Finding "Place" in the Past

By Camden Burd

M-20 is a not a particularly unique highway. It’s just one of many that crisscross the Michigan landscape. Yet the highway does carry some special significance to me. I drove it often when commuting between my family’s small cabin near Remus (pictured above) and Mt. Pleasant while studying at Central Michigan University. I can still visualize many of the sites along the route. Whether it was the humble façade of the Remus Tavern or the grandiose “Welcome to Mt. Pleasant” painted across the Ann Arbor Railroad Bridge on western edge of town, the familiar landmarks connected me to specific place, time, and experience.

We all have these places: a childhood home, a familiar walk, an iconic tree—even a favorite coffee shop can stir feelings of familiarity, and comfort. Most significantly, though, they create meaning. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, scholar of landscape studies, describes this type of attachment as a “sense of place.” People often transform mundane locations, nameless vistas, and sprawling landscapes into places because of “a lively awareness of the familiar environment, a ritual repetition, [and] a sense of fellowship based on shared experience.” Understanding the significance of a place tells us about the values of people who find meaning in the landscapes, monuments, and activities associated with those particular places.  

Historicizing a “sense place” has been the constant thread of my academic work since I began my MA in History at Central Michigan University in 2012. I first became interested with the study of place when I examined the historical roots of Michigan’s tourism industry in Northern Michigan. I was enamored with the perennial tradition of tourists and cottage-goers that traveled “Up North” for recreation and respite. With guidance from Jay Martin and Brittany Bayless Fremion, I dedicated my MA thesis to the cultural and environmental roots of the still-modern tradition. The core material of that research would later become the basis for my first peer-reviewed article, “Imagining a Pure Michigan Landscape: Advertisers, Tourists, and the Making of Michigan’s Northern Vacationlands,” published in the Michigan Historical Review. Since then I have written on various topics related to “sense of place.” Whether it was an essay describing how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha served as a shared language for progressive-era conservationists to find new meaning in the cutover districts of the Upper Midwest or another article that illustrates how diminished economic activity on the Erie Canal motivated state and national politicians to create a new heritage-tourism industry along the artificial river. I have always started my research with a particular place and study the people who found meaning in it. Like a mirror, the study of the sense of place can reveal cultural assumptions, environmental values, and community values. 

Of course, a place’s meaning can change over time. Economic forces often disrupt livelihoods and community networks. New technologies shift the nature of work and how individuals interact with each other as well as local geography. Environmental changes can also shift the meaning of a place. Forests fall, rivers become dammed, and the behemoth influence of industrialization commodifies, extracts, and alters landscapes beyond recognition. Therefore, a sense of place can be a valuable lens to study past cultures. How historic groups value, interpret, and use landscape offers historians a unique lens to track environmental, economic, political, and cultural shifts over time. After all, these are the places where people make a home, find work, form identity, and create meaning.

 

Some suggested/favorite readings on Place:

Kate Brown, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Jared Famer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).


Camden Burd received his PhD in History from the University of Rochester in 2019. Before his time in Western New York, he spent two years completing his MA in History from Central Michigan University. During the 2019-2020 academic year Camden will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the New York Botanical Garden.

www.camdenburd.com

Is Anyone Really Writing? Everyone is Writing, and No one is Writing.

By Dave Papendorf

There is a strange phenomenon that exists in academia and within the Humanities in particular.  Apparently, every PhD student is writing their dissertation. How industrious of them! They retreat to an airy salon and knock away at their typewriters while feeling the thrill of progress. These students are consistently fueled by the swelling approval of their ever-vigilant supervisors and the pleasant typewriter ding of every line completed on their ground-breaking project.

However, upon closer examination, this proves to be false. In fact, as it turns out, no one is writing their dissertation. Instead they write emails, book reviews, journal submissions, funding proposals, fellowship applications, course syllabi, comment on students’ work, teaching philosophies, job applications, letters of recommendation, conference papers, bibliographies, and exam prompts. After all of this, they are left dejected, despaired, and despondent. To get a job, PhD students need to be doing all of these things. “A dissertation is not enough” the market tells us. Good thing too, after keeping so many plates spinning, who has time for a dissertation anyways!

