Life & Letters
American Girls in Red Russia P.12 A Monumental Decision P.26
Can We Talk?
Why Discourse is Dying in America P.20
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March On! On March 24, the newly released film Get in the Way: The Journey of John Lewis was screened at Hogg Auditorium. The film was followed by a conversation between Andrew Aydin, congressional aide to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell. They are co-authors with Congressman Lewis of the graphic memoir MARCH that tells the story of Lewis and his involvement in the American civil rights movement. The event was hosted by the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, the College of Liberal Arts, the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the LBJ Presidential Library. Photo: Jay Godwin, LBJ Presidential Library
Contents Spring 2017
2 Dean’s Message 3 Knowledge Matters
A look at the college’s top news, research and achievements.
Can We Talk?
Why Discourse is Dying in America Conversation becomes more a matter of taste — when we gravitate to our own bias, only seek to win an argument or avoid difficult discussions — and less about finding the truth.
A sampling of notable happenings in our campus community.
Meet 2017 Rhodes scholar Mikaila Smith, Schwarzman scholar Jordan Metoyer and Marshall scholar Bailey Anderson.
34 School Rules FEATURE STORY
American Girls in Red Russia Chasing the Soviet Dream
Author Julia Mickenberg reveals the complex motives that drew young American women to Russia during the early 20th century.
Government professor says it’s time to rethink Chapter 313, the Texas program that has given corporations more than $7 billion in property tax breaks.
36 Celebrating the Humanities
Through the support of the Humanities Research Award and Humanities Media Project, scholars share the power of the humanities to challenge understandings, enrich lives and change the world.
A Monumental Decision What to do About Jefferson Davis and the Challenges of Commemoration
Tracing a statue’s controversial origin and the events leading to its move to the Briscoe Center, where the exhibit From Commemoration to Education opened in April.
ON THE COVER: Illustration by George Wylesol. BACK COVER: Madison Gehler, an international relations and global studies and Army ROTC senior, flashes a “Hook ʼEm, Horns” during the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition. Photo by John Pellino.
DE ANʼS MESSAGE
Life & Letters The College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin publishes Life & Letters for its community of scholars, alumni and friends. College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy L. Diehl
Using Your Mellon The College of Liberal Arts has a long and proud tradition of preparing its graduate students to teach and conduct research in the humanities at colleges and universities around the world, and we are particularly proud of our many placements in the nation’s top institutions. However, over the past two decades academic positions in the humanities have declined, leaving a number of recent graduates struggling in a difficult job market. But changes in today’s technological, socio-cultural and political environments have created a new demand for humanities-trained doctoral holders to address a broader set of challenges, questions and issues in our rapidly evolving workplaces. Our college recently received a $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to provide specialized training and research skills to doctoral students in the humanities and prepare them for opportunities in this new economy. The four-and-ahalf-year grant supports The Engaged Scholar Initiative: A Texas Model, in which doctoral students will work in interdisciplinary, collaborative clusters with faculty, undergraduate students and others to gain experience in areas beyond their specific academic disciplines. The initiative condenses time to the Ph.D. Richard Flores and Esther Raizen. and reshapes the training of scholars in the humanities by providing tools, research experiences and funding that allow students to broaden their career options to include a range of academic and non-academic careers. Richard Flores, senior associate dean and professor in the Department of Anthropology, and Esther Raizen, senior associate dean and associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, will lead the program, which will welcome its first class of graduate fellows this summer. The Mellon Foundation has also given a boost to our Latin American Studies and Collections with a $700,000 grant to LLILAS Benson for Cultivating a Latin American Post-Custodial Archival Praxis, a project focusing on vulnerable human rights documentation from Latin America that will be administered by the UT Libraries. This builds on a previous Mellon Foundation project through which LLILAS Benson collaborated with archives in Central America in the creation of Latin American Digital Initiatives, a repository that provides access to unique archival collections. Both of these initiatives support innovative, collaborative and forwardthinking work in the humanities that in many ways represent the future of learning at The University of Texas at Austin.
Randy L. Diehl, Dean David Bruton, Jr. Regents Chair in Liberal Arts 2 Life & Letters | Spring 2017
Director of Public Affairs David A. Ochsner Editor Michelle Bryant Art Director Allen F. Quigley Graphic Design Intern Eric Moe Copy Editor Adam Deutsch Contributing Writers Victoria Davis Rachel Griess Emily Nielsen David A. Ochsner Contributing Photographer Emily Nielsen Contributing Illustrators Michelle Kondrich Eric Moe George Wylesol Visit us online at lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu Or email us at email@example.com Postmaster Send changes of address to: Life & Letters College of Liberal Arts 116 Inner Campus Dr., Stop G6000 Austin, TX 78712-1257 Follow us facebook.com/UTLiberalArts twitter.com/LiberalArtsUT youtube.com/LiberalArtsUT
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Hard Bill to Swallow Economics, Population Research Center By Rachel Griess
Despite the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) popular provisions to protect consumers with pre-existing conditions from high health care costs, some consumers — including those with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and certain cancers — continue to face discrimination that results in thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs, according to findings in a National Bureau
of Economic Research working paper, which economist Michael Geruso presented to members of the U.S. Congress in November. In the study, Geruso and Harvard University researchers examined how ACA Exchange plans might use formulary benefit design — the arrangement of prescription drug coverage into various cost-sharing tiers — to screen out unprofitable patients by offering poor
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“The bottom line for consumers is exposure to high out-of-pocket costs and a system in which no plan will offer good coverage for certain illnesses.” Michael Geruso
requirement on how the drugs should be tiered within a formulary. That incentivizes insurers to place such drugs on specialty tiers, where patients face high out-of-pocket costs, sometimes exceeding $1,000 per month. “While the current regulatory framework goes a long way toward weakening insurer incentives to avoid unhealthy enrollees, some patients still imply large insurer losses, and insurers recognize that the benefit design can act as a screening mechanism,” Geruso says, who is also a research associate in the Population Research Center. “The bottom line for consumers is exposure to high outof-pocket costs and a system in which no plan will offer good coverage for certain illnesses.”
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coverage for certain medications. The researchers found that although risk adjustment and reinsurance — the regulatory mechanisms that compensate insurers for taking on a high-cost patient — subsidize costs and “neutralize selection incentives” for the majority of drug classes, some patients remain predictably unprofitable. This creates a large incentive for a firm to avoid covering this patient, Geruso says, and although ACA Exchange plans are required to cover at least one drug in each therapeutic category and class, there is no
Monkey See Anthropology
Unlike other placental mammals, Old World monkeys, apes and humans are unique in displaying “normal” color vision — or trichromacy. However, New World monkeys, or primates indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, are primarily red/green colorblind — or dichromatic — with trichromatic color vision occurring in some females but no males. Though several theories exist on how color vision diversity among these species has maintained over the years, new research challenges existing hypotheses for the evolution of color vision in both Old and New World monkeys. In the study, appearing in Scientific Reports, postdoctoral researcher Carrie Veilleux and anthropology associate professor Rebecca Lewis documented trichromacy in a population of wild lemurs and its effects on fitness, such as reproductive success and feeding behavior. They found that trichromats, which made up less than a quarter of the 31 females tested, and their cohabitating dichromats showed higher body mass indices, as well as a trend toward increased infant survival rates among trichromat mothers. Evidence supported a higher consumption of fruit among individuals living with trichromat females, probably due to the female’s ability to spot the fruit and lead her group to it. This effect was most pronounced in the energetically stressful dry season when trichromat lemurs and their group mates fed on fruit for longer periods than members of the colorblind groups, a finding that probably contributes to better body condition and an increased likelihood of infant survival, researchers say. “In long-lived animals like primates, it can be challenging to collect enough data to detect differences in fitness. The fact that we found this robust effect on BMI across multiple social groups suggests that there really is a selective advantage to being a trichromat and to living in a social group with trichromats,” Veilleux says.
Sociology, Population Research Center
Joshua Guerra for The Daily Texan
African Americans are more likely than whites to experience the loss of a parent during childhood and more likely to be exposed to family member deaths earlier and throughout their lives than whites, a trend that is likely to be damaging the health of black Americans in the long run. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sociologist Debra Umberson examined racial disparities in exposure and timing of family member deaths to uncover an underappreciated layer of racial inequality, which results from reoccurring bereavement that may lead to the intergenerational transmission of black health disadvantages. In the study, blacks experienced more family member deaths overall than whites did. They were twice as likely to experience the death of two or more family members by age 30 and 90 percent more likely to experience four or more deaths by age 65. In stark contrast, whites were 50 percent more likely to never experience a family member death by age 65. The researchers found overall that blacks were at greater risk of losing a mother from early childhood through young adulthood, a father through their midteens, a sibling in their teens and a child by the age of 30. The race gap diminishes only slightly at ages 70 and up when whites begin to experience more loss, researchers say. “The potentially substantial damage to surviving family members is a largely overlooked area of racial disadvantage,” Umberson says. “Death of family members is highly likely to disrupt and strain other family relationships as well as the formation, duration and quality of relationships across the life course, further contributing to a broad range of adverse life outcomes including poor health and lower life expectancy.”
Alexander Dummer, Upslash
Study Examines Deaths in Families
Born to Lead Economics
As families grow, the youngest siblings’ potential to develop beneficial personality traits may suffer at the hands of dwindling parental investments and sibling competition. In an Institute of Labor Economics working paper lead by economist Sandra Black, researchers add to a growing body of literature by examining nearly 80 years of Swedish data on births, family, physical and psychological well-being, occupational choice and IQ to answer the question: Is there a role for birth order in the formation of personalities? In the data, earlier-born men were more emotionally stable, persistent, outgoing and willing to assume responsibility and take initiative. Additionally, earlier-born children were more likely to assume leadership roles in the workforce that require skillful use of the Big Five personality traits — openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability. Conversely, researchers found that the youngest siblings were more likely to be self-employed. These trends were amplified when considering the effects of gender: the negative effects of birth order on noncognitive skills impacts later-born boys with older brothers twice as much. Researchers hypothesized several environmental factors that contribute to these trends, including parental investments such as time and attention. Later-born children were found to spend less time on reading and homework and more time watching TV than earlier-born children. While results indicated parents invest less time in later-born children, alternative interpretations suggest children’s personalities might also be the result of sibling rivalry or an attempt by children to mold their behavior in order to fill a different “niche” within the family. “While researchers in many fields have studied this question, the use of the Swedish administrative data has really let us get at it from a different perspective,” says Black, who served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. “These findings help provide insight into the determinants of children’s outcomes more broadly, something we as a society care about.”
