July: Archives & Genealogical Research

How are archival research skills useful outside of academia? Well, lots of ways, but I’m especially interested this month in genealogical research, which, I’m sure, some wouldn’t take seriously as “research” at all. But consider this: in an education/professional climate marked by doubt over the uses of a humanities degree, Ancestry.com boasts an annual revenue of over a billion dollars and a paid subscription base of three million users. Three million! As an educator who uses archival research in my teaching, that figure excites me. It shows that everyday people are interested in digging into historical documents, connecting threads, pursuing leads, and learning about and finding meaningful connections with the past. PBS even has a show specifically about ancestral research. If we’re trying to give students an authentic learning experience, I wonder why we haven’t yet tapped into the exciting, personal, and genuinely engaging field of genealogical research. This post is going to be about my own (very) recent archival adventure based in genealogy. The genuine investment that it sparked in me has been far deeper than much other research (which I’m usually pretty excited about and invested in as it is), and to me it serves as evidence that there is value in tapping into this passionate experience to motivate students to become involved in archives for academic and non-academic research (and maybe there shouldn’t be such a distinict binary here).

A young man in navy flight gear, including a helmet, googles, and a jacket with a large fur collar.

For decades, this photo was one of the only pieces of documentation we knew of that bore witness to our family member’s existence.

The past year has been a breakthrough period in some of my own genealogical research—with particular regard to my father’s father’s brother, Benny Zukowski. All my family ever knew about him was that he “died in WWII” in a plane crash, but nothing more. My father always said that his father never talked about the war, and for good reason I’m sure. He and his three brothers all served, but their experiences were kept private and their stories have been buried with them…until recently.

Having never known anything about my mysterious great uncle, I’ve now and again felt an urge to learn more about him and fill in the blanks of his story. So every few years I would Google his name, never to come across anything.

A 2012 newspaper clipping from the Bristol Press about my email to them.

Then, in 2012, I had some luck. An article in the Bristol Press (this line of my family lived in Bristol, CT in the 1920s-40s) mentioned Benny Zukowski, listed his real name as Bronislaw, and identified his squadron. These were new leads that wouldn’t take me anywhere new just yet, but would be useful later on. I emailed the local historian who wrote the article, but never heard back from him. To my surprise, I was recently shown the article on the left.

In any case, that discovery led me to some key search terms that would be important in more recent years, when I used the research tools I’d been using in my dissertation to try to unravel this mystery (of course, one of the research tools/skills I now have is the common sense and confidence to pursue the author of this article by every means available until I get an answer, but back then it took a lot of guts to reach out to him the one time). Through strategies like using digital newspaper archives, modifying searches with truncation, wildcards, and priximity settings, and  adding new terms like “Bristol” and “Fleet Air Photographic Squadron Five” (VD-5 for short) expanded my knowledge of the world Benny was in, but I still found very little about him. 

Then, one rainy moroning last November, I tried again. To my surprise, I found an article published about two weeks earlier, advertising a “Gold Star Exhibit” honoring four Bristol veterns who died in WWII— Benny was one of them. It was on display at the local public library for a few weeks only. So my sister and I made plans, and, not knowing at all what to expect, we took the two hour drive and showed up unannounced. What a powerful experience! When we walked in, I immediately saw the Gold Star Exhibit across the room and even in that short flash of a moment couldn’t believe that I was looking at my great-uncle’s actual belongings. A staff member named Jay welcomed me and my sister, and I said something silly like, “I’m a Zukowski.” I’ve since been told that the experience was powerful for Jay as well, but even then I could register on his face the recognition that this was a profound situation. He was super grateful to have us there, showing us to the exhibit and explaining what was what. He also introduced us to several community members who were in the room for their own local history research projects. By the end of our visit, several of these people (Jay included) were looking through old phone directories, yearbooks, and digital records to help me and my sister find out more.

Part of the exhibit on Benny Zukowski, November 2018.

That day, I was able to look (through glass) at Benny’s wallet, some of his photos, his rosary, a mess pass from the day he died, his flight log, some photographic instruction manuals (he was an aerial photographer), and his dogtags. In all of the excitement (yes, archives are exciting places!), we learned what kind of planes he was in, what his (and my grandfather’s) home address was, and the very basic fact that my grandfather had three brothers (not one), and that they had all served in the war. Most importantly, Jay pointed us to Bristol’s Memorial Military Museum, which was the organization to which Benny Zukowski’s materials officially belonged.

