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William C. Bonaudi Library's Down the Research Rabbit Hole | Issue 12 | Dr. Barbara Bush | Relatively Speaking

by Rhonda Kitchens on 2021-02-09T17:31:00-08:00 in Communications, Literature | Comments

Dr. Barbara Bush : Relatively Speaking Interview Header

 

Interview with:
Barbara Ann Bush, PhD
Hometown: Sacramento, CA.
Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA)
BFA in Theater Arts/Acting University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana
MA in Communication Studies with an emphasis on Intercultural Communication from California State University, Sacramento
PhD in Communication Studies from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD)

 

Share your dissertation topic and research process. 

My dissertation topic was on the role of material objects in personalizing a national identity. I’ve always been interested in identity, likely because I grew up “in-between”. English is my second language; I am a dual national (hold a citizenship with both Switzerland and the United States) and grew up in a neighborhood filled with kids like me who had an immigrant parent or immigrant parents. During my doctoral program at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Switzerland made international news with the rise of the right-wing nationalist, Christoph Blocher and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). The SVP had always been more conservative as a farmer’s party, but it had never been the center of any populist and nativist sentiment. Switzerland too had never been known as a hotbed of radical nationalism, and yet here it was gaining the attention of all of its European neighbors with the SVP’s rabid and inflammatory anti-immigrant campaigns.  I had grown up in an environment of sentimental Swiss nationalism, a longing for alpine pastures, bucolic lakes, and green valleys, captured in folk songs, plaintive yodels, and paintings and stories, so I was not altogether surprised by the content the SVP produced to capture “Swissness”. However, it was arresting (and upsetting) to see it transformed from a sort of quaint nationalism to a weaponized one. It wasn’t just upsetting because this virulent style of right-wing nationalism seemed to go against the ideal of the Switzerland that was home to the Geneva Convention, and international law, but the SVP was also the very party that my family belonged to. As farmers it was fairly normal to grow-up and join the SVP. And, as these things go, as the party radicalized so did some members of my family. And finally, many Swiss, especially the German-Swiss typically have had a much stronger sense of local loyalty to their Kanton (state) or even valley, so this attention to a committed nationalism in a broader sense was atypical. How had this transformation happened? I knew the answer was wrapped up in a sense of having an identity that wasn’t just that of being an individual self, but in being a national self. I also began to realize that this story of radicalization started with all of us who have a strong sense of national identity, including me. 

How does one personalize the nation-state? This question became my obsession. What I noticed in my visits to Switzerland and in reading the news and in talking with my Swiss family, was that one of the notable ways various stakeholders campaigned for their version of Swissness was through material objects. From cowbells, to alphorns, to festivals, to family heirlooms, people made their claims on Swiss identity by using these well-worn markers of Swiss identity. The focus of my dissertation became the answer to the question that started this paragraph. Belongingness is not just a state of being, it is a practice. Material objects can animate such practice and are especially important in personalizing the story of the nation and the state. Whether state objects such as statues or restored steamships of a bygone golden age, or heirloom objects such as family photographs or cowbells, objects become markers of being connected to a specific history. The objects are not passive, they do “work”. On their own they mark belonging and sculpt a visual field that both memorializes and obscures the past. When picked up, mobilized, or taken-up to express belonging they concretize a connection to the past. The past meets the present via this object, and its holder is sanctified as belonging. But the object doesn’t just work to legitimate a personal belonging to the nation, it also legitimates the State. 

In order to conduct my research, I did a lot of archival work! Switzerland is an expensive field site, even if one does have access to family. I did however find scholarships to assist with my field work and relied heavily on the generosity of friends and family to travel there and do interviews, and participate in festivals, and events. Because I had to work full time as a teaching assistant, do my graduate level class work, and attend to field work in Switzerland, it did take me a while to complete my dissertation. I started my graduate program at UCSD in 2008 and wasn’t finished until 2017. I know of two people in my graduate cohort of 6 people that never finished. A PhD is not just an intellectual commitment, I came to find out, it is a physical one too. It requires stamina at all levels, marked with periods of intense joy, and terrible loneliness and isolation (writing is often a lonely process).

 

Are there things that students can do now to get ready to work on their doctorate degree?

