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.