Debra Umberson. Visit lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu | 5
Do Ancestry Tests Reflect Health? Anthropology
To learn about their family trees, more than 3 million people have purchased genetic ancestry tests since they first appeared in 2000. During this time, many biomedical studies have linked markers of genetic ancestry to disease risk, leading some consumers to evaluate their own health risks based on their ancestry results. However, because many of the reported associations between genetic markers and disease risk are not well supported scientifically and may be incorrect, researchers caution consumers not to jump to conclusions. In a paper published in BMC Medical Genomics, UT Austin anthropologist Deborah Bolnick, Bath Spa University sociologist Andrew Smart and Lancaster University
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sociologist Richard Tutton addressed the porous boundary between health and ancestry genetics. The research team focused on genetic markers commonly used in ancestry tests and described as having little biomedical value. However, they documented more than 100 biomedical research articles linking these markers to a variety of disease risks including coronary artery disease, hearing loss and several types of cancer. Many studies had significant flaws and the reported disease associations are probably false, but the studies’ conclusions have nevertheless entered the public domain in ways that may cause confusion and misunderstanding among genetic ancestry test consumers.
“While genetic ancestry tests provide consumers with some information about their heritage,” Bolnick says, “they should be cautious about using this information to make health-related decisions.” The researchers also noted that many medical professionals are not equipped to interpret or apply their patient’s ancestry test results, with only 29 percent of U.S. clinicians rating their genetic expertise as “good” or higher, and less than a third of European physicians expressing confidence in their ability to carry out basic medical genetic tasks. “Better guidance is needed to ensure that consumers interpret and apply genetic ancestry tests in valid ways,” Bolnick says.
Heady Evolution Anthropology
Compared with the skulls of other primates, the large hole at the base of the human skull where the spinal cord passes through — known as the foramen magnum — is shifted forward. Although many scientists attribute this shift to the evolution of bipedalism and the need to balance the head directly atop the spine, others have been skeptical of the proposed link. Controversy has centered on the association between a forward-shifted foramen magnum and bipedalism since 1925, when Raymond Dart discussed it in his description of “Taung child,” a 2.8 million-year-old fossil skull of the extinct South African species Australopithecus africanus. A study published last year by Aidan Ruth and colleagues continued to stir up the controversy when they offered additional criticisms of the idea. However, in a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution, anthropology alumna Gabrielle Russo, now an assistant professor at Stony Brook University, and UT Austin anthropologist Chris Kirk confirmed prior research showing that a forward-shifted foramen magnum is found not just in humans and their bipedal fossil relatives, but is a shared feature of bipedal mammals more generally. To make their case, Russo and Kirk compared the position and orientation of the foramen magnum in 77 mammal species, including marsupials, rodents and primates. Their findings indicate that bipedal mammals such as humans, kangaroos, springhares and jerboas have a more forward-positioned foramen magnum than their quadrupedal close relatives. “This question of how bipedalism influences skull anatomy keeps coming up partly because it’s difficult to test the various hypotheses if you only focus on primates,” Kirk says. “However, when you look at the full range of diversity across mammals, the evidence is pretty compelling that bipedalism and a forward-shifted foramen magnum go hand-in-hand.”
[Right] Comparison of the positioning of the foramen magnum in a bipedal springhare (left) and its closest quadrupedal relative, the scaly-tailed squirrel (right).
“The evidence is pretty compelling that bipedalism and a forward-shifted foramen magnum go hand-in-hand.” Chris Kirk
Russo and Kirk, Journal of Human Evolution, 2017
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Study Looks at Soldiers’ Hormone Levels Prior to Deployment Psychology
Up to 20 percent of U.S. veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from trauma experienced during wartime, but neuroscience research suggests some soldiers may have a hormonal predisposition to experience such stress-related disorders. Cortisol — the stress hormone — is released as part of the body’s flight-or-fight response to life-threatening emergencies. Seminal research in the 1980s connected abnormal cortisol levels to an increased risk for PTSD, but three decades of subsequent research produced a mixed bag of findings, dampening enthusiasm for the role of cortisol as a primary cause of PTSD. However, new findings published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology point to
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cortisol’s critical role in the emergence of PTSD, but only when levels of testosterone — one of most important male sex hormones — are suppressed, researchers say. “Recent evidence points to testosterone’s suppression of cortisol activity, and vice versa. It is becoming clear to many researchers that you can’t understand the effects of one without simultaneously monitoring the activity of the other,” says professor of psychology Robert Josephs. “Prior attempts to link PTSD to cortisol may have failed because the powerful effect that testosterone has on the hormonal regulation of stress was not taken into account.” The researchers used hormone data obtained from saliva samples of 120 U.S. soldiers before deployment to Iraq and
tracked their monthly combat experiences to examine the effects of traumatic war-zone stressors and PTSD symptoms over time. Before deployment, soldiers were administered a stress simulating CO2 inhalation challenge to examine their cortisol and testosterone reactivity to stress. Researchers found that soldiers who exhibited less change in both testosterone and cortisol levels in response to the challenge were more likely to later show PTSD symptoms in response to combat stress in Iraq. However, soldiers who showed an elevated testosterone or an elevated cortisol response to the CO2 inhalation challenge were less likely to develop PTSD. “The means through which hormones contribute to the development of PTSD and other forms of stress-related mental illness are complex,” says Adam Cobb, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate. “Advancement in this area must involve examining how hormones function together, and with other psychobiological systems, in response to ever-changing environmental demands.” Knowing this, the scientists suggest future research could investigate the efficacy of preventative interventions targeting those with at-risk profiles of hormone stress reactivity. “We are still analyzing more data from this project, which we hope will reveal additional insights into risk for combatrelated stress disorders and ultimately how to prevent them,” says Michael Telch, clinical psychology professor and corresponding author of the study. Additional co-authors of the paper include psychology associate professor Han-Joo Lee of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and UT Austin psychology graduate student Cynthia Lancaster. These findings add to a series of published reports from the Texas Combat PTSD Risk Project, of which Telch is the principal investigator. Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the project aims to identify biological, psychological and environmental vulnerability factors that predict the emergence of PTSD and other psychological problems among service members deployed to war zones.
Amazing Mind Psychology
Scientists can now map what happens neurologically when new information influences a person to change his or her mind, a finding that offers more insight into the mechanics of learning. The study, which was published Nov. 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined how dynamic shifts in a person’s knowledge are updated in the brain and impact decision making. For example, many Americans may have chosen their preferred presidential candidate many months before the election based on political platforms or core issues. But as the election cycle continued, voters were presented with new information, influencing some to change their perspectives on the candidates and,
potentially, their votes. The process involves two components of the brain working together to update and “bias” conceptual knowledge with new information to form new ideas, says co-author and psychology associate professor Alison Preston. This requires rapid updating of conceptual representations, a process that occurs in the hippocampi (HPC) — two seahorse-shaped areas near the center of the brain responsible for recording experiences, or episodic memory — researchers say. It’s also one of the first areas to suffer damage in Alzheimer’s disease. According to the study, the prefrontal cortex — the front part of the brain that
orchestrates thoughts and actions — tunes selective attention to relevant features and compares that information with the existing conceptual knowledge in the HPC, updating the organization of items based on the new relevant features, researchers say. “How we reconcile that new information with our prior knowledge is the essence of learning. And, understanding how that process happens in the brain is the key to solving the puzzle of why learning sometimes fails and how to put learning back on track,” says the study’s lead author, Michael Mack, who was a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Learning and Memory.
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New World Comes of Age LLILAS Benson
Nineteenth-century Latin America witnessed myriad transformations in many sectors of society — from wars of independence and the abolition of slavery, to the establishment of international relations with the rise of new sovereign nations and the growth of industry and technology. In a new student-curated exhibit within
the LLILAS Benson Collection, Latin America’s 19th Century: Reflections on Modernity, Memory and Identity, students explored topics surrounding independence, the U.S.-Mexican War and forgotten actors, shifting Mexican identity, the Mexican Revolution and modernization and global connections. The project was conceived and curated
Postcard depicting construction of locks at the Panama Canal.
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by students in LLILAS Benson and history professor Lina del Castillo’s Latin America in the 19th Century class. Designed for viewers of high school age and older, the exhibition, which ran from Dec. 5 through March 15, gathered materials from the Benson Latin American Collection’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection.
Racial Bias in School Discipline
Benson Latin American Collection
Low expectations from teachers and extreme disparities in discipline for misbehavior contribute to the disproportionate mistreatment of African American and Latino youths in schools across the United States and can lead to a growing mistrust for authority by students who perceive and experience such biases, according to psychology assistant professor David Yeager. His most recent research, published in Child Development, examined middle school students’ perceptions of their teachers’ impartiality and how those attitudes related to any disciplinary treatment they received and to the likelihood of on-time enrollment at a four-year college. The researchers found that trust decreased for all students from sixth to eighth grade, but declined faster for African American and Latino students than it did for their white peers. Furthermore, students who lost more trust than expected in seventh grade were less likely to fulfill on-time enrollment at a four-year college six years later. In the study, minorities also reported more racial disparities than white students in decisions involving school discipline, with less than 55 percent of African American students expecting equal treatment after the first semester of sixth grade. Official school records indicated that African Americans were disciplined more throughout middle school, particularly in regards to more gray-area incidents involving “defiance” and “disobedience” where African American students outnumbered their white peers nearly 3-to-1. Still, the largest race gap in school discipline was in sixth grade, fueling a perceived bias and predicting future disciplinary incidents, researchers say. “Perceived bias and mistrust reinforce each other. And like a stone rolling down a hill that triggers an avalanche, the loss of trust could accumulate behavioral consequences over time,” Yeager says. “Seeing and expecting injustice and disrespect, negatively stereotyped ethnic minority adolescents may disengage, defy authorities, underperform and act out.”