Over the next seven months, I stayed in contact with two key individuals at the Military Museum— Mike and Carol—who invited me to see their entire collection on Benny. Unfortunately, the visit had to be postponed until July because of building renovations, but that’s of no matter because two weeks ago I finally took the trip back up to Bristol and was blown away by all that they had there…in terms of material and information.

They explained to me that, according to the donor (a distant relative of mine), when Benny died (six months after the war officially ended!), the Navy sent all of his belongings back to his parents (my great-grandparents), who looked at them once, put them in the chest at the foot of their bed, and never looked at them again for the rest of their lives. That explains why the materials were in such good shape. The collection includes, among other things: silk aviator maps of Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines; a smoking pipe; a straight razor; a lighter and lighter case; handwritten notes on photographic mission instructions; a handwritten note in Japanese; a Chinese translation book; a Japanese military log; dozens of photographs; a bracelet inscribed to Benny from his fiancee (no, we didn’t know he had a fiancee!); a copy of the Western Union telegram to his parents informing them of his death; numerous medals and naval diplomas; a bowtie; a mess pass from the day he died; lots of pencils and buttons and glass lenses; nine prayer books (several in Polish); the original box in which the Navy sent his parents his military burial flag; and four rolls of undeveloped film.

There was also a one-page “biography” of Benny and his military service, which Mike thinks must have been written by a family member decades ago. And there was an official letter from the Navy to my great-grandparents detailing the major milestones in Benny’s military service. These two documents, together with all the other materials, filled in so many gaps of understanding. Here are a few excerpts from his biography:

  • He “earned his first Air Medal for completing 5 flights over defended enemy territoy in the Bonin, Volcano, and Caroline Islands area from December 21, 1944 to February 17, 1945.
  • “He participated in the first long-range reconnaissance over enemy occupied territory, with no previous information on enemy defenses or installations, and remaining for a prolonged period of time to provide large scale photographic coverage.”
  • He earned his “third Gold Star in lieu of a fourth Air Medal was earned for flights over the Ryukyu and Caroline Islands area from March 29 to May 2, 1945. On these flights, he gathered additional information that aided in the successful invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.”

And, after many years of having virtually no information about it whatsoever, some details about his death:

  • “Having survived more than 25 missions over enemy occupied territory, Benny died tragically after the war was over. He was on a flight over the town of Atami, Japan with seven of his closest friends on March 11, 1946 when the Liberator he was flying in struck a mountain ridge at approximately 9 a.m. All aboard were killed instantly.”
  • “The first letter received indicated that Benny died ‘while engaged in a local flight.’ A later letter from the Bureau of Naval Personnel says his plane crashed while on a photographic mission. His family always believed he died on his flight home. Benny was just 20 years old when he died.”The entire visit lasted about 3.5 hours, and it was immensely moving. First, to feel proximity with an ancestral family member who has always been treated as “lost.” Then, to be able to reclaim him from that “lost” status and to flesh out his story and character and life…to find him embodied in these documents and objects and to find his story finally told. I have relied a lot on archivists, and I have always appreciated what they do, but never before has my respect and appreciation been so deeply felt. It is an amazing that my distant relative thought to donate these materials to a museum, but what’s perhaps even more amazing is that museums and historical societies even exist. People dedicate their lives to making sure that community members and researchers can find local and personal information, access their past, make important connections, and learn about themselves, their families, and their communities. I genuinely mean it when I say that it is a noble cause, much the way that local libraries are institutions meant for the free, open education and improvement of community members and of society as a whole.

While visiting, a local reporter happened to be interviewing somebody else in the room about an exhibit the following day. On his way out, he stopped and asked what I was doing. I told him the story, and he ended up interviewing me the next day and publishing this article just last week in the Bristol Press.

Four rolls of film and a cardboard box for one of them.

Undeveloped rolls of film from ca. 1945-46.

