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Research Spotlight

Maximillian Alvarez Takes Scholarship on the Road

Even as a devoted lover and teacher of both literature and history, I’m keenly aware that most of my students won’t pursue careers in these fields. That being the case, my teaching centers on pressing students to rigorously hone their research and writing skills, and the students absorb these lessons best when I stress their real-world importance. This aim, to make academic knowledge usable in the contexts of everyday life, has likewise been the driving force behind my journalistic writing and other efforts to become more of a public intellectual. We’re all aware of the pitfalls, limitations, and even delusions that can come with this role, especially when we pursue it at the expense of our scholarly work. But in a political climate rife with anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism, academics have a real civic duty to write for and learn from multiple audiences. For society’s sake and for our own, we must move across the borders between our professional and public worlds, even taking a sledgehammer to them if necessary.

My decision to enroll in two PhD programs—Comparative Literature and History—was unconventional. But that decision, along with the work I have done in both programs, was informed by the same kinds of questions, methods, and goals that inform my teaching and journalistic writing. For example, in the most recent—and most popular—course I taught for Comparative Literature, “’Welcome to the Monkey House’: How Politics Becomes a Reality Show,” my students and I explored how bringing literary thinking to the analysis of history and politics could engender better arguments, new interpretations, and more thoughtful engagement.

This is precisely the kind of work I do as a History student. Working with History professors Howie Brick and Geoff Eley, and employing all the tools I’ve developed as a literary scholar, I analyze in my dissertation the complex relations between technology and the political philosophies and cultures of the Left in Mexico. The impact of this work on my thinking is present in all my essays, but probably most especially in “The Snarxist Temptation.” Here are my most recent essays:

"It's not enough to write what you know" - Times Higher Education

"The Snarxist Temptation" - The Baffler

"Wish You Were Here: The Virtues of Banality" - Los Angeles Review of Books

"Cashing in on the Culture Wars" - The Baffler, also cited in The Atlantic

"Donald Trump & Fascist Kitsch" - ROAR magazine, first presented to the Visualizing Fascism conference at U-M, June 2016.

Emma Thomas Studies the Complex World of Colonial Rule in the Pacific

I was about halfway through my trek up Namanula Hill, to the site of the former governor’s house dating to German colonial times, when a local family stopped to give me a lift the rest of the way. Their niece was visiting from Port Moresby, and this family invited me to join them on their tour of Rabaul and its surrounds. Riding in the back of their two-seater pickup truck, they showed us their part of Papua New Guinea, sharing their knowledge of its complex, layered histories.

The sign at Namanula Hill, bearing the likeness of the former German colonial governor, Dr. Albert Hahl, speaks to these histories—of successive colonial governments, expropriation, and violence—while suggesting residents’ pride in their “well planned” town, whose gridded streets, laid out by the German colonial administration, today lie blanketed in feet of volcanic ash from Tavurvur’s devastating eruption two decades ago. Coconut palms evoke a colonial plantation economy dependent on the production of copra, and today’s working plantations continue to map older colonial holdings carved out on the islands and cultivated through the labors of indentured New Guinean people.

As seats of German colonial governance in the early twentieth century, Rabaul and nearby Kokopo (formerly Herbertshöhe) were centers of colonial life. They were homes to German administrators who produced many of the records that inform my dissertation, and were destinations for many of the New Guinean women and men whose labors under colonial rule my dissertation explores.

Paula Curtis Explores the Nature of Power through Making

While in Japan from 2014-2015 as a Fulbright Graduate Fellow, I researched metal caster associations and medieval networks for my dissertation. There, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-week study program recently piloted by Kōgakkan University. Located in Ise (the location of the famous Shintō Ise Grand Shrine), the program aimed to expand knowledge of Ise and Japan for foreign graduate students. When the scholars volunteering their time for lectures and tours learned that I was researching two nearby villages where a mid-sixteenth century dispute had broken out over the goods of metal casters, they bent over backwards to show me examples of premodern metal work everywhere we went. Predictably, this led me to take a lot of selfies with temple bells and hug a lot of bronze bridge post caps (gibōshi), like the one from 1498 pictured here. As you can see, even the mid-February chill couldn’t stop me, although I did garner some questionable looks from passersby.