Psychology, Population Research Center
“Perceived bias and mistrust reinforce each other. And like a stone rolling down a hill that triggers an avalanche, the loss of trust could accumulate behavioral consequences over time.” David Yeager
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BOOK FE ATURE
American dancer and choreographer Pauline Koner with her students from the Lesgaft Physical Culture Institute demonstrating their version of the â€œnew Soviet Dance.â€? Koner taught and performed in the Soviet Union from 1934 to 1936. Pauline Koner papers, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lennox and Tilden Foundations
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American Girls in Red Russia Chasing the Soviet Dream By David Ochsner
If you search “women in the 1920s” in Google Images, what you get are a few photos of women working or protesting, but many more photos of sexually liberated flappers — at the beach, on the town, or dancing the night away at some speakeasy. The 1920s look like one big party. But the decade wasn’t for many people. After women in the U.S. won the right to vote in 1920 and saw their numbers rise in the workplace, gains in political or economic power for women were slow to come, if at all. And while wearing bobbed hair and smoking in public signaled a desire for social change, it wasn’t enough for Ruth Epperson Kennell and hundreds of other young American women in the 1920s and ’30s who believed that real change and real equality could only be found in a place dedicated to the public good rather than individual profit. That place, so they believed, was the Soviet Union. “We don’t usually think of Moscow as a popular destination for single American women of the twentieth century,” writes Julia Mickenberg, associate professor of American studies, in her new book, American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream. “A mythology surrounds the ‘lost generation’ of Americans who sought out Paris in the 1920s, but few know about the exodus of thousands
of Americans — former Paris expats among them — to the ‘red Jerusalem’… Even fewer are aware of ‘red Russia’s’ particular pull for ‘American girls,’ or, more accurately, independent, educated and adventurous ‘new women.’” Kennell was among these “new women” who inspired Mickenberg to write the book. “I was thinking about doing an article on pro-Soviet children’s literature, and she was a children’s book writer,” says Mickenberg, who during the course of her research read Theodore Dreiser’s sketch of Kennell (under the pseudonym “Ernita”) in his two-volume A Gallery of Women. “It was an amazing piece, this story of her moving to a utopian colony in Siberia — she leaves her 18-month-old child behind with her mother-in-law, later dumps her husband and falls in love with another guy,” says Mickenberg. “She wanted to escape the domestic drudgery at home — wanted to be there in Siberia as a worker and not as a wife.” In hindsight we know about the famines, purges and later the paranoia-fueled terror of those first decades of Bolshevik rule, so
University of Chicago Press, May 2017 By Julia L. Mickenberg, associate professor, Department of American Studies
today it might seem silly or naïve for these young women to flee the relative comforts of home for the hardships of Soviet life. Unfortunately, many scholars have simply dismissed these women and their male counterparts as deluded, and there has been little scholarship looking specifically at women as a group. Mickenberg doesn’t necessarily support the choices these women made, but simply dismissing them as delusional “minimizes the complex nature of their motivations, their desires and their experiences.” Indeed, nearly a century ago many journalists, writers, artists and social reformers looked to revolutionary Russia as a promised land. “There is historical amnesia about the massive number of people who were really deeply interested,” she says. “Of course it
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BOOK FE ATURE
became a totalitarian, repressive, violent society (and had elements of these qualities from the beginning) — but if you look at the writing from the 1920s and ’30s, it also represented hope, excitement, optimism and possibility.” There were a number of female writers such as Kennell who chronicled those heady times. Prominent among them was Anna Louise Strong, a strapping woman from the Nebraska plains who helped found the English-language Moscow News, a paper she said would be pro-Soviet but independent, serving the growing community of Americans living and working in the Soviet Union. “[Strong] was an incredibly pathetic figure — she devotes so much of her life to promoting the Soviet Union, and then in the end gets arrested as a spy and expelled,” says Mickenberg. “The funny thing is I found her pathetic while also identifying with her at times because she worked so hard and wanted to be liked. I discovered that in fact many people disliked her because she was so
pushy and unrelenting in her pro-Soviet rhetoric. Privately she was much more critical of all the problems she saw, but felt that enough people were exposing the negative things, and she ought to show all the good that was happening.” The distance between what people think or write privately and what they say publicly was an aspect of the research Mickenberg found particularly interesting. “I have a kind of voyeuristic relationship to archival research — I always like reading the unpublished stuff because I want to learn secrets and get into people’s lives and heads — I wanted to see the difference between what people would write in a diary or letter versus what they would publish,” she says. “I was very interested in this dynamic between the private and public expressions, why the difference and how people rationalized things and how this thing brought meaning to their lives.” Mickenberg traveled to Moscow twice for the project, plunging into the byzantine process of archival research in Russia and
Dance students of the Isadora Duncan School in Moscow at Sparrow Hills, 1924. Sign text, in part, translates: “A Free Spirit Can Exist Only in a Freed Body. Duncan School.” Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lennox and Tilden Foundations
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learning enough Russian to “actually be in the archive and figure out what I needed to look at.” The depth and breadth of Mickenberg’s research is impressive, detailing the experiences of a cross-section of Americans who for idealistic or economic reasons — or both — joined up with the Soviet experiment. What is particularly striking is the idealism and optimism expressed by those early arrivers who witnessed the horrors of the civil war and famine of 1918-1921. Among them was dancer Isadora Duncan, who saw the carnage in biblical terms, declaring in 1921 that “Moscow is a miracle city, and the martyrdom submitted by Russia will be for the future that which the crucifixion was.” Journalist Milly Bennett, who along with Kennell would later satirize the experiences of American “pilgrims” in the Soviet Union, nevertheless wrote: “The thing you have to do about Russia is what you do about any other ‘faith.’ You set your heart to know they are right ... And then, when you see things that shudder your bones, you close your eyes and say ... ‘facts are not important.’” “I think the suffering was part of the appeal,” says Mickenberg of the intellectual class who went to the Soviet Union instead of joining the Lost Generation in Paris. “They were not going to sit in the Paris cafés and drink and complain — they were going to get down in the dirt and be part of this building the world anew.” In a way, suffering could be endured, even celebrated if placed in the context of history. Strong, who spent her first years in Russia recovering from typhus, was obsessed with the idea of painting Soviet life in a positive light for American readers. Mickenberg writes that although she had seen nothing but devastation, Strong later reflected that “not for a moment did it occur to me that I could permanently leave this country, this chaos in which a world was being born. It was the chaos that drew me, and the sight of creators of chaos. I intended to have a share in this creation … America was no longer the world’s pioneer.” Kennell arrived in 1922 at the start of the New Economic Policy (which reinstituted limited private trade, relaxed war restrictions
and a more open cultural climate), going to work at the mostly American-organized Autonomous Industrial Colony of Kuzbas in Siberia. Mickenberg writes that for Kennell it was “a two-year experiment with socialized housework, collective responsibilities and a very different moral code (that) shaped the rest of her life.” She was not alone. Between 1923 and 1926, foreigners organized nine agricultural and 26 industrial collectives, 24 of which were primarily made up of Americans. Many more Americans came to the Soviet Union during its first Five-Year Plan (1928–1932). With the onset of the Great Depression, engineers, laborers and autoworkers were actively recruited by the Bolsheviks to address labor shortages caused by their massive industrialization plan. Mickenberg writes that at the height of industrial development, “approximately 35,000 foreign workers and their families were living in the Soviet Union. A significant proportion of these were American.” Those years might have been good for some Americans seeking work, but they were also years of unspeakable hardship for many Soviet citizens — historians estimate that between 1929 and 1934 as many as 14.5 million people died from forced collectivization and famine. Nevertheless, the lure of the Soviet Union continued to attract Americans, including the likes of suffragette Alice Stone Blackwell, reformer Lillian Wald and African American actress Frances E. Williams who, Mickenberg writes, “came to Moscow in 1934 in search of professional opportunity, adventure and a chance to experience life in a land that had supposedly eliminated racism.” “Most African Americans went there because it was a place where supposedly racism had been made illegal,” says Mickenberg. “The Scottsboro (Boys) case figured prominently into that story because it became such a cause célèbre of the Communist Party and Soviet Union.” However, it was much easier to idealize the Soviet Union if you didn’t have to live or stay there, says Mickenberg, and it “was almost impossible to go on idealizing if you lived there.” She writes that “visitors
Red Hill Museum, Kemerovo, Russia
Ruth Kennell in Siberia, wearing a Russian blouse.
