June 2019: 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 2019: 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 2019: 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 2019: 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 2019: SEA 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 2019: 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!

Post-PhD Reflections & Directions

Think of this post as a “pivot post”—not a content-driven one about a lesson plan or a research issue, but one transitioning this blog out of “studenthood” and into the post-PhD steps of my academic career. Every time I come across a colleague I haven’t seen in a few months, I’m asked what I’m doing now that I’ve completed the degree, so this post will answer that question—starting with my dissertation defense.

Celebrating with my English Department committee members, Susan Scheckel and Andrew Newman.

In May, I defended my dissertation, “Ephemeral Literature and Liberties: Early American Periodicals and the Development of American Identities,” under the guidance of an interdisciplinary committee: SBU English Department’s Andrew Newman and Susan Scheckel, SBU History Department’s Ned Landsman, and Southern Methodist University History Department’s Ed Countryman. Later in the summer, I found out that my department awarded my completed project the “Charles Davis Best Dissertation Prize,” which still leads me pause in gratification.

Three other things happened in May that have shaped what I’ve been doing since. First, I received feedback on an article I submitted to one of my favorite journals. I spent the five or six weeks after graduation working intensively on incorporating that feedback into a rewritten manuscript, which was accepted for publication later in the summer. Second, while combing through nineteenth-century newspapers between my defense and graduation, I found a unique trope that repeated across decades and was even adopted in Walt Whitman’s prose writing. I spent the second half of summer writing about the trope’s relationship to emerging American literature and identities in the Antebellum Period. That article is still being reviewed. Suffice it to say that Summer 2018 was immensely productive. Oh, and I also took weekend trips to visit family in Florida and Arizona—good getaways to help cleanse the post-dissertation mind.

Commencement Speech

The third thing that happened in May was my own graduation speech. Having been awarded SBU’s President’s Award to Distinguished Doctoral Students, I was selected as commencement speaker at the university’s doctoral hooding ceremony. Honored as I was, I found it onerous to find something useful for me to say to such a distinguished group of thinkers: what can I tell you that you don’t already know? I decided to speak about one of the people who has affected me most at Stony Brook: Bill Godfrey, who is—as far as I know—SBU’s longest-serving faculty/staff member (I think he started in 1965).

Professor Godfrey

Short tangent: I took an independent study Latin course with Professor Godfrey in 2014, held in his backyard twice a week over breakfast. Each three hour session was profound and inspiring—Professor Godfrey is both an incredibly knowledgeable classicist and an admirably thoughtful and reflective human being. He shared advice and told me some stories about his life, like foregoing a very well-paying job in order to find a more a meaningful existence (which he found in academia), or like realizing in 1963 that he had better “put his money where his mouth is” and take a bus down to DC to attend the March on Washington. He confidently declares that it was a life-changing experience, and that afterward he resolved to improve the diversity at his own institution. He was instrumental in several groundbreaking diversity initiatives at SBU—initiatives that are now considered foundational to the success of our university.

          So I chose to talk about some of the lessons Bill Godfrey taught me. Foremost among them was the importance of choosing to live intentionally. I encouraged the graduates before me to spend some time thinking about how they want to spend their lives as human beings who also happened to have PhDs, and to make a firm resolution with themselves to do their best to live that way. My own resolution has been to use my degree and my honed research and communication skills to improve the world, especially for those who don’t have the means to improve their own worlds. General, yes, but flexible enough to be an enduring resolution for decades to come.

In the weeks after graduation, I thought a lot about that resolution, and eventually I decided to look into jobs in the philanthropy world to see whether that area of work would have a meaningful existence for me. The only job I applied to was an internship at the Rockefeller Foundation, whose motto is: Promoting the well-being of humanity throughout the world. Pretty similar to my own resolution, right? So I applied, was interviewed, and was hired! I’ve now spent the last two months working as part of an immensely impactful organization that has helped achieve so much good in the world. Thus far, it’s been a rewarding experience, and I’ll write more about it in another blog post. For now, I’ll say that it’s helped see my main career goal—professorship—in a new light. I’ve gotten the opportunity to see “the other side” of funding for academics (grants, residencies, etc.), and I’ve also developed a deepen investment in impactful work, which I’m already incorporating into my academic career.

