From the legendary book and movie “Giant” to J.R. Ewing’s oil empire, this spring’s American Cultures class was all about Texas.
Assignments in the American studies class included reading works by authors Larry McMurtry and Lawrence Wright and watching the TV show “Dallas” and classic films like “The Last Picture Show” and “Selena” in order to understand the Lone Star State and its place in American culture.
One afternoon, students examined artifacts that were collected along the Texas-Mexico border. The class collaborated on a project with Bredt Bredthauer, an educator who is walking a portion of the border this spring. Students conducted interviews with Bredthauer during his travels.
Bredthauer also sent the class a variety of items to examine: candles with depictions of religious figures, toiletries believed to have been discarded after people crossed the border, and a set of Texas sesquicentennial placemats from 1986.
The images on the placemats depict Texas’ larger-than-life image, Dr. Larissa Werhnyak, senior lecturer in interdisciplinary studies and American studies program head, told students during a recent class.
“The placemats have facts that celebrate the ways that Texas is bigger, stronger and ‘more than’ anyplace else,” Werhnyak said. “There’s the sense that Texas is really preoccupied with bigness and bestness.”
Another item Bredthauer sent the class was a large, weathered black inner tube that had been used to cross the Rio Grande. It sparked the most discussion. Students said the thick rubber tube made them think about the difficult journey of the person or people who had used it.
“I’m trying to put myself in that position. I’m trying to imagine that person and what happened at that moment,” said Sheri Cochran, an American studies major.
The purpose of the project was to gain a better understanding of the border as a region and how it fits into perceptions of Texas and the U.S.
Kendall Kadleck, a psychology major, said she has never traveled to the Texas border but the class has given her a much better understanding of the region.
“I think it’s especially interesting how the culture in other parts of the state varies from the culture here, even though we’re all in Texas,” Kadleck said. “There’s a perception that Texas is all one culture, but you can really break it down by region.”
The American studies program in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies focuses on the institutions, arts, structures and social processes of the U.S. The program includes a range of classes, including American Health Policy, Gender in American Culture, the American Environment, Popular Culture and others.