Monday, September 21, 2009


My peers and I in the American Studies Senior Thesis course have recently read Omi and Winant’s “Racial Formation in the United States.” While I found this book extremely insightful and helpful in better understanding the concept of “race,” (which is also defined in the book “Keywords in American Studies”) I also felt that it was somewhat limited in that it only offered a leftist perspective on racial issues. I would have liked to have heard a conservative viewpoint on race and racism, rather than simply hearing an interpretation of the right’s beliefs based on the authors’ conceptions of them.
Like Professor Hendler pointed out in one of his blogs, a word can have a “wide range of meanings,” and therefore, people can “mean different things by the same word.” Omi and Winant mention how in a classroom discussion of “race” white students saw race as a “nonessential reality” while black and biracial students “saw the centrality of race” in everyday life. For white students, racism had to do with “color-consciousness” while for black and biracial students it dealt with a “system of power.” These differing responses show how there is really no “common sense” understanding of race and racism. Rather than being objective and fixed, “race” seems to be an ambiguous word that has different meaning to different groups of people.
Omi and Winant’s definition of “racial-formation” accounts for this ambiguity. They define this concept as a “sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”
It is important to think about “race” and understand that it continues to play a vital role in our society. I was just recently skimming thorough an issue of the New York Times magazine (the September 13th issue) and noticed that a special advertising supplement was entirely dedicated to how various companies (including the New York Times itself) actively promoted diversity in the workforce.
Omi and Winant argue that race is a central part of society and should not be dismissed. A “colorblind” view of society, where the significance of race is denied, may actually be counterproductive. I thought of this as I was speaking to my dad, who is a trial attorney, one night after dinner. He was discussing with me the process of selecting a jury for a particular case he had. From what he said, I realized that in addition to taking a perspective juror’s profession, age, and education into account, he also automatically considered a perspective juror’s race (ethnicity, gender, and religion). Stereotypes (however inaccurate) continue to play an important role in the jury selection process.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

'Toying' with Thesis Writing

It was the first week in May (our spring semester finals were still going on) when we received the syllabus for our American Studies senior thesis seminar.  Probably five minutes after the syllabus entered my inbox, my phone starting beeping incessantly with text messages from my American Studies friends, everyone instantly stressed and apprehensive about the seminar's workload.

Despite receiving an impeccably precise and detailed syllabus months before our class began, we all were just as apprehensive months later as we walked into the seminar on that first day.  The American Studies major's characteristic flexibility in class selection and fluid interdisciplinary requirements seemed to skip over the thesis seminar component of the major:  each year the thesis seminar course has a set, concrete topic and series of required readings to accompany it. In comparison with other thesis courses at both Fordham and other universities, it seemed limiting and restrictive, not open, inviting to new ideas and personalized for each thesis topic.  While I was very aware we did not have to write on the theme of the seminar, it was astoundingly difficult to look at all the required reading and fathom how we would get this reading done in addition to independent research on our specific topic.

This week's class definitely settled this unrest, as we spent the class discussing the extreme amount of pain but also the sincere pride that comes out of conducting original research.  Our professors offered a few perspectives about thesis writing that I had never considered that I'd like to share here:

Writing a thesis is like playing with toys:  Well, I will admit the surface-level analogy is pretty weak (toys are fun and so is thesis writing!) but the root of the comparison is interesting.  At this stage of our projects, many of my classmates and I have all these ideas we want to explore (the running joke is that whenever someone makes an interesting observation, even with questions as trivial as why do freshman only walk in herds of 20, we respond with "ohh that could be a great thesis topic").  Everyone of us has either changed their thesis topic/research question 4 times already or has at least questioned their project decision.  To settled our indecisiveness, Professor Kim suggested looking at all these observations/ideas/potential thesis topics as "intellectual toys."  While he did not go into the following specifics, for me at least, the comparison made a lot of sense.  Ultimately, you have to choose a topic with which you will not get bored - it has to be one of those toys you played with over and over, not just the toy that you played with only once and ignored from then out.  In addition to this, the thesis topic has to be durable and strong - it can't be like one of those cheap toys that broke after the first time you played with it - because it has to last all semester and for many, many pages of intellectual insight.  Finally, it is impossible to explore all the topics you want at the same time, as it was impossible for us to play with all our toys at the same time, so you must pick your favorite one.  The comparison works for me holistically because of this: most of us did not stand in the toy store or in front of a tv ad and say "Mom, that is going to be my favorite toy."  Kids are naturally drawn to certain material playthings and I think that intellectual pursuits follow the same type of natural disposition. We are naturally drawn to certain topics, and these topics should ultimately be what we write our thesis on, "our intellectual toy." 