I’m mainly doing that right now through my position as Digital and Applied Learning Specialist for Stony Brook’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. There, my primary roles are to help deploy a new, online-based model of experiential learning assessment across the university and to conduct outreach and lead technology and pedagogy workshops. This position helps bring together my goals: serve the community and provide students meaningful learning experiences, use my skills to improve the world, produce impact through my work, etc.

That’s it for now- you’re off the hook, get outta here, scram, beat it! Thanks for reading and checking in on the blog. I’ll post more soon about my upcoming presentations at MLA and SEA 2019!

Early American 4th of July Mini-Syllabus

This is going to be a very quick post, because it’s the 4th of July and a barbecue is waiting for me outside. I haven’t proofread this, so expect this to be an unpolished draft for now. Here’s why I’m taking time out of my 4th of July celebrations to write a blog post:

I was just out buying some food and drinks for the barbecue, and I was keenly aware of the tension buried beneath the beer, barbecue, and fireworks of the 4th of July. I starting thinking about it as I wished various people a “Happy Fourth.” Specifically, it was the cashiers and the people I met in the parking lots of the two stores I went to who made me think of this. I don’t know their stories and I can’t speak for them, but, after doing so much periodical research over the past three years and uncovering so many texts about the meaning of the 4th of July by underrepresented authors of early America, I felt very conscious of the disparity between my own experience of the holiday and these other individuals’ experience of it: they’re working while I’m shopping; one of them (an immigrant) most likely has seen/felt the reality of the current administration’s policies more acutely than I have from my safe vantage point; several of them may have been descended from enslaved people right here in America (with all of it’s promises of glory).

Thoughts of immigration, of racial demonstration and protest, and the 4th of July in particular made me think of the many 4th of July texts I found during my dissertation research deep in the periodicals of the early American mid-Atlantic. So here are a few texts (some of which are of speeches) that could be the start of what I’ve always thought would be a great syllabus/course on the Fourth of July. Some focus on joyous celebration and others focus on issues of liberty and injustice. A heads-up: I ran out of time before I could post most of the texts, but I’ll get back to this in a few days! Here are a few to start you off.

Spoken poem by William Pitt Palmer, 7/4/1828. From Freedom’s Journal, 8/29/1828. (Freedom’s Journal= first African-American owned newspaper ever!)

“The Slave Ship” (also spoke by William Pitt Palmer on 7/4/28). Freedom’s Journal, 9/12/1828

 

Anonymous poem from the Centinel of Freedom, 7/9/1799

Poem from Centinel of Freedom, 7/2/1799

 

Ah, I’m being summoned so I’ll have to stop here and pick up again soon. I’ll post it now, though, for 4th of July reflections.

And of course if you haven’t read Frederick Douglass’ “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July” or Margaret Fuller’s “Fourth of July,” those are great texts that are more standard than the ones above.

Experiential/Service Learning

This last semester, I offered an optional “add-on” service learning (sometimes called experiential learning) component to my early American literature course. It was a great experience, and I want to share it with other instructors who might benefit from offering something similar. So, this post is going to: 1) explain why I did this, 2) discuss how I went about doing this, 3) tell about the experience for me and my students, and, 4) showcase my students’ work.

Why I Offered a Project-Based Service Learning Course

If you’re not familiar with service learning, a simple description of it is a method of learning in which students actively participate in the learning experience, usually through field work, study abroad, field work, internships, and other kinds of “hands-on” (or, dare I say, “real world”) activities. Students study a subject and then transform that knowledge into a new product outside of the classroom.

I borrowed this photo of the New Orleans East Vietnamese Market from the “YoBreaux” blog that talks about the market’s cultural importance.

During my undergraduate studies at Tulane, I took a service learning course that I’ve thought about frequently ever since. It was the Fall of 2007, two years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, and the city was still largely in tatters. Tulane took a lead role in helping to rebuild the city. One way of doing that (other than the wide array of service clubs and weekend volunteer activities) was through service learning. My class studied the Vietnamese experience in New Orleans, reading numerous pieces of fiction and secondary scholarship about the Vietnamese-American experience. We then traveled to the Vietnamese community’s public market in New Orleans East every other Saturday morning to experience the culture first hand- talking to people, trying different foods, listening to music, watching smokey 7 a.m. card games. With better academic, cultural, and personal understanding of the community, we began a project to help design a charter for a new, tri-lingual charter school in the area. We performed and transcribed interviews with community members on their priorities, preferences, and concerns with the new charter school- everything from music class to bus operations. By the end of the semester, we had organized our research findings into a document that would serve as a basis for the writers of the school’s actual charter. It was one of the most interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding classes I’ve ever taken.

