Professor talks "Campaign Talk"

Hart Rod cropped imageContrary to the famous proverb about windows to the soul, political communication expert Rod Hart would argue that language is the window to the soul, not the eyes. He should know. Hart has spent the past 40 years studying the language of American politics.

Earlier this month, his book “Campaign Talk: Why Elections Are Good for Us,” (Princeton University Press, 2000) received the Graber award, honoring the best political communication book of the past 10 years, from the American Political Science Association. The award is not made every year.


“Campaign Talk” contains a long-term (1948-1996) analysis of thousands of texts from several genres of campaign language, such as campaign speeches, debates, print and television news coverage, advertisements and letters to the editor. Hart’s computerized content analysis program, DICTION, boils down a candidate’s campaign rhetoric into a simple inventory of words and compares them to DICTION’s 10,000-word database—similar to a forensics lab analyzing DNA samples to determine the identity of a culprit.

“Language can tell us a lot about people and the lives they lead,” said Hart, who is the dean of the College of Communication. “There are a lot of clues in what people say that we don’t pay attention to.”

For example, Hart recently presented a paper analyzing the campaign language used during the 2008 presidential election. His research found that despite President Barack Obama’s reputation as an eloquent speaker, the language of his campaign was very pragmatic, concrete and optimistic. “He’s a great orator, but in examining his language, you see that he ran a very serious, hard-headed campaign. He spoke in concrete terms, and avoided overstatements and highfalutin metaphors,” said Hart.

Sen. John McCain on the other hand, ran a very old-fashioned, biographical campaign with heavy use of the words “I,” “me” and “myself.” “McCain used a lot of adjectives and adverbs as opposed to nouns and verbs,” said Hart. “When you compare the two campaigns on the basis of language, they contrasted sharply.”

So what language resonates with the electorate? Freedom. “Everyone loves the word ‘freedom.’ To Republicans ‘freedom’ represents individual freedoms, whereas Democrats tend to think of it as incorporating people into the group. Hence it no longer has any meaning,” Hart said. According to Hart, language reveals so much about a candidate that his DICTION program can identify a candidate’s party affiliation based strictly on campaign language analysis.

What words are turnoffs in a campaign? Religious language. “Politicians are careful in using religious language in their campaigns. While it’s accepted in the South, politicians tend to tone it down as they evolve from a regional to a national candidate. Jimmy Carter is a very religious man, but he chose his words carefully once he was on the national stage.”

Despite pervasive sentiment that campaigns have become too negative, Hart’s book asserts that campaigns play a vital role in sustaining democracy by creating a national dialogue and letting us peer into the souls of our political candidates.

Ransom Center celebrates Edgar Allan Poe with Poe Mania

Edgar Allan PoeThe Harry Ransom Center kicked off Poe Mania, in anticipation of the exhibition “From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe,” which is now open.

Several Poe-centric online features were unveiled:

• View a video preview of “From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe.”

• Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” has been one of his most popular poems since its publication in 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror newspaper. This popularity has led to a number of parodies, or humorous imitations, of the poem. Visit the Poe Project website and compose your own parody of “The Raven,” and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win Poe-centric prizes.

• Visit the Ransom Center’s Flickr page to see behind-the-scenes photos of curators and Exhibition Services staff members preparing the galleries and to get a peek at some of the items in the Poe exhibition.

• Poe was so captivated by cryptography that he incorporated it into his story “The Gold-Bug” in 1843. Learn more about how to solve cryptographs, and then practice your decoding skills.

• The Ransom Center has launched the Poe digital collection, where online visitors have the opportunity to see more than 4,000 images of collection and exhibition items, ranging from manuscripts in Poe’s meticulous hand to his annotated copies of the “Tales and Poems” and “Eureka.”

Poet C.D. Wright Visits UT Campus

copyright 2004C.D. Wright is a poet who defies labels. Over a distinguished career and  twelve published volumes of poetry, prose, and a slippery mix of the two, she has continually reinvented herself.

Variously described as narrative, experimental, Southern, deeply personal, and fiercely political, Wright credits her roots in the Arkansas Ozarks for her resistance to joining a single, identifying “ism” of the poetry world—she was born to a stubborn independence.  And the breadth of her range is as great as the remove between her home state and her adopted one, Rhode Island, where she has taught for more than 25 years at Brown University.

Wright is on The University of Texas at Austin campus for two weeks as the current Michener Residency Award Author, conducting a workshop with poetry MFA candidates of the Michener Center for Writers.  Her visit will conclude with a public reading of her own work on Thursday, September 24.