Writing a thesis is like drowning:  Drowning in information, yes, but our professors put it best, it is most like "drowning in intellectual confusion." I had always pictured research as very invigorating, a constant high, like swimming those first laps in a pool.  However, it has not really felt like that at all and our professors provided us with this solace, that it is ok to feel like you are drowning trying to find answers.  After all, if we knew the answers to our research questions before, there really would be no reason to pursue these projects.  Drowning is ok, because there are lifeguards to help us out, like our seminar professors, our other advisors and even the sources of our topic's existing scholarship.  It is ok to drown for a little while because it teaches you how to pull yourself back up to the surface, just like "intellectual confusion" teaches you how to distinguish good sources, decipher complex theories and ultimately write an excellent paper on your findings.

Clearly after Thursday's class, our original apprehension from May has somewhat settled.  After all, we're basically just playing with toys and going for a swim.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Senior Year

For some people, the fall season means changing leaves, football games, and cozy sweaters. For me and the other American Studies seniors, it means it’s time to finish our senior theses.

When I enrolled in the American Studies program as a sophomore, the idea of committing to such a long writing project seemed daunting, but I was not too concerned because it seemed so far in the distant future. I figured that by my senior year I would be significantly more scholarly and wise, or that selecting a thesis topic would be a simple task. I was obviously wrong on both accounts. After about a year of thought and preliminary reading, I decided to focus my research on the relationship between women’s magazines and society during the 1960s. As a Communications minor and an intern at a women’s fashion magazine, I thought this topic would be a good way to blend my interest in magazines with the sociological, historical, and political implications of such an iconic era. I have a few specific ideas for my thesis, but it is still definitely a work in progress.

That being said, senior year has been incredibly fun, yet stressful. This semester I am taking classes on American Pluralism and TV Comedy, in addition to my American Studies seminar. I also have an internship at a fashion magazine, which is extremely fun but requires a lot of hard work. I have held magazine internships in the past, and no Devil Wears Prada moments yet.

I think the year is off to a great start and I wish everyone the best of luck!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thinking--and feeling--about 9/11

On September 11, 2001, I was not yet at Fordham. I was teaching at Notre Dame, which means I was living in the Midwest, far from where the crimes took place. Even though I’m a scholar who works on the history of emotions, and so am the last person to argue that emotions don’t matter, it seemed very important—after registering shock and horror—that our emotions about 9/11 not prevent us from thinking. The risk was that we might let our sense of injury turn into blind rage, and that the thinking we did about 9/11 might turn into a set of clichés. At moments of public trauma, that’s always the risk: that we fall back into the rut of what’s easy, what’s familiar, what we oddly call our “gut” reactions. Such reactions are often violent and counterproductive, and when we’re operating from our guts, we can be easily manipulated into turning our rage onto any convenient target. The violent attacks on Muslims that followed 9/11 are strong evidence for this; an argument can be made that Americans were manipulated into supporting the invasion of Iraq—a country that of course had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11—because the sense of injury and the rage that followed made it so much harder to think clearly about causes, effects, and consequences.

I don’t know what Fordham did after 9/11, and of course many readers of this blog weren’t yet in high school when it happened. At Notre Dame, I worked together with three other faculty members to plan a week of panel discussions that took place in dormitory common rooms across the campus. None of the other faculty members necessarily shared my political views, but all of us shared a sense that being at a university meant that we had an opportunity and an obligation to encourage complex thinking about 9/11: its causes and consequences; its policy implications; the best possible responses.

Above all, we agreed that it was essential that we encourage a wide range of ways of thinking about 9/11. So we welcomed on the panels people from every political perspective and intellectual tradition, so long as everyone agreed to let everyone else have their say. People argued—often passionately—for their interpretations and perspectives, and the panels were lively, interesting, and serious. And students showed up by the hundreds to each of the 8 panel discussions. I have no idea how many—if any—were swayed toward the points of view I’d advocate myself. But I think the week of events was a success, in that it showed us all that people could think very differently about 9/11 and yet be caring, thinking individuals.

