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Paideia Student Receives Book Contract for Her Senior Thesis

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    Katie Mead

Book makes connections between a famous Beat poem and Native American trickster mythology

As a student in Southwestern’s Paideia program, senior American Studies major Katie Mead has learned to make connections between her academic courses. This year, that ability landed her a book contract−before she has even applied to graduate school.

It all began when Mead took classes in both 20th Century American Literature and Native American Religions in her junior year. The interdisciplinary training that benefits Paideia scholars prompted Mead to examine Allen Ginsberg’s epic Beat poem “Howl” through the lens of Native American trickster mythology for her senior honors thesis.

Native American trickster mythology holds that Old Man Coyote is a paradoxical entity − composed of good and evil in equal and complex relations. Mead attempts to convey the complexity of this character, saying he possesses an insatiable appetite and an affinity for falling victim to tricks and traps. Coyote also is unencumbered by the boundaries of time and space and has the transformative power to change shapes and identities, according to Mead. “The Coyote is not a hero or a villain, but has the capacity for both,” she said. “That’s why we can learn from him.”

This is the framework Mead uses to examine “Howl,” which was written in post-World War II America. Ginsberg rebelled against societal norms during his leadership of the Beat movement. Not surprisingly, “Howl” endured an obscenity trial for graphic sexual language and, though cleared of the charges, was relegated to the fringes of accepted literature.

Native American writing suffered a similar fate as the Beat poetry of Ginsberg’s generation. The transcription of Native American oral myths has been deemed by many as “not real literature” and marginalized in part because of the frank language often used to describe sex and violence.

Mead argues against the exclusion of Beat poetry and Native American literature in her thesis. “I hope this work will get people more interested in Native American literature and thus help foster a greater respect and awareness of Native American cultures and activism,” she said.

Mead credits much of her success to the Paideia program and the professors and advisors who guided her scholarship. “Being in Paideia helped me to think critically about how my classes fit together,” said Mead, who is in Psychology Professor Traci Giuliano’s Paideia group.

Ken Mello, assistant professor of religion, teaches the course in Native American Religion that spurred Mead’s interest in trickster mythology. English Professor David Gaines teaches the 20th Century American Literature course that reignited her interest in Beat literature and “Howl” specifically. Communication Studies Professors Bob Bednar and Dustin Tahmahkera also serve on her honors thesis committee. “They meet with me regularly to discuss ideas and editing possibilities, and all of them have given me endless encouragement, without which I would not have been able to complete such a hefty work,” Mead said.

Mead also credits fellow student Evan Brewer for inspiring her to see this work as a means of social activism as well as an academic project.

Bednar said he is impressed by the merit of Mead’s thesis and her initiative as a young scholar. “Katie’s work is well researched, insightfully written, fresh and daring,” he said. “It deserves the attention it is getting. In my 18 years of teaching undergraduates, I never had a student land a book contract while still in college until now. It is indeed a remarkable accomplishment, but for those of us who know Katie, it is not exactly surprising.”

Mead said she found McFarland publishers through a Google search and sent them a formal book proposal. They offered her a contract, and her book Howling: The Trickster in Ginsberg is scheduled to be published in early 2012.

Mead is applying to six different Ph.D. programs in American Studies and hopes to secure a spot in one of them so she can further study American literary works as focal points upon which to better understand American social and cultural history.

− Shannon Hicks