Category Archives: Faculty Fellows Seminar

Soldiers, Kings, and the Ethics of Ethnography

On October 24 the Faculty Fellows seminar was led by Jason De León, Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the prizewinning book, The Land of Open Graves. Previous to the seminar, Dr. de Leon gave a Distinguished Visiting Lecture on his work titled “Soldiers and Kings: A Photoethnography of Human Smuggling Across Mexico,” covering research for an upcoming book and a range of topics including masculinity, representation, radical reflexivity and anxiety, and the ethics of ethnography. 

Dr. De León began the seminar with an introduction to his evolving research methodology, beginning with his early career as a Mesoamerican archeologist studying volcanic glass tools. While working in archeological excavations, De León became interested in the narratives and stories of the workmen digging alongside archeologists, including stories of the border and migration. De León’s work evolved into documenting material culture around the border, particularly in the Arizona desert, taking stock of material goods people take to cross the border, and noting what is left behind in the journey or in makeshift “rest stops.”  Having archived 8,000 different objects at UCLA, De León’s work developed into the Undocumented Migrant Project, a multidisciplinary research project that includes his most recent artistic collaboration, Hostile Terrain 94. This latest project is a participatory installation composed of roughly 3,200 handwritten toe tags representing migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert between the mid-1990s and 2019. De León noted that his most recent book project will further explore issues at the border, focusing on smuggling and smugglers. 

Fellows questioned De León’s stated uneasiness with both ethnography and exhibition, which he had expanded on during his introduction. He admitted that though he currently views the exhibition and museum space as a place of potential experimentation, he initially worried that museum spaces presented too neat of a narrative, a problem he similarly faced in anthropology. Additionally, he wanted to avoid fetishizing the objects he archived, or setting migrants at a remove from the curator or audience. Yet he noted that the art space provides an opportunity for people to be made uncomfortable, or to be moved, allowing De León more freedom to craft a specific message or statement than in a written narrative. 

Fellows additionally interrogated De León’s depiction of smugglers, namely, how he would avoid either slipping into stereotyping or valorizing his subjects. De León stated that his aim is to undermine the typical narratives of smugglers made by the U.S. federal government and border patrol, presenting smugglers  as people who have done bad–even terrible–things, but also as people responding to a complex set of circumstances, from economic hardship to labor pull to interventionist policies on the part of the U.S. itself. He discussed the issues attendant on choosing to craft this book as one for a more general audience, noting that he wanted to write a book that would have the impact of fiction with the theoretical heft of academic ethnography. Fellows remarked on the clarity and compelling quality of his work, and the seminar closed with anticipation for his book and exhibition (which may be mounted in Austin–stay tuned!). 

Making “Bread Money”: The Art and Labor of Turkish Roman Musicians

The Faculty Fellows Seminar held on October 17th was led by Sonia Seeman, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology in the Butler School of Music. Dr. Seeman presented the group with a series of works that tied together several years’ worth of research and writing on the music and musicianship of Turkish Roman (“Gypsy”) communities. Dr. Seeman’s new project, titled Bread Money–Musical Movement: Narrating Turkish Roman Musicians’ Lives, seeks to offer a that explores music as laboring activity, her person- and family-centered narrative to complement her previous book, Sounding Roman: Musical Performance and Representation in Western Turkey. Seeman opened the seminar first by asking the group what in the readings left them with questions, with the need for clarification, or the desire for expansion, as well as a broader question: what is it we, as academics, narrativize?

Seeman noted that her project began with a reimagining of what goes into research, and what goes into narrative. Sounding Roman had left her with an abundance of stories, relationships, and connections to the people whose music and lives she had researched. Yet she found that only some of these depictions fit into her first book and some of her academic articles. Seeman discussed how she needs to consider her accountability not only to a scholarly community, but to the communities she represents–as well as to a more diverse reading audience. Musician families hold a mythic status for Turkish Roman communities, Seeman noted, and she seeks to both relate the mythic and the everyday realities. Seeman described the project as a “quilt” of stories, motives, and material, some of which were still in the process of being sewn together.

Many Fellows commented on Seeman’s use of the term “aesthetic labor” to describe the work of Turkish Roman musicians. Seeman noted that most Turkish Roman musicians come from musical lineages–musicianship, in other words, is seen as a family trade, and as an aesthetic trade first and foremost. Though music is frequently seen in Western culture as a pursuit of leisure, Turkish Roman musicians see the act as something to make “bread money,” or money that “puts food on the table.” Their labor, though aesthetic, is still skilled labor, requiring years of training and practice, usually from childhood. Some Fellows questioned whether this conception of labor has been shifted even further by technology, reimagining the bounds of music distribution.

Technology was a further consideration for Seeman’s overall project. Fellows discussed Seeman’s interest in expanding her book project into a hyperlinked text, or a larger digital repository and resource to scholars and students. But Seeman noted that she wants to balance providing an open digital archive with creating an immersive and engaging narrative. Such considerations led her and the group to thinking about Seeman’s own place in the narrative. Ethnomusicology, as she noted, often placed the researcher in the position of being a participant-scholar. Becoming part of the cultural landscape was important to Seeman’s understanding of her musician subjects and of the music that they play. But the process of participating, as Seeman noted, additionally opened up new stories, new avenues, and new friendships–all of which, the Fellows agreed, deserved a place in the ultimate story.

