Department News, July 2015

Spring 2015 American Studies NewsletterBelow is a sampling of updates from the Spring 2015 American Studies Newsletter. To read the full version, click on the thumbnail to the right.

Reflections from the American Studies Class of 2015: Adey Debebe
Reflections from the American Studies Class of 2015: Eric Breese
Collected Stories and Twice-Told Tales
Robin Bernstein: Resistance, Not Psychological Damage
Julie Sze: Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene
The Fabulous American Studies Film Club
Cinema Citizenship and the Environment
Humanitarians without Borders
Jeffrey C. Kasch Foundation Research Trips: Sara Awartani
Jeffrey C. Kasch Foundation Research Trips: Robert Ramaswamy


Reflections from the American Studies Class of 2015: Adey Debebe

Adey DebebeWhat has been your favorite GW memory?
Definitely during my sophomore year when Obama was reelected. I was living in Francis Scott Key Hall at the time and I had friends over because my dorm was closest to the White House. We were ready and bolted the minute it got called. There was stuff getting sprayed everywhere and people in trees, it was beautiful. We acted a little crazy, but we were happy.

What has been your best American Studies moment in your four years here?
I’m going old school. Freshman year, fall semester, I’m a bright-eyed freshman living on the Vern. I didn’t know what I was doing, but one class stuck out at me. It was the Dean’s Seminar American Popular Culture Post 9/11 with Professor Anker. It was an excellent class. I came in undeclared too, so I had no idea what was going on. Out of every class I took my freshman year, I loved that class the most, bar none. I enjoyed every part of it. Professor Anker was excellent, and I love pop culture and critiquing and analyzing it. That’s when I really got into American Studies.

Where are you headed next after you graduate?
That is THE question. For me right now, I’m still surveying my options. Grad school’s not in the cards for me in the immediate future, but I’m looking for jobs. Right after graduation, I’m going to head home to New Jersey for a bit, maybe travel around, and then I’m hoping to get a couple of jobs that I applied for in California.

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Reflections from the American Studies Class of 2015: Eric Breese

Eric BreeseWhat will you take as your favorite GW memory?
My favorite GW memory is when I went with the GW Allied in Pride organization, which I was vice president of at the time, to rally outside the Supreme Court during the DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] hearings. A picture of me at the rally, waving a gay-pride flag, ended up becoming pretty popular; if you Google “Eric Breese DOMA,” the picture of me shows up.

Did you always know you would major in American Studies?
No, I was initially majoring in public communications, but I switched my sophomore year because it was not stimulating enough for me. I took a class with Professor Guglielmo, and I loved it—the way we looked at history and culture in a way I never had in the past. After that class, I spoke with one of the TAs and then I met with Professor McAlister and signed the papers to declare my American Studies major. I have no regrets about it!

What will you take away as your best American Studies moment?
There is no moment in particular. It’s been great because there are a lot of professors with a lot of experience in the field, and the professor–to-student ratio is really good. On the whole, the best part about my American Studies experience has been learning about different ways to look at the world and understanding that others look at the world differently. American Studies has given me a much broader perspective on the way people interact and the way culture is formed, and ways to value that culture even if it is different from my own. This may sound a bit hyperbolic, but I think American Studies has made me a better person.

Where are you headed next?
I work for Apple right now, and I plan on staying with them. But if I decide to apply to other places, I will want to apply to work with designing customer service, as in the ways employees interact with customers.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
In any type of job at any company, just taking advantage of the skills I learned in critical analysis and story-telling. I would want a job that requires me being able to understand other people and cultures.

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Collected Stories and Twice-Told Tales

A Collected Stories panelThis spring, the department’s graduate students spearheaded the annual Collected Stories and Twice-Told Tales conference. It was an intellectually exciting day-long event which included presentations by undergraduates, MA students, and PhD students, as well as commentary by faculty.

Every year, GW’s graduate students organize the Collected Stories and Twice-Told Tales conference which brings together students and faculty to present, listen and debate. The conference includes undergraduate, master’s and PhD students from our department and others. This year, our February conference began, in a sense, with Robin Bernstein’s lecture from her book Racial Innocence on Thursday evening, and it continued with a full day of presentations on Friday. The bridge between Professor Bernstein’s talk with the conference panels, several students participated in a roundtable to investigate which bodies are included and excluded from ideas of childhood and innocence. MA students Brady Forrest, Ravon Ruffin and Amanda Figueroa along with PhD student Sara Awartani were pointed in their examination of the politics of race and innocence in light of the national discussion of police violence and the campaign #BlackLivesMatter.

