The Last Lecture

13 blog posts, 12 short essays, about 60 hours of experience, and lots of other things that could probably be measured in numbers later, HISTORY 298 is just about over. And it’s certainly been a long, enjoyable ride.

When I started on this project at the beginning of last semester, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into. The email that had been sent out to history majors had required a French-speaking junior or senior – I met neither requirement. But I sent an email anyway, mostly because I was curious – French-Canadians in New Bedford?

A few emails were exchanged, a few questions asked, and BAM! I was working with Laura, a PhD candidate working as the Graduate Research Assistant with Dr. Miller on the project “Ethnohistory of Ethnic Whalemen and their Communities in the New Bedford Area.”

It was just before the end of Add/Drop period, so I didn’t register for credit – at that point, I wasn’t really concerned with registering (that sounded complicated) and I wasn’t looking for anything out of this project (I just wanted to help out.) I started working with Laura, checking in with her every once and a while and primarily communicating through email. Every few weeks, she would send me a new task – nothing really difficult, mostly what I saw as busy work.

At the end of fall semester, I definitely wanted to continue working on the project, and I was hoping for some more rigorous assignments. When I asked to sign up for credit, I still wasn’t sure what I what the work would entail. Most of what I had done last semester didn’t seem to be doing anything really significant, but I liked the information and I wanted to see where it could go.

To receive internship credit at UMass, one has to register through the Career Services Field Experience Office and then through the Undergraduate Advisor of the department in which one wishes to get credit, with lots of forms that I’m still not sure what they were for. But one of them involves an academic contract, which explains a) what you’re doing, b) why you’re qualified to do it, and c) what sort of academic “stuff” you’re going to do for the internship that justifies you getting credit.

So if you’ve been following my blog, you know that my blog posts are a part of that academic contract. The final aspect of my portfolio requires a “5-page reflective essay at the end of the semester on what I have learned regarding the ethnohistory of New Bedford whaling and working in historical research.” So, that’s what I’m supposed to do here. (I’m not sure if I’ll accomplish that.)

What can I tell you about the ethnohistory of New Bedford whaling? Well, for starters, it existed. Though I focused more on the Jewish and Pacific Islander communities’ presence in New Bedford rather than in the whaling industry, I can tell you that their stories are there – but you have to look for them. It’s certainly been written out of the main context of New Bedford history – you can walk down the streets and see the homes of whaling captains, but you don’t necessarily remember their crew. I’d like to attribute part of this problem to the fact that the way we talk about the whaling industry isn’t necessarily focused on the people. In fact, we don’t even teach history that way, not really! We talk about ideas, concepts, and symbols – but not people!

I don’t know why this is – people are some of the coolest things in history. (Just check out one of my favorite blogs devoted to history crushes.) When we do talk about the people, we talk about the “important people” – the so-called movers and shakers, the people who make a difference. In recent historiography, a new movement has taken place to dispel the idea that “important people” are the only ones fit to be remembered. (Think Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages; The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.)  This involves looking at history through critical lenses (feminist, Marxist, post-colonial, etc.)

This study is probably a part of that movement, a movement of which I am extremely in support. And why shouldn’t I be? I think it’s hard to determine who exactly are the movers and shakers, because these are the people who did what I’ll refer to in the rest of this post as “the dirty work.” And in whaling, there is a lot of dirty work.

So, to step away from this for a minute, let’s talk about a different kind of dirty work – research.

When I used to tell people “I want to be a history professor!” I didn’t really know what I was saying. I knew the old adage “publish or perish.” But I didn’t think about the work that came behind it – the dirty work that we discussed a few weeks ago as research.

What Career Services expected me to get out of this internship was field experience – which in the academic field, is primarily research. So I got to do a lot of fun tasks.   The projects certainly varied – I worked with microfilm (which is still the coolest thing ever,) I looked at census records, I did archival research in various databases, and even dabbled in oral history transcription. The work wasn’t extremely difficult, but it was certainly challenging at times. However, I love a good challenge, and it provided something fun for me to do when the rest of my work was piling up. At first, I didn’t necessarily think of the applications of the work I was doing – I was given a task, and so I just went for it. Find all the people who speak Yiddish? Okay. Look for any reference to Kalākaua? Cool. And while it probably wasn’t good for my analysis or discovery, it taught me a lot about whatever program/technology/database I was using, and just informed about the time period. If I found something interesting but irrelevant, I’d write it down for my own amusement, saving it for whatever I was to write about that week.

            I’m not sure at what point I started looking at this task as “just another project” to “A REALLY AWESOME PROJECT,” but it’s certainly become that way. If I had to say when it started, it was probably with the Kanaka whaleman photo. At first, I just had to find that photo – that was the task, so it had to be completed. But as I started looking in various archives and museums, the investigation became less about finding the whaleman, and more about finding out how many routes I could take to get there. It made this project appear not as some side research for a professor, but something monumental in context with American history and whaling history and ethnic communities.

            And that’s where it became awesome. 

What did I get out of this project? In summary, a lot. A few months ago, New Bedford was just a few exits I would pass by on I-195 in order to get home to Fairhaven or Somerset. I knew of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, of course – every third-grade class within 20 miles of New Bedford goes to the Whaling Museum. But I didn’t remember the history, so much as the big whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling and the Resolute desk from National Treasure 2 beneath it.

Over spring break, I had to drive around New Bedford for an interview, and I certainly didn’t feel the same way. Driving around the city made me remember how much I had learned in the past few months, and how much happened on these streets. It also made me think about where this project was going, and how far I had come in the research I had done.

This year was a new chapter, in that cheesy sort of way – I started a new school, in a new place, with new friends and new subjects, and for the first time I actually had the opportunity to pick what I wanted to do with history. People kept asking me what I wanted to study, and to be honest, I had no idea. I was one of the lucky ones – I sat down one day and decided I really wanted to study history. But what about it? That was a question for another day.

Being able to work with Dr. Miller gave me the opportunity to start with something new in a field to which I had a connection. And even when I didn’t know much about that connection, it allowed me to create one, to have an excuse to call home when I had a question about a street or building. In that way, working with Dr. Miller created a really interesting internship – studying these research and archival methods in context with a place close to home.

            And outside of the work I was doing, one of the best parts of this for me was simply the social media experience. Through Tumblr and Twitter, I interacted with a lot of historians, researchers, and history buffs who had so many awesome ideas for me. They completely expanded my own view of what “going into history” can mean. I had never heard about the alt-ac community before Twitter, and it opened up my eyes to really see where this research is going and what people can do with it. I got a lot of responses from people inside and outside the academic community, cheering me on with my work and sometimes pointing me in the right direction. It’s awesome to see that this study is not the first of its kind – that multiple communities, museums, or parks across the nation are looking at history this way.

Dr. Miller asked if I wanted to continue working with her next semester, and of course I said yes! It might be difficult to fit into my schedule (I’m a highly desired student, in case you couldn’t tell) but this is a project that is really important to me – not just for the experience, but because each week I’ve found something new to be really excited about. And that’s why I chose history as my major in the first place – I want to be excited all the time.

So the blog isn’t over – just this portion is, and just for now. But I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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