February 2019: SEA 2019

I write from sunny and snowy Eugene, Oregon, where the Society of Early Americanists (SEA) Conference has just wrapped up. When I say snowy, I mean snowy enough that incoming flights were delayed and/or cancelled leading up to the conference start, so many (including myself) slept overnight in airports on the way in. You think that’s gonna stop a bunch of cutthroat early Americanists? Heck no. The conference was a blast, and it was genuinely enjoyable to be in the midst of such a positive and enthusiastic crowd.

My own presentation (on the “Early American Magazine Culture” panel) was on an open-access repository of early African-American periodical literature that I’ve slowly been building over the past few months. To summarize the project/tool, I’ve thus far made accessible 235 of the many literary texts I’ve found published in three African-American-related periodicals from 1825-1831 (Freedom’s JournalThe African Repository, and Garrison’s Liberator). These (mostly unstudied) texts offer new materials for students and researchers to explore issues of race in early American literature and culture. In my own research with many of these texts, I’ve found subliminal and subversive layers of expression that are often unnoted— especially in this period. The repository has considerable pedagogical use as well, giving students the opportunity to transcribe, annotate, study, close-read, and create original research about texts that no scholars have studied before. The tool also raises theoretical questions about how editors influence the way texts are received and about how reprints can acquire different meanings in different venues.

I also went to the following panels: “Circulating Information in the West,” “Models of Intertextuality in Early American Studies” (both of them!), “Early American Periodicals and Genre Experiments,” “Early American Media Ecologies,” “Teaching in the Archives,” and “Teaching Across Periods: Early America to the Present Day.” As I look back through my notes, I want to list a few takeaways for teachers of early & c19 American literature:

  • Using “Antiques Roadshow” to introduce students to early American material culture is a win for everybody
  • The Early American Handwriting tool from Reed College can be a fun way of helping students read old styles of handwriting.
  • Summative, engaging, and authentic assignments for archival/experiential learning courses/units can take many forms, including the following:
    • podcasts, “blessays” (blog essays), social media posts, student-generated fiction, websites, et al.
  • One way to help students learn the value of language and the skill of close reading is to have them create their own “found poems” out of other “found poems.”
  • Similarly, having students creatively turn long poems into concise poems using the same language, but making choices about meter, rhyme, word choice, etc. puts students in the author’s seat, forcing them to confront and understand the importance of these textual features.

Well, it looks like there’s already a zombie-esque crowd of passengers shuffling wide-eyed and grumblingly closer to the boarding gate, so I’d better pack up and join them. Thanks for reading February’s issue of the Monthly Journal- don’t forget to subscribe (see below for subscription rates…but know that I like you so much that your subscription is on the house)

From Freedom's Journal, March 16, 1827, vol. 1, no. 1.

From Freedom’s Journal, March 16, 1827, vol. 1, no. 1.

Presenting at the CUNY Public History Collective


October 28th, 2016 was the first-ever CUNY Public History Collective Conference, organized by the graduate students there. I felt honored to be invited to present, considering I was the only literary scholar in attendance. But, as you may have noticed, my work frequently crosses over from literature and history and vice versa.

The event was inspiring. I’ve never been the type of person to be content with operating in a contextless vacuum (probably the result of my undergraduate experience at Tulane, which was notedly public-service oriented, as well as my doctoral experience at SBU, during which I’ve found my way to a number of professors who share similar publicly-focused mentalities). So, attending this public history conference was like diving into the deep end of the public humanities pool. It was stimulating to see what other scholars, archivists, and museum workers are doing to serve, educate, and engage the public.

My own session was on the project that I had spent all summer working on in conjunction with a Setauket-based non-profit and another private research company. The project’s goal is to protect and promote the rich (at times richly beautiful, and at times richly somber) history of the community of color in the Three Village Area. This summer, I spent many hours at archive in Emma Clark Library, making copies of historical newspaper articles, oral history transcriptions, cataloged research notes, letters, etc., to help build a strong application for the NY and National Registers of Historical Places. Another part of my involvement this summer was building a map that documents the changes in land ownership in Setauket by people of color from 1873 through the mid-twentieth century. Here is the link to that map.

Here is a video of my presentation (which begins at the 37:00 mark):

Afterlives: Place, Memory, Story 2, Place and Remembrance from The Center for the Humanities on Vimeo.

