October: Mpreg Data Visualizations by Jon Heggestad

I always welcome guest blog posts, and this month I’m delighted to feature an inspiring post by Jon Heggestad about his exciting work in Digital Humanities (DH). As one of the leading students of DH at SBU, Jon’s contributions to the university’s DH community have been significant, and he has also been a pioneer of public writing among graduate students. I’ve always loved hearing about his projects, so I couldn’t have been happier when he suggested contributing a guest post to this site. Please read on to learn about Jon’s fascinating work on mpreg (male pregnancy) fan fiction.


Jon Heggestad is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the English department at Stony Brook University. With interests at the intersection of literary analysis, queer and feminist theories, and the digital humanities, Jon’s dissertation traces out a queer lineage of the pregnant man as a literary trope.

A Study in Data Visualizations: Describing Mpreg in Fan Writing

In Digital_Humanities, an introductory textbook to the field penned by many of the leading voices in DH, distance reading is referred to as “almost not reading at all.” The authors of this volume refer to it instead as engaging “the abilities of natural language processing to extract the gist of a whole mass of texts and summarize them for a human reader in ways that allow researchers to detect large-scale trends, patterns, and relationships that are not discernable from a single text or detailed analysis.”1

This post expands and challenges this definition by delving into one offshoot of distance reading: data visualization. While the use of charts, graphs, and pictures has a history as old as humanity itself, recent works by scholars like Matthew L. Jockers and Franco Moretti have popularized computational methods of data visualization within the humanities.

As much of my own work is conducted around texts found (or even born) online, I’ve taken to computational ways of reading to help me sift through the immense bodies of work I often encounter. In the study below, I illustrate how data visualizations have aided my work and suggest that, rather than viewing this method as “almost not reading at all,” we instead view data visualizations as merely different, albeit less traditional forms of reading, and that these differences might lead us to new epistemological understandings as well. 

***

Mpreg,” short for “male pregnancy” might not be a term that the general public is yet familiar with, despite its steady rise in popularity over the past two decades as a fanfiction trope.2 That being said, its increase in popularity has garnered it more notoriety as well, with Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel, the creators of the popular podcast Fansplaining, pointing to it as one of the “most widely reviled” tropes in fanfic today.3 

And certainly mpreg is divisive among fans. While some warmly take to the idea of Sherlock Holmes rubbing Watson’s pregnant belly or Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter arguing over which crib to buy, other readers find these narratives “twisted and perverse.”4

In my own interactions with those new to the genre, however, I’ve found that the most common response is simply one of curiosity. What is mpreg? What does it entail? Yet, answering these questions isn’t the easy task that it might at first appear to be.

Archive of Our Own (AO3), a site hosting millions of fan-made stories, returns over 43,000 texts when “mpreg” is entered in the search field.5 One of the most useful questions that distance reading responds to is how to deal with such a large corpus.

One possible solution is offered through data visualization, which can provide—at a glance—a level of insight that might not be achieved even after weeks of reading these texts. That being said, I’ve still elected to draw some constraints around the scope of my inquiry, analyzing only the 1,400+ mpreg works found in the MTV series Teen Wolf fandom.

Fig. 1: Most frequent tags in Teen Wolf mpreg fics (click to take a closer look)

Using a text scraper created by Jingyi Li and Sarah Sterman (current graduate students), I gathered the metadata from the Teen Wolf mpreg fics in a spreadsheet, isolating the tags writers had used to identify their works.6 After cleaning this data, I then used Tableau (a data visualization software) to organize and display the results. The bar graph in fig. 1 depicts the 50 most common tags used by mpreg writers in the Teen Wolf fan community.7

“Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics” is the most frequently used tag, and it comes as no surprise for fans who know that mpreg is a subgenre within the larger Omegaverse genre of fanfic. Frequent occurrences of tags like “Mates” and “Derek and Stiles are Mates” indicate a common Omegaverse practice noted by Milena Popova, which relies on a “life-long psychic bond with a partner.”8 In Teen Wolf, this OTP (One True Pairing) is most common between the characters Derek and Stiles. The visualization above allows viewers to confirm at a glance many of these important elements in the Teen Wolf fics.