For several years, undergraduates who have written outstanding papers in their fall senior seminars are invited to present their work. The undergrads (Amanda Smith, Michael Smith and Ian Funk) opened the day, and quickly made clear that their outstanding research was matched by strong speaking skills and PowerPoint designs that were a bit awe-inspiring. The papers varied, from Amanda Smith’s analysis of the culture of veterans’ support groups to Ian Funk’s discussion of Huey Newton’s Inaugural Address.

The afternoon panels explored the intersections of disability and race, and critical perspectives on popular culture. They showed the usual mix of disciplines and approaches that one might expect from an American Studies conference, from close readings of a play to an analysis of the politics of African American expatriates in Paris.

All of us in AmSt owe a real debt to the organizers of this year’s very successful conference: Lindsay Brayton, Michael Horka and Justin Mann. We are excited to announce that PhD students Julie Chamberlain and Thomas Dolan, and MA students Ravon Ruffin and Brady Forrest will be organizing next year’s conference.

Photo: A Collected Stories panel with PhD student Michael Horka at the podium, and PhD student Megan Drury, MA student Brady Forrest and PhD student Craig Allen seated.

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Robin Bernstein: Resistance, Not Psychological Damage

Robin BernsteinAt this year's Collected Stories Conference, Dr. Robin Bernstein (Harvard University) delivered the address, "Resistance, Not Psychological Damage: Re-Evaluating the Clark Doll Tests," a reinterpretation of the famous experiments that found that racism had created psychological damage in black children.

Bernstein's captivating lecture focused on the Clark Doll tests, a series of experiments performed in the mid-20th century by psychologists Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark. The Clarks famously presented children with black and white dolls that were identical except for color, and asked the children to identify which dolls were “nice” or “bad,” and asked them to identify the doll which "looks like a white child," "looks like a colored child" and, finally, "looks like you."

Most children, the Clarks concluded, determined that the white dolls were "nice," and that the black dolls were "bad," and could more easily attribute positive attributes to the white dolls than the black dolls. The study allowed the Clarks to argue that segregation injured black children's psyches, and, despite flaws in the Clarks' experiments, their data would be influential in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's unanimous 1954 decision ending de jure segregation in public schools. The Clarks' study, Bernstein argued, has had an afterlife well beyond Brown, and continues to be performed on television programs and YouTube videos, always standing as evidence of the ways that segregation and racism harms black children's self-esteem.

Bernstein's talk returned to the famous Clark doll test, and argued for understanding the doll test in the context of the history of dolls. Bernstein's archival work reveals that black dolls were scripted as objects to be abused, violated and harmed. In other words, while white dolls were to be cherished and loved; black dolls were to be hanged, dismembered and beaten. The message embedded in this doll-play, Bernstein argued, is that black dolls were imagined to be insensate to pain. After contextualizing the Clarks’ work in the history of dolls, Bernstein returned to the Clarks' famous data, and argued that the choices made by black children were not necessarily the result of racial self-hatred or damaged self-esteem. Rather, she argued, black children carefully interpreted two toys—a white doll that was meant to be loved, and a black doll that was meant to be injured—and rejected the violent forms of play that black dolls scripted in ways that were not symptomatic of damaged self-esteem, but in ways that made black children "agential experts in children's culture."

Photo: Dr. Robin Bernstein posing with her book, Racial Innocence.

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Julie Sze: Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene

On April 20, the American Studies hosted a talk by Professor Julie Sze of the University of California, Davis. Sze spoke on “Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene.” She described her ongoing research on Kivalina, Alaska, a town 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Due to the effects of climate change, Kivalina is expected to be underwater by 2025.

Professor Sze is a worldwide leader in the fields of environmental justice and environmental humanities. Her first book, Noxious New York (MIT, 2006), a recipient of the John Hope Franklin award from the American Studies Association, unveiled the disparate impacts of pollution and the complex of racial and class politics of environmental activism. In her talk at George Washington University, cosponsored by the Department of Anthropology, Professor Sze turned to a study of Kivalina, Alaska, a town 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Due to the effects of climate change, Kivalina is expected to be underwater by 2025. Kivalina is best known, perhaps, for its unsuccessful suit against ExxonMobil and other oil companies that charged them with causing global warming and sought damages of $400 million to pay for the relocation of the town.

