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Fighting the Good Fight: Keeping the Literary Fire Alive After Academia

Alexander Slater Johnson, LACS MA’14

When I stepped onto the University of Chicago campus back in the fall of 2013, I was ready to greet it and its atmosphere as if it were an old friend.  The well-trimmed gardens, the tree-lined paths; all of the UC campus immediately reminded me of my years at the University of Oregon.  The similarities, however, ended there.  I had returned to Academia after a three-year absence; an indulgent sabbatical where I worked and traveled around Spain, teaching the English language while improving my own knowledge of Spanish.  I decided to accept the University of Chicago’s offer to do a one-year Master’s program through the Center for Latin American Studies, otherwise known as CLAS, to continue my research interests in Latin American history.  I had completed my undergraduate thesis under professor Carlos Aguirre, who helped me in my writing on the role declassification has had on the official histories of the tumultuous and violent decades of authoritarianism in the Southern Cone.

When you spend time outside of the walls of the academy, its realities begin to take on a rather different, even romanticized look.  The razor-sharp, competitive edges are smoothed-over into a warm, inviting bear hug where everyone dives into their intellectual passions and research in an environment of a collaborative love of knowledge.  Or maybe that was just the University of Oregon.  The truth is, the University of Chicago was a different beast altogether.  The initial nine months (which invariably extended into my first sweltering Chicago summer), saw incredible mental stress, a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree shift in my research interests, and a game I played with the undergraduates rest of the master’s students called “catch up.”

I entered the CLAS Master’s program with a History degree and left one year later with an unbridled passion for Literature.  Indeed, it was Mario Vargas Llosa’s book The War of the End of the World and subsequently Brazilian history at the turn of the twentieth century that motivated me to apply in the first place.  I was hesitant to focus on literature, however, due to my undergraduate background and a lack of confidence in my ability to assimilate into the world of literary studies.  But all of that fades away on a campus, and here is where that cold intellectual bubble began to warm up a bit.  It was post-doctoral lecturer Rosario Granados-Salinas as well as historian Dain Borges who encouraged my interest in literature, and supported what would become my rather arabesque thesis project.

   Studying the Humanities is a daunting proposition these days.  Unless you are sure about that PhD, about entering the tenure-track race, about conference circuits, and about the viability of your research interests, studying literature can raise not a few eyebrows —especially if you’re footing most of the bill for that Master’s degree.  Nevertheless, literature became my new field of study, and (as with any discipline) there are centuries of writers, theorists and academics you must have read or at least “know” in some ambiguous, head-nodding way.  This is when “catch up” began in earnest.  I took a variety of courses and checked out piles of books from the library.  And I had to learn Portuguese. It wasn’t my best idea.

Immediately the difficulty set in.  I felt inferior in almost every sense of the word, and while such a feeling is as isolating as it gets, the staff and professors associated with Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as a few generous souls in the English department, helped me settle in.  With their encouragement, I discovered new avenues of research and slowly gained confidence in working in the Humanities, a field constantly battling the forces of darkness, otherwise known as the social and hard sciences.

My research eventually led me to a small field called Inter-American Studies, which studies connections across all disciplines between the North, Central and South America.  Vargas Llosa’s novel introduced me to the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, whose monumental text Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) is a generic anomaly on the War of Canudos.  As chance would have it, I took a course called “Marx and Melville in the Global Nineteenth Century,” and to this day I am not sure if it was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or my love of Moby-Dick, but before I knew it I was finding connections between these two works and the historical moments that drew Euclides da Cunha and Herman Melville to write their “Great Pan-American Novels.”  That was what I said, at least, to my adviser, whose response will stay in my mind forever: “Far out.”

   A Melville and da Cunha enthusiast himself, my adviser’s encouragement and his willingness to talk about role Herm and Euclides for hours in his office were invaluable to my year at University of Chicago and to my life outside of academia.  The excitement I felt and the inhuman amount of stress I put upon myself in writing my thesis are things I will never forget.  From within higher education, the passionate research you do seems like the most important thing you could possibly be doing.  Advisors and professors take issue for every argument you make and challenge you to articulate, research and think like you never have before.  The minute you step beyond those walls, however, the rigors of your daily life can easily relegate what was once so important to the backburner of your mind.