Continuing this analysis, the popularity of tags like “knotting” and “fluff” illustrates the coexistence of what’s often regarded as opposing poles in mpreg practices: erotic writing vs. domestic narratives. In order to better understand these coexistent tropes, I changed the bar graph above to a stacked bar graph (fig. 2), displaying the category divisions that make up each tag count. “Categories” on AO3 refer to the intended audiences of fanfics.9 What I found is that tagging practices in this fandom transgress the boundaries that I initially expected: “fluff” is a tag frequently used in fics labeled for “Mature” and “Explicit” audiences, for example, while “smut” and “knotting” are used multiple times in fics intended for “Teens and Up.”

Fig. 2: Most frequent tags in Teen Wolf mpreg fics with categories identified (click to take a closer look)

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So what do these visualizations tell us about methodology? In her “Introduction: Data Visualization and the Humanities,” Elyse Graham identifies two main ways that data visualizations are used: explication and discovery.10 While she goes on to say that this earlier use is more prevalent, I’ve shown how both methods can occur simultaneously in the visualizations above. Not only was I able to quickly indicate for those new to mpreg what the main themes of the genre are, I also came to the realization that the binaristic division I’d been imposing on mpreg was, in fact, blurred by the writers of these fics.

Lastly, Graham notes that one benefit of using data visualizations “is the practice of inquiring into its own conditions, even if doing so sometimes makes the discussion cautionary rather than celebratory” (9). While agreeing with her call to use data visualization methods for reflective purposes, I can’t help but be excited regarding the new questions that emerge with new distance reading methods.

Certainly, data visualizations look very little like our traditional ways of reading. But as N. Katherine Hayles points out in How We Think, there are more ways to read than one. And learning how to read in these new ways can be an enriching practice for all.

Footnotes:

1   Burdick, Anne et al. Digital_Humanities. MIT Press, 2016, p. 39.

2   While I identify mpreg as a trope here; it’s also frequently referred to as both a genre and a fetish.

3   Klink, Flourish, and Elizabeth Minkel. “Five Tropes Fanfic Readers Love (And One They Hate).” Fansplaining, 27 Oct. 2016, https://www.fansplaining.com/articles/five-tropes-fanfic-readers-love-and-one-they-hate.

4   Shrayber, Mark. “What Exactly Is Mpreg? A Male Pregnancy Enthusiast Explains.” Jezebel, 3 Nov. 2014, https://jezebel.com/what-exactly-is-mpreg-a-male-pregnancy-enthusiast-expl-1651553874.

5   These numbers reflect a search conducted on October 14, 2019.

6   “Tagging” in fan communities refers to the practice of adding metadata to and “imposing order” on fanfics so that they can be more readily found by the readers searching for these terms. 

McCulloch, Gretchen. “Fans Are Better Than Tech at Organizing Information Online.” Wired, June 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/archive-of-our-own-fans-better-than-tech-organizing-information/.

7   This list has removed “mpreg,” which appeared far more often than any of the other tags and thus skewed the rest of the graph.

8   Popova, Milena. “‘Dogfuck Rapeworld’: Omegaverse Fanfiction as a Critical Tool in Analyzing the Impact of Social Power Structures on Intimate Relationships and Sexual Consent.” Porn Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, Apr. 2018, pp. 175–91, p. 7.

9   AO3 allows fic writers to categorize their works by their intended audiences: general, teen and up, mature, or explicit. Those fics that aren’t categorized as one of these four options are automatically labelled “not rated.”

10  Graham, Elyse. “Introduction: Data Visualisation and the Humanities.” English Studies, vol. 98, no. 5, 2017, pp. 449-458, p. 2.

September: American Holly

When my grandfather returned from WWII, he used the GI Bill to get a degree in horticulture from SUNY Farmingdale. From there, he started his own company, Stanley’s Nursery, at 1161 Old Country Road in Plainview (Long Island). That land—more or less a farm back then—is now typical Long Island suburbia- strip malls and parking lots and busy roads (see picture below). That was where my father grew up. And on that land, my grandfather planted an Ilex Opaca, an American Holly.

