Want to learn more about the faculty, students, and staff that make up the Department of American Studies? Follow along with our new AMST/FOLK Coffee Chat series where we ask our community about new research, old hobbies, and everything in between.
This week we’re chatting with Dr. Daniel Cobb, a professor in American Studies department specializing in American Indian and Indigenous Studies. Read on to learn more about his current writing projects, his recent Fulbright fellowship in Helsinki, and his favorite music for doing research.
Q: Where’s home for you?
A: I grew up in Iowa and I was born in Illinois. My father was a professor so we traveled when he changed jobs. So even though I spent more years coming of age in Iowa, my sense of place is in Pennsylvania, where we moved when I was in high school. Part of it is the historicity of the place — my family lives 30 minutes from Gettysburg and an hour or so from Antietam. I almost always go to Gettysburg when I’m back and I’m not a military historian, but I’m really interested in it as a commemorative space. How do you commemorate the space, which has taken on new meaning lately, and the natural beauty of it? How can a place that’s so peaceful now have seen such extraordinary violence?
Q: What music have you been listening to lately?
A: I don’t know if you know who Tom Morello is, but if you don’t know you should. He’s the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and he just released a solo album which is super awesome. I’ve also been listening to Audioslave a lot because of him. I would add Gary Clark, Jr.’s “This Land” to my list. The music video for this latest single has elicited (as you probably have guessed) a lot of toxic responses.
(scroll to the end to listen to Dr. Cobb’s playlist!)
Q: How would you describe your research to a high schooler?
A: I’m a specialist in 20th century Native America. I’m most interested in politics and activism and the many ways in which we think about a politically purposeful act. I think of purposely political acts because that broadens our conception of what activism is. I’m interested in everyday forms of resistance and art as a form of activism.
For instance, Fritz Scholder gets called the ambassador of the Red Power movement by the American Indian Movement, but he rejects the title. And he says he doesn’t want to be anybody’s Indian, and claims himself as an artist. What does that tell us about where Native people fit into the narrative of the 1960s?
I’m interdisciplinary in the approaches I take. I use sociology and anthropology, “to tell stories that people think are familiar in unfamiliar ways.” We should all go in with the expectation that we’ll be surprised.
Q: What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: One of my professors at Wyoming, where I did my graduate work, said “You have to learn to be your own worst critic.” You have to be a merciless editor of yourself. Never fall in love with your stuff to the point that you can’t see the flaws within it. I think that’s a transferable concept to how we teach or how we are in the world–we must always be willing to critically reflect on ourselves in the name of improvement.
Q: Any advice you want to pass on?
A: I’m not in the business of giving advice. I don’t want to be perceived as someone’s model or inspiration and I don’t look to other people in that way. I don’t want to be an oracle. I’m a student. I’m a lifelong learner. It’s about imagination at the end of the day. I think the best work stems from imagination.
but on a musical note…
Best other (if implicit) pieces of advice—a three-way time (at the moment, this could change at any time) between
- “Little boy lost: he takes himself so seriously.” Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna”
- “It doesn’t mean that much to me to mean that much to you.” Neil Young, “Old Man”
- “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.” Viktor Frankl
Q: Can you tell us about your time spent in Helsinki as the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies?
A: The reason I went to Finland is that I’ve been going to a biennial North American Studies conference there since 2010. You don’t have to spend a lot of time in Helsinki to realize how great it is as a city or Finland as a place–it’s a beautiful and evocative place. I brought my daughters, they got to live in another country, go to a different school. I was lecturing, travelling, and I actually served on grant committees. I gave over 20 presentations at universities across Germany as well as in Helsinki. I was there for 9 months and gave 27 presentations so that figures to about one a week.
I presented on my work on Clyde Warrior, who was perhaps the most important anti-colonial intellectual of the 1960s. He is totally erased from narratives of anti-colonial history and is barely taken seriously as an intellectual. My work is situating Clyde Warrior among the most anti-colonialist intellectuals of the 1960s.
Building on relationships I formed during my time as the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki, I have been invited to teach a course on twentieth-century Native America at the University of Tübingen from May to July of this year
Q: How was American Studies a factor in that work, and how was it received in Helsinki?
A: People are very interested in the United States in Finland. They follow the news more closely than many Americans, and look to the United States as a model in a positive light. It might seem counterintuitive, but people there were more forgiving and hopeful of the United States than I was. And they were more unsurprised that we are where we are. They have looked at the United States from the outside-in all the time and increasingly people are having to approach the United States in that way.
Want to suggest someone for a AMST/FOLK Coffee Chat interview? Send us a line at uncamericanstudies [at] gmail [dot] com.