Oscar Casares Celebrates Dr. Seuss’s Legacy with Special H-E-B Reading

2Reading@HEB3.5.12To celebrate the legacy of children’s author Dr. Seuss, a Brownsville H-E-B hosted a special in-store reading on Monday, March 5 with Oscar Casares, University of Texas at Austin associate professor in the Department of English. The Brownsville native and writer treated 30 first graders from Robert L. Martin Elementary—his alma mater— to a reading of “And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street!” and “I Can Read with My Eyes Shut.”

The children gave a shout out by helping him read the first book by adding the story’s refrain of “…ON MULBERRY STREET!” And Casares actually read “My Eyes Shut” twice, the second time so they could all read it together with one of their eyes shut.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street!” The event is part of H-E-B’s Read 3, an early childhood literacy initiative encouraging parents to read to their children three times a week and making books accessible and affordable for Texas families. The reading also kicked off a six-week long book drive to help H-E-B reach a 1 million-book goal.

Oscar Casares is the author of two critically acclaimed books of fiction, “Brownsville” and “Amigoland,” which have earned him fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Copernicus Society of America and the Texas Institute of Letters. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Texas Monthly and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” In 2011, The University of Texas at Brownsville presented him with their Distinguished Alumnus Award. He now teaches and directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at The University of Texas at Austin.

A Q&A with Michael Erard, Author of “Babel No More”

Babel-No-More-The-Search-for-the-Worlds-Most-Extraordinary-Language-LearnersHow do some people have the ability to master a multitude of languages? What makes them tick? Are their brains wired differently from ours?

These are just a few of the questions alumnus Michael Erard (M.A. Linguistics, ‘96; Ph.D. English, ‘00) tackles in “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners” (Free Press, 2012).

While gathering research for his book, Erard traveled to far and distant lands – from Mexico to South India to California to Belgium – in search of hyperpolyglots, people who speak at least 11 languages. In the process, he analyzes the cultural role of language, and where it resides in the brain.

Erard begins his quest by investigating the most famous hyperpolyglot, Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19-century priest who allegedly spoke 72 languages. Legend has it, the venerable multilingual defeated Lord Byron in a linguistic cursing contest. And after he died, people all over Europe vied for his skull.

In search of modern-day Mezzofantis, Erard aims to answer the age-old question: What are the upper limits of the human ability to learn languages?

Erard, who considers himself to be a “monolingual with benefits,” sat down with ShelfLife to discuss his interest in language acquisition, the mysterious phenomenon of multilingual dexterity, and the importance of breaking language barriers on a rapidly globalized planet.

What spurred your interest in studying polyglot linguistics?

I’d been working as a journalist, writing stories about languages, and a author_photo_cropped_michaeldiscussion popped up on a linguistics listserv about who the most lingual person in the world was, as well as the possibility of language learning talent as a heritable trait. Nearly no research or serious writing had been done about people who were gifted language learners and massive language accumulators, though when some people on the listserv said these people didn’t exist, it became terribly intriguing.

Why do some people pick up multiple languages so easily?

One reason is that they’ve already picked up multiple languages – they have a lot of knowledge about the basic patterns they’ll see in a grammar, and they know a lot about how they learn. (That is, if they’ve learned languages from a lot of different families.) Another reason is that they have powerful higher-order cognitive skills like working memory and executive function, which helps them use a lot of languages. They may have the ability to store memories and retrieve things from memory more quickly, as well to hear the differences between speech sounds.

Did you come across any surprising findings during the research phase?

Many, many surprising things on this journey! For instance, when I went to Bologna, Italy, to visit the archives of Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th century priest who is credited with knowing dozens of language, I found a lot of documents and other things which hadn’t been described before that shed light on his abilities as well as his myth. Going to South India where communities are naturally multilingual was very eye-opening. I loved talking to people who are language learners of all types and stripes. But I was perhaps most surprised by how difficult it is to say what it means to know a language when one has a very large repertoire of them. A language isn’t a unit of measure like an inch or a pound, so does someone with six languages really have more in his or her head than someone who only has one?

What are some interesting techniques hyperpolyglots employ when teaching themselves new languages?

Some were quirky in the sense that you wouldn’t encounter them in a standard language classroom, such as eliciting language from a native speaker, as an anthropologist or linguist traditionally would do. You can very rapidly build a mental model of all the language’s sounds and basic sentence patterns, all without a textbook or dictionary. Some methods were quirky in the sense that they look and sound odd. There is “shadowing,” which involves listening to foreign language material and attempting to reproduce it at the same moment one is hearing it, all while walking around outside making exaggerated gestures with one’s limbs. Someone suggested hanging out and playing games with kids who are native speakers in the language you want to learn – the language will be simple and repetitive, and if you’re fun to play with, the kids won’t care that you don’t sound like them.