Years later, his son (my father) got his own degree in horticulture, bought his own house (the house that I grew up in), and took a cutting of his father’s tree and planted it in our garden beside the front door. I grew up with it, never knowing its history until about a year and a half ago when my parents sold the house and moved to Florida. When I learned the story, I immediately went to the house to take my own cutting. All but one wall of the house had been demolished, the garden was almost completely uprooted, and the Holly itself was still standing but hacked up and in bad condition. I took two cuttings, put them in sand, and wrapped the pot in plastic to keep the humidity in. Reading that Holly is especially hard to propagate, I went back the next day to take some more cuttings, but the tree had been completely cut down and destroyed. So I put all I had into keeping my two sprigs alive, calling my father several times a week with a question about moisture or spots or sand or pH or light or mites, etc. One of the sprigs died after about four months, but the other has survived, despite lots of challenges along the way. For those of you who know me well, you know what a big place this holly has in my life. Here’s a video of it from its first planting to just last week:

Those who follow me on Twitter will also know that on my 31st birthday, I decided to write a poem a day for a year, a practice that I’ve kept up beyond the initial one year goal. Many of those poems were written early in the morning when I would get into my office, make my tea, and carefully tend to the Holly before starting the day. Over time, the cutting has grown to represent more than just a family heirloom to me, too. To me, it conjures questions of shared cultural memory, of complicated ancestries of land ownership, colonialism, and imperialism, of personal and national identity, of the environment and ecology, and ultimately of life and death.

“When the Holly last in the dooryard bloom’d”  The Holly is visible in the back-right of the garden (ca 1989)

Since I’ve been exploring these topics in my poems for the past ~450 days, I have a lot of material, and I decided that I will edit and curate the poems into an actual book of poetry. The book will be my perspective on America as a scholar of early American history, as a citizen of the current era, as a person invested in the special role of place in cultural identity, and as the son, nephew, and grandson of horticulturalists. I have yet to really begin exploring presses, but if anybody has any suggestions for subject matter like this, please let me know. I’ve been very excited about this prospective book, which I’ve had in my head for a few months. It’s just a matter of dedicating weekend time to editing and organizing the poems and researching presses.

This will be all for now. Oh, and if you’re wondering how things are currently going with the Holly, they’re great- it’s planted in a pot in the ground, and I’m anxious about it spending its first winter outdoors, but I’m taking all precautions to make sure it stays as healthy and strong as possible. More updates soon!

 

August: Gettysburg

For an entire week (of gorgeous weather) in late June, I came down with some kind of flu-like sickness and was more or less apartment-bound. How better to spend that week than by watching the full Ken Burns Civil War series? I often feel like I don’t know enough about the Civil War. How can anyone when there are people who devote entire lifetimes to studying one particular battle or one specific figure? So I decided that this would be a mini refresher course and, hopefully, a way to add to my knowledge of the war. I have to say: despite some considerable qualms I have with the series (I’ll spare you for now), it was well worth the watch. It was informative, emotional (who can ever hear Ashokan Farewell without tearing up and thinking of the war that was “fought in ten thousand places”?), and it had a good degree of detail where it was most needed. It placed the war and its battles and figures into a larger context that should help any non-Civil War specialist feel more competent in his or her ability to think about and discuss the war. It also gave me ideas of what aspect of the war I wanted to study next. Of course Whitman’s Memoranda of the War was at the top of my list. I listened to it as an audiobook on my commutes, and it only got me more interested in the war. There were a few other small forays into small topics, but then I turned my attention to Gettysburg, and I planned all summer to go for a visit. Well, after reading a lot of books and listening to a lot of podcasts about Gettysburg, I took the trip as a birthday treat to myself in mid-August.

Gettysburg is about a four hour drive from NYC, which gave plenty of time for listening to even more podcasts and audiobooks. I ended up camping at Artillery Ridge Campground right on the outskirts of the park, which was good because I got in late in the day and was close enough to make a quick visit to Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, and the Wheatfield. And just before a downpour, I went on a twilight run through the southern part of the park that was one of those magical runs I know I’ll remember for a long time to come. Here’s a picture of the confused evening sky before the sudden torrent:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a long, hot, 36 hour visit, and I did a lot in that time- from ranger-led tours to the Cyclorama, from visiting the museum to trying to walk the entire park, from a self-guided car tour to reading Lincoln’s speeches beneath a tree at the “Angle.” Of all parts of the visit, I think I’ll remember three the most: the monuments, the tourist merchandise on sale in town, and walking from Cemetery Ridge to Seminary Ridge and back.

