Embodying American RitualsA Senior Project by Grace Gregory

As an American Studies major, Grace Gregory ’17 says she examined her culture “from the outside in,” reading books and articles written by historians and social critics assigned to her by her professors. When it was time to choose a senior project, Gregory decided to examine the culture in a more personal way, from the inside out.

For her senior project in American Studies, Grace Gregory ’17 created an interactive exhibition, “Embodying American Rituals.” Photo: Photo: Karl Rabe

The result: “Embodying American Rituals,” a compendium of snapshots and sound bites of events she herself experienced – on the Vassar campus and elsewhere – during her senior year.

Armed with a Canon camera for the visual component of the project and her smartphone for the audio, Gregory chronicled six uniquely American experiences over a 14-week span. The journey began with a baseball game Oct. 17, 2016 at Dodger Stadium in her hometown of Los Angeles and ended with a protest rally in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 20, 2017, the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated. In between, Gregory focused on the despair that enveloped the campus on Election Night, her family’s annual gathering for Thanksgiving, frenzied shoppers at a shopping mall on Black Friday, and a night on the Las Vegas Strip.

Gregory displayed about 40 photographs of these events in an exhibition space in the Old Laundry Building, and she supplied some headphones and instructions on how to access the accompanying recordings of the experiences on an app called SoundCloud. Some of the images are purposely ironic. A photo she took on Election Night shows some Vassar students in the Students Building, visibly disheartened as they watch election returns on a giant TV screen. A few feet away, propped against a wall, is a life-sized cardboard cutout of a smiling Hillary Clinton. In her recordings at the baseball game, Gregory captures the optimism of Dodger fans early in a game that ends in a 10-2 loss.

While she does not appear in any of the photographs, Gregory can be heard in some of the audio clips. She takes part in a conversation about slot machines with her mother and grandmother at a Las Vegas casino, and while she’s in a Best Buy store on Black Friday, she sings along to a recording of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Gregory says she decided to include a little of herself in that segment “because that’s such an iconic song for our generation – it’s so evocative.”

Gregory says she was gratified by the support she received for her project from her professors and her fellow students. Shortly after she submitted her proposal to the American Studies faculty, she received an enthusiastic response from Psychology Prof. Randall Cornelius. “Randy immediately volunteered to be an adviser and was really supportive all the way through the project,” Gregory says, adding she also received lots of positive feedback from fellow American Studies majors. “One friend of mine told me he felt like he was inside Dodger Stadium,” she says.

Gregory says the project served as a perfect culmination of her experience as an American Studies major. “There’s a team approach to American Studies here: The faculty supplies the historical perspective and provides the sources of the information, and the students translate it and relate it to their own experience,” she says. “That’s the holistic approach to learning at Vassar, and it really saw me through this project. Through interpersonal relationships with the faculty, you’re able to find a vision of your own.”