the South Mall. As soon as I saw the Houston number, I instantly received a total flood of adrenaline. The only coherent thing I could think to do was try and call my parents. They were as shocked as I was —they couldn’t think of much to say besides “wow.”

Keep in mind, at that point I had been working for months on an application that seemed like a pipe dream. In November, I did not even know what country I would be living in the following year. That all changed with a two-minute phone call.

Have you been to the UK before? If not, what are you most looking forward to?

No, I have not been outside the U.S. except for one trip to Hong Kong.

I am honestly looking forward to living in an environment that is just surrounded in history that is truly old. Oxford has had some form of teaching since the year 1106. I don’t believe there’s a building in my hometown [Allen, Texas] older than the early 1900s. There are entire travel guides based on historically significant London pubs. There is something really profound and motivating to living amid history in that way.

What are you passionate about outside of your studies?

I have loved drawing (specifically using pen and ink and watercolor) since I was young. In fact, I briefly considered going to art school instead of UT. I particularly love to draw places I have traveled and am excited to spend more time doing that over the next two years as I explore the UK.

What made you want to study public health?

Like most students who are drawn to health professions, I can trace a lot of my motivation to patients’ stories. But unlike most, my experiences with healthcare occurred far from the bedside. For example, when my grandmother living in New York fell deathly ill, I mostly experienced my extended family’s struggles with health insurance. And when the first Ebola case occurred just miles from my home in 2014, I experienced the public panic by reading the Dallas Morning News.

I wasn’t in the hospital room surrounded by white coats and pill bottles as these two patients were treated. Instead, my view was centered on how economics, policy and journalism affect health. More than 70% of heal this determined by factors outside of a doctor’s office, and I was lucky enough to have that understanding even before I entered college. That’s why I decided to pursue not medicine, but the systems tasked with delivering it.

Why do you think studying liberal arts is important?

Studying liberal arts grants a kind of mental flexibility that only comes from exposure to multiple fields. Just this semester, I am taking classes in macroeconomics, neuroscience and Latin American history—that is three entirely distinct ways of thinking in a single semester. I know that personally these distinct points of view have made me a better person and student, and I think that having that kind of liberal arts experience is much more enduring throughout a person’s life than any single fact or technique.

What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned in college?

To build trust in yourself. College is a wellspring of advice and guidance, and it is very easy to join a club or a major. This is great, as it means UT students have choices, but when you are constantly being presented with alternate versions of “you” to choose from, those external voices become deafening.

It has taken me a long time to build up my own instincts and gain a better understanding of what I find important and what I want to accomplish in the world. Even writing the Marshall scholarship applications was a huge opportunity to let me learn about myself and build trust in my own instincts and priorities. It’s learning that won’t show up on any transcript, but it is the most important thing I have learned in college.

What’s your favorite memory from your time at UT?

I will always remember late nights in my office at The Daily Texan. The Texan staff works out of a basement, and every night for a year I would walk down these nondescript concrete stairs and spend hours editing and putting together a page. It was difficult work, and I was essentially sleep-deprived for three whole semesters. But it was an immense privilege to be editor, and I would often look up at the end of a long night and see the proof pages and coffee cups strewn around the room and just feel so overwhelmingly lucky to have the job I did.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

As editor, I heard from a lot of Daily Texan staff that it was difficult to commit the hours to working in student media with such low pay compared to working full time at a traditional job. However, student media and experiential learning is an extremely important first step for anyone looking to start their journalism careers, so I wanted to find a way to offer a kind of work-study program to make that process more feasible, especially for first generation students.

I brought this to the Texas Student Media director, and within a few months had expanded a partnership with the University Leadership Network, a student success initiative, and Texas Student Media—five entities including The Daily Texan—to create more than 40 new internship positions throughout student media. It was a small, behind-the-scenes change, but one that I was really proud of because it created a lot more permanent opportunity for students to gain experience in media.  

What are your goals for the future and your professional life?

I hope to work in global health law with an international health organization such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—I plan to return to eventually return to the U.S. and go to law school. I could someday see myself serving as an ambassador or a policy advisor to one of these organizations.

In an increasingly globalized world, disease is just a plane ride away, and people commonly cross international borders to buy medicines and get their teeth cleaned. Health can’t be examined in isolation, and international health organizations play an ever-increasing role in protecting our health and helping entire countries to access care. But that global infrastructure is largely invisible, and right now governments are becoming less and less likely to commit resources to maintaining global health.