There are two sessions I attended that I want to make special note of. The first was by Quinn Berkman and Michael Lorenzini at the NYC Department of Records and Information Services in the Municipal Archives and Library. This joint-presentation stuck with me for days afterward. It was about their project of transforming into something publicly accessible and valuable NYC’s archive of crime scene photos and mugshots from the late 1800s through the 1970s. Their descriptions of the archival process (including wearing a hazmat suit to the storage room where the photos were all located), the methodological strategies behind their digital publications, and their participation in Photoville, a photography exhibition held in storage containers in Brooklyn Bridge Park, were all thought-provoking. Then, of course, the photos from their presentations were grimly fascinating- mugshots and crime scene photos that projected into the audience a strangely cathartic gravitas.

Quinn Berkman of the NYC Department of Records and Information Services

Michael Lorenzini of the NYC Department of Records and Information Services

The other session that I’ve thought a lot about since the conference was by Jessica Underwood Varma, Sarah Litvin, and Elly Berke, all of whom at one point or another worked at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Their presentation was about the practical and methodological issues, considerations, and strategies surrounding a first person interpretative aspect of the museum. Specifically, it is about the “afterlife” given to the real, early twentieth-century immigrant girl named Victoria Confino by the museum. Several employees of the museum (including these three presenters) are trained to play Victoria Confino in order to engage with museum visitors and give them a more “lived” experience. The interaction that Confino gives visitors (especially but by no means limited to children) provides an element of human recognition and a connection with historical reality that is much harder to accomplish solely with artifacts and textual descriptions. The level of (meta)cognition that goes into designing something like this is far higher than it might appear at first glance, and I credit these women and the museum staff for their enthusiastic commitment to a complex, yet immensely successful and rewarding, element of their exhibition.

I encourage any other public humanists out there to check out next year’s Public History Collective Conference at the CUNY Grad Center, whether to present or just to be inspired. Being surrounded my like-minded individuals was immensely helpful and inspiring. Discussions at the lunch table alone got me a sizable list of references and resources to check out for my own work, and the presentations were enjoyable and stimulating.

Organizing Lightning Talks

After going to and presenting at a few different lightning talks events in the past six months or so, I decided to organize a lightning talks event for Stony Brook’s English Department. There were a few strong motivating factors:

1) Lightning talks are a great way for students and faculty to showcase their hard work that often goes so unappreciated and unnoticed.

2) At inter-university lightning talks that I’ve attended, I learned about so many exciting projects and techniques taking place right here in the NYC area that I probably would not have found out about otherwise. I soon realized that there are tons of projects going on in my own department that I don’t about- many of my colleagues don’t know what exactly I’m working on, and I don’t know what exactly many of my colleagues are working on, even though we’re only an office or two apart! Lightning talks provide a fun, relaxed opportunity to learn about the very people/community surrounding us.

3) This new awareness of one’s surrounding academic community often leads to new collaborations and sharing of information and resources!

4) The 3-5 minute time limit is great practice for the loquacious academic (most of us) in focusing talking points and eliminating tangents and unnecessary parts of discussion. It also make one really consider his or her research and writing from new perspective- what are my major arguments, what are my strongest supports for that argument, what did my argument emerge out of, and what is my argument leading toward? After my own lightning talks, I’ve often gone back to my full-length essays and given more attention to points that I realized needed to be stronger and more of a focus, and I’ve also shaved away some of the attention given to points that I found are not as important for my argument.

5) 3-5 minutes also keeps things very relaxed and low-stakes. Rarely have I seen somebody read straight from a paper for a short discussion. Instead, it’s easier to keep things more conversational by talking off the cuff and following a rough outline (maybe 3-6 bullet points is all!). Because it’s such a short amount of time, it might also be a good way for less-experienced presenters to get their feet wet in terms of conference papers.

So on April 19, 2016, I held the SBU English Department’s first ever lightning talks event, featuring about 20 graduate students and faculty members. We also had an awesome and informative presentation from Kate Kasten and Lis Pankl from the SBU library on campus resources for research in the Humanities. I was grateful for funding from both the English Department and the Graduate English Society, which helped make the event a success. The event received an impressive amount of positive and supportive feedback, and I am planning to organize another event this coming spring. Ultimately, I’d like to either open this event up to other departments in the Humanities or create another event for the fall semester through the Humanities Institute.

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!

SUNY Sustainability Conference

I’m posting this a few months after the fact, but I think about this project often, so I thought it would be worthwhile to write about. Maybe I’ll even inspire some others to use their digital humanities skills for an immediately meaningful and useful purpose.