   But it doesn’t have to be that way.  What might seem opaque in the moment becomes lucid in hindsight.  Although I still teach during the day, at night I put on my academic spandex and fight the criminal banality of daily life.  I have started a podcast called “The Casual Academic.”  At first, it was very challenging to put a show together from scratch and discuss literature for a wider audience.  But preparing each episode is a chance for me to do what rigorous research Google permits me, articulate my ideas both verbally and on paper, and feel more and more that my master’s was worth it.  There is an incredible amount of academic literature available on authors like Umberto Eco, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald, and those discussions are always fruitful.  When we do episodes on authors that are not household names (Venedikt Erofeev, Shirley Jackson, Clarice Lispector), I hear the voice of my adviser telling me to remember my training, and I get to work.  Will I someday go back and pursue my dreams of a PhD?  An open question, up for interpretation and discussion.  For now, there are many ways to follow my interests, and I have my year at the University of Chicago to thank for showing me how.

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

How can you turn your passion into a career?

Serena Hohmann | CLAS Alum and MBA Student at Booth

During undergraduate studies, I developed a passion for Spanish-language literature. While studying abroad in Madrid, I spent afternoons in cafes, engrossed in novels.  It was there that I discovered the works of Julio Cortazar, Juan Jose Millas, Juan Rulfo, and Mario Vargas Llosa, and it was through this literature that I became fascinated by Latin American politics, society, and ingenuity.  The language gave me access to the Latin press, to movies, lectures, and, ultimately, to a completely new way of thinking.  A business internship exchange in Guadalajara following graduation allowed me not only to discover the warmth of Mexican culture, but also the complexity of Mexican politics.

Two years later, I undertook a Masters at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.  The Latin American Studies program was a perfect fit.  The caliber of Mexicanist scholars at the university coupled with access to Mexico’s academic and political heavyweights offered an excellent academic experience both in area studies and public policy.  The curriculum challenged my assumptions and taught me how to tackle complex analytical questions in subjects ranging from Mexican history to Latin American development economics.   In addition, the program offered multiple opportunities to explore a variety of career paths through seminars as well as workshops on how to effectively navigate the various application processes.  Incidentally, the university has only enhanced the breadth of career options available to students in recent years (the Institute of Politics has been critical to these efforts in the public policy space).

During graduate school, the cracks in Mexico’s criminal justice and health system became glaringly apparent to me.  While nonprofits worked tirelessly to engender a cultural shift, it seemed they had little political influence and scant resources.  Exploring models to improve legal and health service delivery in Mexico became a driving question in my research and eventually the topic of my MA Thesis.

But only days before I was scheduled to travel to Oaxaca, the site of my fieldwork, riot police injured 100 A.P.P.O. protesters.  In this politically charged environment, thousands were calling for the removal of Oaxaca’s corrupt governor, including the 15 NGOS that I was scheduled to interview.  To further complicate matters, my research plan included interviews with the state officials who were the subject of the protests.

Little did I know that these events foreshadowed the focus of my public sector career: Mexican political and security analysis.  After successfully completing the research without incident (but with some great stories), I was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF), a rotational leadership development program with the Department of State.  Now I could not only communicate the severity of Mexico’s weak security institutions to senior U.S. policymakers, but also implement large-scale initiatives to transform the capacity, transparency, and integrity of the criminal justice system.

The PMF offered unforgettable opportunities.  During my tenure, I regularly composed strategic trend analyses for the Secretary of State, assessed the security threat to Americans living and working abroad, briefed the Secretary of Transportation ahead of his visit to Mexico, performed electoral monitoring, and experienced foreign-service life at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.  Fellowship rotations offered exposure to the Inter-American Development Bank and the chance to work on a policy desk, where I collaborated with 15 Mexico experts to support the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico to successfully secure his confirmation.

After the fellowship, I was offered a programmatic position with the State Department’s foreign assistance bureau, which offered a host of fascinating challenges.  Our bureau assessed ever-changing cartel dynamics and the actions of Mexican security forces.  As a program manager for the Merida Initiative, the U.S.’s one billion dollar security program with Mexico, I worked to strengthen the rule of law and bolster Mexican judicial institutions through training and tailored procurements.  Part of my job was to craft speeches for leadership to communicate U.S. drug policies to domestic and international audiences.

Hopefully, I’ve given you a snapshot of what a foreign policy career focused on Latin America can offer.  It has certainly been an amazing learning experience and a great adventure.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.