Recognized with fellowship support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute, and the Guggenheim Foundation, a MacArthur “genius” grant, a Whiting Award, and a Lannan Literary Award, Wright’s work includes the book-length poem “Deepstep Come Shining;” a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster on inmates in the Louisiana Prison system,” One Big Self;” and her own quirky ars poetica “Cooling Time:  An American Poetry Vigil.”


This year, her newest book, “Rising, Falling, Hovering,” won the 2009 Griffin Poetry International Prize. The judges citation calls it a “red-hot political epic . . . poetry as white phosphorus, written with merciless love and depthless anger.  ‘Rising, Falling, Hovering’ is about conflict, local and global, and how failures of the heart bring disaster on every scale.”

She will read at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 24 at the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302, on the southeast corner of 24th Street and Speedway on campus.

Alumnus Reading of Debut Novel at BookPeople

Author photo by E. McCourt

James Hannahan, a 2006 alumnus of The University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers MFA program, will read at BookPeople  from his debut novel “God Says No,” which was published this summer by McSweeney’s Books. The reading will begin at 7 p.m., September 16.

Hannaham completed his bachlor’s degree at Yale University and was a culture reporter for the Village Voice and other New York publications before joining the MFA program. Since graduation, he’s been a staff writer for and creative writing instructor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Hannaham tackles difficult terrain for any novelist—particularly a first-time author—in telling the story of a closeted gay black man who struggles in a cycle of guilt, denial and self-loathing as he tries to live by the tenets of his Southern Christian upbringing, honor his marriage vows—to a woman he truly loves as his closest friend—and accept himself for who he is.  “Hannaham forces us to consider how important intimacy is, and how difficult . . . .   Irrespective of sexual orientation, he demonstrates the destructive forces of silences and shame on our families and romantic partnerships,” says a review in  Numerous scandals involving very public figures reveal the kind of double lives led by men like Hannaham’s protagonist, but the subject is one that has “hardly been touched by literary fiction,” says author Jennifer Egan, who calls Hannaham “a groundbreaking new American voice.”

BookPeople is on the corner of West 6th Street and N. Lamar.

Playing with Fire: Michener alums receive awards for debut poetry collections

Two former classmates from The University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers’ MFA class of 2004 have won major recognition for their debut poetry collections.  Jessica Garratt was awarded the 2008 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry for her “Fire Pond,” (University of Utah Press).  And Carrie Fountain received the 2009 National Poetry Series award for her “Burn Lake,” (Penguin Books) which will be released  in early 2010.  The uncanny similarity of their titles is entirely coincidental, each poet having followed a very different trajectory since graduating five years ago.

Jessica Garratt, author of "Fire Pond"

Garratt, a native of rural Maryland who also earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from The University of Texas at Austin in 2001, is now completing her doctorate in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she is editor of its acclaimed literary journal, Missouri Review.  Her book was selected by judge Medbh McGuckian, who said:  “Garratt’s philosophical curiosity and openness are counterpoints to her refreshing wit and humor.  She narrates her private heartbreaks candidly but without self pity or narcissism, while infusing her work with an Emersonian sense of place as sacred.” This relatively new prize honors University of Utah’s beloved teacher of poetry, Agha Shahid Ali, who died in 2001.

Fountain—who hails from Las Cruces and did her undergraduate work in theatre arts at New Mexico State—stayed on in Austin first as co-managing director of  Grrl Action, a writing and performance program for teenage girls, and now teaches full-time in the English Writing and Rhetoric Department at St. Edward’s University.

Poet Natasha Tretheway selected Fountain’s book manuscript for the National Poetry Series, a literary awards program began in 1978 to heighten the visibility of good poetry in American publishing.  Curiously, MCW benefactor James A. Michener was one of its earliest supporters. When the proposal to start such a program was put before the Library of Congress, Michener read of it and was immediately moved to contribute.  He released a statement to the press explaining his decision:

I thought it deplorable that…the poet was at such a disadvantage, and it occurred to me that in my education the study of poetry was of at least as much significance as the study of prose . . . . It was an essential part of my inheritance and I would feel impoverished without it . . . .  But I also suspected that while I was writing my long books of prose, there might be some gifted young woman at the University of Michigan who was saying it all in some eight-line verse, and saying it much better. There was a real chance that her verse might live a hell of lot longer than my eight hundred pages, and I deemed it deplorable that I could get published while she could not.

The Michener Center for Writers plans a joint reading in Austin as soon as Fountain’s book is available.