Read a lot. Whatever you can get your hands on. If you are a slow reader this will make your graduate level work all the more painful. I literally had hundreds of pages to read every week, plus I had to write pages of responses to what I was reading. Reading develops intellect, but also teaches us rhythm and flow and the art of word choice. There is also joy in reading when you get proficient at it. You learn to lose yourself in an internal process, a process that is critical for being able to sit down and write and think without a lot of external input.

Experience life. Having just book knowledge doesn’t give you the same depth that mixing this with experiences does. Reach for the stars on this one. Don’t just place yourself in situations where you are able to experience what interests you, engage yourself in experiences that might broaden your horizons. Challenge yourself. Be uncomfortable. Be careful with phrases like “I can’t” or “I won’t”. This will come to serve you later in the form of balance and perspective. I have many, many hobbies, small and large, inexpensive and expensive, that gave me space to think and survive in the rigors of a PhD. That provide me joy today. Feed your imagination with museum visits, creating art at whatever level, listening to music, and learning to be mindful. 

Learn to find balance now. Don’t wait to try and do it in graduate school. Nurture your relationships, be deliberate about this. 

Surround yourself with people and animals you love. Also, pay attention to the people you admire who have done graduate level work. Talk to them. Scout programs in your area of interest. Find out who is in those programs and see what their work is about – not just the professors, but the graduate students there. 

Hone your writing and your research skills.  Whenever you come across a teacher who wants to correct your grammar, or your organization, lean into that criticism. Ask them more questions, ask if you would be able to re-write your paper. Get rid of the notion that writing is part of some innate ability. This belief is an insult to the art of writing. Like any other craft it is learned. It is practiced. And because of this, our writing evolves. Stop telling yourself things like, “I just can’t write”, or “Writing just isn’t my thing”. This is a false narrative you have about yourself. If writing were innate, then we wouldn’t have to go to school to learn it. There wouldn’t be English classes focused on this very skill. Start thinking of yourself as a developing writer. 

Feed your curiosity. Allow yourself to be curious about people, animals, protozoa, politics, cooking, and the solar system. The more details you uncover about the phenomenon around you, the more curious you will become. I discovered last summer when I came to Washington, for example, that different colored lichen can indicate levels of pollution in an area. The more diverse the lichen colors, the lower the pollution apparently. Because of this anytime I am hiking or driving in an area where I start seeing lichen I stop to look. I never used to pay attention to lichen, but now I do. This is the way of details and nuance; they add shape and texture to our lives. They make us stand up and pay attention.

There are some key efficiency things you should start working on now too. For one, learn to type! Typing can be an agonizingly slow process for some. Take a class online and develop your typing skills. Also figure out the best way to keep a list of articles and other scholarly work so that you don’t lose track of it. There are software options to assist you in this endeavor like EndNote or Zotero, and others use Excel spreadsheets. Whatever you use stick to it, learn it, get efficient. I kept a running Word document because, well, as a Gen Xer that probably just was easiest for me to jump in and use. Prior to my PhD I didn’t know about programs like Zotero, and by the time I did I already was used to my system.

 

Is there a journal, website, or group you keep up with to keep your skills sharp?

I read a lot, not just journals, or websites, but books too. But specifically, I keep up with a group of Swiss scholars here in the United States who engage with work on Switzerland. I also am a member of International Environmental Communication Association (IECA) because I am interested in merging my work on identity with work on environmental concerns. I am also a member of TIP (Teachers for an Informed Public) in order to collaborate with other educators on how to best teach students to identify when they are encountering misinformation.

Dr. Barbara Bush and Mo.
Dr. Barbara Bush and Mo. 2021.

You read and research in different languages. Share a personal research project that's brought you joy, understanding, or even more research topics.

I am currently reading a book in German called Kartenhaus, by Margrit Schriber. This book was given to me some years ago by a relative with the instruction, “You should read this, it was written by a distant relative of ours”. I finally have gotten around to cracking its pages, and within the first 10 pages discovered the book was about my great uncle, and to a lesser degree about my great grandfather who was a healer of some renown in the Catholic part of Switzerland. The title is a little foreboding as “Kartenhaus” translated means “house of cards” but given the colorful and difficult stories that emerge from this side of my family, the title also comes as no surprise. The book however is deepening my understanding of both this mystical sect of Catholicism and the role it has played, and continues to play in some tangential ways, in some family members’ beliefs and practices. It also confirms for me what I have always heard about the women in my family, and that is that they are survivors and doers. 