First: the monuments. When I first got in, I stopped at the first monument I saw and read it. Such & Such Brigade, Such & Such Division, Such & Such Corps. On the First Day, Did X; Second Day, Y; Third Day, Z. I tried to fit that into my understanding of what happened, and I tried to remember it. Cool! Then I stopped at the next monument (ten yards away) and read it. Such & Such Brigade, Such & Such Division, Such & Such Corps. On the First Day, Did X; Second Day, Y; Third Day, Z. Okay. I’ll remember that, too. After a few more minutes of monument reading and after a glance up the road, I realized that this method would be impossible to sustain. There were too many monuments. I remember at one point standing in the valley to the west of Little Round Top and looking at the dozens and dozens of monuments around me and thinking how utterly strange and unnatural it looked, monuments beside trees, monuments on hillsides, monuments on rocks, monuments in the grass, monuments practically on top of monuments. According to the National Park Service, there are 1,328 monuments, markers, and memorials at Gettysburg National Park. That surreal figure is hard to imagine if you haven’t been there. At times, the monuments were definitely distracting, and there were even moments when I felt that their overwhelming presence was somewhat irreverent. And yet there were other times, like standing alone on the southern slopes of Little Round Top in the early evening quiet, reading and reflecting on the markers and monuments of the 20th Maine, when they created a sense of grave and spiritual importance. Still, at the end of my first day (really just a few hours), I felt a strange feeling of discomfort- partially because the monuments reminded me of passing the hundreds of billboards along the interstate in Florida, partially because of the intensely conservative (and yet recently all too familiar) merchandise on sale in the town itself, and partially because of the social/political conversations I overheard at this site- a site marking a fractured American society that turned against itself in the most destructive way. I thought how strange it was that the park was there to remind us of the dangers inherent in this sort of division and rancor, and yet a century and a half later the lessons are lost on so many of us. As somebody who studies early and nineteenth-century American history, the phrase “American experiment” has become increasingly meaningful to me as I’ve continued to realize that nothing about the early United States was promised or guaranteed. This sort of exercise in self-rule had not been attempted in modern western society. It was a delicate invention, and the world didn’t know if it would prove managable, durable, and successful. The world was watching, and if America failed, the very idea of democracy anywhere in the world risked endangerment. I don’t know that the current station of American democracy in the world is so very different.

Back to Gettysburg: Day 2, I woke up early, refreshed, and excited for a full day on the grounds. I’ll skip through most of what I did and focus on my walk from Cemetery Ridge (the Union line) to Seminary Ridge (the Confederate line) and back. In the blazing heat of the early afternoon, I had been on a tour with a fantastic Park Ranger. I forgot his name but below is a picture of him leading the tour- I’ve been on a lot of tours in a lot of places, and this young man is perhaps the best tour guide I’ve ever had, period. Knowledgable, enthusiastic, entertaining, and also able to discuss a very complicated battle in such a way that all of us hungry, sweating tourists were able to follow along easily and willingly.

Our tour ended at the “Angle,” a cluster of trees that played a role in Pickett’s fatal charge at Union lines. Looking west from the Angle, there is a road running north to south, some fencing along it (true to 1863), and otherwise nothing but a mostly flat (but here and there dipping and rising) field of crops stretching for about a mile to Seminary Ridge, a ridge also running north to south (parallel to Cemetery Ridge), covered mostly by trees, and, on July 3, 1863, the starting point of Pickett’s charge.

Here are two pictures looking toward Seminary Ridge from Cemetery Ridge and the Angle.  After hearing so much about Pickett’s charge, in which, trying to cross the field before me, over a thousand Confederates died in under an hour and total losses exceeded 6000, and after seeing that this part of the park was virtually unvisited by tourists, I felt some sort of obligation to walk the mile across the field and the mile back. Trudging along in the intense mid-day heat along a dirth path that cut across the farmland, I was surprised at the lack of insect noise around me. In fact, there was hardly any noise, except when an occasional breeze rustled the leaves of the low plants around me. I remembered, when visiting Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the powerful physical and emotional effect that the undulating buzz of the insects had on me: in the midst of all that sorrow, at an epicenter of human loss and sorrow, all was not lost, because the insects still buzzed. Here, in Gettysburg, there was no buzzing, no chirping, no singing. Just the August heat and my dogged footsteps in the baking Pennsylvania soil where so many people died 156 years ago, now forgotten. There were, however, a few puddles here and there where large groups of small, bright blue moths gathered and clung to the moisture and lifted and scattered suddenly when I passed by. Their color seemed out of place in the field, and I was glad for it.

I’ll leave things there for now. See you in September.

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: