Presenting at the CUNY Public History Collective

Video

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.

Why Archaeology Is So Important For All Of Us

I just want to post a final conclusion about archaeology and its importance:

During my first few weeks of digging, I often wondered to myself what the end-goal of archaeological excavations is. To find out that somebody lived here? To tell people what kind of goods we found at a site? To be able to say where a fireplace was or where a midden was? Ultimately, is it only self-serving, or does it serve a larger purpose? I wondered that last question both in terms of actual meaning and in terms of how archaeologists acquired funding: what is the meaning that this excavation gives the archaeologist and his/her community, and what is the meaning of the excavation that the archaeologist “sells” to potential funders? Over the course of one long day at the muddy, jungle-ish Hart site, I had a conversation with archaeologist Mark Tweedy about this question. Mark is a great guy- a genuine, thoughtful, welcoming individual who cares about what he does. He is profoundly intelligent and experienced, and, not by coincidence, he is the one who I was paired with during my first day digging shovel test pits in the snow in March. I posed the question to him in the morning, and every few hours he’d look up from the quiet solitude of his pit and share a new thought with me about why archaeology is so important. The conclusion  reached that day is that archaeology often (and especially in the case of the kind of work we were doing) gives voice to the marginalized individuals and groups of both the past and present. That idea has stuck with me ever since. Here we were, surrounded by the ornate homes and perfectly landscaped lawns and gardens of a wealthy white community on Long Island’s north shore, digging in an muddy, overgrown patch of marsh for the remnants of the black people who, once upon a time, lived here. The black people who, once upon a time, characterized this area and its economy, culture, and identity. What we were doing was not just looking for the orientation of a house in relation to a walkway or a midden; we were reclaiming the hidden narrative of an elided, marginalized group so that that narrative could be brought back to life and told to future generations, giving proper attention to the true history of this one, isolated community, and also to the true history of our nation at large. And it isn’t only about history, either. Mark pointed out that the small but significant African-American population that still lives in Setauket finds this work and knowledge extremely important to their sense of community, culture, and identity. I’ll leave you with that!

Summer Archaeology

Screening at the Silas Tobias Site with Zack, another volunteer.

Screening at the Silas Tobias Site with Zack, another volunteer.

Twice a week this summer, I volunteered with a team of archaeologists in Setauket and Old Field, NY. The project was part of a larger group/mission called “A Long Time Coming,” which describes itself as a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering and preserving the history of the Setauket, NY area. I’ve posted before about my foray into the field of archaeology, but this was far more advanced and intensive. Working on the Silas Tobias Site and the Hart Site, we excavated a few dozen 1x1m pits, finding some remarkable artifacts and reaching some significant conclusions.

The Tobias Site was a nineteenth-century property owned by Silas Tobias, a free black. The site is located on a wooded hill that descends into Conscience Bay, only meters away. The first day, I was paired up with a graduate student from Montclair University who was incredibly knowledgeable and willing to help a newbie like myself. Her specialization is in bones, specifically human, although her expertise definitely carried over as we found numerous bones from fish, poultry, and livestock (which told us a lot about the diet and economy of the Tobiases). We were excavating the area closest to the ridge that marked the steepest gradation into the marshy tidal area below, and our pit quickly helped orient our understanding of the rest of the site. When we started digging, we found countless numbers of shells….and it took nearly 60 centimeters of digging to get through them. At times I wondered whether there was more dirt or shell in our pit. We also found nails, broken glass and ceramics, broken pipe stems, animal bones and teeth, and what appeared to be a shovel head. Most of all, though, it was shells. The archaeologists were able to infer that this was the Tobias house’s midden, or garbage heap. This made sense- they would likely have built the house slightly higher on the hill, probably with a small kitchen extending from the downhill side of the house, from which they would have simply thrown their refuse into a heap near the water. They clearly ate a lot of bivalves and discarded the shells into the midden. This area was tough to excavate because of all the shells, but it was also one of the most exciting because of all the other pieces of refuse that we found. What was most interesting was watching the understanding of the site slowly develop with each new find. In one pit, large flat rocks were slowly uncovered. In another, a line of bricks. In another, a cow leg. In another, a barrel stay. The leading archaeologists used their experience and expertise to determine where the wall of the house was, where the fireplace was, where they stored goods, etc.

 

Thinking about it, my experience with the archaeologists and the sites was very literary. It was much like reading a mystery novel and watching as new clues help the protagonist make sense of everything. I, of course, was only a reader- knowing as much (archaeologically) as anybody told me, but watching as each character with his or her own strength helped unfold a narrative that led to a final conclusion.

Here are some pictures from the summer:  Ceramic Makeup Dish Wood and Brick Arrowhead Excavation PitExcavations

One of the most interesting finds was an eel spearhead. At first, only one of its prongs was discovered, and nobody was sure what it was. The popular hope was that it would turn out to be a harpoon head, but that didn’t seem like it would pan out. Then, after finding the base of the spearhead, and after some online investigation, it was determined that we were looking at an eel spearhead. This is particularly significant because of William Sidney Mount’s famous 1845 painting, “Eel Spearing at Setauket” (here is a link to more information on the painting). Eel Spearing at SetauketThe painting looks as though it were painted from the exact perspective of the Tobias property overlooking Conscience Bay. The eel spear, by the way, looks just like the one unearthed just meters away. Here is a picstitch of the two perspectives:

Conscience Bay

 

 

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.

wpid-wp-1427655106612.jpeg

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!