As to translating, it is a difficult and slow process!! There are words that just don’t translate easily and then you have to find several words to make up for the one you are translating. Or there are phrases that are peculiar to the language because they are peculiar to the culture you from which you are translating the text. For example, “Zündhölzli Doktor” literally translated means “match stick doctor”, which really makes no sense in English. So, in order to translate it I might write, “mystic healer” or “shaman” or “hands-on healer” or something like that. But these don’t quite capture the whimsical nature of the words “Zündhölzli Doktor”!

 

What book, poem, or study have you read that engaged you so deeply you were changed?​ 

Where do I start?? Every time I read something I am changed! Two poets (of many) that have changed me are Walt Whitman and Mary Oliver. Both writers use rich vivid language steeped in sensory experience. When I need some immediate grounding, an uptick in mindfulness, I turn to these two. Whenever I have gone backpacking, a collection of Whitman’s poems goes with me. Once I am ensconced in my tent, headlamp burning bright, I luxuriate in the words of somebody who over a hundred years prior embraced death and love equally. There are individual works that stand out too. Whitman’s epic Leaves of Grass, but especially Oliver’s Trees poem because it speaks to my own love of trees. As she would say, trees save me, and daily. I need writing like this because the burning focus on beauty of the everyday, whether it is fungus growing on wet bark, or the wonder of a bright new love, helps me find my center again.

I have also been shaped by James Baldwin’s essays The Stranger in the Village and If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell me What Is? I loved The Stranger in the Village within mere lines of reading. It depicts Baldwin’s visit and stay in a small Swiss village. While the essay documents his own uneasy and even estranged relationship with the Swiss villagers, he takes on the role of ethnographer. Ethnographies of the West are still rare, and rarer still in Baldwin’s time, but there he is documenting the “primitive” villagers and “these people” in a European context. It makes me both love and ache for Baldwin. Then there is his essay on Black English. This essay operates both as a breathtaking indictment of American racism, all the while revealing Black English as central to understanding American identity and the ingenuity of a people embroiled in a system that was inexhaustibly abusive. It is a gorgeous piece of short writing. Both of works set me back on my heels and made me see the world anew. I saw Switzerland and the English language differently after encountering them through Baldwin’s experiences. 

I know these choices seem very serious, but I also love a good laugh. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is hilarious and reminds me of the ridiculousness that is me. Adams was a way to reach into my own goofiness, conjured into being with blend of adventure and nerdy obsessions. And I am not altogether unsympathetic to his view of human beings. He captures it well in several gut laughing moments, but a quote I love that sums up his approach to the people in his stories is: “Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should have ever left the oceans”. I took another dark turn here, didn’t I? I didn’t mean to! I am actually not dark at all, but my readings allow me to explore what doesn’t come naturally to me or give me opportunities to pay attention to what I might otherwise overlook. And find humor in what might otherwise be truly dark.

Finally, I love manuals and guides of all kinds. The manual to my fathers 1965 BMW motorcycle. The manual I have on horse anatomy. The human anatomy coloring book that sits in my office. I have bird guides, rock guides, and plant guides. I like being able to see and name. To point and articulate – to be able to say with confidence “That’s a lupine” is a perfect small pleasure for me. I like to understand how the nuts and bolts of a thing work together. I don’t have a refined sense of say what a cam shaft is, certainly, but I want to know where I can find it and what it works together with (intake and exhaust valves). Guides and manuals allow me to self-train, to put together the puzzle pieces I come across and don’t exactly know how they fit yet. Maybe this type of reading harkens back to my toddler days of placing shapes together, or maybe they remind me of the walks I would take with my father learning plant names, or maybe they are like holding on to the roughened hand of my grandmother as she identified birds for me. They offer a compass of sorts, and a possibility to go further, beyond what I know now, beyond of what I am currently capable.

These are my rabbit holes I suppose. I could go on, but then it just gets silly. Burrows are dark and confusing, and probably a bit smelly, to those that don’t live in them, though they do find light in the most surprising and lovely places. I wish for everybody their own burrow, where germination, hibernation, and travel are possible. I find I fall into rabbit holes as much as I make them. And when I take leave of them, I am re-formed and rawer.

 


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