Young women like Ruth Epperson Kennell “were not going to sit in the Paris cafés and drink and complain — they were going to get down in the dirt and be part of this building the world anew.” Julia Mickenberg
experienced difficult conditions, but they were far better than those endured by Soviet citizens. And visitors, if they did not become Soviet citizens, usually had the security of knowing they could leave.” Unfortunately, that was not the case for young Mary Leder, who emigrated from Los Angeles to the Russian Far East in 1931 with her idealistic parents, who were attracted to the secular Jewish homeland Stalin promised to build there. When she found life in the remote outpost of Birobidjian unbearable, she went on her own to Moscow. Realizing she had forgotten her passport, she asked her father to send it by registered mail, but it never arrived. Needing to find work, she took Soviet citizenship, but when her parents decided to leave after two years, she was forbidden to join them. She remained in the Soviet Union until 1964. Mickenberg writes that other Western women who became Soviet citizens were even less fortunate than Leder. They ended
up in prison camps or dead. A Stalinist purge in the late 1930s led to the imprisonment or death of more than a million Soviet citizens. Several of the staff of Moscow News, ones Strong believed were among the hardest workers and the most dedicated to the Party, were arrested and killed. A former Detroit autoworker who spent 44 years in the Soviet Union before returning to the U.S. said he knew a number of African Americans who had become Soviet citizens, but within seven years they all had disappeared, sent to labor camps or shot. In Ruth Kennell’s own Kuzbas colony, 29 settlers who stayed in the Soviet Union wound up in labor camps, and 22 of them died there. Mickenberg writes that the Great Terror “brought serious criticism from many people in the United States, including leftist intellectuals frustrated with what they perceived as a Stalinist hijacking of the Left.” Some, however, remained more or less loyal to the cause, including Kennell. According to Mickenberg, Kennell admitted in her later writings that “the Soviet system remained ill equipped to truly liberate women from their domestic duties: ‘Women are not deserting their firesides to do labor on an equal basis with men — they simply handle two jobs instead of one.’” But once safely out of the country, Kennell also “found it easier to be pro-Soviet.” In 1968 Kennell wrote a book about Dreiser and the Soviet Union, and in the preface she addressed members of the New Left. “This younger generation who thought they had invented radicalism and were critical of the Soviets — she hoped this new generation of radicals would understand what their (the Old Left’s) attraction was to the Soviet Union,” says Mickenberg. In the end, she says these stories speak to the endurance of “humankind’s struggle for satisfying work or egalitarian relationships or a more just society, a way for women to be mothers and also have careers, how to balance work and home, how to live a meaningful life. Those things don’t go away, nor does our desire for human perfectibility, or our desire for having some magic or system that is going to make it work.”
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A sampling of new and forthcoming titles from our college community. Read more about books at UT Austin’s book blog: ShelfLife@Texas
The Subject of Experience Oxford Unversity Press, March 2017 By Galen Strawson, professor, Department of Philosophy
What is a person? How should we think of our death? Is there really such a thing as the “self”? How do we — and how should we — experience life in and through time? The Subject of Experience explores the self and the person in a series of essays that draw on literature, psychology and philosophy.
Wait Till You See Me Dance Graywolf Press, March 2017 By Deb Olin Unferth, associate professor, Department of English
Unferth has published startlingly askew and wickedly comic fiction in magazines such as Granta, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, NOON and The Paris Review. Her new book, Wait Till You See Me Dance, is a longawaited first collection of her short fiction.
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The Atlas of Reality A Comprehensive Guide to Metaphysics Wiley-Blackwell, March 2017 By Robert C. Koons, professor, Department of Philosophy; and Timothy H. Pickavance
The Atlas of Reality examines a full range of topics, concepts and guiding principles in metaphysics. This accessible, comprehensive guide explores concepts including space, time, powers, universals and composition, carefully tracking the use of common assumptions and methodological principles.
Cuba’s Revolutionary World Harvard University Press, April 2017 By Jonathan C. Brown, professor, Department of History and LLILAS Benson
Following the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, the rebel comandante Fidel Castro told a jubilant crowd that this time “the real Revolution” had arrived. This capacious history of the Cuban Revolution shows that Castro’s words proved prophetic not only for his countrymen, but for Latin America and the wider world.
A Passage to China Literature, Loyalism, and Colonial Taiwan Harvard University Press, April 2017 By Chien-hsin Tsai, associate professor, Department of Asian Studies
This book examines how writers from colonial Taiwan creatively and selectively employed loyalist ideals to cope with Japanese colonialism and in the process redefined their relationship with China and Chinese culture. The author argues that the changing tradition of loyalism complicates Taiwan’s ties to China.
Theorizing Race in the Americas Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos Oxford University Press, April 2017 By Juliet Hooker, associate professor, Departments of Government and African & African Diaspora Studies
Charting the intellectual genealogy of 19thand 20th-century racial thought in the Americas, this book is the first to simultaneously analyze U.S. African American and Latin American political thinkers and their ideas about race. Through a hemispheric analysis it transforms understandings of prominent U.S. African American and Latin American intellectuals.
Bodies and Ruins Imagining the Bombing of Germany, 1945 to the Present University of Michigan Press, May 2017 By David F. Crew, professor, Department of History
Crew explores changing German memories of World War II, analyzing narratives in the postwar period including the depiction of the bombing in German cities. The book reveals that the bombing war was in fact a central strand of German memory and identity that allowed Germans to see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators or accomplices.
The Heart of the Mission Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco University of Pennsylvania Press, June 2017 By Cary Cordova, assistant professor, Department of American Studies
Cordova combines urban, political and art history to examine how San Francisco’s Mission District has served as an important place for an influential and largely ignored Latino arts movement from the 1960s to the present. Well before the anointment of the “Mission School” by art-world arbiters, various Latino artists have made the Mission their home and their muse.
You Win or You Die The Ancient World of Game of Thrones I. B. Tauris, July 2017 By Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, associate professor, Department of Classics
This book reveals the remarkable extent to which the entire “Game of Thrones” universe is animated by the ancient past. A sequel to Carolyne Larrington’s Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones, Lushkov explores echoes of history, including how the wanderings of Tyrion Lannister replay the journeys of Odysseus and Aeneas, or how the Wall raised against the Wildlings connects with Hadrian’s bulwark against fierce Picts in Roman Britain.
From Retribution to Public Safety Disruptive Innovation of American Criminal Justice Rowman and Littlefield, June 2017 By William R. Kelly, professor, Department of Sociology; Robert Pitman and William Streusand
Reinventing American criminal justice necessitates a shift in thinking away from reflexive decisions about blameworthiness, harm and levels of punishment to an outcome-based approach of problem solving, assessment and treatment of disorders and impairments and diversion of disordered offenders to recidivism-reducing treatment and risk management.
The Impossible Presidency The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office Basic Books, Sept. 2017 By Jeremi Suri, professor, Department of History and LBJ School of Public Affairs
Suri traces America’s disenchantment with our recent presidents to the inevitable mismatch between presidential promises and the structural limitations of the office. A masterful reassessment of presidential history, this book is essential reading for anyone trying to understand America’s fraught political climate. Visit lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu | 17
1 Lady Sings the Blues
Religious Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies Local jazz singer Pamela Hart performed Jan. 25 at the historic Victory Grill in Austin during an evening of music and commentary around the life of Billie Holiday. This performance was part of the “Religions Texas: Mapping Diversity” consultation hosted by the Institute for Diversity and Civic Life and the Department of Religious Studies to document and map religious diversity in Texas.
2 Christian-Green Gallery Dedication John L. Warfield Center for African & African American Studies The John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies’ newest gallery, which opened in early 2016, was dedicated Nov. 18, 2016 to become the Christian-Green Gallery. The 2,000-square-foot space, located on the second floor of Jester Center, is named for UT alumnus Rudy Green and Joyce Christian, who see the gallery as an opportunity to share art, tell stories and allow viewers to interact with narratives from across the African diaspora.
3 Underground African & African Diaspora Studies, English Underground, a play written by African and African Diaspora studies associate professor Lisa B. Thompson, premiered at The Vortex in Austin on March 24. The play, which was funded in part by the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, considers the ways in which African American activists, artists and intellectuals have responded from the civil rights movement to the Black Lives Matter movement and beyond. From left: Rudy Ramirez (director), Jeffery Johnson (actor), Lisa B. Thompson (playwright) and Marc Pouhé (actor).
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Courtesy of Texas Performing Arts
4 The Warrior Chorus Classics
Courtesy of Donna Kornhaber
Todd Bogin, Humanities Media Project
The Trojan War: Our Warrior Chorus, performed March 22 at the McCullough Theatre, offered a unique theatrical experience in which the classic myths of ancient Greece and Rome are set against the compelling narratives of modern war. The Warrior Chorus was created by a national program that brings together military veterans in the community to study classical literature as it relates to contemporary America. From left: Alexandra E. Acosta (New York-based actress); Ryan Wuestewald (New York-based actor); Desiree Sanchez Meineck (executive artistic director for New York’s Aquila Theatre Company); classics professor Tom Palaima; and Ph.D. candidate in performance and public practice Bart Pitchford, who leads the UT Austin Warrior Chorus.
5 Dedicated Service Liberal Arts Honors, English Larry Carver, a professor of English and Liberal Arts Honors director, was honored at a retirement reception at the AT&T Conference Center Ballroom on Dec. 7, 2016. The event celebrated more than 43 years of Carver’s dedicated service to the university. During his time at UT, he coached more than 100 finalists and 47 winners of major scholarship awards, not to mention all of the students who have benefitted from his teaching and mentorship.
6 And the Oscar Goes To… English Donna Kornhaber, assistant professor of English, attended the Academy Film Scholars Lecture Series reception on Jan. 10 at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Los Angeles. She was named a 2016 Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her project Women’s Work: The Female Screenwriter and the Development of Early American Film.
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20 Life & Letters | Spring 2017
Can We Talk? Why Discourse is Dying in America
By Rachel Griess Illustration by George Wylesol
I’ll have to admit that I was a bit perplexed when I heard linguistic anthropologist Elizabeth Keating say, “There is a very strong preference for agreement in conversation in the U.S.” I couldn’t believe my ears — even the Pew Research Center pegged political polarization as the defining feature of modern U.S. politics. And it’s easy to see why: Pressing issues are painted with a broad red or blue brush; social media has regressed into a soap box for dogma and dislikes; and more energy is put into building walls around our ideological silos than challenging our beliefs through dialogue with someone who thinks differently. “One of the things that makes arguments so uncomfortable is our preference for agreement — preference meaning it’s what people do easily and quickly,” Keating says. “People have a tendency to stay within their own political group and don’t often encounter a lot of argument about their political position, but in this election cycle it’s been more of a public debate.” Our anxieties about the best way forward for America are fomenting disagreement, which arises when we can’t affiliate in our assessment on the way the world is, Keating explains, adding that much work goes into trying to balance or “negotiate” this harmony in conversation, especially when topics are high risk. “It’s perhaps a sign that the negotiation of what America is is taking a bit more work than usual,” she says. “That’s a pretty high-stakes negotiation considering the problems we are facing. And I think the action of planning the future, of planning out our collaboration and what we are going to do is becoming pretty urgent for people.”
