Cultural Borderlands

By Emily Sohn

Through their research, teaching, and writing, CSCL Ph.D.s are transforming the society in which we live-locally, nationally, and globally

Hip-Hop architecture. Iranian film. Holocaust literature. Graduate students in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature come from a diverse set of backgrounds. They pursue a wide range of interests. And they end up challenging long-held dogmas in a smorgasbord of subjects.

Yet, during their time at the U, students in the department’s two graduate programs take classes together. They forge connections between seemingly disconnected ideas. And in the process, they end up viewing their own fields through unexpected lenses. As a result, most alumni share at least one thing in common: the ability—even the need—to wear many hats.

Interdisciplinary hip-hop

Craig Wilkins arrived at the U in 1996 with two professional degrees, work experience as an architect, and a long history of feeling that he had been discouraged from doing what he wanted to do.

As a high school student on Chicago’s south side, Wilkins demonstrated a talent for drawing and an interest in building design. Yet the guidance counselor at his mostly African American school never once suggested architecture as a possible career. Later, after two years at Arizona State University in Tempe, he was denied admission to ASU’s architecture program despite good grades, an impressive portfolio, and excellent recommendations. He applied the next year with an even stronger résumé and was denied again. At the time, only three students of color had ever graduated from the school’s architecture program, Wilkins says. It quickly became clear that there would never be a place for him there, either.

By the time he came to the U, Wilkins was 35 years old and had managed to overcome many roadblocks. He had a bachelor’s degree from the University of Detroit School of Architecture and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He had worked as an architect in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and had taught at an all-black university in Louisiana.

But his early experiences stuck with him, and he felt strongly that more minorities should be involved in architecture. (Today, less than 2 percent of practicing architects in the U.S. are African American, he says). He also started to wonder whether his profession could become a tool for social change. “Doctors have free clinics for people who can’t pay, “Wilkins says. “Lawyers have pro bono work. Where is architecture’s response to this kind of stuff?"

Adding a Ph.D. to his résumé seemed like the best way to persuade the rest of the world to listen to his unconventional ideas. But his education so far had been geared toward working, not thinking. So, when he first joined the doctoral program in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society (CSDS),Wilkins didn’t understand why he needed to study subjects like French criticism when he was really concerned about how people live in marginalized communities. He wondered, “What does Foucault have to do with the brother on the corner?" For the first two years, he wanted to quit.

Gradually, however, the program’s multidisciplinary approach convinced him that architecture is as much a way of thinking as it is a profession, as much a process as it is a product. For his thesis, he focused an architect’s eye on hip-hop music, which transformed an unlikely object—a turntable—into an instrument. Mainstream culture wrote off hip-hop’s pioneers, but the genre is now infused into our daily lives. One goal of “hip-hop architecture," as Wilkins sees it, is to do something similar with materials that are normally discarded in order to create living spaces for overlooked communities. Wilkins can’t yet answer the question “What does it look like?" he says. For now, it’s the ideas that matter: “I’m laying out the theory so that professors and practitioners can pick it up."

Wilkins is also doing his best to practice what he preaches. Besides teaching at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he directs a design center in Detroit that offers architectural services to underserved communities. He runs an after-school program for minority high school students who are interested in architecture. And he just published his first book, The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture and Music.

“I have [architect] friends who think I’m absolutely bonkers" for returning to school a third time, he says. But he has never looked back. “I can’t imagine thinking any other way than I do now."

From Iran and back again

Negar Mottahedeh remembers a course she took with Wilkins during their overlapping time in the CSDS program. The class considered how design of museum spaces helps create narratives for people who walk through these spaces. During the semester, students read texts by Derrida, Foucault, and other theorists. But unlike Wilkins, who would later apply the theories to the construction of actual spaces, Mottahedeh used the lessons of museology to analyze garden landscapes in 19th-century Iran.

At that time and place, Islamic gardens were constructed in four squares, with water dividing the sections. A verse of the Koran was used to create the garden as “chahar bagh" (four gardens), Mottahedeh realized, and these places were built to represent heavenly gardens that symbolized paradise on Earth. “From there, I went, ‘OK, so what does it mean to give a speech in these gardens?’" she says. What, she wondered, was meant by historical references to an occasion when a woman stood up in one such garden and delivered a revolutionary speech in front of a large male audience about the future of humanity and of the nation?

Questions like these had been brewing inside her for a long time, but it took her a while to start seeking answers. Mottahedeh was born in Iran, grew up in Norway, went to college at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, and then returned to Norway, where she sold carpets for a few years out of her own store. She arrived at the U in the early 1990s, determined to think about an important period of history in a new way.