Are there any downsides to being a polyglot?

One downside is that most professional contexts don’t reward you for learning more languages, so the happiest hyperpolyglots were ones in multilingual work settings where learning a language is a part of the job. Another one is that they have to work especially hard to find time for interests besides language, which can quickly consume you and be the only thing that you do. There’s the way people are always challenging you to perform in all of your languages, or to divulge the number of languages you speak. That seems to wear on them, because people don’t necessarily want to hear the details about what you can do.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I hope that people take away the notion that successful language learning happens because of how the brain changes, not because an individual has more willpower, motivation or some other individual trait. I want to take foreign language learning out of the self and put it back into the brain. The goal is to illuminate the neurobiology of learning, which is an exciting area of research right now. One implication is that developing a globally competent workforce requires public support in order to create the environments and curricula for successful foreign language learning – individuals can’t be left to learn foreign languages on their own. I also hope that people take away the notion that even as adults they are capable of a considerable amount of learning, if only they abandon the notion that the native monolingual speaker is a meaningful standard or goal.

How did your experience at The University of Texas at Austin shape your interests in becoming an author and studying linguistics?

How did it shape me? Immensely. I received so much encouragement and interest from people both in and out of the classroom – it’s incredible. Having access to the library collections was a huge influence too. I spend a huge amount of time in the library for both of my books (not to mention my dissertation). Probably the biggest impact came late in grad school, in 2000, when I realized that I would be happier as a writer, not as an academic. That realization was spurred by my involvement with the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program, then housed on the Graduate School. Then, in 2008, I received the Dobie Paisano Writing Fellowship, a gift that provided what every writer needs: time and solitude.

What are you working on now?

I am going to be promoting this book for a while. I’ve been working on it since 2005, so I would really like for people to know about it. Then I’ve got other book ideas to develop. Since 2008 I have worked as a researcher at a think-tank in Washington, D.C., and I would like to be able to focus on writing up some of my ideas in that realm. Writing a book with a day job basically means you have two jobs, and I’d like to have just one for a while.

About the author:
A native American English speaker, Erard lived in South America and Asia, where he learned to speak Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. His books and essays on language and culture have appeared in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, the Economist and Rolling Stone. His first book, “Um…:Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean” is a natural history of things we wish we didn’t say (but do), as well as a look at what happens in our culture when we do (and wish we didn’t).

Jeremi Suri Speaks and Signs “Liberty’s Surest Guardian” at BookPeople

suri_newsreleaseAmericans are a nation-building people, and in “Liberty’s Surest Guardian” (Free Press, Sept. 2011) Jeremi Suri, professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, looks to America’s history to see both what it has to offer failed states around the world and what it should avoid. He will present his new book at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22 at BookPeople.

In “Liberty’s Surest Guardian,” Suri examines more than 200 years of U.S. policy to explain the successes and failures of nation-building operations. From Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War, to Japan and Germany after World War II, to the ongoing rebuilding of Iraq, he draws lessons from past mistakes and offers a plan for moving forward. Read his Q&A for more about the book.

About the author: Jeremi Suri – Nobel Fellow and leading light in the next generation of policy makers—is the author of five books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. His research and cvr9781439119129_9781439119129teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007, Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America’s “Top Young Innovators” in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. He is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs. Visit his blog for more about his work.

BookPeople is located at 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Visit the BookPeople website for more about the event.

A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of “The Knife and the Butterfly”

recentheadshotashleyperez1Inspired by her teaching experience at Chávez High School in Houston, English alumna Ashley Hope Pérez writes about disadvantaged teens struggling to meet their obligations at home and follow their dreams. However her newest book “The Knife and the Butterfly” (Carolrhoda, Feb. 2011) is about the students she didn’t get to teach, the ones who slipped through the cracks in the system or dropped out of school.

The protagonist, Salvadoran Martín “Azael” Arevalo is one of those fallen students. The story unfolds when Azael wakes up in a locked cell after a gang fight in a Houston park. Unable to piece together the events that landed him behind bars, yet again, he realizes that something is not right.

Things get really weird when he’s assigned to secretly observe another imprisoned teen named Alexis “Lexi” Allen. Despite their personality clash, the two troubled teens soon find themselves inexplicably linked in this gritty paranormal thrill ride.

This up-and-coming young adult author was kind enough to chat with ShelfLife@Texas about how she learned the inner workings of street gangs, the connection between teens and the paranormal, and how she surprised herself with a twist ending.

How did you come up with the title “The Knife and the Butterfly”?

Massive confession: the series of articles that initially inspired the novel—run by The Houston Chronicle back in 2006—was titled “The Butterfly and the Knife.” Luckily for me, 12306694there’s no copyright on titles! I switched the order of the knife and the butterfly in the title after an astute reader pointed out that male readers would be more likely to pick up a book with a title that begins with “knife” rather than “butterfly.”

The duality expressed in the title was a focusing one for me as I wrote. As I say in my author’s note for the novel, I wanted to show Azael and Lexi’s world as much more than a patchwork of crime and violence. In addition to the very real threat of their circumstances and the danger of poor choices, I tried to capture these two teens’ vulnerability and their potential for redemption.

What made you decide to dabble in the realm of paranormal fiction?

It wasn’t as simple as a decision, exactly. Yes, there is a “paranormal twist” to “The Knife and the Butterfly,” but much of the novel (say 90 percent) is occupied with the gritty world Lexi and Azael live in on the fringe of mainstream society in Houston. The paranormal was a bit of a surprise to me, too.

That is to say, I didn’t set out to incorporate paranormal elements in my novel; they became necessary for me to change the rules of my characters’ world just enough so that they could make different decisions… so they could have the second chances that are built into the system for many middle-class teens.

You mentioned that you even surprised yourself with the twist at the end. How did this come about?

The ending developed unexpectedly out of exploratory writing I was doing about Azael’s street art. This whole thread—Azael and his relationship to spray paint and the walls of his city—was a challenge for me. I am very much a rule follower, so it took me a lot of effort to rethink graffiti as “street art” and to come to understand what it meant to Azael to write right on the faces of the structures around him.

Anyway, I was writing about Azael’s thoughts as he was drawing, and then all of sudden I was writing the ending. And once it was there on the page—and I knew it was the ending—it was the only possibility that felt right to me. It went through plenty of revision and development, but the thrust of the final part of the book didn’t change. I embraced it with its paranormal baggage.

Why do you think young readers are so enthralled by the paranormal?

You’d think I’d have an ironclad thesis after teaching a course on vampire literature for two semesters, but to be honest, I’m not sure. Within YA, I tend to shelve myself alongside contemporary realists, not fantasy writers. Still, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say the paranormal provides novel ways of thinking through and dramatizing teen (and human) issues. In fact, one of my favorite student papers interpreted one vampire in literature as an eternal adolescent.

How did you familiarize yourself with inner-city gangs?

Because Crazy Crew is a “home-grown” Houston gang, details related to it came mostly from news coverage and other local sources. MS-13 (La Mara Salvatrucha), on the other hand, is an international gang that has been described by some as “the world’s most dangerous gang.” I did extensive reading about MS-13, including many first-person accounts, but I focused on the particulars of the gang’s activity in Houston, which are generally not quite as extreme as what you might see in the heart of Central America.

For both gangs, I needed to learn specifics: their hand signs, the “rules” of initiation and involvement, linguistic patterns and so on. I would never want to trivialize or glamorize gang involvement, but at the same time I think some media portrayals are a bit exaggerated and fail to capture the nuances of actual teens’ experiences. For example, readers will notice that—contrary to most Hollywood portrayals of gang violence—there’s not a single gun involved in the fight that opens “The Knife and the Butterfly.” This is pretty consistent with the two gangs portrayed. I’ve found that when I ground my writing in particulars, a lot of stereotypes fall away.

The story is primarily narrated from the point of view of Azael. How were you able to capture the language of a poor teenage gang member in Houston?

You found a very nice way to ask something that some teen readers, upon meeting me, put a lot more bluntly: “How did YOU write THIS?” They pick up immediately on the fact that I am not someone who, in conversation, would describe a package of Cheetos as “spicy-as-f**k” (Azael’s words). How, then, can such words come out of my pen?

A lot of it was shameless cribbing from what I heard kids in Houston say, both in the hallways of the high school where I used to teach and in the taquerías and hangouts of working-class neighborhoods. I spent a good amount of time in the areas where the novel is set (mainly the Montrose area and a run-down stretch of Bellfort). I also paid attention to the language used in the interviews I read and would sometimes mimic patterns of phrasing.

Now, in terms of emotional truth in Azael’s language, I chalk that up to a willingness to imagine experiences and ways of seeing that are unlike my own. I recently heard Lionel Shriver talk here in Paris, and she said that for her, writing from a male point of view is not the big leap; the big leap is getting inside another head, period, and discovering those individual particularities, the quirks of mind inside the many big things we have in common. I agree, and I think you could substitute “poor” and “gang member” for “male” and still find the notion to be true.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I’d love readers to leave the pages of “The Knife and the Butterfly” with a sense that second chances aren’t doled out equally. And I hope that they will feel a bit more urgency about being a positive presence for those who, as far as they had thought before, don’t even deserve to be redeemed.

What are you working on now?

I’m knee-deep in a very messy first draft of a historical novel set in 1930s East Texas, near where I grew up. There’s an explosion, an interracial romance, a pair of twins, and a significant shoe. That’s all I can say without transgressing certain foolish writerly superstitions.

About the author: During her time at The University of Texas at Austin, Perez won several writing awards including a $5,000 George H. Mitchell award for her essay on Anne Sexton. She went on to teach high school English in Houston – sending a number of students back to The University of Texas at Austin. She is now finishing a doctorate in comparative literature at Indiana University and teaching English in Paris. She also teaches undergraduate courses for her department, including literature about vampires and a course on women writers of the Caribbean. Her first young adult novel, “What Can’t Wait,” is also inspired by her Houston high school students.

History Professor Reveals Intriguing Private Letters of a Discounted American President

Nellie_coverAs far as historical presidential power couples go, the Tafts aren’t likely among the first to come to mind, but based off of Lewis Gould’s edited collection of their personal correspondence during William Taft’s most trying years in office, perhaps they should be.

My Dearest Nellie: The Letters of William Howard Taft to Helen Herron Taft, 1909-1912″ consists of 113 letters that “not only reveal the inner workings of a presidency at decisive moments but also humanize a chief executive to whom history has been less than kind” says Gould, Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at The University of Texas at Austin.

Filled with his commentary on current political issues and rationale for his decisions as well as his growing distaste for Theodore Roosevelt, frustration with his weight and golf score, and even the hottest gossip from the nation’s capital, Taft’s collection of letters to his wife Nellie are rivaled only by those between Harry Truman and Bess.

Gould recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to talk about Taft, the value of letter writing, and the birth of the modern United States.

“My Dearest Nellie” is the most recent in a long list of books you have written or edited about the presidents of the first two decades of this 20th century. What draws you to this particular topic in American History?

I had teachers at both Brown and Yale in the 1950s and 1960s who explored the national politics of the Progressive Era in fascinating ways. Soon I was intrigued by, and then committed to understanding, the period when the modern United States was emerging. I came to it after studying state politics first in Wyoming and then in Texas, but even in writing those books I was interested in the interaction between public life on the national level with developments in the states. But turning to Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson felt like coming to a natural area of emphasis.

Watch Lewis Gould discuss his new book on C-SPAN Book TV.

Watch Lewis Gould discuss his new book on C-SPAN Book TV.

What is the value in reading the private letters of presidents past, and why do you think no one had really taken the time to look at those between President Taft and his wife Nellie before?

The cliché is that historians read other people’s mail for a living, and the quality of letter writing in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era was more impressive than in our own day. With email and Twitter, there is not the care and thoroughness with which people once conveyed their thoughts. President Taft wrote many of his letters in longhand. Others he dictated to a secretary at the end of a busy day. Either way, speaking to the one person he trusted above all others, he conveyed his problems, gripes, and accomplishments with a high degree of freedom. In the process, he revealed much about his relations with Congress, the press and the public. He was very direct and often indiscreet, and his letters turned out to be fascinating. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, whose letters have been published in eight volumes, and Woodrow Wilson, whose papers have been published in almost seventy volumes, Taft’s letters are still available only on microfilm. This small volume of 113 letters is my attempt to redress the balance.

You say that although these letters will not warrant calling him a great President, they do reveal a more thoughtful occupant of the White House than scholars have acknowledged. Can you give us an example? Did anything you read surprise you, even as an expert of this historical period?

The extent to which Taft involved himself with legislation was a surprise. In the various battles of his administration over the tariff, for example, in 1909 and 1911, the President courted lawmakers, used leaks to the press, and wielded patronage to get his goals enacted. Things didn’t always work out as he planned, but it was not because he was aloof. Many people have argued that Taft was lazy. He procrastinated a good deal, but when he put his mind to it he could produce speeches, messages to Congress, and letters to other politicians with great efficiency. He was also well read — not the speed-reader that Roosevelt was, but a man who knew the classics and Western literature. How many recent presidents could toss off an allusion to a Latin poet in the course of a letter to their spouse?

What do you most hope readers will take away from “My Dearest Nellie?”

Taft was a very unpretentious and down-to-earth chief executive. The wife of a Texas congressman called him “the most perfect everyday gentleman” she had known among the presidents of her time. His letters are filled with human touches and an awareness of his own foibles. In the summer of 1912, when it was clear that the American people were not going to give him a second term, he wrote to Nellie: “I have held the office of President once, and that is more than most men have, so I am content to retire from it with a consciousness that I have done the best I could, and have accomplished a good deal in one way or another.” The rationalization of a losing candidate? Sure. But it also reflected a lack of bluster and arrogance that one rarely finds among modern politicians. Spending a decade reading Taft’s mail was a rewarding experience.

The idea for this book came to you while you were writing another book called “The Modern American Presidency.” Did any new ideas strike you while writing his one?

Right now I am resting from the work of editing the Taft letters for publication and writing a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt that has just been published by the Oxford University Press.

American Studies Professor Reads and Signs “A Mess of Greens” at Special BookPeople Event

1839856Foodies, scholars and bibliophiles will come together at a special BookPeople event featuring a reading and signing by Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American Studies and author of “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food” (University of Georgia Press, 2011) at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20.

Special guests will include Carol Ann Sayle, of Boggy Creek Farm, and Stephanie McClenny, of Confituras. Enjoy special tastings inspired by the book along with Saint Arnold Brewing Company beverages.

About the book:
Combining the study of food culture with gender studies and using perspectives from historical, literary, environmental and American studies, Engelhardt examines what Southern women’s choices about food tell us about race, class, gender and social power.

Shaken by the legacies of Reconstruction and the turmoil of the Jim Crow era, different races and classes came together in the kitchen, often as servants and mistresses but also as people with shared tastes and traditions. Generally focused on elite whites or poor blacks, Southern foodways are often portrayed as stable and unchanging—even as an untroubled source of nostalgia.

“A Mess of Greens” offers a different perspective, taking into account industrialization, environmental degradation, and women’s increased role in the work force, all of which caused massive economic and social changes.

Engelhardt reveals a broad middle of Southerners that included poor whites, farm families, and middle and working-class African Americans, for whom the stakes of what counted as southern food were very high.

About the author:
Having grown up in western North Carolina and spent much of her life in the South, Engelhardt is dedicated to preserving Southern culinary heritage. Her other books include “Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket” (University of Texas Press, 2009), “Beyond Hill and Hollow: Original Readings in Appalachian Women’s Studies” (Ohio University Press, 2005), and “Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature” (Ohio University Press, 2003). She is the coordinator of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Texas branch of the Southern Barbecue Trail Oral History Collection.

BookPeople is located at 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Visit the BookPeople website for more about the event.

Fore more about “A Mess of Greens,” read Engelhardt’s Q&A.

“Smart Thinking” book signing events in Austin and San Antonio

art“Science shows clearly that smart thinking is not an innate quality,” says Art Markman, psychology professor and director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at The University of Texas at Austin. He claims that the ability to think like the great innovators of our time is a skill that can actually be developed. “Each of the components of being smart is already part of your mental toolbox,” Markman says.

How, you ask?

Here’s the formula: “Smart Thinking” requires developing Smart Habits to acquire High Quality Knowledge, and to Apply Your Knowledge to achieve your goals.” In his upcoming book “Smart Thinking,” (Perigee Books, January 2012) Markman teaches readers how to do just that. He will be at book signing events in Austin at 7  p.m., Wed., Jan. 4 at BookPeople and in San Antonio at 5 p.m., Thurs., Jan 5 at The Twig Book Shop.

He recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to discuss the book and some of his most exciting findings.markman-art-SmartThinking

In the introduction to your book, Chief Learning Officer for Procter and Gamble Craig Wynett and Dr. Mehmet Oz praise you for developing a unique mix of “leading edge science” and “news you can use.” Why do you think so few books like yours are being published?

This kind of book is a tough one to get right.  There are a lot of great scientists who know the research on thinking, but few of them have spent time working with people outside of the research community that would provide experience to guide practical recommendations. In addition, most researchers focus on a narrow area of study. Books like this require drawing from across the discipline of psychology. There are also a number of books by people who have worked in business and executive education settings. These books provide recommendations for more effective thinking, but they are not rooted in the underlying science.  As a result, the recommendations are brittle. They work in some cases, but when they fail, it is not clear why.

You are adamant that “smart thinking” and intelligence are not the same thing. What is the difference?

There are lots of tests out there that aim to measure intelligence and aptitude. These tests often focus on abstract reasoning abilities. But, being smart is really about solving problems effectively in real situations. That kind of problem solving requires knowing a lot about the way the world works and having good strategies for applying that knowledge when you need it. Those abilities are just not tested by intelligence tests. As a result, we all know people who “test well” but are not successful in life, and others who are not “book smart” but always seem to find a way to do something interesting.

How and when did you start developing your ideas for “Smart Thinking” and what research did you draw upon to develop the “smart thinking” techniques?

I have always had an interest in how to bridge the gap between research and the application of that research in the world.  About seven years ago, I started working with companies to help them bring research into their businesses. For the past six years, I have worked with the people of Procter & Gamble.  They asked me to teach some classes to their employees to help them be more effective problem solvers. The information in this book emerged from those classes.

I had to synthesize research from many different areas.  One core component of this book draws from work on habits and habit change. You cannot be smart without developing good habits. The second core element comes from work on learning and knowledge. A key to smart thinking is understanding how things in the world function. There is a lot of important work exploring the difficulties of acquiring this functional knowledge and examining ways to improve this type of learning. Finally, many solutions to difficult problems arise as the result of analogies between a problem and a solution from another area of expertise. The book draws extensively on research on how analogies are formed and used.

You have a wonderful anecdote in the book in which you use these techniques to help your son figure out an answer to a tough question on his homework using his own existing knowledge. Have your children begun to embrace these smart thinking techniques? How do you try to incorporate your advice into your own life?

I certainly hope my kids have started to use some of these techniques for themselves, though I’m not qualified to write a book on parenting. I do try to use these techniques myself. I talk a lot in the book about ways to redescribe problems to improve your ability to find good analogies. I spend a lot of time using those techniques in my work as a scientist.  In addition, I have used a number of the suggestions for developing and changing habits for aspects of my life including learning to play the saxophone as an adult and changing the way I eat.

In “Smart Thinking,” you emphasize the fact that “smart habits enable us to perform desirable behaviors automatically.” What do you mean by this and why is it important that we perform our daily tasks without much thought?

It is hard to have to think about your behavior all the time. Most of the time, when you are thinking about your behavior it is because there is one thing you would like to do, but you have to fight against your habits to do it, which is exhausting. It is much more effective to structure your world in a consistent way so that the things you want to do happen automatically. After all, who wants to think about the route they take home from work, where to find the trash can in the office or how to flick on the light switch in the kitchen?  The more things you can compile away as habits, the more you can focus on what interests you.

Throughout the book you have written little interjections called Instantly Smarter, which are tips that readers can begin employing immediately. What are some of your favorites?

I like the tips on remembering names, because so many of us have difficulty with names. We have trouble with names because they are completely disconnected from every other aspect about a person. We want to learn facts that are connected to the person rather than independent ones. So, our difficulty with names reflects something important about the psychology of memory. There are two other sets of Instantly Smarter tips I really like:  One focuses on the importance of sleep in being smart.  The other examines ways to help you pay attention when you feel like you’re losing it in a meeting or class.

What is one habit of smart thinkers that you think will most surprise readers?

Most people think that smart thinkers think differently than they do. That message was even brought out explicitly in Apple’s great ad campaign “Think Different.” In fact, even the smartest thinkers are using the same procedures that everyone has. Where they differ is in the range of things they know about and in their ability to find descriptions of problems that enable them to use the knowledge they have when they need it.

What is the primary piece of advice you hope readers take away from “Smart Thinking”?

The main piece of advice is that you can become smarter.  A musician improves her skills through dedicated practice and an understanding of music theory. Likewise, by understanding the way you use knowledge to solve problems, you can develop smarter habits to learn more about the way the world works and to describe problems effectively.

American Studies Alumnus Tunes In to Early 70s Radio

276868_276530712369652_702603388_nDo you ever wonder why radio stations play the same tired songs over and over again? Or why we’re forced to listen to talk shows while we’re stuck in rush-hour traffic? In “Early ‘70s Radio: The American Format Revolution” (Continuum, July 2011), University of Texas at Austin alumnus Kim Simpson (Ph.D. American Studies, ‘05) shares insight into how commercial music radio evolved into what it is today.

Providing a comprehensive analysis of a transformative era in pop music, Simpson describes how radio stations began to develop “formats” in order to cater to their target audiences. As industry professionals worked overtime to understand audiences and to generate formats, they also laid the groundwork for market segmentation. Audiences, meanwhile, approached these formats as safe havens where they could reimagine and redefine key issues of identity.

In his book, Simpson describes the era’s five prominent formats and analyzes each of these in relation to their targeted demographics, including Top 40, “soft rock,” album-oriented rock, soul and country. The book closes by making a case for the significance of early ’70s formatting in light of commercial radio today.

Simpson recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to talk about this time of transformation in commercial radio, his fascination with Billboard’s top music charts – and what’s next.

What motivated you to write Early ‘70s Radio?

First of all, I’ve been a pop music junkie as long as I can remember and keep updated Billboard chart reference books at my bedside. My wife can verify this. When my idea hatched sometime in the late 90s to explore this subject, I’d been keeping “factoid” notes on various hit songs – even the ones I hated. Once I’d gathered up notes about every Top 40 song in 1972, I realized there was much more going on during the much-maligned pop music era of the early 70s than mere silliness.

I had also made the discovery around the time that the radio pages of Billboard during the early ‘70s crackled with commentary and general unrest in a way you didn’t see in other eras. Researching Record World and Cash Box, the other two big music biz trades of the day, bore me out. I’d discovered that the early ‘70s represented a very distinct “moment” in both radio history and American culture that certainly deserved its own book.

How did you conduct the research for Early ‘70s Radio?