I want to help reverse this trend. I hope to spend my career strengthening global health policy to be more equitable and sustainable, and by communicating the impacts of global health policy to lay audiences through writing. I want to actively affect change in these systems, but also to help the vast majority of people who aren’t immersed in the world global health to understand how their lives—and their wallets—are affected by health policy every day.

America’s Ongoing Housing Crisis: Q&A with “Owned” Film Maker Giorgio Angelini Thu, 06 Dec 2018 17:47:50 +0000 Fifty years after the passing of the Fair Housing Act, people across the United States continue to face an uphill battle to homeownership.

Owned, a Tale of Two Americas,” directed by University of Texas at Austin history alumnus Giorgio Angelini attempts to get at the root of the U.S. housing crisis, which erupted in an economic collapse a short decade ago and may do so again if policies, currently catering to systematic oppression, don’t change.

The film, which was produced by Plan II alums Maggie Burns and Zachary Heinzerling, was selected to screen at festivals across the country, including the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, DOC NYC, the San Francisco DocFest, St. Louis International Film Festival and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.  Most recently, the film was featured on MSNBC’s Chris Hayes podcast, Why Is This Happening?

To learn more about the film and the new approach it takes to answering some of the toughest questions about the U.S. housing crisis, we asked Angelini the following:

What inspired you to make this film?

The documentary’s promotional poster. Image courtesy of Giorgio Angelini.

Angelini: I was at Rice University completing my master’s in architecture during the middle of the housing crisis. I felt like people were diagnosing the wrong problem and offering solutions that did not really tackle the underlying issues. As an architecture student, we were told to consider what role design and architecture had in both the creation of the crash and in fixing it. Given this prompt, I applied for a grant to photograph this particular mcmansion development in Inland Empire, California. It was 2011, and with all the lending having dried up, the project had been abandoned.

With the intent to simply photograph the remnants of this project, I came across a condition I wasn’t expecting. Hundreds of square miles of burnt down orange groves standing alongside half-built homes. It was a palpable sense of alienation, in this desolate desert wasteland, where I began to understand the relationship that commoditization was having on the way we built our homes, neighborhoods and cities. It seemed like a photograph exhibit was not enough to tell this story properly. So, I started filming the documentary the following year.

What would people find most shocking about the American housing economy?

When you tie the idea of wealth accumulation and valuation to the idea of home ownership, it has the consequence of teasing out some of the worst human instincts. Whether it be racist self-segregation or predatory lending practices, when you make a home’s primary purpose an accumulator of wealth rather than a builder of cultural and human experience, it tends to lead to really bad things.

Is America still in a housing crisis? 

Yes, 100 percent. When average home buyers have to compete with all-cash buyers — whether they come in the form of hedge funds amassing huge real estate portfolios, wealthy family funds collecting homes as a part of their portfolio of assets, or international buyers who see American single-family homes as no different than buying any other commodity — you have system so heavily built on speculation, that it is only a matter of time before the next bubble bursts.

An undeveloped suburban community at standstill. Image courtesy of Giorgio Angelini.

What do you hope viewers take away from watching your film?

Our housing economy was built on racist policies that deprived millions of Americans from access to subsidies that helped to create the American middle class. And today, this same system is now leaving behind the middle class it helped to create, increasingly only serving to benefit a small percentage of the investor class. We need to change our policy to create homes that nurture great neighborhoods and inter-personal relationships, not great financial returns for investors.

How did your liberal arts/history education benefit you in making this film?

My professors at The University of Texas at Austin taught me the value of speaking truth to power. Any society that claims to be free cannot run from its past. And the cause of the study of history is to ensure a freer society.

For more information on the film and where it will screen next, visit

Hope, Love and Charity: Q&A with Miss Austin 2019 Jacqueline Petescia Thu, 29 Nov 2018 16:54:09 +0000 Jacqueline Petescia, a freshman health and society major at the University of Texas at Austin, recently won the title of Miss Austin 2019. Jacqueline runs a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Friends Don’t Count Chromosomes, is a part of the Omega chapter of the Alpha Phi sorority, and is a classically trained opera singer and yodeler.

Learn more about Jacqueline Petescia’s path to becoming Miss Austin 2019 by reading the Q&A below.


What was your reaction to being selected for Miss Austin 2019?