One of the most exciting parts of this whole experience is that I asked Mike and Carol if they’d be willing to send the undeveloped film out for processing if I could find an expert lab specializing in old film processing. They agreed, and after consulting with over a dozen archivists, preservationists, museums, and film specialists, I found a lab. The four rolls were sent out last week, and we should be hearing from the lab any day now with updates. It turns out that one of the rolls was actually color film as well, so if that roll can be developed, it may provide the only known color photographs of my great uncle.

I’ll post more updates about the film processing in August. For now, a more personal glimpse into one way that I’ve applied my academic skills in non-academic settings, and some thoughts on the meaningful experiences that those skills can help produce.

June: Mellon/ACLS Public Fellowship

Earlier this month, the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) announced their  2019-21 cohort of Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows…a group that includes me! What a tremendous and exciting honor- weeks have passed by and I’m still feeling overjoyed. What does it mean for me? Starting in September, I’ll be working in a two year position as Outreach Programs Manager at Library of America in NYC.

The position is particularly exciting because it builds on so many extracurricular aspects of my graduate and professional career thus far…projects and experiences that were initially outside of my comfort zone but ended up being the most engaging and meaningful: an internship based in philanthropy at the Rockefeller Foundation; an open access Anthology of Early African-American Literature; writing for non-profits and websites; developing university partnerships with cultural organizations and institutions; my experiences as an MLA Connected Academics Fellow; and my leadership experiences as a non-profit board member. And it draws on my work as a Digital and Applied Learning Specialist in Stony Brook’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching as well: conducting outreach to faculty, staff, students, and partner institutions; using different technologies to connect with students and public audiences; developing educational programs, etc. All this is simply to say that I’m thrilled to have a fellowship that gives me the opportunity to put my established skills to meaningful use, to develop them further, to learn new ones, and to do it in such a public-oriented position.

I’ll also add in an unsolicited thought to current grad students: go beyond your comfort zone and usual bubble (we all have bubbles!), and take on a challenge in a new area of research, service, leadership, etc. It’s those experiences that kept me excited about my work and opened up doors that I didn’t even know existed.

I’m sure I’ll be posting more about this in future issues, so for now I’ll just post my position description below. Thanks for reading!

Library of America (LOA) is a nonprofit organization that champions the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources and public programs that enable people to explore this rich, living legacy. In addition to its publishing mission, LOA engages readers with live and digital programs, places volumes in public libraries and schools, serves a national membership passionate about American history and literature, and partners with other nonprofit organizations to transform the lives of readers worldwide with the writings that capture America’s uniquely democratic culture and spirit. The Outreach Programs Manager will lead project management for new programs to amplify the impact of the organization’s mission and broaden its audience. S/he will also manage the development of project websites, conceive and implement public and educational programs, conduct donor and prospect research, assist with grant writing, and identify and cultivate partnerships.

May: Trinity Churchyard Research

I’ve spent a great deal of time since last summer researching the history of New York City’s Trinity Church…or, more specifically, Trinity Churchyard (the graveyard surrounding the church). The process of painstakingly combing through nineteenth-century books, poems, periodicals, tourist guides, and visual art was actually a huge amount of fun. It was for an article that was my first piece of new scholarship post-dissertation, and it was inspired by a chance encounter with an 1820s newspaper text that I recognized from an 1850s newspaper that I had been reading a year prior. I searched for some key terms in some historical newspaper databases and found that extremely similar texts appeared throughout the nineteenth century. When I expanded my search, it became clear just how much literature and visual art there was about Trinity Churchyard during the nineteenth century. This led to the article that is currently, in its second iteration, under review with a journal, and that was, without a doubt, the most enjoyable piece of scholarship I’ve yet written.