Because Billboard had such an impact on how I was now hearing the music of the era, I felt it was a good time for someone to incorporate the trades a bit more aggressively into pop music historiography. Their absence probably has to do with factors like their glaring business orientation, mistrust in the chart ranking process, and their unfashionable “top down” aura in a field more geared toward social history. Another definite factor is that they’re a real pain to find. I had to go to the Library of Congress to leaf through an uninterrupted early ‘70s run of Record World, and luckily the Dallas Public Library was one of few places that held Cash Box.

The ephemerality of so much music business source material can really be maddening, so I’m hoping that this book can demonstrate its usefulness, to some extent.

What’s next?

Something that requires more record listening, which is where the energy is for me. An encyclopedia-type companion guide to the hit songs of the early ‘70s would be the logical next step. This would allow me to take full advantage of all of my notes and geek out in a way I couldn’t really with “Early ‘70s Radio.” I could shine the spotlight on songs I love but didn’t talk about, like Liz Damon and the Orient Express’s “1900 Yesterday” and Sailcat’s “Motorcycle Mama.” Think anyone would buy it?

(From left)  KUT's Rebecca McInroy, Jay Trachtenberg, and Kim Simpson at the Early '70s Radio "Views and Brews" event at the Cactus Cafe on October 24.

(From left) KUT's Rebecca McInroy, Jay Trachtenberg, and Kim Simpson at the Early '70s Radio "Views and Brews" event at the Cactus Cafe on October 24.

About the author: Kim Simpson is a radio show host for KUT’s Sunday Folkways. A critically acclaimed singer-songwriter and guitarist, Simpson taught university courses in pop music and published articles in American Music and Pop Matters. In 2007, he served as a consultant for the Peabody Award-winning rockabilly radio documentary “Whole Lotta Shakin’”. His 2009 CD Mystery Lights: Solo Guitar has appeared in national TV shows and commercials, and his song “Looking for That Girl” (credited to The Mad Dukes) charted in a number of radio trade papers in 2006. Simpson also works in the administration department in The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law. For more about his work, read his blog Boneyard Media.

University of Texas at Austin Faculty Authors Discuss their Books on C-SPAN2 Book TV

This weekend, be sure to tune in to C-SPAN2 Book TV to watch two University of Texas at Austin professors discuss their books.

American Studies Professor Julia Mickenberg will discuss her book “Tales for Little Rebels” on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 12:45 p.m., and on Monday, Nov. 14 at 12:45 p.m.

Little_Rebel_webSynopsis: Rather than teaching children to obey authority, to conform, or to seek redemption through prayer, 20th century leftists encouraged children to question the authority of those in power. “Tales for Little Rebels” collects 43 mostly out-of-print stories, poems, comic strips, primers, and other texts for children that embody this radical tradition. These pieces reflect the concerns of  20th century leftist movements, like peace, civil rights, gender equality, environmental responsibility, and the dignity of labor. They also address the means of achieving these ideals, including taking collective action, developing critical thinking skills, and harnessing the liberating power of the imagination.

Sanford Levinson, professor of law, will discuss his book “Constitutional Faith” on Sunday, Nov. 18 at noon and 7:15 p.m., and on Monday, Nov. 19 at 12 p.m.

Constitutional_Faith_cover

Synopsis: In this intriguing book, Levinson examines the history and the substance of our ‘civil religion’ of the Constitution. Echoes of this tradition are still heard in debates over whether the constitutional holy writ includes custom, secondary texts and history or is restricted to scriptural fundamentalism. Of equal age and intensity is the battle over the proper role of the priests. Is the Constitution what the Justices say it is or does it have a life of its own?

Interviews scheduled for broadcast the following weekend include:

· Steven Weinberg, professor in the departments of physics and astronomy, will discuss “Lake Views” on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and on Nov. 21 at 12 p.m.

· Lewis Gould, professor emeritus of history, will discuss “My Dearest Nellie” and “Theodore Roosevelt” on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 10:30 a.m., and on Nov. 21 at 12:30 p.m.

· Robert Auerbach, professor of public affairs, will discuss “Deception and Abuse at the Fed” on Nov. 20 at 10:40 a.m., and on Nov. 21 at 12:40 p.m.

A C-SPAN film crew interviewed the faculty members in the university’s Main Building on Oct. 24 following a weekend of covering the annual Texas Book Festival in Austin. Broadcast dates and times for the other faculty members interviewed for the C-SPAN2 Book TV program will be announced later.

The other faculty members are:

Martha Menchaca, professor  in the Department of anthropology, discussing “Naturalizing Mexican Immigrants”
James Galbraith, professor in the Department of Government and the LBJ School of Public Affairs, discussing “The Predator State”
Jeremi Suri, professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs, discussing “Liberty’s Surest Guardian”
Ami Pedahzur, professor in the Departments of Government and Middle Eastern Studies, discussing “The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Toward Terrorism”
Neil Foley, professor in the Departments of History and American Studies, discussing “Quest for Equality”


Author Dishes Up Stories of Race, Class, Gender and Place in Southern Food

barbecue1The South has always been celebrated for its food. From collard greens and okra to heaping plates of biscuits and gravy, Southern food is as much a state of mind as it is a matter of geography.