Perhaps this is too melancholiac of an assessment. After all, people are constantly finishing and defending their dissertations. But surely the sentiments shared above resonate with my colleagues. At least I hope they do, because in my experience pressures mount not only to finish the dissertation but also develop professionally with some ontological crises along the way. In the remainder of this post, I will share a little of my experience as a dissertation-writing, plate-spinning, job-hunting ABD student. Hopefully, we can commiserate together, and my honest reflections can help spur on my current and future colleagues to keep writing. Friends, please receive my unsolicited advice kindly. Most importantly, I hope this post gives non-students a view into the psyche of a late-stage PhD student.

Some of you might recognize me as a previous editor when I had just started “writing” my dissertation. While I have made progress since editing the blog, it has not been as swift as I hoped. C’est la vie. Nevertheless, I have noticed three things about myself as a “writer” that are worth sharing.

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

1. I am what you might call a “long runway” type of writer. In other words, it takes me a long time to get “off the ground” writing productively (please indulge my aerial metaphor). I need a plan, an outline, a developed structure, and goals to check off and mark my daily progress. This helps me feel as if I am doing something and forces me to come to grips with the reality of my current situation to complete my dissertation tasks (see checklist below). If you cannot simply sit down and write, this might help you. However, it is not a failsafe for all students. I find that when I do get to writing, I write in chunks. Recently, I wrote 13,000 words in nine days, but keep in mind this took two weeks of “runway” time. Alternatives would be short bursts of writing (write all you can over a weekend) or slow-and-steady (write for 50 minutes a day, regardless of quality).

Papendorf Checklist.jpg

2. I am always more successful when I measure my progress in terms of word count rather than number of pages. I write using Scrivener software which measures word count and not page numbers and stores footnotes outside of the text. I find these elements helpful because I think less about overall length and more about paragraphs. Doing so helps me focus on the cohesiveness and effectiveness of my writing rather than numerical values. Overall, this benefits my argumentation and writing quality. On a more metaphysical level, focusing on word count helps me think less about “space” on a page and more about argument.

3. I have developed a schedule-oriented plan to finish my dissertation all the way to my dissertation defense date. I have two plans: one labeled “ambitious” and the other labeled “realistic.” This two-pronged schedule gives me the impetus to be ambitious while not condemning me for being realistic. Ideally, I would finish somewhere between the two. I find that having a large-scale idea of where I am headed in advance to be consoling. Such a plan also helps give me the right “push” when I need it and comforts me when I feel like I should be doing more. Finally, sharing this with my supervisor has been helpful so that we are on the same page and the ever-frightening gap between actual progress and supervisor-expected progress is mitigated.

PapendorfGraphic.jpg

I titled this post sardonically. However, cynicism is often revealing even if just revealing to its source. I suspect that many feel the same way as I do. The industry seems to be heaping more pressures on students so that our focus is diverted from dissertation writing even while, at the same time, doing more tasks overall. So, to restate the titular question, who is writing after all? Answer: everyone is writing, and no one is writing. PhD students, soldier on. Non-PhD students give a dissertation writer a hug. All of us need one.


Dave Papendorf is a late-stage History PhD Student at Central Michigan University and a Special Instructor of Historical Theology at Moody Bible Institute. His research examines the early Reformation in France (1520s-1540s) and the connections between the French and German Reformations during this period.

For more information or to contact him visit his graduate profile.

