DegreePh.D. in History ’21
Recently, I picked up several giant boxes of books from Lilly Library, a product of being a doctoral student in the midst of writing her dissertation. While lugging the boxes to my car I ran into Kelley Lawton, the subject librarian for United States History and head of East Campus Libraries. Kelley greeted me enthusiastically and immediately asked, “What sacred space did your students choose?! Where did y’all go?”
In February, I’d sent the undergraduates on the America’s Sacred Spaces Bass Connections team to Kelley with the task of discovering sources about the sites they researched. The undergraduate students sought primary sources, journalism, scholarly monographs, novels and artistic renderings of places in the American South they thought merited investigation and (ideally) in-person field research.
The team landed on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. Now an affluent beach town suburb of Charleston, the island served as entry point for an estimated 40% of enslaved people brought to the U.S. from Africa. It has been home to Native Americans, military occupations, famous writers, quarantined and escaped slaves and environmental scientists. It has not, however, been host to the America’s Sacred Spaces research team.
Kelley’s inquiry about what the team ended up doing prompted me to reflect on how the project went—not as planned. But on some level that was a useful and generative thing. Undergraduate and graduate student obligations made it incredibly difficult to schedule field research. Our team also shrunk by three members from fall to spring semesters so there was more work for everyone to do and not enough time to do it all. But when we decided in March not to pursue our field work, it prompted the whole team to formulate a final product that addresses the core questions of the project: What is sacred? What is American? Who gets to participate in conversations about memorialization and identity?
Being the project coordinator for America’s Sacred Spaces drove home for me the importance of being able to switch gears while conducting research. Your team membership might change, the sources you engage might take your inquiries in other directions and you might encounter hurdles that you don’t have the resources to surmount. The key to success is to follow where the research takes you.
Our team found that all our readings, conversations and research from the fall and spring semesters led us not to definitive conclusions about what and where is sacred, but to a starting point – to a product that ruminates on why we asked the questions we asked and how others might take those questions further down the road.
This, it seems to me, is a valuable lesson for any kind of work. Of course, in history (my field) you must follow your sources. But the ability to switch gears, to make sense and use of what you have—rather than what you think you ought to have—is a valuable skill for tackling any project, inside or outside the academy. It’s a skill I am glad to have sharpened from my experience with Bass Connections.
Kelley’s questions also reminded me of the power of the project’s central premise. We used interdisciplinary humanities approaches to ask which places are essential to different groups’ understanding of the United States, and why. These questions, I discovered throughout the project, drew people in.
Consultants who worked on the project and others who weren’t part of our team showed great interest in what we meant by sacred and whether their ideas of vital American sites matched our team’s criteria. We were able to welcome people’s enthusiasm and always expand our understandings and definitions. The great and sometimes daunting thing about humanistic inquiry is that you rarely reach definitive conclusions. But the great thing about our interdisciplinary approach is that it allowed for wide-ranging approaches to our central questions and never-ending collaboration, features all too rare in projects inside and outside the academy.