Combining the study of food culture with gender studies, Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American studies, explores the many hidden culinary contours of Southern life below and beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.

Digging deep into community cookbooks, letters, diaries, and other archival materials, Engelhardt describes the five moments in the Southern food story: Moonshine, biscuits versus cornbread, girls’ tomato clubs, pellagra as depicted in mill literature, and cookbooks as means of communication.

Engelhardt recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to discuss her new book “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food” (University of Georgia Press, 2011), which she will be presenting at the Texas Book Festival this Saturday at 11:15 a.m. at the Capitol. Go to this website for more details.

How can the choice of serving cornbread or biscuits say a lot about a woman’s social standing?

As I was finishing my first book on Appalachia “Tangled Roots of Feminism,” I kept running across these references to something called the “Beaten Biscuit Crusade.” This was when 9780820340371judgments about Appalachian women were based solely on whether they made biscuits or cornbread for their families. And these judgments extended to a woman’s class, morals, hygiene and even religion. Biscuit baking demonstrated class consciousness, the ability to afford specialized ingredients, marble-top counters and stoves. Cornbread, however, symbolized ignorance, disease and poverty.

What caused this rift between cornbread and biscuits?

In the late 1800s, single women with college educations from the Northeast, Kentucky and other parts of the non-mountain South were coming into Appalachia to build communities and make lives for themselves. One of the sources of tension between the newcomers and the women who had been there a long time was over education reform. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized the women who were coming into that region wanted to start by reforming the food that Appalachian women were cooking.

With the idea of helping the less fortunate, they advocated better cooking standards and public health concerns began to surface about diet-based diseases. Cornbread, which was made from locally milled corn and cooked over an open fire, became a target. Ironically the beaten biscuit recipe, which uses finely milled white flower and very little milk, may have been less nutritious than the cornbread local women were cooking for their families back in the 1800s.

How did Tomato Clubs empower young women back in the early 1900s?

In 1910, Marie Samuella Cromer, a young rural schoolteacher in the western South Carolina town of Aiken, organized a girls’ tomato club so that the girls would “not learn simply how to grow better and more perfect tomatoes, but how to grow better and more perfect women.” The tomato clubs and the women who organized them wanted southern food to transform Southern society—but not from the top down.

The girls had to plant one-tenth of an acre of tomatoes, which would provide more tomatoes than they or their families could use in a year. This forced them to learn how to can, market and sell them – and they could do whatever they want with the money. Glass jars were scarce, so they had to use big pieces of equipment to can tomatoes in tin. In order to finish a year in the Tomato Club, they had to write a report about how they harvested, presented and sold their tomatoes. It was a real lesson in technology, science and entrepreneurship.

What chapter of the Southern food story often goes unnoticed?

When we think about Southern food, we often think of abundance. But there’s also a story about lack of access, the absence of healthy eating, the vanished pieces. Back in the 1900s, pellagra – a disease caused by a vitamin-B deficiency – sickened tens of thousands of Southerners in poor communities. Described as the disease of the four Ds: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and death – pellagra made many of its sufferers suicidal or dangerous. It struck people in the rural South whose diets typically consisted of the “three Ms,” meat, meal and molasses. They were often described as “mill type ” or “white trash.”  Behind the stereotypes hid a hungry, tired and ill version of the South that even today is difficult to understand.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I hope people leave the book with a resolution to ask family members (however they define family) about their own food stories. And I hope they learn a little about what is behind the final plate on the table, the messages in every meal about who we are as women, men, people of different races and ethnicities, and people of different classes. I hope readers join me in keeping the conversation going about the collective, collaborative and changing southern food stories that are all around us.

Do you have a favorite Southern dish?

Well, it’s early fall, and I come from a county in the North Carolina mountains that is famous for its heirloom apples. This time of year, I find myself most longing for fried apples, homemade applesauce, and apple spice cake. But only if the apples have come from one of those bent, almost forgotten, but still glorious trees on the edge of an old home site, where the fireplace is all that’s left standing but the bees have done their work and the apples are ugly but amazing.

About the author: Having grown up in western North Carolina and spent much of her life in the South, Engelhardt is dedicated to preserving Southern culinary heritage. Her other books include “Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket” (University of Texas Press, 2009), “Beyond Hill and Hollow: Original Readings in Appalachian Women’s Studies” (Ohio University Press, 2005), and “Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature” (Ohio University Press, 2003). She is the coordinator of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Texas branch of the Southern Barbecue Trail Oral History Collection.