Matthew Villeneuve Gains Insight Comparing Text and Experience

While working in Washington D.C. as a researcher in the National Park Service's Park History Program, I had a chance to make a day trip to the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Of particular interest to me was Burnside's Bridge, the stone span crossing Antietam Creek that became a focal point of the fighting on September 17, 1862. Ever since I first read in my high school history textbook the account of Union troops funneling across this narrow bridge and directly into the waiting guns of the Confederates on the opposite bank, I had been fascinated by the drama of that scene and wanted to know what it felt like to stand on that bridge.

Burnside's Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places, which means you can cross it at your leisure for years to come. I stood there over the water, took some photos, and was on my way, satisfied that I had experienced the vista as the infantrymen might have. Only after my visit, as I read primary source accounts of the battle, did I realize that my focus on the bridge itself led me to overlook a feature likely more important to the average Union soldier that day: the otherwise unremarkable stone wall that leads up to the bridge. Indeed, as one veteran of the battle recalled in the New York Tribune, “The bridge was no more noticeable than any other portion of the creek on our left wing. Some trees intervened upon our left of the bridge immediately down upon the creek, but the approach down the hill on our side was bare in all directions and exposed to the view of the enemy's gunners.” Here was evidence that Union soldiers, desperate for cover as they approached the creek, would have been far more interested in that rock wall and the shelter it afforded than the bridge itself.

Along the very route I had walked, excited to visit the famous bridge, I had passed in ignorance of that unremarkable wall. In so doing, I substituted my own interest for that of the historical actors. Fortunately, a friend captured this photo, and I was later able to appreciate what I had been too busy to consider the day of my visit: that scores of the stones in that wall today are the very same ones that shielded the heads of Union soldiers from Confederate bullets one hundred and fifty-three years ago.

Walking in history’s footsteps -- whether it be through a National Park or in the course of my research at Michigan -- is always a humbling but rewarding experience.

Daniel Williford Reflects on History as Recovery

Passing through overgrown fields and the untended remains of collapsed buildings, we reach the northern outskirts of Agadir, Morocco.  A local historian and survivor of the 1960 earthquake that destroyed the city has driven me to what is left of his old neighborhood, Ichach. Standing across from the site, he gestures toward mounds of rubble—now covered over with sparse shrubs and plastic bags and bottles—where the bodies of friends and relatives were never recovered.  When the earthquake struck Agadir it revealed an unequal geography of material vulnerability separating poor and wealthy, Moroccan and European neighborhoods. Within seconds, Ichach’s stone and earthen houses crumbled—burying most of its residents. Shortly afterward, demolition crews leveled whatever structures remained in what had once been the city’s poorest and most vibrant neighborhood.

The local historian shows me a ditch near his family’s former home, where the city’s government had begun to dump municipal waste before he campaigned against it. Unlike other neighborhoods of the pre-quake city whose victims were buried in common graves, there is nothing here to mark the presence of those who lie beneath the ruins of Ichach. Even in death, Ichach’s former inhabitants remain subject to uneven geographies of neglect and exposure. 

Writing Agadir’s history is a collective project. Through my research on debates about infrastructure, demolition, and risk management in urban Morocco, I have met survivors, engineers, and planners who continue to make sense of the earthquake in ways that shape their professional practices and political engagements. Commemoration in this context is not a luxury but a weighted act of remembering—both intimate and expansive.

Diana Sierra Becerra Describes Women's Participation in Salvadoran Social Movements

The cemetery was covered in a blanket of mangos. Cleotilde López, an eighty-six-year-old union organizer firmly gripped her wooden cane as she led me through a hilly labyrinth of disorganized and discolored crosses.

She stopped at the tomb of Mélida Anaya Monte, former president of the Asociación Nacional de Educadores Salvadoreños (National Association of Salvadoran Educators, ANDES 21 de Junio). With alarming detail, López recounted how she and her fellow teachers, the majority of them women, organized one of the largest demonstrations against the government in the history of El Salvador, along with previous strikes in 1967 and 1968.

But the excitement in López’s voice dwindled. Amid the sweet smell of ripe mangos, she wept as she recounted the murder of her nephew—massacred by government soldiers during a student protest in 1975. He died denouncing the military occupation of his campus.