Tag Archives: research

The Artist in His Theme Park

At EASA, I presented the research for one chapter of my dissertation. In short, my dissertation examines the intersection of popular culture, corporate culture, and the media in American culture (it’s a busy intersection…). Through two case studies for each of the three companies I am examining, I hope to illustrate how corporate culture, popular culture, and media can be discussed in the same forum, as well as how American studies theory and method is an excellent platform for investigating American business culture. It brings two academic worlds together that usually have little to do with one another.

In this chapter, I look at the success of Walt Disney’s parks, specifically Walt Disney World. Walt Disney transformed the amusement park from the carnival-esque atmosphere of Coney Island and other Midway parks into a well-run, clean theme park. Much has been written about how Disney domesticates the spaces in his parks, taming every detail that would be left to chance in another park. Trash is sucked into underground Utilidors, gum is not sold in the parks (to prevent gum from sticking to everything in the park), and the bug situation is very much under control (leave Disney property at your own risk). However, I contend that Disney stands apart for another reason as well. He taps into a long-standing American amusement tradition that attracts guests and places the Disney parks in a different echelon than other theme parks. Disney and his company incorporate rational amusement into the parks, bringing an aspect of education and discovery to the land of Winnie-the-Pooh character breakfasts and Dole Whips.

Rational amusement is not a new concept, but contemporary Americans probably don’t know it by any specific term. Modern pedagogy almost demands its use. Rational amusement (or rational entertainment) is the act of educating while entertaining. Born during the Enlightenment era out of the philosophies of Rousseau and Locke, it took hold in the U.S. during the American Revolution. Wartime (and its build up throughout the colonies) lead many leaders to ban “frivolous activities” in order to have its citizens engaged in only respectable activities and concentrating on the war effort. In order to skirt these regulations, amusements that could claim an educational angle opened. One of the most famous purveyors of rational amusement was Philadelphia’s Charles Willson Peale.

Side note: Charles Willson Peale has been trying to make his way into my research for years. My alma mater, La Salle University, is built on his estate, and his home is where the President’s offices are on campus. It’s also haunted.

Peale is best known as a portrait artist, as he painted many of the leaders of the early republic. He also had very talented sons with really cool artist names, like Rembrandt, Raphaelle, and Titian. After the Revolutionary War ended, he announced his “retirement” from painting, and he decided to open a museum. Peale was a Renaissance man who was very interested in the natural world, and he wanted a place to display his specimens and his portraits. He opened his museum, and before long, he moved it to the 2nd floor of Independence Hall, which is the location we best understand. He painted two works that show off his museum: The Artist in His Museum and The Long Room, which both were completed in the same year. The former is also used in many American studies classrooms to help illustrate the habits of mind necessary to analyze works in the discipline. His museum was largely a serious endeavor, as he hoped to educate the masses about natural science and the new republic. It was affordable to many and was even open later in the evening to accommodate farmers and other laborers who were unavailable during daylight hours. In short, it democratized education for many.

During the 19th century, the laws governing amusements were repealed, but many amusements still maintained an air of education in line with the Victorian ideals of the day. P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill Cody were certainly not considered great educators, but they still exposed people to new concepts and the natural world (albeit with a lot of showmanship and some bearded ladies). Coney Island signals the end of this first wave of rational amusement, as it was amusement for amusement’s sake. People of all sorts of classes, races, and ethnicities mingled together on the shores of Brooklyn, and they were even pushed together on many of the rides. There is no judgement to be passed on Coney Island, but it simply a sign of a cultural shift.

Simultaneously to the decline of rational amusement, the World’s Fairs started coming to America, which signaled that the infant nation was finally coming into its own. These fairs were showcases for scientific and engineering advancements. They also allowed Americans to experience other cultures in the national pavilions. 1876’s Centennial fair in Philadelphia is best known for the introduction of the telephone and the Edison lightbulb. the 1893 fair in Chicago, which celebrated the anniversary of Columbus “discovering” America, was split into a Midway (for amusements) and the White City (for science and information). Other fairs mimicked this set up.

Does this concept sound familiar to you? It might if you have visited Epcot at Walt Disney World. It too is split into a section for national pavilions (the World Showcase) and scientific education (Future World). Walt Disney was no stranger to rational amusement, as he used them in his educational films and television shows. After his death, his original concept for a utopian urban community (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT) was transformed into a sort of permanent World’s Fair. It should be noted that only two years after Epcot’s opening, the United States hosted its last World’s Fair in Kentucky. The fairs (like the Olympic games) tend to be financially draining on the host nation, and no matter how many people cross through the gates, it tends to be a financial loss. Epcot was as well, initially. 1984 found the Disney Company at a major crossroads. Corporate raiders were ready to buy up the company and sell it for parts. Epcot was not making the money they had hoped, and since Disney’s 1966 death, the animated movies had lost direction (and lost money). New leadership (and the return of Disney family members) saved the company and ushered in an era of growth. The old Disney spirit had returned.