That seemed very important, because another temptation at moments of public trauma is to think that we all must feel and think in exactly the same way, and that anyone who deviates from proper feeling or thinking is inhuman, inhumane, un-American. There was a lot of that in the weeks (and months and years) after 9/11. To say something that before then (or years later) seemed perfectly reasonable (which is not to say that everyone agreed with it)—say, that a history of support for brutal dictatorial regimes around the world might have something to do with the rage felt toward the U.S. by millions of people, though nothing could justify murdering thousands of people in downtown New York City—could result in rage and violence toward whoever said such a thing. It seemed for a while there that if you thought differently about what had happened, it was a sign that you were unfeeling. Frankly, I found that brutal uniformity of sentiment to be more frightening than the statistically very small possibility that I might be killed in a terrorist attack. Though the latter felt scary, too, it seemed quite remote compared to the everyday sense that the range of political and social and cultural possibilities in the U.S. was narrowing drastically. Again, I think the political right took advantage of this structure of feeling to its own benefit for several years.

But it’s important to distinguish between this sort of enforced conformity and another way of connecting thought with feeling: solidarity, which we can define as fellow-feeling: with the victims and their loved ones; with those in harm’s way; with those on all sides who might die in any military response. Nowhere did I see more of that more admirable reaction than in New York City, which I visited several times in the months and years following 9/11. Back in Indiana, I’d tell people that the very city that was attacked, and that lost the most people, was also one of the places most opposed to massively violent responses to the attack like the invasion of Iraq, and that what I saw in New York—in the heroism of first responders, in the efforts and cleanup and recovery, and in the huge demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq—was often a solidarity that I found extraordinarily admirable. The further you got from the actual experience of 9/11, it sometimes seemed, the more the response became simplistic, jingoistic, brutal, violent. In New York, it seemed, it was still possible to recognize that we did not “all feel the same way,” as the cliché goes, about 9/11.

Perhaps the most powerful—emotionally moving and intellectually effective—response to 9/11 that I saw was just a few weeks later, when that horrible, acrid smell was still thick in the air around the Prince Street gallery where the collection of photographs called “Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs” was first displayed. Its curators’ principle was simply that they would print, in the same size and format, any photo of the day that anyone brought in, and display it. The exhibition has since toured the world in various forms, and become a book and a website. A couple of years ago, when it was up at the New-York Historical Society, a group of students wrote about it for a presentation in their Major Developments in American Culture class (there; you knew I’d get an American Studies reference in here somewhere).

You might think that such an exhibition would end up being incoherent. And it certainly couldn’t be reduced to a single message, to a singular argument about how we should think and feel about 9/11. But that was part of the point: 9/11 shouldn’t be reduced to a cliché, a jingoistic, nationalistic slogan. To do so is not just to play into those who want to manipulate our feelings and thoughts about that day; it’s to betray the actual experience of the event. I’m not arguing for a distanced, objective view of 9/11; as American Studies junior Kaylyn Toale says in her posting on this blog, that’s not possible and may not even be desirable. But I am arguing that we should find ways of connecting our thinking and feelings about the events of that day—and any other public traumas, past and future—that prevent us from brutally enforced conformity of thought and emotion. Anytime we hear someone else—or we find ourselves—saying that “we all feel the same way” about something, it’s worth taking a step back, to think about what ideological position is being enforced through that claim about our conformity of feeling. If we do, in the future we might be able to avoid repeating some of the mistakes of the eight years since 9/11.

A New Year and Looking Back

The beginning of a new school year is, quite simply, decision time.

And I have never been very good at decisions.

This seems to be quite a common attribute among the American Studies community. We can’t choose among our passions; we desire connections, not strict classifications. Fragments frustrate us. We want to take a literature class, and a history class, and a sociology class, and a philosophy class, and… well, you get the point. To me, American Studies offered the best means to channel these varied interests, which encouraged my switch from my original intention: Communication and Media Studies. When I declared an American Studies major I took on a whole new set of decisions. Now, I pursue Communications as a minor, and can see my exposure to various disciplines as contributing to my future role in the communications field or elsewhere.

