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.

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!

Creating a Community College Scholarship

In 2007, I graduated from Nassau Community College with my Associate of Arts degree. Since 2012, I have sat on the NCC Alumni Association’s Board of Directors, which has given me some invaluable experience working with both faculty and administration and getting a behind the scenes look at the inner workings of academia. Through the Alumni Association, I’ve also had the opportunity to give back to the campus community in some really meaningful ways. In the past, I created four multimodal scholarships (rather than write essays to win the scholarships, students created videos, sound clips, posters, etc.), won funding for important events on campus (like the IDEAS Symposium that I’ve written about in the past), and helped to increase our on-campus visibility, our interactions with students, and our alumni recruitment considerably. Recently, we’ve become an even more active presence on campus.

One morning a few months back, I drove to campus during a snowstorm for a meeting that ended up being cancelled because of the weather. Since I was already on campus, I decided to pass through the psychology building on my way back to the parking lot to see if a former professor of mine would be in her office. Since I hadn’t seen her in over eight years, I was happy when I found her door open…and that she actually remembered me! It was great catching up, and during the course of conversation, she mentioned that she uses the Children’s Greenhouse, a remarkable daycare facility on campus, for her two young children. She sang praises for the staff there, but even more for the strong-willed students who fight every day to stay in school despite the formidable challenges of raising children- often as single parents, often as teenagers, often while working full-time, and often without support from family. I was moved, and I thought back to a meeting I had last fall with the head of the Suffolk County Community College Alumni Association, who said that one of their most meaningful purposes on campus is finding ways to support struggling student parents on campus. I suggested the possibility of the Alumni Association offering some sort of support to some students there, and she was so excited and so grateful.

Children's Greenhouse Wall

Children’s Greenhouse Wall

Well, months went by with weekly, if not daily, emails back and forth about what kind of support to give, how much, how the application process would work, how the distribution process would work, etc. The Alumni Association was very supportive of the idea from the start. Many of the women on the Alumni Board had attended NCC as parents and knew how hard it could be to balance family and school. They gave their full support, and we moved along quickly.

On Wednesday, May 13, 2015, we finally got together for the ceremony. Six young women were each awarded a laptop, which the Children’s Greenhouse Board had decided was the best gift we could give them. Among the numerous reasons for this is the following:

Receiving a laptop would be functional and meaningful to many student parents. Not all students have access to their own computing device.  Therefore, they have to find additional time to go their public library or a campus computer lab during the day.  This often necessitates either more hours of childcare or bringing their child(ren) with them.  Many student parents are only able to do school-related work at night after their children go to sleep.  Having a personal laptop would make this easy and efficient.

The six young women were full of gratitude, offering profuse thanks (one of them even dancing around), but I was no less affected than they were. It was incredibly humbling to be in the presence of such strong, determined human beings. I knew ahead of time that the ceremony might be an emotional experience, but there was no way to prepare myself for some of the stories the women had to share, and several times I found myself at a loss for words. These are women who work full time, mother full time, attend school part or full time, often with additional stresses and hardships, and yet somehow they find a way to remain positive and enthusiastic through all of their challenges. I remember being proud of my own achievements when I was at NCC, but my own achievements do not compare with those of these radiant young mothers. Here’s one more heartfelt congratulations to all the laptop recipients and to all those whom I did not meet, but who have their own stories, their own trials, and their own challenges.

Here are some pictures from the ceremony:

Handing out laptop awards to student parent recipients.

Handing out laptop awards to student parent recipients.

From left to right are two laptop recipients, myself, Jennifer (another Alumni Board member), three more laptop recipients, and my former psychology professor, Diana.

This recipient was dancing and singing out of happiness! Her enthusiasm made everything so meaningful and worthwhile.

When I left the ceremony, I was so grateful to be able to have such a meaningful impact on so many lives. It may not seem like a huge deal, but six laptops in the hands of six young student parents who did not have computer access previously can be revolutionary to six lives…or twelve lives if you include one child for each of them. I’m excited to find the next opportunity to make a difference!

Elementary School Visit

About a month ago, the elementary school that my sister teaches at (PS 212 in Jackson Heights, Queens) invited me to be a guest speaker there. Believe it or not, I wasn’t invited to talk to them about books or literature. I was invited as geologist!

I spent about 6 months between my M.A. and Ph.D. working at a gold prospect in the Alaskan Interior. The prospect was a large scale operation, and they a number of renowned geologists working there to analyze core samples, decipher stratification, plan extraction, etc. Aside from those “top” geologists, there were about 15 other geologists who were by my side 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, teaching me the ins and outs of field geology. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I may be able to get by as a geologist minor.

So, PS 212 invited me to speak about my experiences with rocks, minerals, plate tectonics, mining, and all things in between. I brought about 15 samples with me to pass around- everything from quartz intrusions to pyrite to ultramafics, sedimentary to metamorphic to igneous, rock I’ve polished and turned into clocks or drink coasters, and rocks I’ve found high in the Alaskan mountains that contain fossils from the ocean floor. I also brought in the bone of a moose jaw that I found on an Alaskan riverbank, still with the teeth set in it and all.

I played the part of a wild, outdoorsy geologist, too. I dressed up in my knee-high boots, my Carhartts, my headlamp, my leather gloves, and safety goggles. The students loved it! They were so excited to see rocks that had stories behind them or minerals that had immense monetary value behind them. I think most of all they were excited that a boring school topic suddenly became very alive and tangible. I’m still waiting on my sister to send me pictures from some of the classes I spoke in (I had four 50 minute classes altogether), but I’ll post those when I receive them.

