At the end of my fall semester at Pitt, I published two profiles in the Pitt English department’s seventh newsletter, The Fifth Floor, on new professors in Pitt’s Literature department, Tyler Bickford and Autumn Womack. Read the profiles here or below:
Two new scholars join the Literature faculty
Beginning this fall, the Pitt Literature program gained two promising tenure-stream faculty members: Tyler Bickford and Autumn Womack, both assistant professors. The following are profiles of Bickford and Womack by senior Writing major Danielle Levsky.
Tyler Bickford: An Ethnmusicologist Finds a Focus in Youth Expressive Culture
Though his studies began in ethnomusicology, the anthropology and social science of music, Tyler Bickford developed his interest and specialized his research in his studies on children’s and tweens’ involvement in popular music and culture.
Bickford began his PhD in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in New York after finishing a degree in music from a small liberal arts college. After completing his undergraduate thesis on Bob Dylan and linguistics, Bickford developed more questions about the world of pop music.
“Pop music is very powerful and interesting, and I wanted to know why,” Bickford said. “I was looking for a place where I could spend time with people who were constantly thinking about and talking about pop music. That place turned out to be a small school in Vermont.”
In 2007, Bickford began his year of field work, interacting with and observing children between third and seventh grades. Bickford would be in school with them every day, from their classes to their lunchrooms to their playgrounds at recess, talking to them about pop culture and music. Though some might assume otherwise, the children were very open to talking with Bickford and regarded him as another one of their peers.
“Kids are great… if you’re not their disciplinarian,” Bickford said.
Though Bickford imagined his research would have to do more with the famous names of popular culture at the time—Hannah Montana [aka Miley Cyrus], Taylor Swift, the Jonas Brothers, High School Musical, and more—he noticed himself focusing more and more on technology, specifically MP3 players and mobile technologies that facilitate certain types of peer culture. He began to pay attention to this phenomenon after his first week of field work, when he observed two eighth-grade girls sitting on the swings and listening to music together by sharing a set of earbuds.
“I was talking with them, and I jokingly asked if they could swing like that,” Bickford chuckled. “They took that as a challenge and began to swing together, really impressively. They made the activity of music listening a sort of potato sack race, a way to coordinate your bodies together, play together, and listen to this music.”
Bickford often even observed children practicing walking through doors together. By running these drills for themselves, they created a fun challenge and different ways to share music with one another.
“It was interesting how they listened to music with each other,” Bickford said. “Sharing earbuds was such a common trend.”
Though the children would share these digital objects with one another, they would not use them in a classically digital way. For instance, what they were doing could not be called “music sharing” in accordance with Internet scholarship. “Music sharing” is aligned with file-sharing programs on the Internet, such as Napster or Limewire, as well as sharing music on social media like Facebook and Twitter and via Spotify’s sharing programs. Bickford found that children seemed to have no interest in this at all, though they had access to all these programs.
“It seemed to be more about the material culture of music listening. They treat their MP3 players as toys. They tinker with them, play with them, and decorate them.”
Indeed, the children shared music with one another, but by swapping each other’s mp3 players or listening together. On cheaper MP3 players that have recorders and microphones, it would not be uncommon for the children to take one of a friend’s ear buds, put it on high volume, and record that as a song.
“They would think, ‘Oh, now I have that song on my device’,” Bickford said. “It’s a down and dirty ethos. They treat it as a sort of ‘stuff’ that you can pass around, as opposed to files and a database that you have to keep organized.
The idea of music as “stuff” begged the question as to whether or not children talked about music and what they liked about it. Bickford found that there was an active resistance in this, because of the connection that children made between having a discourse in music and having discourse in English class about an assigned reading.
“In school, they are asked to take a text, break it down, analyze it, describe it, and respond it,” Bickford elaborated. “Pop culture and music are spaces that allow them enjoyment and pleasure without that discourse. They avoid explicit and detailed descriptions, with simple compliments like ‘This is great’ or ‘I like this’.”
After finishing his PhD and a post-doctoral program at Columbia, Bickford came to Pitt for his first professorship, which brought new and exciting challenges to Bickford’s research and study. Pitt’s strong children and literature program delighted and surprised Bickford.
“I was always anticipating that I would be the only person interested in childhood and children’s culture, and it was wonderful to find out that there was actually an entire community interested at Pitt,” Bickford said. “The tenure- and nontenure-stream faculty here, the graduate and undergraduate students, the wonderful librarians all possess a real interest in children’s literature and culture. It feels like the intellectual community I always wanted coming out of music/ethnomusicology, but never really thought I would find.”
This past semester—his first as part of the Pitt faculty— Bickford taught two undergraduate courses Children and Culture, an introductory children’s literature lecture class, as well as Childhood’s Books, which is the children’s literature survey class. Bickford plans to teach graduate courses in 2015.
In the classroom, Bickford tries to incorporate his research, not through his own direct writing, but through the constant integration and discussion of popular culture. For instance, in one Children and Culture class, Bickford encouraged a discussion on Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. To him, they are useful examples that touch on ongoing course themes: racial politics and childhood innocence. The class examined how both Swift and Cyrus—particularly Cyrus in her controversial “Wrecking Ball” video— perform or problematize whiteness and its relationship to innocence and femininity.