One of the first decisions that faced me this year was the question of study abroad in the spring. As the application deadline rapidly approached, I found myself wavering about whether it was the right thing to do. I found myself asking the all-too-obvious question: If my objective is to study America, does it make sense to leave America to do so? However, I am very interested in the outside perspective on America, especially after a class called “Development and Globalization” increased my interest in the impact we have on developing nations and on the global scale. The program on which I settled ultimately offered an opportunity to view America from the outside—specifically, from a transatlantic perspective. And with that, I decided to apply to a program at the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin in Ireland. Nothing is set in stone yet (in fact, I have only applied to Fordham’s own office of International & Study Abroad Programs so far), but I think it would be an enriching experience and I am very excited about the possibility.

As far as this semester goes, I think I am through with the tough decision-making part for now. In addition to the “Approaches to American Studies” course, I am taking a literature and writing class about “The American Voice”, a sociology class entitled “Media, Crime, Sex, and Violence”, and a Lincoln Center class that focuses on “Communications for Social Change.” I will also be continuing my internship at the Fresh Air Fund—but I will probably be writing more on that in a later post. I am definitely looking forward to this new semester.


On a more serious note, it seems important to mention the importance of this day, when we recognize and remember once again the indelible impact left on our nation and our lives eight years ago. We will hear many people recounting their stories of “where they were when," reminiscent of those our parents share regarding the JFK assassination and other historic moments. One such narrative is carried, I believe, in the heart of every American, and it does not fade with time. I am still not sure I have found the words to try to address the events of September 11, 2001. What does this anniversary mean to us as students of America and of New York City? Can we ever take a step back from our personal, very intimate relationship to the events of our lifetime and look at them in a purely academic way? Should we even try? Perhaps not- but perhaps we can use our shared and collective experiences with our own history to deepen our studies and understanding of America and her people. I have included the quotation below simply because it puts much more eloquently than I could the things I appreciate a reminder of on this important day of remembrance and reflection.

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.”-Arundhati Roy

Friday, September 4, 2009

Beginning of Junior Year and Johan Norberg

Another year began at Fordham University this week. I must admit I had grown used to an empty and quiet campus over the summer but the returning students have brought back a lot of life and activity to Rose Hill.

This will be my junior year. I'll have more opportunities to explore the courses offered to American Studies majors, look into taking on a minor (I'm considering African and African American Studies) and put thought into studying abroad in the spring (but probably not).

The year began for me last night at a guest lecture by Johan Norberg. Norberg is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based out of Washington DC, and the author of two books. The event was co-sponsored by the College Republicans and the Young Americans for Liberty, a new group at Fordham that has just recieved official club status. Since I was one of the first 20 people to arrive I was lucky enough to get a free copy of Norberg's newest book, Financial Fiasco: How America's Infatuation with Homeownership and Easy Money Created the Economic Crisis. The jury is still out on whether I'll actually have a chance to read it as classes started and I'll be hard pressed to find time to do any personal reading until December.

Norberg's lecture focussed on, what else, the current economic crisis. He claims that the crisis has been caused by 7 steps including easy money, home ownership and the creation of the shadow banking system to handle repackaged and redistributed mortgage securities. Norberg admitted that it was a little rude of him to blame the Americans for the crisis (himself a Swede) but assured us that other countries were trying to cause the economic crisis as well, we were just the only one with the size to do it.

The lecture was incredibly informative. At this point I must admit that before last night I would have been unable to explain the economic crisis to anyone who asked beyond mumbling about "subprime mortgages" and "the housing bubble." After last night's talk I feel I have a much better understanding about what happened to cause the economic crisis but unfortunatly, like everyone else, I'm not really any closer to understanding how to fix it.

Norberg claimed that many of the fixes being proposed and enacted now are the same kind of bad decisions that led to the original crisis, such as lowering interest rates and creating lots of liquidity in the market. He also said that by bailing out certain groups that were "too big to fail" we have created a precedent that encourages these groups to participate in the same risky deals that they were before, now safe in the knowledge that if they fail the government and tax payers will be there to bail them out.