While the article is definitely within my area of research, it was also a project 1) born out of an exciting discovery, 2) based in a history that is local to me, 3) based in a site that I could easily visit, 4) temporally outside the usual range of my research, and 5) invigoratingly steeped in the physicality of monuments, cultural landmarks, and history. An 1849 photograph looking down Wall Street, past Bank of America, Merchants’ Bank, Manhattan Co. Bank, the Bank of New York, the Assay Office, and the Telegraph Building, to Trinity Churchilding

I chose to write this post about Trinity Churchyard because I’m reflecting again on just how important the site was to nineteenth-century New Yorkers (and Americans in general). It was one of the most written-about landmarks in the entire country, accessible (unlike many rural cemeteries) to all classes of visitors who might just be walking by on their walk home along Broadway or popping in on their Wall Street lunch break for some quiet time. It was a uniquely old site that had fabulous connections to NY’s Dutch and English roots, to the Revolutionary War, to founders like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, to war heroes like Captain James Lawrence, and to anonymous, private individuals like “My Mother” (whose tomb was one of most discussed during the period). In an era before a Washington Monument, an Empire State Building, a Brooklyn or Golden Gate Bridge, a World Trade Center (the memorials of which I relate to the tombstones in Trinity Churchyard),  etc., Trinity Churchyard was a unique site of connection with America’s history, identity, and, as I argue, continued negotation with the ever-modernizing present (especially through its location at the junction of Broadway and Wall Street). Add to this that it provided a natural, green, secluded landscape amid the bustling hubbub of downtown Manhattan, and its romantic potential becomes even more clear.

While I wait to hear back about the article’s status (I’ll post updates in a future issue of the Monthly Journal), I’m also thinking about how I might create a small exhibition about the churchyard. All the materials are there for it: paintings, sketches, etchings, poems, essays, articles, books, etc. It’s simply a matter of finding a venue, figuring out funding, and making the time. If anybody has any suggestions, please let me know!

April: More on EXP+; Honors Symposium

Like last month’s post, this month’s will also be brief. Just a few remarks on some of April’s highlights. First, I finished processing all the data I’d been collecting and analyzing for Stony Brook’s experiential learning assessment pilot, and I presented it in a neat packet with some easily digestible charts, graphs, and statistics. The findings demonstrate just how effective experiential learning is for students in a variety of fields. Not only does it help students develop interpersonal communication skills, research skills, project management skills, and field-specific skills, experiential learning changes the way that students think about their academic paths, their professional futures, and themselves. It was inspiring to see so many students engage more deeply with their work and find confidence and empowerment through their experiences. These transformations are what keep me personally and professionally invested in experiential learning (especially through community partnerships!). On a related note, this month I was also co-leader of an experiential learning workshop for graduate teaching assitants, and it was great to witness the enthusiasm and ambition of early-career educators looking to incorporate experiential opportunities into their teaching. Young instructors like those at the meeting are part of what makes SBU such an exciting place to be (as a student and teacher!).

In other news, my long-time student, Ryan Williams, is wrapping up his honors project, which comprises a piece of creative fiction about the American Civil War (inspired by the short stories of Ambrose Bierce) and several unbelievably realistic visual drawings that are based on actual Civil War photographs. Aside from the impressive detail in Ryan’s writing and drawing, one of the most remarkable aspects of Ryan’s work is his ability to incorporate the stylistic elements and conventions of historical genres while strategically infusing the pieces with his own person. In this way, his readers/viewers are not simply consuming another piece of historical art, but instead they grapples with competing tensions of American historical perspectives, they learn about America history and literature while being drawn into a compelling narrative, and they come away feeling more connected with and invested in American history, art, and literature. Well done, Ryan!

While I was there, I ran into Bill Godfrey, who you may remember from other posts, and one of his students, whose work was also impressive:

March: College English Association Conference, New Orleans

At the end of March, I attended the College English Association’s conference in New Orleans. I was particularly excited for this conference for a few reasons: 1) I spent two years in New Orleans (at Tulane) for my BA and a year and a half there for my MA; 2) The conference itself was at the Crown Royal Hotel at the corner of Canal Street and Bourbon (a location that can’t be beat!); and 3) I presented on a project that I’ve spent a considerable amount of the past year working on, and which was still in a “revise and resubmit” status at the time of the presentation.

Since I was planning to spend the next fews weeks in a “deep dive” of writing and revision, talking to other literary scholars for the first time about my ideas and argument was really exciting. The title of my presentation was “Walt Whitman, Cultural Monuments, and 19th-Century Reprint Culture,” and Whitman’s connections to cultural monuments, the Civil War, and New Orleans made it even more fitting for a presentation in New Orleans (less than two years after the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue at Lee Circle made national news). The audience shared some useful feedback that strengthened my revised manuscript.