She was particularly interested in a religious movement called Babism that flourished briefly in Iran in the 1840s, when people became convinced that the Messiah had returned and Judgment Day had arrived. The voice of the people quickly rose up against the movement, which lasted only about a decade. To Mottahedeh, however, it seemed strange that the Iranian people would squelch a phenomenon that was directly shaped by the culture of their time. “The very thing this culture revolted against was the very thing that it was," she says. “When I wrote my dissertation, I discovered that the modern nation of Iran is built on the self-othering dynamic of that time."

Using the tools she gained in the CSCL program, Mottahedeh began to consider the nation and history of Iran through psychoanalytic and other nontraditional lenses. “I had a gut feeling that I had to go this way to free up the field from constraints that were put on it by traditional disciplinary approaches to the field," she says. “I didn’t think we, the scholars of Iranian studies, really got what was going on in this period."

Now an assistant professor of literature and women’s studies at Duke University, Mottahedeh continues to challenge the idea that a pure Islamic Iranian nation is possible. From the nation’s conception, she argues, Iran has represented the confluence of many cultures. To fill in holes left by more traditional studies of Iranian history, she looks to photography, film, and performance art in her research. She also teaches classes on world cinema. And her second book, coming out soon, is about Iranian film.

Mottahedeh’s first book, Representing the Unpresentable: Images of Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran, was published in December 2007. “The way I pursue questions is shaped by what I learned" at the U, she says. “I don’t think in terms of applying a theory. In my work, I ask myself, ‘What kind of theory emerges from the object I am studying?’ I use this theory in my analysis instead."

An unexpected lens on the holocaust

Pascale Bos’s work combines so many disciplines, she still doesn’t have an easy answer to the “What do you do?" question. “Comparative Jewish studies, European studies, women’s studies, German and Netherlandic studies—it’s just crazy to list them all," says CSCL grad Bos, who now teaches a variety of subjects, including Holocaust literature, at the University of Texas at Austin. “After 10 years, I still have no business card."

The opportunity to blend unlikely subjects is one of the main factors that attracted Bos to the U. The child of Holocaust survivors, Bos grew up in Amsterdam, where she completed most of her education, including a bachelor’s degree in Dutch language and literature and a master’s degree in comparative literature, with minors in women’s studies and philosophy.

In Europe, however, academic fields were defined too narrowly for her tastes. For example, she says, studying comparative literature in the Netherlands simply means reading literature in different languages. “You can’t even take classes in other departments," she says. But she wanted to dabble in history, psychology, sociology, and beyond. She also wanted to publish in English.

Bos arrived at the U of M in 1992, just as the programentered a rough stretch. The comparative literature department had justmerged with the cultural studies department, and a handful of professors left at the same time. Amidst the flux, Bos ended up working with faculty members in other programs. She taught undergraduate classes in women’s and gender studies, Dutch, English composition, and Holocaust studies. In retrospect, she says, that diverse experience helped her land her current job at the University of Texas, where she teachesmany of the same subjects andmore.

For her dissertation, Bos focused on German Jewish Holocaust survivors. Unlike Jews from other Western European countries, she says, very few German Jews returned to their home country after the war. They lost much of their national identity, even though many of them had originally thought of themselves more as German than as Jewish. During her time at the U, Bos turned to German literature as a way to take a closer look at this group of exiles, and she became one of the first scholars to consider the influence of gender on their experiences.While she was still a student, she published an article on the relationship between gender studies and Holocaust studies. The paper garnered lots of attention. “It was new ground to break," she says. “Since then, this world [of research] has exploded."

Today, Bos remains immersed in the same subjects. Her first book, German-Jewish Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust: Grete Weil, Ruth Klüger, and the Politics of Address, came out in 2005. She’s now working on her second and third books. As a professor, she also encourages her students to take classes outside their comfort zones. That approach, in her experience, has paved a satisfying intellectual road. “I tend to look at things from the margins," she says, and that’s a good thing: “I’m always like an outsider looking in."

Immersion in cultural waters

Through their immersion in multidisciplinary thought, CSCL alumni often end up blurring so many lines that their careers become downright antidisciplinary. Reality blends with theory until these scholars see abstract ideas come alive in unexpected ways. Entering the program is like being an ordinary fish that can’t taste or smell the water it’s in, Mottahedeh says. Then the transformation begins. “The work we do in CSCL allows us to look at the water—or the culture—we’re in and evaluate it," she says. “I wouldn’t have done it any other way."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on July 23, 2008 2:59 PM.

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