At the end of the lecture the floor was opened up for questions and one struck me in particular as an American Studies major. The question was about how China owns a great deal of our debt and whether or not that might actually effect our sovereignty as a nation. Norberg replied that although it is true that China owns an inordinate amount of American debt, and that they are possibly calling for a second reserve currency in the world, China's status as owner of so much US debt actually creates for them a vested interest in American economic success. As he put if "If you owe the bank a hundred dollars, you have a problem, if you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank has a problem."

Overall the lecture was a great way to kick-off the new academic year and I look forward to more stimulating discussions and lectures as the semester progresses and, of course, blogging about it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Jury duty is grand

When I mention that I’m in the midst of four weeks of jury duty, most people respond by offering their condolences. But it’s really been interesting, believe it or not! Of course, it hasn’t come at the best time, what with a new baby in the house and classes starting this week. However, so far the experience has taught me a lot about our legal system, and given me more faith than I had before in the idea that a randomly chosen set of people can actually work together to figure out what’s right in a complex situation.

What I’m on is a grand jury, which is very different from a regular trial (or petit—pronounced with hard t’s, even though it’s originally a French word) jury. And we’re all sworn to secrecy about our proceedings, so I can’t say anything about specific cases. I will, though, blog over the next couple of weeks about the experience, being careful not to reveal anything even vaguely confidential.

Today I just want to write a bit about an aspect of the grand jury experience that connects to American Studies. Really. First, a bit of explanation of what a grand jury does. We don’t decide whether people are guilty or innocent. And we’re not a high-profile grand jury dealing with a single, complex, major crime. (One day we showed up last week and there were television trucks filling the parking lot across the street. Turned out they were there to cover Plaxico Burress’s guilty plea). In New York State, every felony charge has to be vetted by a grand jury before it can go to trial. So what we get is an assistant district attorney coming before us, with perhaps a couple of witnesses and documents, just enough to convince us that the case has sufficient plausibility to make it worth taking to trial. We don’t hear from the defense at all, and we don’t have to be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt.

At the end of every presentation, the Assistant D.A. “instructs us in the law.” S/he does that by reading the law that the defendant has allegedly broken. What’s interesting is that s/he then has to read us the “underlying definitions” of every term in the law. In the first few trials, this was very time-consuming. Then, over time, they would start saying “I understand you’ve been instructed on the underlying definitions of ‘larceny’ ‘dangerous weapon’ and ‘motor vehicle,’” and unless one of us on the jury wants to hear those definitions again, we can move on.

Now for the American Studies part. One day an ADA had to define “property,” and it hit me that that’s a word that has an entry in, yes, Keywords for American Cultural Studies, which all Fordham American Studies students at this point have encountered in at least one course. It turns out that the kind of knowledge that’s required to decide whether or not to indict someone necessitates that we think hard about the meanings of the words that make up the laws. And the meanings are often very specific to the law, and not very commonsensical. For example, you might think you don’t need to provide an underlying definition of “building.” But in the New York State penal code, “building” is defined to include a motor vehicle used for business, so that if someone burglarizes, say, an ice cream truck, the law is the same as if they burglarize an ice cream store. So, the words that need “underlying definitions” are complex words, like the keywords in the book.

My analogy only goes so far, of course. In our jury room, the ADA is providing definitions so as to pin down, or fix, the meaning of the word, to try to prevent us from thinking about other possible meanings. In a Keywords book, the point is almost the opposite: to be aware of the wide range of meanings a single word can have; to think about the tensions and contradictions within a single meaning or between different meanings; to recognize that different people mean different things by the same word, and to figure out which meanings are active in a particular instance when the word is used.

The ADAs definitely don’t want us to think about all that. But sometimes, in fact, we do, and it makes a difference. Again, I can’t go into any details, but I will say that one day we jurors had a long, rich, and interesting discussion of the meaning of the word “intentional.” That’s not a word in the Keywords book, but it could be. Again avoiding specifics, I can say that our different opinions about the meaning of that one word made a big difference in whether that defendant got indicted that day or not.

So that’s one reason I think grand jury duty is interesting: it raises some of the same issues I’m interested in discussing in my American Studies classes. There are other reasons, too, which maybe I can talk about in another posting sometime.