With that in mind, I jumped at the opportunity to attend an event at Stony Brook’s Humanities Center last spring, in which English Department Alumna Michele Fazio spoke about her successful service learning projects at UNC Pembroke. I left the event feeling inspired to use my position of influence as an instructor to give students a meaningful experience that will benefit them and others. I decided to implement an optional EXP+ offering for my EGL 316 course on early American literature.

How I Went About It

The process for setting up a service learning course at Stony Brook is simple. Admittedly, my course itself was not designated EXP (experiential)- I only created the optional add-on “course” (EXP+) for interested students to enroll in. All that’s required is finding a partner institution or individual to act as the supervisor, sitting down with both that supervisor and interested students to discuss expectations, and filling out a contract with the student. The student then submits the contract to the departmental administrator, enrolls in the zero credit (and thus free) course. That’s it!

I chose the Long Island Museum (LIM) as a partner institution because of its relevant collections and its proximity to SBU’s campus, although a number of other organizations were eager to host our students. They also have an amazingly friendly staff (shoutout to Christine, Andrea, and Jonathan!) that was always willing to help make this a great learning experience for students. Two of my students enrolled, along with three of Professor Susan Scheckel’s students (the content of her course and mine overlapped, so we decided to work together in designing the structure, content, and expectations of the project). In the beginning of October, Professor Scheckel and I met with the LIM staff to make sure that we were all on the same page, and then a few weeks later we had an introductory session at the museum archive. After that, we had research sessions at the archive once a week for the rest of the semester.

The Experience

During our introductory session, the staff took us on a guided tour of the vault, which was amazing. Students got to see important works of American art and hear from the experts the stories behind each work. They also got to touch artifacts, which- for anybody who hasn’t yet had the experience- is a powerful experience. It was immediately clear that students were excited simply by being in the presence of so much historical “stuff.”

That excitement never really subsided, either. But there was also a noticeable anxiety in the students at first. I had experienced that anxiety myself in 2007- students are in a new, unfamiliar learning environment and they’re not sure what they need to do to success (or how to do it). Professor Scheckel and I tried to mitigate that nervousness by providing clear plans and specific steps for the students to execute.

Students began by choosing an item in the collection that they wanted to pursue. Their ultimate responsibility was to write social media posts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) for the LIM to use. This turned out to be a challenging yet rewarding lesson in writing. Students had to think about audience, they had to clearly, concisely, and meaningfully transform pages and pages of notes into a few sentences, and they had to revise numerous drafts. Once they began their research on their items, however, their anxieties diminished and they soon demonstrated confidence in their new abilities to perform research using a variety of primary, archived materials (letters, diaries, ledgers, sketches, etc). See below for one student’s blog post that narrates her findings.

If you’re an instructor and you’re considering incorporating service learning into your pedagogy, I have a few suggestions: 1) DO IT! It’s rewards provide a different sort of gratification than our normal academic work; 2) Begin small with an EXP+ optional add-on for students, rather than making it a mandatory component of your entire course. You’re bound for some trial and error as you first begin, and it’s a lot easier to manage things on a small scale. Once you’ve gotten the feel for things, then try out an entire class of EXP; 3) Prepare for some, but not a ton of extra work. I was able to rely on the amazing staff at the LIM to take the lead on a number of issues, but you will have to be there to guide students, to reassure them that they’re moving in the right direction, and to give feedback on (and grade) their work. Is it worth it? I say wholeheartedly: “Yes!” Will I do it again? As soon as I get the chance.

Student Work

Emma’s blog post, showcasing her research findings on William Sidney Mount’s “Girl with Pitcher”

 

End of Semester Assignment in Early American Literature

As a teacher during the final days of the semester, how do you help students to circle back around and think globally about the lessons and themes they’ve learned over the past fifteen weeks? You may use final essay assignments or final exams to help students connect the dots, you may close the last class session with a reflective discussion, or maybe you leave it entirely to your students to reexamine the overarching themes of a semester that has left them staring, zombie-like, into the distance.

zombie

That end-of-the-semester look.