Language as Action Keating, a professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin, studies culture and communication to better understand language as a tool for creating
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and maintaining global societies. Her most recent book, Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office, takes a close look at successful and unsuccessful language practices in the global work place and introduces the “Communication Plus Model,” which, she explains, is much more effective than the one many of us use and recognize. Don’t feel bad. She assures that “a lot of it is habitual, and we aren’t good analysts of our own practices.” The most common practice is referred to as the Conduit Model: One person transmits information to another person like a one-way tube that alternates depending on who has the information. “The problem with this is that it isn’t accurate at all,” Keating says, adding that we have to pay more attention to what we are trying to do within our conversations. “You have to think of language as action, language as a tool for negotiation,” she says. “What is the underlying action that someone is trying to do? We’re always using language to do something together; we’re trying to get some action done in the world.” This inspired me, and I took to Facebook to see the underlying goals or actions my friends have when approaching an argument: “What’s your goal?” I asked. “To win,” some said, and others more civilly phrased, “to challenge the other side,” “make them think,” “defend my stance,” or “offer a different perspective.” These are no doubt goals of debate, but they miss the mark on negotiation. In order for a negotiation to take place, more emphasis has to be put on the hearer, who “is much more important than people give credit to and that impacts the problem with arguing,” Keating says. Perhaps the people who responded: “find common ground,” “understand the other side and find ways to connect,” “share information with the goal of broadening my and my opponent’s understanding of the issue,” or “to discover truth,” hit closer to the negotiation mark.
Rise of Relativism “You have to have a sense that there is such a thing as the truth. If you don’t think there’s a goal of truth that you’re after, then there is nothing to get to,” says philosophy professor Daniel Bonevac, who notes that one of the biggest challenges in his classroom has been to overcome what appears to be a rise of relativism and a fear of stepping on toes. “More and more I notice students are holding onto this supposedly sophisticated notion that there is no truth; there’s just your perspective and my perspective,” he says. “If that’s your attitude, then what’s the point of discussion?” Bonevac worries that too many issues are becoming a matter of taste, that our dialogues have evolved into postmodern debate about whose current bias is more legitimate, rather than approaching conversations with the sense that there’s a truth to be achieved. This tendency “corrodes the culture” and cuts off discussion before it begins. “Philosophy depends on being able to engage in dialogue about things,” he says. Bonevac suggests Plato as an example, “especially his earlier dialogues when we get the sense that Socrates is really grappling with a question that he doesn’t know the answer to. So other people are making proposals, and he’s taking them seriously. “You not only see Socrates making all of these moves, but you get to see the moral of that, reflect on that, and understand how to think.
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There’s something very constructive about it.” Socratic dialogues can train people how to think, how to argue for or against something, how to analyze a problem from both sides, and most importantly, how to ask the right questions, he says. “It shows that it’s possible to come to some kind of agreement, where you realize everyone is partly right and that they need to combine their thoughts and do something that takes it all into account,” Bonevac says. Note the words “partly right.” To get his students engaged in dialogue and shake their held notion of relativism, Bonevac introduces them to the idea of perspectivism, coined by José Ortega y Gasset in The Modern Theme, which grants that while everyone has his or her own point of view, we are each seeing incomplete versions of the whole truth. He uses the example of people looking at a landscape from different points around it: “Maybe you see a house, and from my angle, I see trees. And someone flying in a helicopter overhead sees a pond — but there’s a truth about the landscape. “What’s beautiful about it is that you get the sense that if you move around, you can see more,” Bonevac says. “That helps students see that of course there are things they don’t know and perspectives they hadn’t considered. They get the sense that they can ‘move around’ perspectives by reading literature and philosophy, by traveling or by simply talking to people.”
Loaded Trigger But dialoguing more contentious matters can be tough for students to navigate. “When issues get too scary, students retreat because they are afraid that certain perspectives are not going to be considered legitimate,” Bonevac says. “It’s so unclear to anybody where the boundaries are, and I think that’s what has changed a lot over the last couple of years.” He wrestles with the modern idea of “triggering,” and how his students seem to shy away from difficult conversations, especially when topics such as abortion or affirmative action come up. That’s because “language is layered with social and cultural context,” Keating argues. “Every utterance that we create, every sentence we hear, has some memory. We are always picking out context from our memory, whatever someone says to us is already connected to our own history, and in that way language is never neutral.” Triggering becomes an issue when a word or phrase activates a memory or past association in someone that the speaker might not have intended to spark, Keating says. And that’s where the “problematic concept” of political correctness rears its persnickety head, encouraging people to speak with less “loaded” language. “It’s something to strive for, to be inoffensive and avoid stereotyping or categorizing people,” Keating says. “A lot of times, people assume their background is just like everyone else’s and don’t understand how some people have had to encounter a different reality and experience.” The U.S. has been called a “melting pot” of experiences, backgrounds, cultures and realities. We each have vastly different experiences depending on our socioeconomic status, where we grew up, the type of education we received, our religion and, according to classics professor Karl Galinsky, how leadership has influenced our communities.
The Communication Plus Model “You have to think of language as action, language as a tool for negotiation.”
Language is action
The hearer is the most important player
“Memories are shaped by whoever is in power,” says Galinsky, who received the Max Planck Prize for International Cooperation for his studies in cultural memory. Keating adds that throughout history groups of people have been affected differently by U.S. policy. As a result, our memory and therefore our language continues to carry a lot of “cultural baggage.”
Let It Go Although our memories and experiences shape our perspective, and our nation’s history has helped to build the ideologies we hold today, Galinsky argues that we can’t make any progress with modern arguments if we are too caught up in events that have already happened. “People tend to go back and basically rewrite the past in light of the present, projecting all of these modern notions into it that were not necessarily there,” Galinsky says. “The past is constantly simplified too much or made into some sort of dogma, instead of making it a springboard for thinking about these issues and exploring them.” Psychology professor Art Markman chimes in with a similar idea of how we tend to look abstractly on the past, particularly when it comes to controversial issues or politics. “We have this tendency to put a partisan lens on things that happened in the past, as well as things that are happening right now that shouldn’t be so divisive,” he says. Rather than dwelling over a past event or framing it to adhere to some current political ideology, Galinsky and Markman suggest we get to the root of the problem, the causes and issues, and take what positive steps we can to improve matters and let go of the rest. Galinsky shares an example from ancient Athens after the atrocities of the Thirty Tyrants, when the Athenians restored their democracy and passed a law of general amnesty at the Council of the Areopagus that literally translates to “don’t remember the bad stuff.”
Communication needs common ground
Language is social (and cultural)
Understand that technology can be a handicap, and learn how to compensate for it Referenced in:
Words Matter Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office
University of California Press, Oct. 2016 By Elizabeth Keating and Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa
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Daniel Bonevac, professor of philosophy and Human Dimensions of Organizations.
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degree to which it was effective or not at some aspect of the human element of engaging in disputes.”
Birds of a Feather Talk Together Some years ago, Markman did a study using Legos to simulate how conversation can synchronize the way we think about the world. Two people were given a Lego model to build together. One person could touch the pieces but could not look at the instructions, and the other could look at the instructions but could not touch the pieces. “As a result of doing that, they would have to negotiate a language for talking about these pieces with their partner because we don’t have a vocabulary for all of those pieces,” Markman says. He pointed out that while labels for each piece were similar between partners, they varied across couples who each came up with their own vocabulary. “So two people working together see the world more similarly because they conversed,” Markman says. “And if one of those people talked to someone else, they would see the world more similarly to them; and of course, if we all talked as a group, we would all see the world really similarly. “But one of the things that comes out of this is, if I talk to you but never talk to this third person, and that third person talks to somebody else, they come to see the world similarly, we come to see the world similarly, but the two groups see the world differently.”
“I don’t want to sound like Elsa the Snow Queen, but ‘Let It Go,’” Galinsky says with a laugh, referring to a song from the 2013 movie Frozen. “Why do you think that song was so popular? It struck a chord, really. It was translated into 160 different languages including ancient Greek and Latin.” Though the decree is rather extreme and not necessarily appropriate for the U.S. today, people can adapt their own Let It Go mantra as they form opinions about U.S. history, politics and contemporary issues. “Let it go if it simply blinds and challenges the future,” he asserts. In this case, “the bad stuff ” could be influenced by the rhetoric used by politicians and leaders to reflect on past and current legislation or issues. Take for instance, the graduate program Human Dimensions of Organizations, where Markman presents the examples of Richard Nixon’s opening of relations with China in the early 1970s and of Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords a few years later. Though each president represents opposite sides of the political spectrum, both show how to negotiate with people and resolve disagreements with those “who previously had a real intractable disagreement.” “I think by trying to, in this case, grapple with history in a way that makes the partisan element of it secondary helps people to realize they don’t have to look at everything in American politics through the lens of political parties that are associated with it,” Markman says. “You can leave that partisan lens behind and just try to understand it for the
“More and more I notice students are holding onto this supposedly sophisticated notion that there is no truth; there’s just your perspective and my perspective. If that’s your attitude, then what’s the point of discussion?” Daniel Bonevac
This mirrors what’s happening in the political sphere, Markman says. Our language and ideas are synchronized with those we agree with — it’s the old “birds of a feather” metaphor playing out in real time — while we have become more and more desynchronized with other groups. “And the more different we get, the harder it becomes to engage in conversation because at some point, if you now get with those people and try and talk to them, you don’t even understand what they’re talking about because they see the world in a very different way,” he says.