I was so honored, humbled and excited to have been chosen to represent my city. I honestly was not expecting to win because the competition was so good. There were girls competing who were far older and more accomplished, who are currently in medical school or running their own businesses. As a freshman at UT Austin, I felt as though I was far more of a novice at life compared to these women, but my passion, determination and drive for style, service, scholarship and success lead me to the title of Miss Austin.

What does the process of running for Miss Austin look like?

The Miss Austin competition is a preliminary local pageant for the Miss America Organization. We used to compete in a swimsuit category, but it has been replaced with an onstage interview to focus on what the women of Miss America do and who they are, rather than how they look.

In addition to the onstage interview, we compete a 20-minute private panel interview with topics ranging from our social impacts, to current events, to controversial topics. We also perform a 90 second onstage talent and, of course, an evening gown walk in which we share a statement about our social impact. A social impact is something you plan to bring awareness to your year as a titleholder. For me, it is my 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Friends Don’t Count Chromosomes, which is an organization I started to help kids living with intellectual and developmental disabilities become involved with their community.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Besides starting a nonprofit, I’m most proud of my involvement with the Miss America Organization. I was able to pay for my first year of undergrad with the scholarship funds I obtained by being the “Quality of Life” finalist, national highest GPA winner, and state community service winner in last year’s Miss Texas competition.

I have a passion for working with this organization to spread the message of inclusivity and for the opportunity to work closely with Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) Hospitals. Volunteering through CMN Hospitals as Miss Austin has influenced me to pursue a career as a neonatal doctor, so that I can help premature babies the moment they are born regardless of their parents’ financial background. This is a driving force for my studies at UT Austin and my passion for volunteering with CMN.

How has being a part of the Omega chapter of Alpha Phi helped you in your endeavors?

The support I have gained from my sisters has been unlike any I’ve received before. My sorority sisters are always there cheering me on and to remind me to get back on the right path. They’re the first to tell me I’m doing a great job, and the first to be honest when I need real critics.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope to graduate from UT Austin and go on to medical school so that I can ultimately become a neonatal doctor. I’m hoping that sometime between now and going to medical school that I win Miss Texas and then, Miss America, so that I can continue to grow and promote my social impact, Friends Don’t Count Chromosomes and CMN.

What does success look like to you?

All I want to do with my life is to help others, whether it is as Miss Austin, Miss Texas, Miss America, or even as a neonatal doctor. This passion will help to guide me through on my path to heal those around me. I’m not asking for world peace or to change the world, because realistically I know I can’t do that on my own. What I want is to change the lives of those who come in contact with me — to be the beacon of hope, love and charity in the way that kids in CMN Hospitals eyes light up when they see a real-life princess walk into the room. As Miss Austin, I want to be able to teach people to have compassion, empathy and love for others because it’s what our world needs most right now.

Consider war stories without romanticizing them Sun, 11 Nov 2018 12:00:41 +0000 For as long as there have been wars — which in human history is forever — there have been stories about war.

They stretch back to Homer’s riveting epic songs of the battlefield — the “Iliad” — and of returning home from it — the “Odyssey.” They come forward in truly sensitive films like Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” and Ricardo Ainslie’s “The Mark of War,” and wide-ranging books like Larry Tritle’s and Jason Warren’s “The Many Faces of War,” officially being released this Veterans Day.

We should approach Veterans Day with reverence, a sense of irony and even bewilderment. After all, on the original Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, civilized Europeans, Americans and Turks decided that 21 million casualties was enough.

This Veterans Day, we should pay attention to the stories old and young warriors tell us about their time in service and try to figure out what points their stories are making, what the service we always thank them for was, and what purpose it served.

We will find as one common takeaway that many service members and veterans tell stories to try to figure out themselves what it all meant and means. Why did so many men and women suffer and die? Why did some make it home and so many others did not? Why do they still think about, in some cases persistently, the things they did and the things that were done to them and their friends, and even their once-upon-a-time enemies?

There are so many stories of war that there is a whole scholarly and popular industry of studies of these stories. I have taught honors and graduate courses about war stories for more than 25 years. They are an inexhaustible well.

Tom Palaima

One great study is by Samuel Hynes, “The Soldiers’ Tale” (1997). Hynes flew in combat as a Marine pilot at Okinawa, the last of the truly hellish fighting by American troops in amphibious landings during World War II. For 20 months, island by island across the Pacific, dug-in Japanese soldiers swore to die fighting and did. The fighting at Okinawa went on for 80 days, April through June 1945. It exceeded predictions by military planners that it would be “horrendous — worse than Iwo Jima.”