The Disney Company understands where its strengths are, and one of those strengths in its parks is making knowledge (especially about science and history) consumable by the masses. Even though the stories are boiled-down and filled with the idea of American exceptionalism, I can’t help but love the shows at the American Adventure and the Hall of Presidents. The Universe of Energy at Epcot is still one of my favorite attractions, perhaps because of the combination of Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Nye (the Science Guy), and Alex Trebek. It is the unique combination of Disney’s parks and the way they present information that sets it apart from a Universal or Six Flags. It’s an all encompassing experience for the whole family.

This post is boiled down from a conference presentation, which was boiled down from a 28+ page dissertation chapter. For more information, ask me! Or wait and read my dissertation.

– The Lady Americanist.

The Lady Americanist on Writing.

Things are ramping up here with the Lady Americanist. I finished comps, I defend in a few weeks, and I have to get a chapter of my dissertation ready for presentation at ASA in November. I’m trying to really get through my dissertation now that I’m not teaching, in hopes that I finish my degree either next fall or spring 2016. I refuse to putz.

My dissertation isn’t organized into regular chapters, but rather into “modules” that contain background information, two case studies, and analysis on a media corporation. Each case study will be about the length of an average chapter (20 pages), but the intro to the module will be about 10 pages and the analysis 25 – 30 pages. I figure as long as I draft about one item per month, and keep two others in the cycle, I’ll be done in about a year. I have one chapter near completion, another in rough draft form, and others that are either outlined or planned out. I think this is a doable goal, but we’ll see how research progresses.

When I write, my pieces go through distinct stages. First, I plan. What is my thesis statement? What are the main points of support? I write this on an index card and keep it with my research materials. This helps when I get lost in the research. Sometimes it’s very difficult to see the forest through the trees. My chair is helpful in this regard because he can easily set me back on course.

Next I outline. This is not necessarily a traditional outline with Roman numerals, but sometimes a chart with my points on one side and sources on the other. I used this to propose a chapter about the Pentagon Papers. It helped to show that I knew the important sources and where to find them. The outline is what I need it to be. A method that isn’t flexible isn’t terribly helpful in the long run. It has to adapt to the type of chapter you are writing.

Here is where I finally get into the writing stage. I write everything I already know or have source material for. This helps me see the gaps and get words on the page, which frankly is a major part of the battle. I try for between 10 and 13 pages in this stage.

Finally, I complete the draft, put it through some revisions (which I do almost exclusively on paper; I hate editing and revising on the computer), and create a final draft for my committee to evaluate. They have seen one chapter (well, most of them have…), and I’m hoping to give them another at the end of October. Our department is a little understaffed, so I need to keep myself busy while they work through all of the comps, drafts, defenses, and grading that they have to do (in addition to, you know, their lives).

I have a Pinterest board about dissertations that seems to be getting some followers, so it must make sense to someone. Please feel free to follow me!

– Lady Americanist.

The Lady Americanist on Social Media.

American studies, due to its interdisciplinary foundation, uses more than just text-only sources to build scholarship.  We use film, photographs, art, music, and pretty much anything you could find around your home to research.  Attempting to organize that research can be quite challenging, especially when one is working on a large project like a thesis or dissertation.  Certain platforms, such as Zotero, are excellent for keeping books and articles in line and organized.  But what if your research relies on purely visual sources?  Or household gadgets?  Or even the Internet itself as a subject?

Enter social media.
I’m not positing that you should move your research hours over to Facebook, but there are very popular sites that can enhance your research capabilities and make your work more accessible to others in process.
1. Pinterest
Pinterest is a virtual bulletin board that allows you to create “boards” and curate online collections.  It began in 2010 as a invitation only site, allowing small numbers of creative individuals to build “pin” libraries and get the site on its feet.  Now, it is a fully open site with numerous categories of “pins” and something for everyone.  I use it to organize online articles, books, and images that I want to refer back to during the writing process of my dissertation.  My most recent board is “NBC Olympics,” which hosts articles about NBC’s handling of the 2012 London Summer Games, as well as pictures of the publicity posters.  One of my colleagues is performing research on Manhattan Mini Storage advertisements, and she has created a board feature more than 90 ads.  Pinterest is also an excellent way to creatively showcase your department and its activities.
2. Tumblr
Tumblr is another social media site that focuses on the visual, but also allows for some “micro-blogging.”  You can easily collaborate with others, as on Pinterest, but there is no option to keep your blog secret, so its best purpose is to share research with others.  Many major research institutions (Philadelphia Museum of Art; National Archives) have Tumblr sites, and they are great sources for images.
3. Twitter & Facebook
Twitter’s purpose for the scholar lies more in networking than anything else.  It is a simple way to connect with other social-media-minded scholars and programs, as well as discover new blogs and books.  If you choose to have a personal and a professional Twitter account, as I do, try a platform like TweetDeck or HootSuite to manage them.  Facebook serves largely the same purpose as Twitter, in that its primary purpose is networking.  Both also provide the possibility of causing more problems than they solve.  Be most careful on these sites, choosing your words, pictures, and shares carefully.  Because I look at the role of media and corporate culture in my research, these sites also allow me to see how different corporations see themselves and how they build online identity.
Obviously, there are lots of other ways to employ social media, like blogging, but these platforms have been especially useful to me in organizing my research.