Recommended Reading In Praise of Forgetting Historical Memory and Its Ironies Yale University Press, May 2016 By David Rieff
The Modern Theme (Classic Reprint) Forgotten Books, Nov. 2016 By José Ortega y Gasset
Listen to Reason One way to uproot ourselves from these ideological silos, Keating suggests, is to put less focus on what we have to say and start listening. We already know the way we view the world and what we think is right or wrong. But we don’t know what the other person thinks, and we aren’t going to know unless we listen. “If people had a model of communication that considered the hearer more important, then perhaps arguments would be more thought of as negotiations rather than a polarization of views,” she says. “We should always consciously think about the person we’re talking to and what they are understanding about what we’re saying.” It isn’t a new idea, and it’s something we do when conversations or negotiations aren’t so difficult. Keating reminds us that we’re always tailoring what we say to whomever we are talking. Think about the last email you wrote or text message you sent or stranger you conversed with at the grocery store. Our language is constantly transforming depending on the listener, and it should be no different when approaching more high-stakes conversations or arguments. “Conversations require mutual understanding,” Markman adds. “In order to converse, you have to understand what I’m saying and then contribute something that attaches to what we are talking about. Each of us builds on what the previous person is doing. “We have to both represent the world in exactly the same way — even if we think we’re disagreeing. You have to understand what I’m saying, and I have to understand what you’re saying in order for that conversation to coordinate and move forward.” It can be difficult, especially when “we seem to have very polarized views about the way forward to address some pressing problems,” Keating says. “And more than ever there seems to be a fear that if the wrong path is chosen, then there’s going to be some really devastating results.” Disagreement is OK. “We’re not trying to build a nation of consensus,” Markman says. But a lack of understanding shows room for improvement. No progress can be made without finding common ground. And finding that requires listening to those with whom you disagree, learning their perspective and the experiences that contribute to it and negotiating a mutual understanding of the way the world is. “There were several people after the last election who said, ‘I simply cannot understand how someone would vote for X,’” Markman says. “Well, if that statement is to be taken literally, it’s a shame. If you truly cannot understand why someone would vote for someone else, then we’re not doing a good job of trying to at least understand someone else’s viewpoint.” Visit lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu | 25
A Monumental Decision What to do About Jefferson Davis and the Challenges of Commemoration?
By Victoria Davis
In partnership with
Sculptor Pompeo Coppini with his statue of Jefferson Davis. Coppini-Tauch Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
increasingly diverse campus. The task force recommended that the statues of Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson be removed and placed in the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, an appropriate historical and educational context given that the center holds the papers of Littlefield and those of the statues’ sculptor, Pompeo Coppini, as well as the nation’s third largest collection of resources on American slavery. Additionally, the statue of Davis will be exhibited as part of the From Commemoration to Education exhibit that opened in April at the Briscoe Center.
A Confederacy, a Conflict and a Commission
Let’s talk about statues, or one statue in particular, and all of the trouble a cold, hard, unfeeling thing can cause. Imagine you are the president of a very large, prestigious institution, representative of the spirit and aspirations of a region. Your greatest benefactor, a former regent and a veteran, stipulates in his will the plans for a grand war memorial involving a huge arch and several life-size statues of controversial figures. In addition to the amount he will provide for this memorial, he will also include funds that your institution can use for other projects. How do you balance your need for the monetary gift with your responsibility to your institution’s community? In short, how do you solve a problem like commemoration? This issue has bedeviled University of Texas presidents for a century, yet we still wonder whether we’ve done enough to address the issue, or whether the steps we have taken represent progress. If you haven’t already guessed, the benefactor described above was Maj. George Washington Littlefield, and the memorial he stipulated eventually became Littlefield Fountain and the array of figures on the South Mall, which until recently included Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, James Stephen Hogg, John H. Reagan, Woodrow Wilson, and — most notoriously — Jefferson Davis. In spring 2015, student government leaders pushed for the removal of the statue of Jefferson Davis. Their effort gained traction beyond the university, thanks to their use of social media. Posts on Twitter and Facebook linked the statue removal to national events such as the June 2015 killing of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof. After photos emerged of Roof displaying the Confederate battle flag, a nationwide movement began to rid public buildings of the flag, later widening to include statuary of Confederate heroes. On the heels of these events, incoming President Gregory L. Fenves met with student leaders and convened a task force charged with not only deciding what to do about Jefferson Davis and his companions, but also how to handle future commemoration on an
The first president to face the problem of commemoration was Robert Ernest Vinson (1916-1923), who had to negotiate between dueling benefactors Littlefield and George Washington Brackenridge. Littlefield, a Confederate veteran, wanted the university to become a center for the study of Southern history, thus codifying the Confederacy as an important part of the institution’s history. In 1910, Brackenridge, a Northerner and a Union sympathizer, donated 500 acres along the Colorado River as a larger site for the growing university. Littlefield, whose Victorian home sat across the street from campus, opposed the move and in response commissioned Coppini to design a massive — and, most importantly, immovable — arched gateway to the South Mall. One would have effectively entered the South when one entered the campus through this portal. Modeled on the University of Virginia and with an inaugural board of regents made up entirely of Confederate officers and diplomats, the Forty Acres was founded as a neoConfederate enterprise, according to Edmund T. Gordon, chair and associate professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. It remained as such until at least the 1940s, seeing a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan as a regent, operating under legislation that required faculty members to “be in sympathy with Southern political institutions,” and celebrating Thanksgiving Day 1914 with a speech by professor William Simkins titled “Why the Ku Klux Klan” (published in The Alcalde in 1916) in which he described the South coming “into her own” and her policies “dominating the administration of our national government.” Many people today believe the fountain and statues wholly reflect Littlefield’s intention, but as Littlefield’s health waned, Coppini significantly altered the project. The first thing to go was the arch; Coppini turned it into a fountain, insisting that arches were “reminiscent of the Roman Caesarian age” when empires were “bent on conquering and enslaving other people and reminding them of their yoke.” Coppini also tweaked the narrative surrounding the project, suggesting to Littlefield that the piece become a memorial to the World War and stating that as time goes by, the Civil War will be seen as “a blot on the pages of American history,” and “the Littlefield Memorial will be resented as keeping up the hatred between the Northern and Southern states.” Attempting to show that “all past regional differences have disappeared and we are now one welded nation,” the final plan for the memorial presented the fountain we see today flanked by two obelisks representing the North and the South, topped with “wartime presidents” Wilson and Davis. Neither Littlefield nor Coppini were strangers to Confederate memorial building; Littlefield was a member of several Confederate veterans associations, and Coppini was a well-known artist of such memorials, having completed several throughout Texas including one Visit lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu | 27
FE ATURE STORY
in the town of Paris and one on the grounds of the Capitol. The 1920 Cactus praised him as having a “quick sympathy” with Southern subjects. The memorial was envisioned during the “neo-Confederate” or “Lost Cause” movement, a period of nostalgia for the social order of the Old South. This movement painted the Confederate cause in the Civil War as an honorable struggle to protect the virtues of the antebellum South, while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery. Although a primarily Southern movement, aspects of Lost Cause philosophy won acceptance in the North and helped reunify American whites across what Coppini once called the “Dixie Line distinction.” In this way the memorial is actually about a reunification of North and South, but through the bonds of white supremacy, reflected in the inscription that was set to the west of the Littlefield Fountain:
Gordon says this moment saw the emergence of what was called the “New South,” which called for fuller integration with the United States and was touted by Southern elites such as Littlefield who sought economic partnerships with Northern capitalists. The New South wasn’t really new to everyone, however, because it involved the continued supremacy of whites over blacks. As Henry W. Grady of the Atlanta Constitution and coiner of the term “New South” said in 1888, “the supremacy of the white race of the South must be maintained forever, and the domination of the negro race resisted at all points and at all hazards, because the white race is the superior race.” Wilson’s election in 1912 — the first Southerner elected as president since Zachary Taylor in 1848— also led to a sweep of both houses by the Democratic Party, which at that time was aligned with the forces of segregation. In turn, Wilson also oversaw the re-segregation of the federal government. Other men commemorated in the South Mall statuary — John H. Reagan, the postmaster general of the Confederate States who later urged cooperation with the Union; and James Hogg, who was not a Confederate — were both instrumental in the powerful Texas Railroad Commission and therefore key figures in the vision of the New South. The statue of George Washington, featured on the Great Seal of the Confederate States of America, was added in 1955 at the urging of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
‘A Senseless Decoration’ Littlefield died on Nov. 10, 1920, before the construction of the monument could begin. Nonetheless, Coppini completed the statues by 1925 and sent them to Austin to be displayed in the rotunda of the Texas Capitol. Meanwhile, the university endured battles over campus aesthetics that exhausted the efforts of several architects who in some cases either completely ignored or altered Coppini’s memorial in their plans. Various aspects of the memorial also fell under scrutiny, most notably its orientation. In all of the original plans, the memorial faced south 28 Life & Letters | Spring 2017
Courtesy of KXAN News/KXAN.com
To the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states’ rights be maintained and who, not dismayed by defeat nor discouraged by misrule, builded from the ruins of a devastating war a greater south. And to the men and women of the nation who gave of their possessions and of their lives that free government be made secure to the peoples of the earth this memorial is dedicated.
[Above] Black Lives Matter graffiti on the Jefferson Davis statue from August, 2015. [Right] Coppiniʼs statues of Johnston, Reagan and Wilson in front of the old main building.