That’s all for March- a month very busy with the day-to-day. See you in April!

February: 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.

January: MLA 2019

This past weekend was MLA 2019 in Chicago, and I thought I’d write some reflections on my own panel there while it’s all still fresh in my head.

I chaired and presented on a panel titled “Service Learning and Literature.” I proposed this panel well before beginning or even knowing about my current role as a Digital and Applied Learning Specialist at Stony Brook. A year and a half ago, while I was designing my first course with an experiential learning option, I realized how little guidance there was out there for creating meaningful experiential or service learning English courses.

To clarify how I’m using the terms experiential and service:

  • I’m using experiential learning as a broad umbrella term for learning situations (including lab work, internships, independent studies, fieldwork, service learning, etc.) in which students use current skills and gain new ones in “real world” settings (regardless of how we feel about the phrase “real world”).
  • Service learning is one component of experiential learning that has service to a specific community or institution as a core focus.

Many models of experiential learning that I found didn’t draw on the unique skills, concepts, and content of the English courses they were tied to (especially literary ones), and most that claimed to be service learning courses just didn’t satisfy my idea of what service should be. During my BA and MA at Tulane, where service learning was integral to the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans, I came to understand service as a genuine, impact-based contribution to the community. But what I found in my research was a widespread pattern of English/lit service learning that centered on undergraduate students reading to one audience or another. There is value to that work, to be sure, and I’d rather those courses exist than not exist, but it doesn’t fully harness the potential of the undergraduate English major or minor (or even the student enrolled in a required intro to lit or intro to comp course). I recognized that missed opportunity especially after teaching my first experiential/service learning course.

I created the MLA panel to showcase three examples of successful service learning at vastly different institutions (Tulane, UNC Pembroke, and Stony Brook) and to create a space in which those experienced in or even vaguely interested in implementing service learning in English could hold an open discussion. The panel featured:

  • Mike Kuczynski who is founder and director of Tulane University’s “Archives and Outreach” (an undergraduate public humanities initiative), a graduate certificate program in Documentary Literary Studies, and the faculty work group, “Tulane Archival Collective.” His presentation focused on issues of public access to archives and culturally historic materials. He addressed this topic through a discussion of his partnership with New Orleans’ Lake Area New Tech Early College High School that provides students access to African-American cultural archives otherwise largely invisible to the city’s African-American public. Here are two lines that have stuck with me from the presentation:
    • “In an electronic age, when so much information is mediated by screens, the students we work with seem to crave physical encounters with manuscripts and books”
    • “…what the community wants from the university is respect—respect that is based in a deep rather than shallow educational partnership”
  • Michele Fazio (UNC Pembroke), who is Coordinator of Gender Studies at UNC Pembroke and who has served as president of the Working-Class Studies Association and is currently co-editing a book on working-class studies. Her presentation discussed her service learning courses that bring students to a migrant labor camp in rural North Carolina, tying together course literature, course concepts of food insecurity, gender, race, labor rights, etc., and real-world experiences within the community itself. The service that students have performed to the community there range from the recording of oral histories to a grant proposal to fund a mobile health clinic for migrant workers.
  • Susan Scheckel (who has been integral at expanding experiential and service learning in the humanities through her roles co-chair of the Experiential Learning Committee at SBU and as a member of the Provostial Taskforce on Applied Learning for SUNY) and I co-presented on our service learning partnership with the Long Island Museum, where students conducted primary source research on topics closely connected with course concepts related to nineteenth-century American culture (especially race, individualism, spiritualism, etc.). The service aspect of this partnership centered on students transforming their research findings into social media posts aimed at increasing young people’s interest in the museum. Our presentation focused largely on the nuts and bolts of setting up a first-time service learning partnership, and it also included a reflection video from one of my students—a perspective that we don’t often get at conferences. For more on this project, see this post.

I was overjoyed at the success of the panel. It was encouraging to be in a room of so many individuals who all care deeply about creating impactful and effective service learning experiences. The biggest sign of success is that the conversation continued in the room for a half hour after the session was supposed to end!

Well, I’ll close with an encouragement for any readers interested in implementing service learning into their English courses to contact me—I’m always happy to share my insights!