Since that point Kivalina has been at the center of a global movement to recount and tell the stories of the town's residents and of their experiences. Professor Sze noted that such storytelling will need to be the basis of a new kind of global politics and new movement of environmental justice. She noted that global climate change not only poses unprecedented threats and damage, but also challenge our ability to develop appropriate responses.

The difficulty we have faced in reaching even the beginnings of appropriate response, Professor Sze noted, arises not so much from a lack of understanding the raw scientific facts, but a failure of imagination. We need, Professor Sze argued, the imagination, the stories and analysis developed by environmental humanities to help us grasp the significance of climate change for people and rest of the living world. Such understanding would, Sze contended, would help break the, to date, failures of political action on climate change.

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The Fabulous American Studies Film Club

Film Club membersAnd, as always, there is the fabulous American Studies Film Club, with this spring’s theme: “Necessary Cinema: Movies for the American Studies Scholar.” We love to talk about Film Club!

This semester, the American Studies Film Club presented a screening series entitled “Necessary Cinema: Movies for the American Studies Scholar.” The list was suggested by students and faculty who responded to a prompt that asked them to consider what films are most essential for students of American culture or scholars of the humanities more generally to be familiar with. The resulting film series included a range of movies that included such a diverse set of classics that many of our students had never seen before, including Rear Window, The Wiz, Paris is Burning and Heathers. Other films explored important social justice issues (An Inconvenient Truth), recent military history (The Hurt Locker) or were examinations of filmmaking and genre more generally (Cabin in the Woods).

The film club was honored to welcome special guest speakers Melani McAlister, who presented selections from the documentary series Have You Heard from Johannesburg? and Nina Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at GW, who screened and led students in a discussion about the recent Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour.

The group also hosted a special event which brought in actor Tyrone Giordano to talk about the politics of casting deaf roles in the film industry. Giordano is known for his roles in films such as The Family Stone and A Lot like Love, and for his portrayal of Huck Finn in the Broadway revival of Big River. He engaged our students in a discussion about the film Babel and his recent activist work around the hashtag #DeafTalent.

The film club is currently actively seeking input on a few ideas for the fall, and those interested should contact the department if they wish to become a part of the conversation.

Photo: Members of the Film Club posed for a quick picture before a screening of Cabin in the Woods.

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Cinema, Citizenship and the Environment

Each year, our most senior PhD students design and teach their own seminars for undergraduates.

A scene from Whale WarsThis spring, PhD Candidate Shannon Davies Mancus taught a seminar entitled Cinema, Citizenship, and the Environment. The course explored the ways in which environmentalist narratives in popular culture engage in competing politics through a combination of fictional and nonfictional discourses.

Students used methodologies including those of cultural studies and performance studies in order to analyze how competing stories seek embedded different messages about the “correct” way of relating to the earth. They also engaged with creative pedagogical techniques including forming “time traveling messaging consulting firms” and creating their own environmental PSAs in order to fully explore what different narratives ask the public to think, feel and do in order to address environmental crises. By examining diverse sources that ran the gamut from western novels to blockbuster films, public service announcements to Vanity Fair magazine and Silent Spring to South Park, students contemplated how Americans creatively imagine and perform politics.

Photo: A scene from the Animal Planet Show, Whale Wars.

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Humanitarians without Borders

The Security Council. Courtesy of United Nations, New York Photo #286894.

Megan Black also taught a demanding and exciting course on Humanitarians without Borders. Here she talks about the course:

"How have humanitarian Americans crossed and collapsed boundaries between the United States and the world? The Humanitarians Without Borders class, a group of 11 stalwart students committed to meeting in the late afternoon on Wednesdays and Fridays, posed this question throughout the spring semester.

Together, we examined the political, economic and cultural foundations of U.S. humanitarian engagements in the modern era. Although humanitarianism today signifies a particular form of apolitical, life-saving relief associated with a global welter of NGOs, the impulse to help humanity had a longer trajectory that encompassed a broad range of investments: abolitionism, missionary work, imperialism, anti-imperialism, modernization, development, human rights, relief work and military intervention.

To understand these different investments, we engaged scholarship from Thomas Haskell, Ian Tyrrell, Elizabeth Borgwardt, Michael Barnett, Ilana Feldman and Nick Cullather alongside contemporary writings from Hannah Arendt, Clifford Geertz and Lorraine Hansberry, to name a few. 