From Scotland to New Haven: An Opera Singer's Journey

Pictures: laurenmcquistin.com

By Lauren McQuistin

Prior to my graduation from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, I asked my head of year what my next step should be. He suggested London, or Wales, but if I really wanted to challenge myself, the United States. Never shy from a challenge, I saw no other option but to buy a ticket. In recent years I told my Professor Robertson, how much his advice meant to me. He told me that while he gives most people the same advice few follow through. Having graduated at the other end of my graduate school experience, I am so grateful for the way higher education in America has enriched my life and would encourage anyone considering it enthusiastically. I was lucky enough to receive a full scholarship and stipend to study music at Yale University. Due to the fully funded nature of the programme, it attracted the most extraordinary musicians across the world, regardless of their socio-economic background. The program sought out musicians that were willing to carve their way forward based on skill and determination alone. Additionally, I gained valuable teaching skills—an experience unique to the American graduate school—though I am first and foremost a performer, I have extensive training in how to teach voice. Throughout my Masters degree I had a private studio of sixteen students, which varied from young undergraduates in the Glee Club, with over a decade of choral training – to graduate school instrumentalists who had never sung a note.  

Being situated on the east coast, the Music School placed me in a centre point for a culmination of cultures to explore. Coming from a small country of about five million, to sixty-five times that was overwhelming but eventually one of my greatest opportunities to network, grow as a musician, and expand my horizons. A singer’s and, indeed a graduate student in most disciplines, journey does not solely exist in the realm of music or subject, there is often a huge component that is based in language and the learning of language. While a history student must be of reading comprehension—especially for research purposes—an opera singer must be skilled in speaking and lyric diction. With the resident linguistic experts, I obtained a degree of fluency in German and Italian, proficiency in French, and started my journey with Russian. Aside from the practical applications, I have lyric diction in Czech and Swedish.  

Working as a teacher for the Yale School of Music allowed me to zone in on my own technique, and really develop my personal pedagogy. A feat that graduate students around the country must face in their respective careers. Having students at the absolute infancy of their musical journey allowed me to install an appreciation and a holistic approach to the voice – one that comes from a desire to create and share an art form that resonates on a profound level. Seeing young students be brave, and risk vulnerability, by exploring the world of singing and performance enhanced my own appreciation for the art from. In my final semester I had a pleasure of watching two of my students perform principal roles in Yale Baroque Ensemble’s production of L’orfeo, which reiterated that my teaching had created a legacy of performers and has already enhanced my studio and garnered public interest in my skills.  

Equally important was spreading my Scottish identity. Being part of the Yale School of Music and all the prestige that is attached to that, was my platform to promote Scottish musicians and artists as viable and vital to the artistic world. The connections and, most importantly, the discipline that I gained has afforded me the standing to make my way in the professional world. During my first audition season I was able to work at one of the top Young Artist’s Programmes in the world, Central City Opera, giving a taste of the young artist lifestyle I hope to inhabit very soon. Another asset to the School of Music is the contacts they have with agents and managers, which meant that in my final semester I had the pleasure of singing for Columbia Records, Barret Artists, and most importantly, the Metropolitan Opera.  

The sheer diversity of cultures that exist in America alone, and the diversity of cultures that America attracts, is a brilliant opportunity to expand one’s world view, and really asses how one moves through the world as a global citizen. The entire world is aware of the issues and advances that are occurring in America, they inhabit the world stage. Being close to them, and gaining my education during them, informed me on how I can be an active member of society, working towards justice and dismantling the systems of oppression that are failing humanity. In my experience I saw a student body who fixated upon this and used the power of their intelligence to mobilise and make small but significant changes that will eventually impact our future. This allowed me to consider how to make my music useful, and meaningful in a broader way, such as performing in benefits for Asylum and Immigration. I would not have had such a tangible contact with this world, and this way to use my skills and talents, if I had not taken the leap to study in America.


Lauren McQuistin is a soprano opera singer originally from Stranraer in Scotland. Including having a very impressive resume and website, Lauren enjoys the simple things in life such as eating out for breakfast, visiting cute coffee shops, and whale watching (although I’m not sure that’s quite as simple!). Studying abroad, teaching, and learning languages have been a vital part in Lauren’s journey to where she is today.

If you wish to contact her or find out more, visit her web page www.laurenmcquistin.com