Texas Tech University

Professor Examines Spain Through Literature, Film, Cultural Studies

Glenys Young

June 23, 2020

Susan Larson won one of the Texas Tech Parents Association's Barnie E. Rushing Jr. Faculty Distinguished Research Awards.

No matter how old or culturally aware you were in 2008, most people today know about the economic crisis the United States faced that year after depreciation in the mortgage market evolved into a full-scale banking crisis.

What you may not know is that it wasn't solely an American problem. Banks were bailed out to prevent a possible collapse of the world financial system, and economic downturns followed in Asia and Europe.

Spain was particularly hard hit. Building projects already in progress were put on hold indefinitely. Since that time, Spain's cities have adjusted to their new set of circumstances and are looking for ways to deal with what's left behind: abandoned and peripheral spaces with half-finished, yet already crumbling architectural projects, including entire airports and housing. Into these spaces, plants, insects and animals are returning in unexpected ways, for example.


"I've noticed a marked tendency in all kinds of art in Spain since 2008 that, taken as a whole, says something I believe is very important about how cities are reconsidering nature," says Susan Larson, the Charles B. Qualia Professor of Romance Languages in the Texas Tech University Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures.

That concern – the changing assumptions about what cities are or should be in relation to nature – is the focus of Larson's research that, for many years, has studied Spain through the lens of literature, film, cultural and urban studies and environmental justice.

In recognition of her unique, globally aware and impactful work, Larson received one of the Texas Tech Parents Association's 2020 Barnie E. Rushing Jr. Faculty Distinguished Research Awards.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?
I study the urban culture of Spain since 1900, often focusing on Madrid simply because it's the city I know best. I'm interested in the official, top-down ideas about the modern built environment that you can find in documents like urban plans, and contrasting those oftentimes lofty, utopian ideals to the experience of everyday life in the real city that citizens actually inhabit. A good way of studying this gap is to look at newspapers, popular magazines, photography, music, films and literature, where you get a sense of the great variety of ideas in play about what modernity is and what a city should be. This writing, these images and other forms of artistic expression, all work together to map alternative ways of inhabiting urban space.

What projects are you working on at this time?
I'm looking forward to the publication of an edited volume I put together entitled "Architecture and the Urban in Spanish Film," where I talk in my introduction about concepts such as mobility, monumental versus everyday architecture, how films create collective historical memories and how the virtual and digital are finding their way into 21st century Spanish cinema and mass culture. Right now, I'm editing a volume that grew out of a conference I organized on campus in the fall of 2019, entitled "Language, Image, Power: Luso-Hispanic Cultural Studies Theory and Practice." It's a chance to take up the history, evolution and future of the field as both a discipline, pedagogy and a set of working practices. It also shows how Luso-Hispanic cultural studies has grown out of, and radically reconsidered, some of the basic premises of British cultural studies of the 1960s to address the many cultures of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world.

What areas are you interested in for future research?
I'm very interested in how cities are reconsidering nature. I'm interested in how a wide variety of cultural forms – documentary film, graphic novels, design, photography, poetry, novels and even official urban pronouncements and new renewal plans for blighted areas – contain rhetoric about what to do about climate change and waste in particular.

What rewards do you get from teaching?
I love research, but it's also teaching that gets me up and excited to go to work in the morning. Research and teaching are completely intertwined for me. I work out all of my ideas for my publications with my students through our shared readings and discussions in class, and they are constantly surprising me with their great ideas and insightful questions that push my work in new and productive directions.

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?
I don't come from a family of academics. In fact, when I was an undergraduate paying my way through school, I didn't know anyone who had been to graduate school or how to even begin to apply or what it entailed. From a young age, I read literature, watched foreign films and sought out new kinds of music and art as if my life depended on it. During my last year of my undergraduate studies, a great professor of mine changed my life when he convinced me that there were ways of making a living from studying and teaching the things I loved. I feel enormously fortunate to be able to share ideas about the power of art with my students and colleagues.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?
The Qualia Endowment Fund of the Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures, the Dean's Office of the College of Arts & Sciences, the Graduate School, the Thomas Jay Harris Institute for Hispanic and International Communication in Texas Tech's College of Media & Communication, the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and the Humanities Center have all worked together to create a network of support for me and my students. I am also grateful to Texas Tech for the research support that has enabled me to edit the Romance Quarterly, an academic journal I have pushed in a new direction with the assistance of a number of outstanding research assistants. We're raising the research profile of the Spanish and Portuguese program and these resources are a catalyst for the great faculty and graduate students that make this a great place to conduct research.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?
Since joining the Texas Tech faculty four years ago, I've been inspired to think in new ways about urban theory and the interaction between nature and the urban, both in Madrid and here in my new home. I've been motivated to no end both by the lives and personal accounts of my students and by the incredibly unique ecological and cultural landscapes of Lubbock and the West Texas region. Lubbock is a city where almost 40% of its inhabitants identify as Hispanic or Latino, yet there has been relatively little attention paid to the history of Spanish speakers and people of Hispanic, Latino and Latin-American heritage in the area. A lot of what I'm doing in my classes since I arrived is working on ways to discover and document how and where Spanish is spoken, how Hispanic culture has, at times, been erased, ignored or misunderstood and how it is now a very real part of the urban fabric in both symbolic and material ways.