We were also lucky to host two excellent guest speakers: Bryant Jones, an expert in public diplomacy from the State Department and White House, and Melani McAlister, the fearless leader of the American Studies Department and author of an article we happily (and carefully) read, “What is Your Heart For?: Affect and Internationalism in the Evangelical Public Sphere” from American Literary History." Overall, these students have faced the complexity of humanitarian interventions, broadly defined, and have asked unique and penetrating questions about their origins and impacts.

Photo: The Security Council votes to extend the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) until 29 July 1994. Courtesy of United Nations, New York Photo #286894.

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Jeffrey C. Kasch Foundation Research Trips: Sara Awartani

Sara AwartaniThis spring, I spent two days in the Center for Puerto Rican Studies archives in New York City for my paper tentatively titled, “¡Albizu Vive! The Tortured Body as Political Vessel in Puerto Rican Independentista Ideology.”

Here I was able to review the papers of Ruth Reynolds. A pacifist activist, Ruth Reynolds passionately advocated for Puerto Rican independence, as well as on behalf of Puerto Rican political prisoners. Her dedication toward the struggle for Puerto Rico’s self-determination began in 1943 with her introduction to Pedro Albizu Campos, the Nationalist leader. Following the Nationalist uprising in October 1950, Ruth Reynolds was arrested alongside Pedro Albizu Campos (amongst others), all of whom were charged with sedition to overthrow the United States government. It is during this period of incarceration (1950-1953) that Pedro Albizu Campos first accused the United States—in concert with the government of Puerto Rico—of human radiation experimentation.

Offering a wealth of material on her relationship with Albizu Campos, her own experience in prison, and activism surrounding Albizu’s final pardoning (he was again imprisoned in 1954-1964), the Ruth Reynolds Papers offered key insights into the legacy of Albizu’s accusations. In her oral history interviews, Reynolds speaks to the Christ-like figure Albizu’s body accrued following his death, which Puerto Rican independence activists assign to the U.S.-sanctioned tortured he endured throughout his imprisonment:

Now, this man with his uncompromising and virtually saintly character is the man, to the best of our knowledge, who suffered the worst torture under our government ever conceived, over a long period of time. Jesus was three hours on a Roman cross, and that is called the worst crime in history. Don Pedro suffered burns on his body for about three years, constant.

Material such as this, coupled with personal correspondence documenting the echelons of activism mobilized to secure Albizu’s pardon in 1964—including, rather excitedly, a response from Eleanor Roosevelt, which suggests the magnitude the “Campos Crisis” posed for the United States government—allowed me to paint a fuller picture of the life Albizu’s accusations—his tortured body—assumed throughout (1891-1965) and beyond his life.

My gratitude to the Kasch Foundation's donation to the Horton-Vlach Fund for American Studies is without measure. The opportunity to travel in pursuit of my scholarly interests has placed me in excellent position to publish as a first-year PhD student.

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Jeffrey C. Kasch Foundation Research Trips: Robert Ramaswamy

Robert RamaswamyThis spring, as part of my work in a graduate research seminar, I completed a four-day research trip to the University of Michigan, where I examined primary source material for my paper, 'It's not just about babies…': Rethinking Definitions of Work and Reproduction in the Nestlé Boycott, 1977-1984.” My paper examined different definitions of work and their relation to the use of baby formula, and I hope to expand and adapt it into a publishable work this summer. In addition to serving this particular project, the trip allowed me to gain familiarity with a collection that will surely figure into my research on Detroit in the coming years.

Nestled into a wooded area in the University of Michigan's North Campus, the Bentley hosts a prodigious collection of Michigan history. On this trip, I worked primarily from the National Organization for Women's (NOW) Michigan Conference Records as well as the papers of Robert C. Ball, a native Michigander who was working as a foreign correspondent for Fortune Magazine during the boycott. Bringing these collections into conversation afforded portraits of two camps in the Nestlé Boycott: On the one side, there were NOW activists like Doris Little, who viewed the infant formula issue as "peculiar to the women of developing nations," and on the other, there were business journalists like Ball, who noted that Nestlé was "mounting a major assault on the U.S. market" while boycotters were preoccupied with the company's dealings in the global South. These sources provided a critical body of evidence that has served as the bedrock of my project.

I cannot overstate my gratitude for the Kasch Foundation's donation to the Horton-Vlach Fund for American Studies. Funds like this are a crucial component of rigorous and successful scholarship.

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