Tag Archives: community organizing

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!). 

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.

Getting Back to Abnormal: Politics, Narrative, and Rhetoric in Filmmaking

Dr. Paul Stekler, Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film and the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on September 19th, beginning with a short overview of what brought him to politics, and more specifically, what brought him to making documentaries like Getting Back to Abnormal (2013). Dr. Stekler credited his family for his lifelong interest in politics, stemming back to conversations with his grandfather on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first job working for a Republican congressman, among other things. Stekler has worked in a variety of political contexts since then, from the George McGovern campaign in 1972 to working with pollsters from The New York Times. His family spanned both sides of the aisle–his father, a Republican, helped him to get his first campaign work, while his mother is a lifelong Democrat. Stekler earned a doctorate degree in Government from Harvard University, and after working in academia as a political scientist for a number of years, he found his calling as a full-time filmmaker with a focus on politics.

Stekler showed the Fellows a series of clips from an NEH-funded film he made in 2000, titled George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire. The film allowed him, he explained, a new context in which to apply his political knowledge and background, but the challenge was presenting this information in a narrative appropriate to a broader audience. George Wallace, for Stekler, represented a transition point for American politics, and a documentary presented a unique opportunity to bring his conversations within academia into the mainstream.

Participants asked Stekler about his methods, from how he finds his subjects and characters to his methods for mapping the trajectory of a documentary film. Stekler emphasized narrative fundamentals, such as conflict, but he also noted the importance of finding an accessible subject–someone who would not only be open with the filmmaker, but who would be compelling to watch on the screen. Though crafting a story is of the utmost importance, Stekler explained that as a documentarian he seeks to balance storycraft, accuracy of representation, and visual interest. Several Fellows pondered what exactly could be told best in the context of documentaries and other projects for public audiences, and what academic and discipline-specific projects offers alongside more popular works. Participants agreed that although some work can be translated into popular projects, teaching also offers a venue for transmitting one’s research to the public.

Participants also raised questions about Stekler’s development as a documentarian. Much of his knowledge about filmmaking, and more generally, narrative, Stekler said, was learned through collaboration with other creatives. Stekler credited the producer of Eyes on the Prize, one of his first films, for teaching him some of the fundamental aspects of filmmaking–mainly, that the goal was to keep the audience watching. Overall, he admitted, he learned much of what he now knows about story from experience.

The conversation turned more specifically to Getting Back to Abnormal, and the variety of New Orleans documentaries that had been made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Having lived in New Orleans himself, Stekler explained he had found many documentaries of post-Katrina New Orleans lacking what he identified as the city’s true character. Stekler told the group that he and his collaborators wanted to tell the story of whether or not New Orleans had changed, capturing something of what he saw to be New Orleans’ contradictory nature. Stekler shared that at the Controversy & Conversation screening of the film the week before at the Austin Public Library, he had the chance to rewatch it with a number of engaged audience members. During the discussion he led, a member of the audience asked what the film would look like if he had made it in 2019. Although Stekler felt that his connections to the city have grown more distant, making him “not the right person” to make a present-day version of the film, he believes that the sway between the joys and sorrows of the city are unlikely to have changed.

Looking towards the future, Stekler stated he was working to raise funds for a film on the McDonald Observatory and astronomy–moving from the politics of the city to the stars.

See Dr. Stekler’s career reel here.

 

The Discovery of Hunger in America

Dr. Laurie Green discusses the politics of race, hunger, and poverty in 1960s America in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Clare Callahan
Robert Kennedy F. Kennedy touring the Mississippi Delta
Robert F. Kennedy touring the Mississippi Delta

In 1967, Bobby Kennedy toured the Mississippi Delta and, as the story goes, “discovered” hunger in America. This is where Dr. Laurie Green’s new book project—“The Discovery of Hunger in America: The Politics of Race, Hunger, and Poverty, 1967-1977″—begins. Dr. Green’s rich and complex study looks at the politics of hunger, specifically how hunger became integrated with racial discourse, during this ten year period. Last week’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on “Health, Well-Being, Healing,” focused on an important thread in Dr. Green’s work-in-progress: the testimony by liberal doctors at the 1967 hearings held in Jackson, Mississippi by the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty. These hearings followed from Bobby Kennedy’s tour of the Mississippi Delta, the publicity around which triggered a burst of attention to hunger and malnutrition in the U.S. Addressing the impact of hunger not only on the physical body but also on brain development and mental health, Dr. Green is particularly interested in how these doctors’ testimony influenced a discourse on race and social behavior at the time. That many of the individuals who had testified at the 1967 hearings in Jackson were also voting rights activists and labor activists, many of whom had lost work as a result of the mechanization of the cotton industry, led Dr. Green to realize that the question of health was fundamental to her work on civil rights and the struggle for freedom.

Continue reading The Discovery of Hunger in America