From Hair Stylist to Historian
Associate Professor Aliza Wong discusses her passion for history, and her love of teaching and mentoring.
by Kristina Woods Butler
To say that Aliza Wong is a busy woman might be an understatement.
“I wear a lot of hats,” she said with a laugh. “I think I look good in them!”
Wong came to Texas Tech University in 2001 when her husband Stefano D’Amico was hired as an associate professor in the Department of History. Currently, she is not only an associate chair and associate professor in the Department of History, but also is director of European Studies, a senator on the Faculty Senate, a member of the Teaching Academy, faculty liaison for the Cross Cultural Academic Advancement Center (CCAAC), and she sits on the Research Advisory Council, the Strategic Planning Council, and the Graduate Council.
Wong remembers wanting to be a hair stylist as a child. However, her dream was short-lived after she cut her sister’s Cinderella doll’s hair, and her mom suggested that Wong find an alternative. Wong’s second career choice was teaching. A self-proclaimed “nerdy kid,” Wong loved school and books so much that even when she was sick, she wouldn’t miss a day of class.
“I remember one day I was sick, and my mom told me I couldn’t go to school,” she said. “I cried so much that my mom put me in a taxi and sent me to school, so I could finish up the other half of the day of kindergarten.”
A Life of Letters
Wong never lost her enthusiasm for learning. As an undergraduate at Amherst College, she triple majored in English, history, and Asian languages and civilizations. Wong decided she wanted to pursue an advanced degree and become a university professor. She received her graduate degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she studied under one of the foremost scholars of ethnic studies, Dr. Evelyn Hu-DeHart, who, along with Dr. Stephan Epstein, became Wong’s mentor, eventually leading her down a path to a life of letters.
“Race and the Nation in Liberal Italy, 1861-1911: Meridionalism, Empire, and Diaspora”
Aliza Wong's book, Race and Nation in Liberal Italy, 1861-1911, examines the development of Italian southern question discourse based on the perceived cultural, political, and economic divide between north and south. This book describes the resonance of meridionalism and how the familiarity of its language lent itself to other discussions of difference–the racialization of the southern question and its appropriation by criminal anthropologists in constructing biological hierarchies; the comparisons between the conquest of Africa and the internal colonization of the south; and the establishment of a southern Italian diaspora whose unique racial characteristics could lead to a possible new form of imperialism in South America. More about the book.
“I think one of the great things we do as professors is mentoring, and I had amazing mentors,” said Wong. “I think that every single successful researcher can point back to an amazing mentor who inspired them to reach for something different–to go a little bit further and push a little bit harder.”
With the guidance of her mentors, Wong wrote her first book, “Race and Nation in Liberal Italy, 1861-1911: Meriodionalism, Empire, and Diaspora,” an investigation into the development of Italian Southern Question discourse, or the divide between the Italian North and South, and an examination into the ways in which race became fundamentally the familiar vocabulary that Italians used to define difference.
She is working on her second book based on the pervasiveness of Italian constructions of the American Far West. The idea surfaced while conversing with her Italian friends about her move to Lubbock. Not thinking any of them would know the location, she was surprised to learn it was familiar due to popular 1950s postwar Italian comic book character, Tex Willer, an American cowboy who visited the Texas panhandle town.
“The book is about the ways in which Italians imagine the American West and make it uniquely and wholly Italian, but at the same time, has been internationalized and globalized so much that there are certain Italian-American cowboy themes that have been appropriated and turned into American themes,” Wong explained.
In her book, Wong references Tex Willer, as well as other examples of the Italian-made interpretations of the American West, including stories from children’s books, the legend of Buffalo Bill and his epic battle with the Maremma Butteri (Italian cowboys from Tuscany), and Sergio Leone and the “Spaghetti Westerns.”
“To this day, when many people think about cowboys and the American West, they think about Clint Eastwood in the Spaghetti Westerns and the sounds of Ennio Morricone,” Wong said, whistling the familiar theme song to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
“Those are Italian constructions,” she continued, “and yet, globally, it has so permeated popular culture that when people think of the American West, it is not necessarily the John Ford movies they are thinking of, it’s Sergio Leone.”
Wong’s book concludes with an epilogue on Western fashion and the re-envisioning of the American West through the creations of iconic Italian brands such as Dolce & Gabbana and Versace.
“There is something very special about being in a classroom and seeing when a student’s eyes light up, and they start connecting things.” — Aliza Wong
In the Classroom
Although her research and various commitments are extremely important to her, Wong still thinks of herself first and foremost as a teacher.
“Texas Tech is a unique place because as a research university it has not lost its focus on education. Even though we are working toward Association of American Universities status and talking about funded research, ultimately we are still a university where professors teach students, and I think we all benefit from that,” said Wong. “I think that in teaching, in being able to react to my students’ body language, and see them either not quite get it or be really excited about something, I can react, and that changes my research, the way I write, my scholarship, and makes me question things in different ways.”
Along with her graduate-level classes, Wong teaches several undergraduate courses, including 19th and 20th Century Europe, Western Civilization, Italian Fascism and, one of her most popular courses, History of the Italian Mafia.