If you want good war stories, a place to start is with Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.” Sledge was there in the fighting, and he attests that it was an “environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.” More than 150,000 casualties, American and Japanese, on a small island will produce the effect described by a U.S. Marine sergeant using Sledge’s metaphor, “You could smell the front long before you saw it; it was one vast cesspool.”

Hynes says that his book really began at Okinawa, when “I saw that war was not what I had expected.”

The stories veterans of war tell have no magic. Shakespeare scholar Alvin Kernan, who served as a bombardier in the Pacific in World War II and wrote his memoir, told it like it is when critiquing Hynes’ book in 1997: “They always say there won’t be another war, but there always is.”

We seem now to have reached the point with what war correspondent Dexter Filkins calls our “forever war” on terror, where we don’t even pretend there won’t be another war.

So, we had better read and listen to and watch and hear what those who fight in our name are telling us, unromantically, removing any stars still left in our eyes, or never placing them there to begin with.

Here is one story from war to ponder on Veterans Day:

During World War I, 23,000 Australian soldiers died horribly during the Battle of the Somme. One history states that “some intelligent men developed a bitter conviction that they were being uselessly sacrificed.”

One of them even believed in magic: “For Christ’s sake,” he wrote, “write a book on the life of an infantryman and by doing so you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.”

Many, many such books were published in the past century. Today?

Tom Palaima is the Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin and academic adviser to the veterans-run NEH-Aquila Theatre Project “The Warrior Chorus,”

Beyond the Battlefield: The war rages on, but this time it’s personal Fri, 09 Nov 2018 22:01:46 +0000 The Thorazine haze was beginning to fade when Glenn Towery was discharged from Oakland Naval Hospital. For the last however-many days he had felt listless, “like a non-human being,” making him forget why he was even there in the first place.

Before that, he occupied a hospital cot in the Philippines, next to an injured Marine who was asking about the weeping sores that covered his face and hands. “Where’d you get those Willie Peter burns?” he said — a question that burns into Towery’s memory.

He had been serving on the gunline in Vietnam as a quartermaster for the United States Navy — a ranking many on the ship did not take a liking to given it was 1972 and most other African Americans were low-rank deckhands. In fact, it was the first time Towery had been back on the ship since filing a complaint for the unjust discrimination and harassment he’d experienced.

He’d seen it all: racist graffiti drawn in sharpie all over his workstation; anger from other blacks who seemed less than impressed by his higher rank; an attack from behind that left him beaten, bruised, unconscious and alone.

“When you’re on a small ship, that becomes your world; and if your world is not a world where you feel welcome, it begins to play on you here,” Towery says, pointing to his head.

As a quartermaster, he had undergone months of intense training to navigate the ship and act as a watchman. But on the gunline, he was approached with new orders to “hump shells” and was given on-the-spot training. He spent the next few hours loading and firing as bullets whistled overhead, never thinking twice about the white powder on the shells he was loading.

“Someone tried to kill me,” says Towery, remembering his response to the injured Marine asking about the sores the white phosphorus powder had left on his skin, which begun “oozing out pus, and then crusting over.”

The realization angered him: “I kept replaying it in my head; innocently, not knowing what that powder was as I was working hard, sweating, still doing my duty.” He demanded, once again, to file charges, a request that the doctors ignored repeatedly, until he couldn’t take it anymore.

He pulled the IV out from his arm, slipped on a pair of foam slippers and took off across the field in nothing but his hospital smock. Behind him, military police rushed to stop him. But when they reached the commanding officer’s quarters, Towery “went berserk,” flipping tables, throwing chairs, and grabbing a letter opener, demanding his charges be filed.

By then, the police had drawn their service revolvers. Towery put down the letter opener, and they swarmed him, giving him a shot. He awoke in a daze, on a plane headed to the U.S., where he was transported to Oakland Naval Hospital and subjected to regular Thorazine shots.

It would be years before he could piece together his story through vivid, violent flashbacks and the information on his medical records. And it would be even longer still, until the Navy would recognize that the bouts of depression, hyperventilating and anxiety that left him debilitated, unable to hold down a job, was a “100 percent service-connected disability.”

After Vietnam, returning vets suffered from “Vietnam combat reaction,” but before that it was called “battle fatigue,” in World War II, or “shell shock,” in World War I.  But by 1980, the infernal condition which Towery had been battling for years — at one point, driving him to homelessness — garnered a more permanent title: post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.