— ostensibly to provide a grand entrance to campus — but also as a symbolic gesture to the political South. Citing size as the culprit, the regents agreed to move it east, to form a new corridor to the heart of campus. Regent Sam Neathery eventually admitted to The Daily Texan that the regents felt “the arrangement is out of keeping with the times. The work will keep the antagonism of the South against the North before the people of Texas.” But in the end, the regents honored the donor’s last wishes and hired Philadelphia-based architect Paul Cret to see a south-facing project through to completion. Cret’s vision was purely aesthetic; his goal was to make the university one of the most beautiful in the country, not to tell a story. The Coppini plan, Cret felt, was “a small composition, overcrowded with features and designed without regard for its surroundings.” Consequently, he expanded the footprint of the tableau to extend along the east and west sides of the South Mall, separating the portrait statues from the more allegorical figures in the fountain. Placing the portrait statues along the mall also kept them from obstructing the view of the Main Building, which remained the
Coppini-Tauch Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
focal point of the corridor. However, he did not intend to diminish the statues’ representational power, reasoning that “the portrait statues selected by the donor gain in prominence when provided with an individual setting instead of being used as accessories to a fountain design.” The memorial was finally dedicated on April 29, 1933. Coppini later complained that Cret and the regents had “ruined” the memorial by dispersing the statues, “throwing to the four winds my conception and making of the various pieces of bronze just a senseless decoration of the campus.” Senseless or not, these “decorations” have vexed university presidents since their dedication, with Davis perennially at the center of the controversy. There were other Confederates in the tableau, but the Davis statue galled because it enjoyed prominence alongside the “other wartime president.” But where was the actual wartime president? “Where are the statues of Lincoln?” asked Otis Singletary, a Texas history professor quoted in a 1950s interview in The Austin American. “I’ve never seen one in the South.”
Changing the Campus Landscape Fast forward to the 1980s, when President William H. Cunningham (1985-1992) faced a series of racist fraternity incidents that led to protests, a hunger strike and calls for the removal of the statues. The university made changes to how it dealt with racial discrimination and the promotion of multicultural education, but Cunningham refused to remove the Davis statue, telling The Daily Texan it was “a mistake to rewrite history.” Instead, he attempted to create a new historical landscape for campus by announcing plans for a Martin Luther King Jr. statue on the East Mall. Dedicated in 1999, the King statue was egged on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2003. In response, President Larry Faulkner (1998-2006) directed a task force to find a more suitable location for historical statues “that are a reminder of our past, but should no longer be prominently positioned on our diverse landscape.” Calling the issue a question of “history, art and architecture,” Faulkner additionally outlined goals for campus statuary that called for the creation of a “hospitable” environment that not only preserved the cultural Visit lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu | 29
FE ATURE STORY
“Where are the statues of Lincoln?” asked Otis Singletary, a Texas history professor quoted in a 1950s interview in The Austin American. “I’ve never seen one in the South.”
record and institutional continuity, but also understood history on human terms and maintained artistic integrity. To that last point, he took at face value Coppini’s assertion that the memorial was an allegory about national unity and proposed rearranging the statuary with educational signage to better represent the sculptor’s original intention. The problem, he thought, was that each statue had become “an isolated representation of the depicted individual, with no clear theme underlying the selection of individuals.” When the King statue was defaced again in 2004, President William Powers Jr. (2006-2015) responded by inviting African American leaders from campus, including Gordon, to talk about the statues and possible options. They decided the statues should be left in place, but new statues should be added to present a more diverse campus landscape. In the years since, the campus has seen the addition of statues honoring César Chávez (2007) and Barbara Jordan (2009).
Which Way to the Future? And so, after a century, do we finally have resolution? Does recontextualizing the Davis statue as an educational object — “wording him up” in an archive, as senior lecturer in the Department of History Penne Restad refers to it — bind him and prevent him from doing harm? Or does it remove him from a greater conversation about what the statuary say about the university? You might ask why a supposedly senseless object has so much power in the first place. According to classics professor Karl Galinsky, it might be helpful to think about this issue through the lens of ancient Rome. Because literacy was low in Rome and the rural areas around it, memorialization depended mostly on monuments. They were a visual text that held culture and social memory, and most notably, a record of the maintenance and transition of power. And, different from the archaeological and conservationist perspective we have today, these monuments could be “disposed of, re-placed or replaced” as needs of the culture changed. Thus memorials, as the physical manifestation of memories, have a dual function in that they recall a certain event, while at the same time both shaping and making way for the future. “In sum, what we can learn from Roman history is the traditional freedom to redispose such statues as the culture moves on,” Galinsky says. In his note to the 2015 task force, Gordon wrote that “history is not innocent; it is the living foundation for the present.” In this case, the Confederate statues serve as powerful symbols of the racism, militarism and gender disparity that are prevalent in the built landscape of the university and which continue to structure the present. Because 30 Life & Letters | Spring 2017
of their role, he believes the statues should stay in place, but with an effective educational apparatus, to serve as a “Scarlet Letter” on the university, reminding us of past failings and compelling us toward a more equitable future. According to Gordon, removing the Davis and Wilson statues does not erase this history, but instead obscures it, and therefore reduces the possibility for reflection, education, conversation and ultimately positive change. Restad maintains that the statue removal gave the university an opportunity to show not only where it has been, but where it wants to go. To this end, the task force also expressed that memorials should balance history by “telling multiple sides of the story from a variety of perspectives,” including enslaved people, Native Americans, Mexican Americans and other groups and individuals “who made their mark on UT Austin’s history.” Gordon agrees that the presence of statues of people of color is a step in the right direction, especially as they exist in opposition to the Confederate statues, and therefore bring the history of the university into greater focus. But is any attempt to rewrite the landscape of campus a long-term solution, or is it a temporary palliative? Professor John Morán González, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, fears it is a kind of “Band-Aid,” and suggests the naming of more buildings, classrooms and open spaces after prominent Latinos would help “indicate a permanent and historical anchoring to the mission of the university.” González also suggests adding Latino representation through public art and bilingual signage. “When we ask, ‘who is our public?’ we have to ask how language choices indicate inclusion or exclusion within that concept.” As Gregory J. Vincent, vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement says, the recommendations of the task force should not be seen as a “cure-all for campus,” given our ever-changing culture. “Our current climate is undoubtedly one of great passion and emotion, regardless of which side of the aisle your politics fall. But what I have seen on this campus more than ever has been an increased level of engagement by our students, faculty and staff. It has been their debate that defines the greatness of our university, and it has been uplifting to see our campus united by our shared experiences and beliefs, rather than be pulled apart by our differences.” In the end, the university can only go so far to overcome a controversial past; what we need is what Gordon calls “informed and purposeful systemic change.” And while a university president can lead us, we all need to be involved in the work to create the university we want to be.
Putting People First Jordan Metoyer 2017 Schwarzman scholar
Interviews by Emily Nielsen Illustrations by Eric Moe Jordan Metoyer is an economics and liberal arts honors/urban studies alumna from Inglewood, California, by way of Sugar Land, Texas. She is the recipient of a 2017 Schwarzman scholarship, which will send her to pursue a master’s degree in global affairs with a concentration in public policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing this fall. As a UT Austin student, Metoyer launched a successful affordable student housing campaign, filmed a short documentary on suburban poverty and conducted research on the Fair Housing Act for the LBJ Presidential Library. She was awarded a 2013 Truman scholarship, a Rapoport service scholarship and Phi Beta Kappa designation, among other honors. Following graduation, Metoyer accepted a position in the Obama administration’s White House. She currently works in San Francisco at 18F, an office in the General Services Administration. What is the most important thing you learned at UT Austin? I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. Some of my closest friends from college have drastically different backgrounds, lived experiences, religious beliefs and political ideologies. Still, I appreciate who they are and the commonalities that bind us — a shared love of Texas, for example — rather than the walls which divide us. I left college with an appreciation for cognitive dissonance. What did you take away from your White House experience? There are three things I took away from my time at the White House. The first was a saying we used quite a bit during the last few years of the Obama administration: “fight cynicism.” At its essence,
public service is about service delivery; it’s about government maintaining integrity by keeping its promise to meet basic human needs. I have an incredible amount of hope in the ability of government to put citizens first in policy design and implementation. Many principals in the White House would often echo Denis McDonough and remind their staff that there’s no secret meeting. When you have a seat at the table, it’s your responsibility to prepare, contribute and implement whichever decision is made, even if it is not your own. The third and final takeaway was a deep appreciation for Washington’s civil servants, individuals who serve the American people irrespective of the political office at the helm of Congress or the White House. These brave members of our government agencies work countless hours, often with little to no credit, to uphold the integrity of public institutions, fight internal corruption and keep the system running.
Why did you pursue study in Beijing? By 2025, China will have 221 cities, each with 1 million-plus inhabitants. By 2030, up to 70 percent of the Chinese population — some 1 billion — will live in cities. Managing urban areas is one of the defining issues of our generation, with implications cutting across academic and professional silos. Mass urbanization will change the way the world thinks about global security, climate change, social unrest, cultural exchange, infrastructure, technological innovation and basic human-to-human interaction. All of our toughest political, economic and ideological battles will play out on the global stage, with cities as the main actors, and there’s no doubt in my mind that China will play a leading role. Equally as astonishing as urbanization rates are the millennial demographic trends. With over 7 billion people on this planet, millennials account for roughly 2 billion, with 58 percent of global millennials living in Asia. The Schwarzman scholarship is the perfect confluence of urbanization, Asia and millennials. I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Why is studying the liberal arts important? There’s a great deal of discussion regarding artificial intelligence and automation. While some use the data on automation and technology to provoke anger and fear, the shifting economy presents an incredible opportunity for universities to celebrate the humanities and liberal arts. The leaders of institutions in the years ahead will not be individuals who can spit out data, but rather, evaluate information by evaluating the “white space.” Liberal arts teaches this critical thinking, the ability to view a situation, trend or event from a unique perspective. Visit lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu | 31
Testing the Waters Bailey Anderson 2017 British Marshall scholar
Bailey Anderson is a geography and the environment alumna from Bowie, Texas. She is the recipient of a 2017 British Marshall scholarship, which will fund her pursuit of a Master of Philosophy in geography: water science, policy and management at the University of Oxford. Anderson has also been awarded the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hollings scholarship, a Fulbright Canada Killam fellowship and the Teresa Lozano Long Latin American Studies Travel scholarship, and she was a finalist for the Harry S. Truman scholarship. What does winning a Marshall scholarship mean to you? I think studying something like geography and water resources in a time that is particularly politically tempestuous around the issue of climate change is very powerful. This opportunity will give me the connections and knowledge to do something meaningful in my field. I want to be an example for people from places like my hometown, small towns or even lower-income communities in large cities, where education might be lacking in comparison to larger or wealthier districts. I don’t want anyone to feel like they do not belong in a specific field or don’t deserve to achieve a high level of prestige because of characteristics that are intrinsic to their being — race, gender or background. Why do you think studying liberal arts is important? It creates well-rounded, thoughtful people with the skills to recognize 32 Life & Letters | Spring 2017
research for, and write, a technical note on ground water metering and monitoring regulations in Texas. My internships helped develop my interests and showed me what work looks like in district sectors within geography and water resources. They were invaluable in helping me decide what I want to do next and introduced me to important concepts and issues in my field that I wouldn’t have been exposed to in my classes.