“It’s kind of the same old thing, right? There’s this classic dichotomy that women in media and pop culture have to go through—you can only be a girl or a woman. Taylor Swift did not make her work explicit, and always kept its main themes of innocence and childlike fantasy. Miley Cyrus distanced herself from a childish past by turning to music and culture associated with African-American culture. There’s this strong contrast of childhood innocence and whiteness with adultness and sexuality. They oppose each other. She’s conscious in using her lyrics and representation as a means to be identified as a woman in pop culture.”
Bickford believes it’s an impossible phenomenon, because the public contradicts itself, criticizing Swift for acting too young and Miley for acting too old. Bickford plans to pursue these ideas with a more ethnographic take in the future.
Currently, Bickford is writing a new book, a second project about the “tween” music industry. He plans to eventually get back into ethnographic work, with graduate students readily available and excited about this kind of research. In addition, he hopes to build better relationships with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to be able to pursue this future research.
Though this future research idea is open ended, Bickford is also interested in the questions of the childhood culture regarding disability; he is interested in the ways in which childhood itself is perceived as a disability as well as how expressive culture—a term he uses to talk about music, literature, poetics, and jokes as a collective body of discourse—can have an influence on kids with special needs. “I really want to observe and record if their culture was an inside, disinclusive practice that created barriers, or if it opened up doors to new interactions and possibilities between peers.”
Bickford constantly updates his Web site http://blog.tylerbickford.com/writing/ with new ideas, research, and projects coming to fruition. It features blog posts as well as links and information on his past publications, including his dissertation, Children’s Music, MP3 Players, and Expressive Practices at a Vermont Elementary School: Media Consumption as Social Organization among Schoolchildren.
Autumn Womack: Exploring a Hidden Genre in African-American Literature
In our ever-expanding English department, new professor Autumn Womack is offering an interesting perspective and analysis of period African-American Literature. With an insight into what has been labeled as “social document fiction,” Womack completed her PhD at Columbia University, writing her dissertation on the genre.
Long before she found this genre, she began her research in nineteenth-century African American literature, primarily in print and periodical culture.
“I was interested in the serial novels published between 1860 and 1890,” Womack began, “but as I was working on my dissertation, I only had one chapter about serial novels.”
That’s when Womack discovered the “social document fiction” genre in African-American literature between the 1890s and 1920s. She was studying and analyzing reviews of “The Philadelphia Negro” by W.E.B. DuBois, when she stumbled upon Alain LeRoy Locke, an African American theorist and one of the father figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
“He coined the term for these texts in a pejorative way, saying that they were just ‘social document fictions’,” Womack said. “These texts did the work sociology strives to do but never could do—which was registering black life as dynamic and constantly changing. While Locke dismissed it as a blip on the radar, I found it really interesting and tried to account for it.”
Social document fiction profilized African American fiction writing, helping to develop and institutionalize the field of sociology. Womack continued to study the texts by prominent social document fiction writers, especially Quest of the Silver Fleece by W.E.B. DuBois, though his book received many negative reviews. Womack continued to examine this genre in her dissertation.
Now, Womack is hoping to turn her dissertation into a book. She continues her research in social document fiction by working on articles to promote it as a genre. In addition, she is writing an article on the film adaptations of Zora Neale Hurston’s novels and how they affected African American Diaspora film.
Nineteenth-century African-American literature is the first course Womack has taught at Pitt—this past fall semester—and in the spring semester, she is teaching a Toni Morrison Senior Seminar. She is designing classes on the Harlem Renaissance as well as an Introduction to African American Literature course. “
I’m excited to read novels, criticism, and discover things together as a class,” Womack said. “With all the new courses, I’m hoping the students find African American literature more accessible and compelling.”
Womack began to focus on African American literature in her graduate school years. She was first an undergraduate student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., majoring in American Studies and minoring in English Literature.
“This is when I started to become curious about Cultural Histories and African American Literature,” Womack said. “I was always interested in unmaking culture and figuring out the roots of things, why things are the way they are.”
After completing her B.A., she moved to New York City and worked in publishing at Conde Nast for three years. As she was applying to graduate school, one of her GWU professors recommended she look into the Masters program in African American Literature at the University of Maryland. She finished her Masters there and continued onto Columbia to complete her PhD. When looking for faculty positions, Womack was drawn to Pitt because of its strong intellectual environment, as well as the stimulating cultural events occurring around Pittsburgh.
“I was really excited about Pitt and about the city. There are always inspiring things going on around campus, in the neighborhoods, or even at neighboring universities. It’s important for me to be stimulated in order to work and writer so I’m glad there’s always so much going on.”
In addition, Womack appreciates that the people within the English department have such a range of interests, and that there are such strong Creative Writing and Film Studies components within the department. She hopes to involve her interests in American Studies, English Literature, and Cultural Studies into future research and/or classes with graduate students.
“Right now, I’m on a placement committee to aid graduate students in finding employment. I’m designing a course on black visuality and a focus on visual culture and photography, and I think the graduate students would be interested because they are doing a lot of interesting visual work.”
The class would draw on theories of race and visual culture. Combining elements of sociology, art history, literature, and studio art/design, Womack hopes to create a very multi-disciplinary course to exhibit and explore her work on visual culture and technologies.
Danielle Levsky is a senior at Pitt, majoring in English Writing (Fiction) and minoring in French Language and Literature. She is currently Editor in Chief at The Original Magazine and a Communications Assistant at the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. In her spare time, she enjoys drinking copious amounts of tea, complaining in Russian, debating Jewish philosophy, and reading (and rereading) Chuck Palahniuk’s novels. You can find her writing on her blog, https://daniellelevsky.wordpress.com.