“I call it the feeling of dread. It’s the feeling something terrible is going to happen at any moment. And it swells up. And it grows. Can you imagine living like that for a month?” Towery says, describing his first-ever suicidal thoughts. “I just wanted it to stop.”

Every year, 6,000 veterans kill themselves — an estimated 20 deaths a day — making those who served 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than non-veterans, according to the latest report by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. And PTSD heightens that risk.

“I understand what that feeling is that drives a lot of veterans to commit suicide, because I have been there,” says Towery, who created the Veterans Suicide Prevention Channel. “And I know that art is a great way to dispel that feeling. It’s a form of meditation. It’s a form of release.”

Glenn Towery stands in a room full of clocks he painted. Photo by Raul Buitrago.

Today, Towery combats those feelings by painting clocks and portraits, playwriting, composing music and even creating and producing his own film, “Starfunk and the Astral Pioneers.” He’s also working to organize the first Austin Veterans Art Festival, which will feature performances by The University of Texas at Austin Warrior Chorus — a scholar-led workshop, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, that brings together veteran communities to study classical literature as it relates to contemporary America — in which he actively participates.

“Warrior Chorus helps you seek out what’s really important through studying the Greek literature, philosophy and characters,” Towery explains. “We are transfixed with these mythological tales that make us think that we are better persons if we experience these so-called glories. But what does it do? It just hardens you as a person.

“For instance, Ajax was a murdering fool,” Towery adds. “He just went out and started killing stuff, trying to figure out why he doesn’t feel anymore.”

Remembering how angry, how injured, how bitter, he was when he came back from war, Towery works every day to preserve the humanistic part of him that once felt so lost.

“My goal is to be whole before I die,” Towery says. “I know that may sound strange, but that’s my goal. I want to be the person who stepped up and said ‘I promise to defend my country, foreign and domestic. I will lay my life down for these United States.’”


Glenn Towery and the UT Austin Warrior Chorus will be performing at the Austin Veterans Arts Festival launch party  on Nov. 15 (tickets required) and at the Austin Public Library Cepeda Branch at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 20.

The Best Teachers are the Best Researchers: A Q&A with Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra Tue, 30 Oct 2018 17:51:27 +0000 For the recognition of his work in mentoring graduate students, University of Texas at Austin history professor Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra has been presented with The Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award. This award commemorates educators that train, teach, and inspire students in a deeply meaningful and impactful way. Cañizares-Esguerra is the first to receive this award at UT Austin.

In nominating their teacher for the award, former students Kristie Flannery, Chloe Ireton, and Adrian Masters wrote:

We nominate Jorge for the Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award in order to honor Jorge’s commitment to mentoring an entire generation of top-tier scholars… They carry with them his new paradigms of historical thinking, as well as his broad vision of global history beyond the field’s conventional constrictions. …In Professor X’s words “I know of no other graduate mentor so invested in their students’ lives, no other teacher who has given so much of themselves to re-imagine what the history of the Americas could be.” As Professor Y explains, “in terms of professional recognition and remuneration, mentorship of graduate students and early career scholars is almost literally a thankless task. And that is why Dr. Cañizares- Esguerra’s unwavering commitment to his graduate students and to early career scholars in the United States, in Latin America, and elsewhere, is so impressive.

To learn more about Cañizares-Esguerra’s studies and mentorship process, read the Q&A below.

What sparked your initial interest in teaching history?

I learned that the very process of teaching and conveying information to some captive, yet curious, audiences leads to new knowledge and new questions. The challenge of transforming new knowledge into persuasive narratives and stories clarifies research. There is no new knowledge creation without teaching. The best teachers are the best researchers, I have no doubt about it.

What is the focus of your teaching, and what do you hope to find?

My focus is to challenge and upset deep seated assumptions. I teach Colonial Latin American history, a subject that authorizes all sorts of assumptions about Latin America, known by most students in Texas as “Mexico.” Students assume that “Mexican” colonial history — namely the Spanish conquest — created poverty, underdevelopment, racism and authoritarianism. Colonial history also helps them explain why the United States and, say, Mexico are so different. Allegedly, colonial history left the south perpetually scared. I don’t believe in any of this.

