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Featured Graduate Students

Our graduate students come from all over the world and have a diverse set of research interests. They contribute their scholarship, teaching skills, and intellectual vitality to the history department at the University of Minnesota. They can also be found conducting and presenting research around the globe on a variety of topics, like those featured below.

Settler Colonialism and Creative Resiliency of Alaska Natives: Jessica Leslie Arnett

Profiled by Jess Farrell

Grad Student Jessica Arnett
Out for a run in Anchorage, AK while on a research trip

“I read somewhere years ago that if research doesn’t change you as a person, then you haven’t done it right. In a nutshell, I’m angrier and more combative than ever … but I also feel incredibly humbled, hopeful, and inspired at the possibility of affecting change in the way we understand the world we live in--and in the process dismantling the structures and institutions that sustain these very systems.”

Third year PhD student Jessica Leslie Arnett recently returned from an archival trip to Alaska where she does research on U.S. settler colonialism and imperialism. Having grown up in Alaska and observed debates, often racially charged, between Alaska-Natives and non-Natives over indigenous subsistence rights and the rights of non-Native recreational hunters, Jess was frustrated to find that the existing historical narratives seemed incomplete. “I searched for histories of Alaska that addressed US colonialism and found virtually none, so I decided to write it.”

Want to learn more about Jess’s recent research experiences, life as a graduate student, and passion for teaching history? Read on to see more of her responses from our recent interview.

Jess Farrell: What drove you to study history?

Jess Leslie Arnett: I had a history instructor as an undergrad, before I had declared a history major, who took an approach to U.S. history in which his lectures and our readings were particularly critical of the United States. I immediately felt that up until that point in my education I had essentially been lied to, and I felt this overwhelming sense of betrayal. I wanted to pursue that because it fundamentally changed the way I understood who I was.

JF: If you were going to put a soundtrack to your dissertation, what songs would you include?

JLA: Lots of Bob Dylan and Neil Young for starters. Some Dan Bern—especially his song “True Revolutionaries”

JF: What is your favorite undergraduate course that you have worked with?

JLA: I like the US surveys. It gives me a chance to reach out to majors and non-majors alike and really challenge the way students understand US history and their role in shaping their political, social, and economic environments.

JF: What is your best / most interesting / most embarrassing research trip experience?

JLA: Best – Going running in the mountains in Juneau with the archivist after a long week sifting through files. Most embarrassing – Getting my picture taken for my NARA ID card---I didn’t know they did that, so I was woefully unprepared and look like a sleep deprived grad student on this ID card. I can’t wait till it expires so I can get a new one.

JF: What do you think is the most exciting/interesting thing about your topic/field that others might not know about?

JLA: I don’t even know where to start with this one….Too many to choose from. The more I research, the more I’m surprised—and inspired. Mostly what’s exciting to me are the creative and savvy ways that Alaska Natives navigated the contradictory and tangled web of imperialism and settler colonialism, and in doing so changed the very nature of relationship of Alaska to the US—and the US generally I think.

JF: What is your favorite thing about winter in MN?

JLA: Running. In the cold. Like a beast.

American Indian Historical Pageantry: Katie Phillips

Profiled by Elizabeth Williams

Katie Phillips

When graduate student Katie Phillips tells you she's writing her dissertation on pageants, you might immediately think of baton-twirling beauty queens. But Phillips is looking at a different kind of pageant, American Indian Historical Pageants, and as she quips, "sorry, there are no tiaras or swimsuit costumes here!" The pageants were performances put on by American Indians for largely non-Indian audiences. Phillips examines three historical pageants covering a broad chronological and geographic range, using them to examine questions of race and authenticity, performance and memory, tourism and the economy, and popular culture and federal policy.

Phillips first became interested in this topic while attending the Apple Fest, a yearly tourist event at the Red Cliff reservation in northern Wisconsin. She and her mother were poring through a shelf of old books when they found The Indian Pageant Cookbook, originally printed for a pageant staged on their reservation in 1924 and 1925. Neither had ever heard of these pageants, so Phillips decided to research further. As an undergraduate, her work had focused on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, and during the original stage of her graduate work she studied dance and diplomacy; she views her serendipitous discovery of a little-studied historical topic as a reminder "to be open-minded about research possibilities because there's always something new to discover."

Phillips works hard to maintain a healthy work-life balance. She finds that pursuing a variety of interests, whether it is running, knitting, or teaching dance classes, helps her handle grad-student stress. She also encourages graduate students to remain connected to their classmates and faculty: "You'd be surprised how inspired you can be after a casual conversation over a cup of coffee," she says, noting that these meetings "can be just as productive as hiding in the library or the office." These skills will come in handy now more than ever, as Phillips and her husband welcomed baby Leo into the family in August 2013. It is not unusual to see Phillips strolling Leo into workshops or library stacks, where she has joined the growing community of hard-working scholar-parents in the department.

Taxis to Postcolonialism: Elliot James

Profiled by Elizabeth Williams

Elliot James

What do taxis have to do with decolonization? As it turns out, plenty! Elliot James, a graduate student in the Department of History, is writing a history of unregistered "minibus" taxis in South Africa entitled "Sithutha Isizwe (We Drive the Nation): The (Un)Making of the Taxi in South Africa." James became interested in the history of informal public transportation during his first visit to Cape Town, South Africa during an undergraduate study-abroad program. Although he was frequently warned by locals not to take minibus taxis, which were supposedly too dangerous, James noticed that certain areas of the city were only accessible via minibus taxi. His interest in the politics of public transport increased when he learned that minibus taxis were developed by a group of black entrepreneurs in the 1970s, making them one of a very few black-owned and -run businesses in apartheid-era South Africa.

Now that he had a dissertation topic, James just needed a graduate program! The University of Minnesota made a great fit for James, with its strong reputation in African and gender history and its focus on interdisciplinary methods. He was eager to work with Professor Allen Isaacman, an expert on the history of Mozambique, and to engage with the Interdisciplinary Center for the study of Global Change (ICGC), which facilitates scholarly exchanges with the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Over the course of his graduate career, James's project has shifted from a purely social historical perspective to one that is more cognizant of the politics of doing history; his work engages with a set of post-colonial critics and theorists who demand that scholars consider the role played by historians and the discipline of history itself in shaping (post)colonial spaces.

Now that he is approaching the end of his graduate studies, James has several pieces of advice for students beginning their studies at the U of M. First, take notes! Record lectures, talks, seminars (always with permission, of course) so that you can create your own "personal archive." Make sure you store your notes and recordings in a safe and accessible place. Dissertation ideas evolve considerably over time, so he recommends keeping a journal so that you can keep track of changes and sparks of inspiration. Finally, don't forget to enjoy the Twin Cities! James especially enjoys the arts scene in the city, citing live music performances and visits to the Walker Art Center as favorite study-break activities.