I took a course last semester that taught me how to use ARCgis and its online StoryBuilder component to create maps for projects in the humanities. The actual title of the course was “Geospatial Narratives: Deep Mapping for Humanities and Social Sciences.” As a first assignment that would help students learn the basic skills of digital cartography, we were given a handful of research subjects to choose from. I, along with three other students, chose Stony Brook’s sustainability efforts on campus. Our task was to find all the ways that Stony Brook was working to become cleaner and greener. I’m proud to say that the campus does an admirable job at reducing waste, increasing energy efficiency, recycling, and promoting bicycling (among other things). Our team, of which I was the facilitator, then selected the items that were able to be mapped: small recycling bins (with separate units for bottles, cans, paper, printer toner, ink cartridges, batteries, cell phones, and e-waste), large recycling bins (essentially the size of dumpsters), solar powered trash compactors, water bottle refill stations, energy efficient lights, and the new freight farm (a year-round hydroponic vegetable garden).

Only a month into the semester, our map was published. In fact, it was displayed at the SUNY Sustainability Conference on October 6, 2015. It was a great feeling of accomplishment and gratification to see my own work being broadcast before a variety of people from across New York State. This was one of the best projects I’d ever worked on. It was a true “authentic learning experience.” I genuinely cared about my research, composition, and publication. I’ve often thought about this assignment since. When I give my own students assignments, I want them to be just as engaged as I was with my sustainability map. To see the map, follow the link below.

Click here for a link to our map!

Presenting on DH & Digital Mapping

Last night, I presented some of my work at CUNY DHI’s Media Res #2: NYC Digital Humanities Lightning Talks. I’d never been to a lightning talk event before, and I was pretty inspired by what I saw. Each presentation was strictly limited to five minutes, and there was only about twenty seconds between each presenter, with a five minute break halfway through the presentations for questions, and a longer period for questions and discussion at the end. It was great to see what other graduate students in the Humanities are doing with digital technology. I found myself introduced to completely new practices that have helped me think about how I think about my own work.

My own presentation was on a digital map I made on the number of newspapers by county in the mid-Atlantic in the 1820s and 1840s. Mostly, I emphasized the authentic learning experience that I had by harvesting raw data, transforming it into something visual, creating a narrative out of that visual, and then noticing patterns and trends that made me rethink the narrative and, again, rethink how I think about my work. It was ultimately a presentation about metacognition, but also about one strategy for presenting, teaching, and researching better.

Here is the link to my map:
Newspapers in the Mid-Atlantic United States by County (1820-1829, 1840-1849)

Creating the map was an amazing experience because I first had to (not so amazingly) find the title, location, and publication dates for hundreds of newspapers, write them into a data set, create visual lists of that same data as display images, run them through ARCmap, transfer them into ArcGIS Online, and then create the final product with ArcGIS Storymap Builder. Well, that still wasn’t the good part. The good part was when I saw the finished product and then casually analyzed the two maps I’d created. I noticed that there were way more newspapers in the 1820s than there were in the 1840s, and there was also a higher number of counties that had newspapers in the 1820s, while the newspapers of the 1840s were mostly concentrated in larger cities (Baltimore, Philadelphia, NY, Albany). I also noticed that, in the 1820s, there was a distinct line of newspapers and somewhat higher populations than average straight across from Albany to Buffalo (I had also mapped the county populations). So, I wondered why there was this line of newspapers and population from Albany to Buffalo, why the number of newspapers declines by the 1840s, and why many smaller counties didn’t have newspapers anymore.

Then the connections started happening! The line of newspapers and population across NY State was related to the Erie Canal, which was active from 1821 onward and officially opened in 1825. I was able to find, after quite a bit of searching, a GIS Shapefile for the Erie Canal. I added it into my map and found that the counties on either side of the canal were the exact counties with higher populations and numbers of newspapers! So this route of transportation and, likely, its construction, may have had a strong influence on the population and newspaper production of surrounding areas.

Why, then, did population increase by the 1840s, but the number of newspapers being produced along the Erie Canal decline during the same period? It would make sense that, with larger populations, there would be more of a market for newspapers and more individuals likely to start up printing shops, right? Well, not quite. I thought about what changes happened between the 1820s and 1840s, and it clicked that railroads might have something to do with this. There may have been other factors, too, like the Panic of 1837, and I’ll look into that in due time, but for now I was feeling that awesome, rare, precious “researcher’s high.” So I (again, after much searching) was able to find GIS Shapefiles for the railroads of the entire United States in 1840, 1845, and 1850, and I tailored them just to fit the extent of my map. When I had everything layered together, I saw that the railroad lines connected not just major city to major city, but major cities to surrounding and more distant, less populated counties. My hypothesis is that the railroad made it easier, cheaper, and faster for big printers in major cities to distribute their newspapers to readership in smaller counties, giving them more metropolitan, cosmopolitan news, which may have been preferable to readership in lesser populated areas. That hypothesis raises other questions, like what that means about the ideology of less populated, more agricultural populations. How is their mindset changing as they shift from reading local newspapers to reading news from 200 miles away about big cities and political, economic, and social issues that might not have had much of an impact on their “backcountry” culture previously.

