Brush in hand, Lampo Leong carefully dips the pointed tip into a small pool of jet black ink. He quickly moves the ink-laden brush towards the dry rice-paper on the table, a thin, tan sheet held down at the edges by paperweights. A brief pause, and then Leong dashes the brush to the paper, the tip and side jumping and dancing across the sheet with intense, determined movements. As the brush reaches the end of the paper, Leong steps back, sets it down, and clasps his hands together. “This is cursive Chinese calligraphy,” he explains.
“That’s where it all started,” begins Steven Watts, pointing to the bust on his bookshelf. “I was born and grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln.” Inspired at such a young age, the MU professor of history pursued his interest in American history. Concerned with the emergence of capitalist culture, Watts’ early research explored ideas about profit, success, and “the shaping of Victorian culture in the 19th century.” About 15 years ago, however, Watts became more interested in modern American history and eventually completed a series of biographies on issues related to consumer capitalism in a culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, entertainment, and leisure.
The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for the visual extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. “I love thinking about what photography means to people. Having grown up with very few photographs in my household, I’ve always been drawn to them,” she admits. It was no surprise, therefore, that West stumbled upon her first book project while scrounging through the bargain bin of an antique store: “I came across all of these old Kodak ads from the turn of the century, and I thought they were amazing. The images were just breathtakingly beautiful. The captions were unlike those we see now in ads. They were much more elaborate, much more descriptive. They addressed the consumer in very interesting, clever ways, and I just fell in love with them.” And at that serendipitous moment, the idea for Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000) was conceived.
As Professor in the Classics Department at MU, Daniel Hooley’s research includes Roman poetry, the classical tradition, and translation studies, about which he has written three books, including his most recent, Roman Satire (2006). Hooley first became interested in studying the classics through an “accidental journey,” studying the western classics as an English and Humanities graduate student at the University of Minnesota, where he focused his studies on modernism and wrote his dissertation on how Latin poetry was translated by American modernists such as Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. The dissertation became his first book, The Classics in Paraphrase: Ezra Pound and Modern Translators of Latin Poetry (1988).
For two decades Robert E. Weems, Jr. has been studying interrelated aspects of African-American business and economic history at levels both local and national. The MU professor of History observes that the history of black economic development in Columbia, Missouri, with its once-thriving black business district, stands as a microcosm of national trends. “For a variety of social and economic reasons,” he notes, “we literally see black businesses disappearing from the landscape of America.” Weems’ first book, Black Business in Black Metropolis: The Chicago Metropolitan Assurance Company, 1925-1985 (1996), based on his dissertation research, explored the factors underlying this change. The history of this now-defunct black insurance company in Chicago has implications for the economics of race in America in general.
One of the courses Dr. Helfer particularly enjoys teaching is the History of Mathematics. According to the MU course description, this “includes topics in the history of mathematics from early civilizations onwards”, and the subject is explored “as an abstract discipline and as a subject which interacts with others and with practical concerns.”
Past interviewees describe the intersection of their teaching and research.
A selection of interviewees from the last 50 features of SyndicateMizzou discusses how they came to be involved in their field.
Baum’s first book, Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia (1999), examines the history of Diola religion during the pre-colonial era, with particular attention to the impact of the Atlantic slave trade and family spirit cults. This work received a prize from the American Academy of Religion for the best first book in the history of religions.
“Wild cursive calligraphy” is a millennia-old Chinese art form. “It is not a written language for the general public to write every day,” Leong notes, “but rather an expressive art form used by the artist.”
“Most people look at Disney as merely a kind of entertainer, as the creator of children’s entertainment,” Watts notes. “What I found really interesting about Disney is that his creations were connected to some very serious historical issues and the American experience.” Likewise, he discovered that the theme park “connects to broader issues and developments as well. In this very creative way,” says Watts, “Disney spun this picture of happiness that was connected to the American way of life and material plenty.”