 

I’ve tried a variety of strategies for the end-of-term reflection, but often we don’t plan for it until it’s already upon us—until one of the busiest, most hectic times of the semester. This time around, I planned ahead to give my upper-level early American literature class a short, low-stakes, fun assignment that would encourage students to think about the class’ content and about their own, personal takeaways from it. This post will explain the assignment, provide you with its instructions, and show some examples of the work that students produced. I was amazed at the results and at the amount of energy and conviction that students put into their work. It was one of the most enjoyable writing tasks I’ve given, and I’m sharing it with you so that you can incorporate it into your own pedagogy as well.

The class was “Early American Literature: The Individual and the Community in Early America,” and two of its most prevalent themes were rights and equality, specifically regarding race and gender. For anybody who thinks early American literature is boring, irrelevant, etc., guess again. For each class, my students were writing impassioned Blackboard posts about the injustice that figures like William Apess, Margaret Fuller, and Frederick Douglass spoke against. They came to class marveling at Whitman’s writings about sexuality and with their “blood boiling” (as one student often phrased it) at the disparate definitions and administrations of rights and equality for Native-Americans, African-Americans, and women. I didn’t want them to lose these feelings, lessons, and connections, so I modified an assignment that was shared with me at Nassau Community College’s IDEAS Symposium this year: a letter to one’s government representatives.

For a few reasons, I didn’t require the letter to be written to the president, as the original model did. There’s an entire website that publishes open letters to the president, and the teacher who introduced me to this assignment uses the website as a publishing platform for her students’ work. That’s a great idea, and I encourage you to check out the website and consider using it, but I wanted to give students the chance to address not just the national issues occupying the spotlight, but local issues as well.

The assignment directions are as follows:

Think about the foundational values and ideals of early American culture that we’ve been reading about all semester. You’ve had a rare opportunity to closely study the culture, concerns, values, etc. that America was and still is built upon, but many people, including our government representatives, may not have had the same opportunity.

Write a one-page letter to the American representative of your choice, teaching him or her an important lesson that you learned in this course. Structure it like a professional letter:

Include an introduction in which you actually introduce yourself (ex: “My name is X and I’ve been studying early American literature and culture, and I want to share something with you that you might not have known”).

In the body, teach him/her a lesson! Use specific examples (ex: “in Frederick Douglass’ famous ‘What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July’ speech, he states, ‘XYZ’”).

In the conclusion, influence change. Tell the representative what he/she could do better to honor those values (or what he/she is doing correctly). Is there something he/she did that contradicts (or supports) the values we’ve been learning about? Let them know!

This would make for a great longer or more formal writing assignment, but I kept mine low-stakes. Students had about 48 hours to write it, and it was to be graded as the daily Blackboard discussion post that it was replacing (there were about 30 discussion posts throughout the semester, totaling 10% of the students’ final grade, so it was worth very little). Grammar mistakes would not affect their grade, either. In the future, I’d consider making this assignment worth more points, but the products that students turned in were great without the pressure of a significant grade. In fact, I think that the low-stakes element of it was a key factor of its success. I even noticed that students who, in previous assignments, had saturated their writing with misused thesaurus words and illogically complicated sentences, now found a more natural writing voice that was far more effective.

I’m confident that my three goals for the assignment were accomplished:

  • To encourage reflection about the overarching lessons and takeaways from the course.
  • To provide a self-guided (not teacher-regulated) opportunity for students to connect their somewhat abstracted college/Humanities education to the current historical moment that they’re experiencing first-hand. This is one of the most important lessons for all of us to consider as academic professionals: How are we making sure that we’re giving our students a useful and meaningful education? How are we demonstrating to our students, to our administrators, and to the public that the Humanities are effective, important, and worthwhile?
  • To give students a personally meaningful assignment with a useful and concrete result—to give them an authentic writing assignment. They now have letters that they can actually send to their representatives, and hopefully they’ll be more confident about writing for civic engagement in the future. One student, who had been reserved most of the semester, emailed me the following message after the class responded to her letter with overwhelming applause and support: “It sounds silly but I really appreciate the encouragement in class today. It’s been a discouraging few weeks with the work load I have and it put me back the positive mind frame I needed.”

So, here are a few examples of my students’ letters to their government representatives:

Curran

 

McConnellZeldinTrump 2

Trump 1