The core of my intellectual project has been to demonstrate in teaching and research the deep formative role of Latin America to the colonial history of the U.S. and to the history of Western modernity as a whole, not just slavery, globalization and capitalism. I introduce students to a region that was the cradle of modern science, abolitionism, republicanism and democracy. I completely invert their narratives and expectations.

What does your mentorship process look like?

I have no formulas or cooking recipes. Mentorship is a profoundly personal relation. Each individual mentee is as world onto themselves. For every shy mentee there is another that is extrovert and self-assured. Both will be stimulated and humbled by the challenges of professionalization and life itself. Honest communication on weakness and strengths should not be paralyzing or inebriating. The experience of failure often is as formative as the experience of success. The loss of self-confidence is just as bad as the lack of humility.

I prompt mentees into taking intellectual risks while sheltering them from making the wrong professional decisions. There are two crucial roles mentors play in someone’s junior career: mentors introduce mentees into professional networks that otherwise would take mentees decades to cultivate, and mentors guide mentees into getting peer review publications in top tier presses and journals. My responsibility is to stimulate folks into thinking big and challenging new ideas.

What was your reaction to receiving the award?

Both happiness and anger. I have taught for 15 years at UT where I have never been nominated for any teaching award because notions of teaching excellence are completely subordinated to student teaching scores that reward popularity. The evidence is overwhelming against the use of student evaluations as a measure of excellence. Hopefully this award on excellence in the mentoring of graduate students that very few U.S. historians have received (9 all together since the award was created in 1992) will prompt some discussion in our institutions of how to evaluate teaching excellence when one is not a white male without an accent.

What do you gain from mentoring students?

Each relationship is a unique, intellectual adventure of sorts. My only agenda is to bring out the best out of every student, gently but firmly pushing them into new, daring, conceptual territories that they themselves probably never thought possible. I grow excited by their success. As they dig deeper into their passions and grow confident in their skills, I am transformed myself. I learn, I explore new fields that I would otherwise have never explored on my own.

Joan Neuberger: A Pioneer in Digital History Tue, 23 Oct 2018 18:37:13 +0000 One of the most fundamental tasks for any university is to foster research that creates an impact beyond its campus. For historians, much of that work takes place in the growing fields of public and digital history. These scholars use innovative digital tools to make historical research relevant and accessible to a broader community. Now, the nation’s top historical association is recognizing the University of Texas at Austin’s own  Joan Neuberger with its award for distinguished contributions to public history – the Herbert Feis Award from the American Historical Association.

“From Not Even Past to Thinking in Public, The Public Archive, and Behind the Tower, as well as the 15 Minute History podcast series and her Public and Digital History courses, Joan has worked tirelessly over the years to bring history to a larger public,” said Jacqueline Jones, professor and chair of the history department at UT Austin. “The Feis award recognizes the creativity, hard work, and technological sophistication she brings to all these efforts.”

One of Neuberger’s most well-known projects is the public history website Not Even Past (NEP). Launched in 2011, NEP has monthly features on faculty research, book recommendations, film and television reviews, and stories about archival, visual, aural and other historical documents that illuminate intriguing corners of the past for its readers. Its name was inspired by William Faulkner, who famously said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Within the academy, the site helps graduate students practice writing in an accessible fashion, and professors use it to find engaging assignments for their classes. To date, NEP has reached close to 1 million visitors representing every U.S. state and over 200 countries.

All of Neuberger’s public history projects involve students at UT. The podcast 15 Minute History is co-founded, co-produced and co-hosted by history doctoral candidate Christopher Rose. It provides short, accessible podcasts on a variety of historical subjects for a general audience. Listeners can explore over 100 episodes covering a range of geographically and thematically rich and diverse content, across centuries.

The website Thinking in Public brings together public scholarship projects by faculty and students across disciplines. The site both showcases these projects and serves as a platform to explore different approaches to bringing world-class scholarship to wider audiences. For example, the site recently featured a project called Front Porch Gatherings, which connects members of the Austin community with faculty, students, nonprofit organizations, community leaders, and others to discuss the pressing issues faced by Austin’s historically underserved communities.

In the classroom, Neuberger teaches public and digital history courses for UT graduate students across departments. Her spring 2016 course centered on a topic close to home for all those in the greater Austin community: the 1966 UT Tower shooting. In anticipation of its 50th anniversary that summer, students conducted original research and developed individual projects exploring different facets of the tragic event. You can read the final projects at the website Behind the Tower.