Selecting history research projects, according to Watts, is a combination of careful assessment and serendipity. For this historian, gathering data is sometimes like hunting for treasure. Watts has had a string of good luck, as it turns out, since Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Hugh Hefner all compiled archives through which Watts was allowed to dig.
Watts’ most recent research resulted in a biography of Hugh Hefner—Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (2008). “Hefner has been a very significant historical figure in American popular culture.” At the front edge of the sexual revolution in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Hefner signified liberation—sexual and otherwise. “In that sense,” explains Watts, “in the 1980s and ‘90s, Hefner became a kind of foil for the Reagan administration; the Meese Commission on pornography went after him very strongly. He became the bogeyman in the age of Reagan.”
While many of his colleagues prefer to teach more specialized courses in their specific areas of research, this 1995 winner of the William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching award prefers freshman-level courses such as “Survey of American History.” Watts also teaches a series of upper-division classes in American culture. Perhaps the most “fun” course he offers is, not unexpectedly, on Walt Disney.
Originally specializing in American cultural and intellectual history, Steven Watts’ first books addressed aspects of the American republic in the late 18th and early 19th century. He later became more interested in modern American history and began a series of biographies on issues related to consumer capitalism in a culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, entertainment, and leisure.
When thinking about research universities like MU, Watts is perplexed by people who are skeptical about the value of research at a teaching institution. Looking at his own department, he observes that “the research activity of our faculty, without question, invigorates the teaching mission of the department. It is my experience that the best teachers…are the best publishers.” Uncovering new knowledge in the field, he says, helps to “get the juices running and overflows the bounds of research alone,” enabling new perspectives in the classroom.
“That’s where it all started,” says Watts, pointing to the bust on his bookshelf. “I was born and grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. From the time I was a little kid, Lincoln and the Civil War were just kind of alive, almost.” Moreover, he recalls, his great aunt, a schoolteacher, took young Watts under her wing. Discovering that he was good at history, and encouraged by his college professors, Watts decided to pursue a career in history.
When asked about why they were drawn to this area of research or creative activity, MU faculty provide interesting and compelling responses. In some cases, they continued in school because the drive to learn new things was so great, because family provided a sense of identity and career direction, or because of initial interest in a related field. In other cases, they stumbled upon the field quite by accident. Regardless of the reason, the passion they hold for their work is obvious.
The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for photographs, and especially snapshots, extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. Traveling to Rochester, New York, home of the George Eastman House, West spent a week digging through boxes of advertisements (both published and unpublished) and documents ranging in date from 1888 to 1932. Her research eventually resulted in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000), an interdisciplinary study that examines the advertising campaigns of the Eastman Kodak Company and reveals certain key fascinations in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century American culture.
Through Hooley’s work in classical studies he has developed a philosophy about why one should study the classics: “Classics is just good material. The historical distance makes it more refreshing because you see the difference and how we’re the same animals. These texts don’t dictate our ethics and laws, but help our imaginations, which I think is a good reason to study them.”
A language requirement in college caught Langen at a crossroads where he decided to give Russian a try. He soon discovered that he enjoyed studying the language and decided to major in Russian history and literature, a combination that allowed him to make connections between a scholarly field and other things he cared about.
Teaching a general course on Russian civilization has helped Langen’s research process by allowing him to connect literary studies to other aspects of Russian life.
Langen is gearing up for his next research project that will focus on late nineteenth-century Russian intellectual history. “These people thought of literary studies as something you could do scientifically,” Langen explains, and he plans to begin by exploring “the rules for responsible, scholarly discourse.”
Ugarte discusses the relationship of various ethnic groups in Spain throughout history and how the African “Other” is absorbed in the consciousness of Spaniards.
Making connections between his intellectual work and his political work, Ugarte has explored how being in exile has had a significant impact on important Spanish writers.
Ugarte’s current project: Looking at the relationship between Spain and Africa from the late 19th century through the 21st century.
Kerns discusses how FMRI technologies started to be used in psychology research.
The history of how TigerPlace came to into being.
The history of fuzzy logic and why it didn’t catch on right away in the U.S., in contrast to its quick adoption in other countries.