problems and fosters the creativity needed to find solutions to them. Geography in particular weds physical and social science in a way that is unrivaled in other disciplines. I think this type of interdisciplinary study is vital to understanding the world. How have you benefited from internships? I have had three professional internships while a student at UT, including my current job with the Texas General Land Office, where I work in Geographic Information Systems. Over the summer, I interned with the National Weather Service at the River Forecasting Center in Anchorage, Alaska. I did a research project with them using statistical methods to estimate flood frequency, which I am now turning into my undergraduate thesis. My other internship was with the Texas Water Development Board, where I helped do
What are your professional goals? My goal is just to always consider how my actions are affecting other people’s lives. I never want to do a job that I don’t believe is helping people. My academic and professional interests are mostly around natural resource availability, particularly in improving potable water and food access for poor and rural communities. I think these are the most basic human rights. I hope that regardless of whatever specific direction my future and career take, I am always working toward making access to these things ubiquitous. What is your proudest accomplishment? When I make noticeable, positive changes to myself. For example, when I am able to be patient and supportive in a situation that would have frustrated me at one point, or when I am able to listen to ideas that challenge my thought process and accept that there may be error in my thinking. This is the most exciting part of life for me, trying to figure out who I am going to become.
The Open Rhodes Mikaila Smith 2017 Rhodes scholar
Mikaila Smith is a Plan II alumna with concentrations in international affairs and Chinese from Sydney, Australia, by way of Austin, Texas. She has been named a 2017 Rhodes scholar, which will provide for her to pursue a Master of Science degree in refugee and forced migration studies, followed by a Master of Science degree in global governance and diplomacy at the University of Oxford. She is also a Rapoport Service scholar, a two-time Presidential Scholarship winner, a Bill Archer fellow and recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship from the State Department to study Chinese. What is your reaction to being named a Rhodes scholar? It is both an opportunity and responsibility. I take it very seriously as an investment in my potential, and that is an enormous blessing and one that will give me incredible opportunities — primarily, of course, enabling me to continue my education at a world-class institution, Oxford. Where have you volunteered? In Austin, I’ve volunteered with Posada Esperanza, an incredible organization that provides housing and resources to immigrant and refugee mothers and children. My mom volunteers there and introduced me to the community. I’ve also volunteered with AVANCE-Austin, a renowned nonprofit that focuses on parent and child education programs and works specifically with the most vulnerable Latino populations in Austin. Another wonderful organization is the Interfaith Action of Central Texas, which does a lot of multifaceted work — I’ve volunteered specifically with their refugee services
and I started focusing in a much healthier way on mental health, confidence and self-acceptance. I had never thought about being an instructor, but a few years later when the opportunity presented itself, I really wanted to be able to spread the same gift that had been given to me.
program and as a teacher at iLearn, their academic summer camp for refugee children who are newly arrived to the U.S. I was also a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. The common thread between these experiences comes from an interest in addressing injustices or inequalities — especially in access to education and health care for underserved populations. How did you get started as a yoga instructor? As many people do, I had very low self-esteem in my early teens. My mom took me to my first yoga class at age 15, and I loved it almost instantly. The teacher really emphasized being OK with yourself and your body, no matter where you were in your practice. Yoga got through to me very quickly,
What are your goals for the future? I recently received some very sage advice about goal setting, which was essentially to let go of the ideas of who I am and be open to who I may become. I have some ideas about my professional goals, but ultimately I’m driven by a desire to challenge myself, search for fulfillment in the work I’m doing and stay connected to the issues I care about. I’m trying not to think too specifically about the future, but instead let myself be guided by my philosophies and passions, and be open to evolving. I’ve been interested in the work of international organizations like the United Nations for a while, and I’m looking forward to seeing how my upcoming internship at the U.N.’s Global Compact Office influences me. What is your proudest accomplishment? There’s an idea I read that nothing you do in life is valuable if you are not kind and good to the people directly around you: your neighbors and family, or the stranger sitting next to you on the bus. This idea of a prerequisite, baseline level of being in the world resonates with me and is something I’ve been trying to work on. I’m proud of different things — volunteer work I’ve done, papers I’ve written, projects I’ve worked on — but by this philosophy, those things don’t mean anything if five minutes ago, someone walked by me in need and I didn’t do what I could to help them.
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School Rules Texas Lawmakers Need to Rethink the Program that Gives Property Tax Breaks to Corporations By Nathan Jensen Illustration by Michelle Kondrich
34 Life & Letters | Spring 2017
Since the 2002 creation of the economic program known as Chapter 313, Texas has awarded more than $7 billion in tax credits to companies. The program is intended to attract investors by providing abatements to offset some of the property taxes that companies pay to school districts. The fundamental flaw with the program is that, although the credits were a determining factor for several companies that moved to the state, 85 to 95 percent of companies that received the credit would have relocated to Texas regardless of whether the program existed. This means the state gave away tax dollars — which otherwise could have been used for public services — to companies that were going to move to Texas anyway. This waste of taxpayer dollars resulted in part from the structure of the program. A company needs a school district’s support to obtain tax benefits that are ultimately paid for by the state. Under Chapter 313, school districts can also legally request “supplemental payments” from a company before approving its application. These
“In most cases, companies that used this program were planning to move to Texas anyway, and this program simply transferred tax dollars from communities to companies.”
payments often amount to more than 40 percent of the tax benefits provided to a company. The negotiation over supplemental payments provides a rare window into company-government bargaining, allowing researchers like me to evaluate this program’s effectiveness. Central to the Chapter 313 program is a requirement that the tax incentive be a determining factor in an applicant’s decision to invest in Texas. For example, firms that could have located in other states or countries, such as Toyota or Samsung, negotiated substantially lower supplemental payments to school districts in exchange for the school districts’ approval to participate in the program, whereas companies that had few credible walk-away options, such as ones that want to expand existing facilities, paid substantially higher supplemental payments to school districts. In most cases, companies that used this program were planning to move to Texas anyway, and this program simply transferred tax dollars from communities to companies. A large majority of the 313 projects provide no net benefits to Texas because most of the companies would have invested anyway. And this is for a program that will exceed $1 billion per year in 2022. The fact that the state is offering a tax benefit that is so large that companies are willing to give back 40 percent of these benefits raises some concerns. First, isn’t this evidence that the incentive is at least 40 percent too big? Second, are there ethical concerns where school districts sign off on state-financed incentives literally in exchange for payments from firms that are outside of the school
funding formula? The state would be better off by being more selective in the use of these taxpayer benefits and reforming the structure of the program. For starters, turning school districts into economic developers that then received $57 million in extra payments in 2016 from these companies is an obvious recipe for making poor economic development decisions. Sensible reforms of this program would also require changes to the benefits and a more targeted use of incentives. A focus on new investments (and not expansions) and nonenergy-related investments would dramatically reduce waste. In addition, the supplemental payment system is both unethical and excessively costly. Allowing 10 percent of Texas school districts to receive millions in supplemental payments while they grant billions in tax incentives is clearly wrong. The state should address this conflict of interest by eliminating these supplemental payments and empowering the Texas comptroller to provide additional oversight of the program. The state has multiple economic development programs, but it is important to evaluate the evidence on each program in order to make reforms. When it comes to the 313 program, the vast majority of these tax dollars are wasted. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Nathan Jensen is a professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin. Visit lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu | 35
Celebrating the Humanities
36 Life & Letters | Spring 2017
On March 10, the Humanities Research Symposium showcased the work of some of the Humanities Research Award (HRA) and Humanities Media Project (HMP) grant recipients. This biennial symposium features presentations of scholars of various disciplines who discuss their findings with an audience of faculty members, administrators, staff members, alumni and students. It celebrates the power of the humanities to challenge understandings, enrich lives and change the world.
The Carlton Hotel in Beirut, pictured in this postcard image, has captured the imagination of many Lebanese as a quintessential symbol of urban pleasure and violence from the time of its construction in the late 1950s to its demolition in 2009. Sofian Merabet, an associate professor of anthropology, is a 2013-14 HRA recipient whose project bridges urban anthropology, history and the creative arts. In an effort to evaluate the complexity of 20th-century identity formations in the Arab world, Merabet provides a “biography” of the hotel based on ethnographic and archival materials, and explores what has come to be called the “golden era” of pre-civil-war Lebanon and its violent aftermath.
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UT Austin Army ROTC clinched first place in the ROTC division of the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition, a 25-mile, full-pack trek that tests basic soldier and leadership skills. They now lead 273 ROTC programs nationwide.
The College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin publishes Life & Letters for its community of scholars, alumni and friends....
Published on May 2, 2017
The College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin publishes Life & Letters for its community of scholars, alumni and friends....