It was also a really good pedagogical exercise. I find that a lot of the teacher training I’ve received for primary and secondary school classrooms is equally effective at the postsecondary level. Positive reinforcement is so important for elementary schoolers, but guess what! College students also need positive reinforcement. Like younger students, they also like to feel important and meaningful. College students are at an age where adults often don’t pay as much attention to them anymore, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t thirst for praise and encouragement. I believe all human beings need these things, and a classroom without these things is a sterile, less productive classroom. Even other skills that I learned while teaching younger children have been extremely important for my classroom leadership and presence at the college level. Recognizing when second grade students’ attention spans are expiring is essential! When I would see that, I would take a moment to stop, collect the classroom, maybe have them stand up and shake out their excess energy, and begin fresh with a new pace and tone of voice. The same goes for a college classroom. Attention spans only last so long, so before they run out, I like to re-energize the class a little bit. It’s often with something as simple as a change of my voice, or a pause to ask if there are any questions thus far. Sometimes I’ll incorporate technology to break up the lesson. An informative YouTube video related to class material can sometimes be a great tool as well. More than anything, I think back to my experiences teaching elementary schoolers, and I always think of how much fun it was- how energetic the classes were and how much excitement there was. Because we were all smiling, we were all glad to be there, and thus the students learned better. The same principle applies to college level students. I teach at 8:30 AM, and one of the most frequent pieces of feedback I get on course evaluations is how energetic and engaging the class is at that early hour. I firmly believe that the instructor can only expect to get as much out of students as he or she puts into them.

Anyway, I just had to take a break to watch my grad student mentor defend her dissertation. Congratulations Brandi Dr. So! I’ll have to write a post on her one day and how much her mentorship influenced my identity and role in the English Department. For now, my momentum is broken, and it’s time for the long commute home. Ave atque vale!

Archaeology Dig Weekend

Yesterday, the day finally came for the archaeology project I mentioned in an earlier post. It was supposed to be a few weeks prior, but we had to reschedule because of yet another snowstorm. Well, yesterday was a no-go as well. Why? You guessed it….more snow. So that left us with today to dig.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect. There were, I think, nine people in all, divided into four teams of two, each of which was to dig 60 cm holes at marked spots every ten meters or so in a grid system. I was very fortunate to be paired up with a professional archaeologist who recently got his Masters in Archaeology from Stony Brook. He has been involved in archaeological field work for over twelve years, and, next to the project leader, he was the person to defer to for advice and opinions. This was awesome for me, because he explained everything that we were doing and finding very clearly, giving me a good sense not only of what we were involved with at the moment, but also of the varying perspectives and methodologies of archaeologists in general. It was fascinating to hear how archaeologists view excavation sites as texts, which can be interpreted in a hundred different ways by a hundred different archaeologists. For example, one archaeologist may be interested in precontact stone tools, another in modern era ceramics, and another in agricultural production, and these personal/professional interests (together with previous experience and institutional training) will shape the way each interprets the history and significance of a site.

So, we began by 9 A.M. The site was in a lightly wooded area, squeezed between the road and the bay.

Dig Site

In the picture above, we were in the wooded patch in the direct middle. My group was digging the holes closest to the water, just above the declension that led down to the bay shoreline. This was apparently the most fruitful area of the dig. As I sifted through the first shovelful of dirt, we made an exciting find: a quartz flake, which was a fragment of a precontact Native American tool used for sharpening arrowheads and other stone tools. They also served as cutting blades. Throughout the day, we found dozens more quartz flakes. Other artifacts that we found were: 2 old nails, a bolt head, a metal button, several pieces of colonial ceramics, a few dozen pieces of nineteenth-century ceramics (including “redware,” likely made in Huntington or Northport), a few pieces of precontact pottery, some coal and fire cracked rocks, and some small pieces of brick.


A beautiful, warm morning spent digging in the snow over the bay.

The best hole of the day was our second to last one. On the first scoop of topsoil alone, we found probably a hundred fragments of shells and a handful of nineteenth-century ceramics. This was unusual, because our first scoops very rarely turned up artifacts, and we normally came out of holes with an average of probably five shell fragments. Working just in the top zone of soil (roughly 15 cm) alone, we found hundreds of shell fragments, a horse or goat tooth (showing evidence of domesticated animals and suggesting agricultural production), dozens of pieces of redware and painted ceramics, a nail, and a few bones. Deeper down toward 60 cm we found one or two precontact quartz flakes, but most of what we found was close to the surface, right in a low spot at the top of the hill/cliff. We determined that this may have been a midden for the occupants’ food and domestic waste. This made us excited for what we would turn up at the holes above this one, which would likely have been where a domestic dwelling would have been.

Unfortunately, as we were halfway through the first of those holes, a public safety officer pulled up along the road and told us that the land we were digging on was not owned by the people who gave us permission to dig there. In other words, we checked ahead of time with people across the street who claimed to own the property, and they gave us their permission to dig there, to park in their driveway, and to use their restrooms, but this officer told us that those people did not own the land we were digging on, and we were in fact (in alleged fact) digging on restricted land, so we had to call it quits and pack it up. I’m not sure whether the officer was right, or why the people across the street would claim to own land that isn’t theirs.

Archaeology Group

I’ll tell you what, though: English majors never get chased away from their research by police! Beware of hanging out with archaeologists! This was such a fun day, and even though the fun got cut short, it was an exciting termination to the fun. I have a new way of thinking about history and how we access it. Archaeology is sort of like Thing Theory in the raw. I’ve been thinking all afternoon of how I can incorporate this type of archaeological work into my dissertation, but I haven’t come up with a solid answer to that yet. I suppose it’s something to keep in the back of my mind as I move forward. In the meantime, I’m definitely going to try to do more archaeological work. I recommend it to anybody who likes history, likes hands-on work, or likes spending time in the outdoors!