Public & Digital Humanities Panel

This past Saturday (03/05/16) was Stony Brook’s annual graduate English conference. I chaired a panel entitled, “Professing Beyond Academia: Merging Digital and Public Humanities.” I knew my panelists had strong presentations lined up, but I was still impressed way beyond expectation by each individual presentation and the way that all four presentations spoke to one another. Gradcon 2

Above are Daniel Morales (seated) and Nick Juravich (standing), presenting on their SEMAP project. I’d heard them give a lightning talk on their project in November, and was impressed with their digital and public humanities work then, but during this full-length presentation I learned so much more about their fascinating project. Their work centers on revising the history of an area east of Los Angeles. They mentioned that the history of this area usually centers on white development, while the population itself is so largely Hispanic and Native American. SEMAP collects oral histories and other primary documents, makes them accessible to the public, and also engages in community education programs, like visiting local schools to both educate the students and let the students educate the SEMAP folks by sharing their own stories. Daniel and Nick’s work is inspirational to anybody who is interested in public humanities, revisionist history, and community involvement.

Gradcon 3In this photo, Sara Partridge, of NYU’s English Department, presents on her analysis of book lending and circulation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Her work would be interesting to anybody, but to an English major like me? Forget about it- it was like Thanksgiving dinner! Sara talked about her work in digitally cataloging archived charging ledger pages by object title, publisher/printer, subject/genre, and related entities. She brought up a great point regarding genre that I hadn’t previously though much about: the genre that a book might originally be labeled as in the ledger may be very different from the genre that we would assign it today. That idea has really stuck with me and made me think not just about Sara’s (and sometimes my-) role as an archivist but also about how our current perspectives shape the way that we view the past. Related, one ledger lists the purchase of “75 novels” rather than listing them by name. I’ve done quite a bit of reflection on my research since her presentation! She gave me some new insight into the book circulation process that is pretty important for my work

Gradcon 4

The third presenter, Sarah Litvin, is pictured above. Sarah won the conference’s “Best Paper Prize” for her work on religious liberty. She used the telling anecdote of working in a museum, outside of which was a statue that she didn’t know anything about. This in itself is, perhaps, a comment on the public engagement of many public art works. She took it upon herself to research the statue and learned a surprising history behind it- that it wasn’t actually celebrating the religious liberty that allowed Jewish citizens to practice and worship, but that it was actually a monument erected in protest to an amendment that would have made Christianity the official religion of the United States. Sarah turned her experience with this into something much bigger with the creation of an interactive website that allows students to post audio questions and comments on pages showing various images, thus establishing a digital platform for collaborative communication and learning.

The final presenter was Ricky Tomczak, who gave an engaging presentation on the corvee system of northern New York State in the eighteenth century. Before Ricky’s presentation, I actually had never heard of  the corvee system before, so I’m glad that this presentation introduced me to something new and important. Corvee, according to Wikipedia, “is a form of unpaid, unfree labor, which is intermittent in nature and for limited periods of time.” Often, the state imposed such labor on its people rather than (or in addition to) imposing a tax. While working at Fort Ticonderoga last year, Ricky’s intimate knowledge of the corvee grew deeper. He played the role of a corvee laborer in a battle reenactment for tourists (during which reenactment, he actually deserted his unit, which is historically accurate for many corvee laborers), he created his own eighteenth-century French clothes out of eighteenth-century materials and using eighteenth-century patterns (one piece of which he wore during the presentation!), and he helped design public engagement projects there. This was one of the most thought-provoking parts of Ricky’s discussion- how to portray to tourist families a system of labor that blurs the line between free and slave labor, when the paying tourist doesn’t necessarily want to know about such a dark element of history. Ricky’s discussion of the issues surrounding this problem was fascinating!

So, all in all (and despite some technological issues), we had a fantastic panel and I could not have been happier with the outstanding presentations. These five panelists should serve as models to other graduate students of what kind of important, meaningful, and often fun work there is out there that brings our exact research interests into the public realm, whether in a classroom, on a website, or on the site of an eighteenth-century battle reenactment. Many thanks to each one of these awesome, good-spirited panelists for making the panel such a success!

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