So, the presentation was a success and I met a number of other scholars who had great information to share. In fact, the overall event was such a good experience that I’m thinking of organizing a lightning talk event at Stony Brook. I’m thinking of having one for the Humanities and organizing a few different panels to cover a wide variety of areas: Public Humanities, Digital Humanities, Sciences and Humanities, etc. One of the organizers of the event yesterday said that it was relatively easy to set up, so I’m going to propose this idea at a Graduate English Society meeting later today.

Oh, and here’s a picture of my office mate, David Rodriguez, presenting on his topic (which won a lot of positive attention, rightfully so), entitled “Reading/Navigation: Mapping the Spatial Affordances of the American Novel.”


This past weekend was the NEMLA’s (Northeast Modern Language Association’s) Annual Convention. I was a presenter on a panel entitled, “Local Color Outside the Lines: American Literary Regionalism’s ‘Others.'” A few things made it a great panel. For one thing, there was a great mix of presentation topics that spanned time periods, genres, and methodologies.

The panel on which I presented at NEMLA on May 2, 2015

The panel on which I presented at NEMLA on May 2, 2015

Another aspect of that panel that unexpectedly worked out for the best was that we only had three audience members. Was this disappointing at first? Yes, a little bit. But this actually created an intimate atmosphere that allowed us to have more of an open, friendly discussion after the presentations rather than a standard Q&A session. We had a lot of good, constructive conversation together, and we also had some good laughs!

One of the roundtables that I found most pertinent to my academic life and future was about interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary Roundtable


During the past academic year, I’ve been working in a variety of disciplines: English/literature, American studies, history, archaeology, anthropology, ethnohistory. and, connecting them all, digital humanities. Some of the toughest questions my oral exam committee asked me during the exam were broad, conceptual questions about how to bridge the differences between disciplines. With this in my mind, I attended this panel on interdisciplinarity.

The central question that the roundtable sought to answer was “How do we increase interdepartmental communication and collaboration?”. Here is a list of the answers we came up with:

  1. Incorporate people from other disciplines into literary conferences.
  2. Offer joint coursework or crosslisted courses, but not just between similar fields. Somebody gave an example of a university that offered a class that combined German with Engineering, and sent Engineering students to Germany to study Engineering while being immersed in the German language and culture.
  3. Find the “champions” in each department who are most likely to join an interdepartmental project. Librarians, because of their connections to all disciplines, are a good group of people to get involved with in order to access other faculty and students.
  4. Bring students who have already succeeded and benefited from your interdisciplinary idea to meetings with faculty or administration to whom you’re trying to sell that idea.
  5. Reach students in high school.
  6. Since it’s the deans who often make decisions about interdepartmental courses, projects, and funding, show them how it will be beneficial to them ($, marketing) to support your idea. Or, go in with a plan to utilize funding from an outside source so you aren’t a drain on the dean’s resources.
  7. Alumni can fund programs, connect current students with outside projects, serve as mentors, and get involved in class projects.
  8. Hold small seminars or readings groups with faculty from all different backgrounds.
  9. Create teaching awards that encourage or require interdisciplinary teaching.
  10. Create conference panels that are open to various disciplines.
  11. Utilize “cluster hires,” or faculty members whose job it is to teach in a “cluster” of disciplines.
  12. Finally, students can often serve as liaisons between departments and introduce faculty to one another. I have personally witnessed success with this strategy, as I’ve brought faculty from English and history together for research trips, meetings, and course collaboration.

NEMLA was a great experience- so much so that I’m going to spend my afternoon today writing up a panel proposal for next year’s conference (which will incorporate interdisciplinary for sure!).

I’ll wrap this post up by mentioning my amazing Sunday morning trip to Fort York in Toronto. It was the first European settlement in what is now Toronto, and it has a ton of history to it. The grounds and buildings are remarkably well preserved, and I recommend it to anybody who is interested in military history, military archaeology, military technology, the War of 1812, the fur trade, the “middle ground,” Anglo-American-Indian/First Nation relations, or human geography and ecology. Below are some pictures. Enjoy!DSC_8141 DSC_8143 DSC_8146 DSC_8147