Gothic Care and Keeping: Sir Walter Scott’s Stewardship

Samuel Baker, Associate Professor in the Department of English, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on October 11th. Dr. Baker presented the Fellows with a project-in-progress on Sir Walter Scott and “stewardship,” which encapsulates Baker’s conception of Scott’s ongoing influence (and active fostering, during his time) of cultural history. In the manuscripts he distributed to the seminar, Baker argues that Scott, and to an extent, poets like Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, and Ann Radcliffe, each participate in an ethos of “spectral” or gothic care, charging contemporaries and future generations to become “stewards” to British national culture.

This “ethos of stewardship,” Baker notes, pulls together various threads of their contemporary moment to produce our current culture. Scott, an antiquarian, lawyer, folklorist, and Tory, based his literary landscapes off of his studies, seeing himself first and foremost as an editor of antiquarian literature. His literary persona was in turn deeply bound, as Baker argued, to an ethics of care that entreats readers to engage with Britain’s past, and also Britain’s future.

In the seminar, Baker characterized his reading of Scott as “reparative,” citing work by Steven J. Jackson (in the edited volume, Media Technologies) and Eve K. Sedgwick (in her book Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity) on new attention to appreciation. Baker connected Scott’s antiquarian aspirations with the simultaneously “gothic” and “georgic” poetry of Burns and Wordsworth, who likewise mediate an ethos of care for their readers. Baker solicited the Fellows’ thoughts around this connection and thus continued the seminar’s ongoing conversation on audience-specific writing. While Baker admitted he enjoys presenting his research to a broader audience, he usually leans towards more academic and thus more specialized forms of writing. Baker and the Fellows discussed the virtues of “portrait” vs. “landscape” writing, and the Fellows expressed a particular interest in the broader “landscape” question of how Scott has influenced today’s notions of stewardship–whether national, religious, economic, or ecological. They agreed that this topic could speak to a wide range of audiences.

 

Who Can Tell What Story?: Ethical Concerns in Theatre Education

Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Department of Theatre and Dance Dr. Sara Simons led the Faculty Fellows seminar held October 4th, beginning with a simple question: who can tell what story? As an educator of future theatre teachers, Dr. Simons noted that her interest in investigating the classroom came from both theoretical and practical concerns. For Simons’ students, the ethics of who can best present a story and whether stories can be told across identity markers quickly become issues of importance in high school theater classrooms. Simons’ students value exposing their own future students to plays and stories from a diverse range of writers and voices, yet many also question how to teach such perspectives. But such conversations are not limited to theatre education, as many Fellows noted.

Simons led the seminar through a series of kinesthetic exercises, many of which she teaches in her own classroom. She began with exercises adapted from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed canon, asking Fellows to follow a series of commands (walk, stop, jump, say your name), then to reverse those commands–to walk when Simons told the group to stop, to jump when Simons asked the group to state their names, and so on. The Fellows debriefed after the activity, noting the activity established new meanings and rules, forcing each of the participants to think before they acted. Simons framed this activity as a way for her to teach students the process of unlearning their assumptions, beliefs, and automatic responses–something, she noted, that is not only continual, but often bumpy.

Simons asked the group frequently to describe what they achieved in the activity, providing the participants an opportunity to reflect on their teaching as well as on their assumptions around teaching texts from authors of different backgrounds from their students (or their own), among other things. Simons noted that theatre education frequently positions theatre as both “a mirror and a window,” representing both the audience’s experiences and experiences that may never have had. But that view of theatre can be complicated by issues of who is permitted to tell stories of marginalized people, and who is represented in theatre as a whole.

Simons instructed Fellows to assemble into small groups to discuss various hypothetical scenarios around storytelling, authenticity, and representation. Fellows debriefed on the assignment as a group, discussing the ethics of writing or teaching stories from different societal positions and perspectives. Many Fellows noted that academic work in a variety of fields involves working in communities outside of their own, requiring researchers to consider how they are accountable to the communities they write about and what materials they need to elucidate or contextualize. Participants also discussed considerations of audience. In theatre, Simons noted, directors and producers frequently need to consider who the show is for, and whether they intend to expand the audience’s horizons or depict the audience’s own lives–the mirror, or the window. Fellows concluded that academics, writers, and others in creative professions often have to make risky moves to promote empathy in their audience, or in their students. Thus, an understanding of the power dynamics at work–in a piece, a production, or in culture broadly–are essential to teaching theatre, and to teaching and writing as a whole.

The seminar closed with each participant stating their final, one word summation of the discussion, providing each Fellow an opportunity to reflect on what they took from the session. Answers ranged widely, but many stated words like authenticity, empathy, context, and other broad topics, making connections to the concerns of past seminars.