Teaching Diversity Across the Curriculum is a pilot program by CCAAC to help find intellectual intersections for faculty, staff and students through curricular and co-curricular education.
Ten professors across four colleges participated in Open Teaching Concept 2012 by dedicating one class lecture each to the selected topic: “Politics, People, and the Popular: Global and Domestic Perspectives on the U.S. Political System.”
Kent Wilkinson, Department of Journalism and Electronic Media, is seen here during his lecture “International News Coverage of the 2012 U.S. Election.” Click to enlarge.
Emily Skidmore, Department of History, is seen here during her lecture “Let's Talk About Sex: Scandal, Sexuality, and the Debate Over Morality in Presidential Elections, Past and Present.” Click to enlarge.
“When we were first putting the course together, we thought we needed to come up with a sexy title for it, and we came up with some very un-sexy titles for it,” Wong said with a laugh. “Then we realized all you need to call it is ‘History of the Italian Mafia,’ and students will come.”
Wong said her greatest joy is when she sees things begin to “click” for her students, and they begin making correlations with topics they are learning in other classes across campus.
“There is something very special about being in a classroom and seeing when a student’s eyes light up, and they start connecting things,” said Wong. “It’s not just that they got something from lecture one to lecture 10, it’s that they’re bringing in something from one of my colleague’s classes, and all of a sudden these little pieces start to come together and begin to paint a portrait for them. You can always see that moment happen, because their writing starts to change, the way they discuss things starts to change, and their passion for the subject starts to change. When they start to make their own connections, and the education is not simply about me giving them information but about them learning to digest it and come to their own opinions and analysis about that knowledge, that is the best moment for me.”
Open Teaching Concept
One way Wong hopes to jump-start this interdisciplinary connection is through a pilot program called Teaching Diversity Across the Curriculum, developed by the CCAAC and members of the Teaching, Learning, and Connecting Through Diversity Advisory Council–a group of faculty committed to access to education, diversity, multiculturalism, open and difficult dialogue, and global connectedness throughout campus. The open-teaching program is a way to find intellectual intersections for faculty, staff, and students through curricular and co-curricular education.
In mid-October, 10 professors across four colleges–Education, Human Sciences, Media and Communications, and Arts and Sciences–participated in Open Teaching Concept 2012 by dedicating one class lecture each to the selected topic: “Politics, People, and the Popular: Global and Domestic Perspectives on the U.S. Political System.” The lectures, which ranged from comics and cartoons in politics, to hot topics like immigration, sexuality and education, were open to students enrolled in any of the participating professors’ classes. Co-curricular activities, including poetry readings, film screenings and panel discussions, were open to the entire campus community.
“The idea is to give our students the opportunity to look at a subject through multiple lenses,” said Wong. “Mixing the curricular with the co-curricular gives students that experience of making connections and letting them feel comfortable in their own voice and opinions so that they realize that their voice matters more than ever. We don’t want to propagandize. We don’t want to tell our students what to think. We want to give them the tools to think. Whatever their decisions are, however they analyze, the importance is that we give them the tools to come to their own decisions, to realize how important their own voices are within their education, within the political system, within the educational system.”
The group will analyze the feedback received from this first Open Teaching Concept and begin planning for next year’s program.
Since Wong’s arrival to Texas Tech, she has been honored for her outstanding teaching and service through awards such as the Phi Alpha Theta Distinguished Faculty Award (2003-2004 and 2006-2007), the Hemphill-Wells New Faculty Teaching Award (2004-2005), the Mortar Board Society's Outstanding Faculty Award (2005-2006), the Alumni Association New Faculty Award (2005-2006) and the President’s Excellence in Teaching Award (2006-2007).
Wong also is a well-decorated researcher, receiving many fellowships and awards, including two Fulbright research awards–a student research fellowship to Italy (1999-2000) and a Fulbright Junior Scholar Award to Italy (2005-2006), of which generally only one is awarded annually.
The Department of History
The Department of History at Texas Tech University is a vibrant community of scholars who seek to understand the past and teach courses that introduce students to the processes of historical thinking and analysis for the development of an informed citizenry. The department offers undergraduate and graduate programs taught by a diverse faculty from a range of disciplines and research fields.
The broad liberal arts foundation available through a major in history can deepen students’ understanding of the complex world in which they live, stimulate intellectual attitudes conducive to effective participation in contemporary society, and cultivate those mental skills required for meaningful employment in many areas of the modern economic system. A history student may consider a career in teaching within colleges, universities, or public schools; in park administration; in regional and local historical society work; in archives and records management; in museum work; in various branches of government work; and in business and industry generally. Many students use their undergraduate history major as a preparation for advanced studies in such areas as law, medicine and theology.
The Department of History offers graduate programs leading to the Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degree. Concentrations are available in the history of Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. In cooperation with the Museum Science Department, graduate students in History may include courses in museum science in their programs or work toward a master's degree in museum science with an emphasis in history. Students may take a concentration in archival administration offered in cooperation with the Southwest Collection.
Connect with the college on Facebook.
Kristina Woods Butler is Associate Director of Research and Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Photos courtesy Neal Hinkle and the CCAAC.