Last Spring, Neuberger’s students learned how to exhibit the value of archives outside of academia and encourage the democratization of access to these resources. They digitized archival collections that were not yet available to the public, and then wrote blogs and lesson plans for educators to bring these archives into their classrooms. The culmination of these efforts can be found at The Public Archive.

At a time when the humanities are increasingly under siege, the success of Neuberger’s work highlights the demand for humanistic inquiry from among people from all walks of life. As the subscribers to NEP and 15 Minute History report, they are real estate agents and pharmacists, firefighters and nurses, waitresses and lawyers, school bus drivers and computer scientists, marketing directors and priests. They plan our cities, create our art, make our coffee, protect our wildlife, serve in our military, raise our children, and report on our world. And of course, they are students and educators. That is the type of broader intellectual community that public historians aim to create and that Neuberger has pioneered at UT.

“Each of Professor Neuberger’s public scholarship projects sheds light on the ways that education improves human connections,” said Zoya Brumberg, doctoral student in American studies. “History, literature, science, and art give us the tools to understand ourselves and the world around us. Dr. Neuberger makes it her mission to entice as many people as possible with intellectual explorations that they can relate to without compromising the integrity of their academic groundings.”


Story by Rebecca Adeline Johnston, Ph.D Student, UT History Dept.

Free Minds, Free Education Tue, 23 Oct 2018 17:56:58 +0000 While higher education is often touted as the cornerstone of a successful and prosperous life, many are left in the dust, unable to afford the tuition or balance the time needed to build that foundation.

Since its inception in The College of Liberal Arts Humanities Institute at The University of Texas in 2006, the Free Minds program opens the door to a more easily accessible path to higher education, offering a year of college courses in the humanities to adults living on limited incomes in the Austin area.

“I think what excited folks to get this started was the chance to bring the kind of academic space available on college campuses to to those who may not have had access to that in the past,” says Free Minds academic director Amelia Pace-Borah. “Those spaces inspire reflection, close reading, careful engagements with ideas. They open a door to the power and pleasure of human thought and artistic expression out in the community.”

“I think UT sees its place within the Austin community as a promoter of education and the humanities for everyone. We have the responsibility to go beyond the 40 acres and, as our motto puts it, work to change the world,” adds current Free Minds and UT Austin english professor Patricia Garcia.

In 2013, the University passed the torch to the Foundation Communities but continues to be an active partner, with the Department of English and Centers for Women’s and Gender Studies and Mexican American Studies supporting UT faculty who teach in the program, such as this year’s faculty, American Studies associate professor Shirley Thompson and English lecturer Patricia García.

A former professor for the program, UT Austin classics professor Tom Palaima, notes that “the transition to college is where their lives went off track. But this program really accomplishes something. It not only activates the humanistic side. There’s an end goal.”

When the twelfth Free Minds class kicked off last August, nearly half of the 23 participants were stepping into a college classroom for the first time. These students, many of whom are parents trying to help their own children with academic development, strive to further their own education. Upon graduating from the program, each student earns six credit hours at Austin Community College.

“Above all,” Pace-Borah says, “I hope that students come away valuing their own ideas and capabilities and that they come away really fired up to put those capabilities to use in new and creative ways, in their families, at their jobs, wherever they find themselves.”

In addition to delving into literature, art history, philosophy, history, and creative writing, students experience access to the culture of campus, attending a Shakespeare performance and touring the Blanton Museum each year. As a program of Foundation Communities’ College Hub, Free Minds can connect graduates to continued support as they navigate college applications and financial aid.

“I firmly believe that my journey with Free Minds has made me a stronger person,” says class of 2018 alumna Angela Herron. “My Free Minds community serves as a foundation for my inspiration to continue in my education regardless of the barriers.”

In its design, the program offers an example of how to break down barriers within higher education, organizers note. There is no age limit for the program, they offer free dinners and daycare and the program meets in the evening twice a week in order to accommodate busy schedules.

“Free Minds has given me confidence, not just in my abilities as a student, but in myself as a person who can accomplish goals and have success,” says 2018 graduate David Feaster, who notes that Free Minds helped him move past the mental health issues he had struggled with for years. “I still have a way to go, but now I can actually begin to see myself getting somewhere.”

Written in Stone: Studying the Relationship Between Ancient Writing Systems and Their Writers Fri, 19 Oct 2018 16:49:48 +0000 Beyond the classrooms in Waggener Hall and deep in the archives on prehistoric scripts, Cassandra Donnelly found her calling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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