Reconstructing the Archives in Sound

T. Rex, featured in playlist “Ray’s Last Shift” Source

Early this January I was writing up a section of my book project on college radio about Rice University’s KTRU in the 1980s. KTRU-FM’s records include both paper and sound: their online collection of on-air programming is one of the more extensive in college radio history. I visited the physical archives in June 2019, in a bit of a whirlwind trip, but I have a good collection of photos. (Alas, I somehow overwrote my images of the 1985, 1986, and 1987 “Gripe” book of DJ commentary from the studio—these are amazing to have to capture backchannel conversations that happened in radio stations. The archivists there are helping me get access.)

But much of what went out over KTRU’s airwaves, along with other stations, remains lost. Some playlists or rotation schedules remain in the archives. Some DJs and listeners taped shows, with cassettes stored away in dusty boxes in attics. There are numerous efforts to gather and preserve these, particularly hip hop shows that featured live performances. Some have ended up in institutional archives and made available online.

Copyright issues remain a challenge, however. Live performances are in a gray area, with permission to rebroadcast or allow for listening online remaining with publishers/record labels. Interviews, such as those housed at Rice, are easier.

But what about the sound of college radio? Archivists are uninterested in preserving recordings of student DJs mumbling their way through song announcements. The labor involved in preserving those is more costly than what is gained in preservation. But something is lost: there is a sound and practice of amateur radio. The process of production is important to understanding radio and sound culture, as Shawn VanCour establishes in his book, Making Radio: Early Radio Production and the Rise of Modern Sound Culture. In examining the practices and processes of radio production styles, the development of sound culture emerges through attention to “the professional knowledges and practices that authorize and sustain these productions.”(9) Amateurs often had no desire to join professional networks and reproductions, but many did or were nonetheless conversant with them and contesting their structures and established practices. Sure, they were having fun, but these signals with expanded wattages and presence on the public airwaves still had influence.

During the 1980s, although college radio stations remained mostly run by amateurs and volunteers, they nonetheless participated in the broader development and production of popular culture, and they were sites of conflict over what that culture would sound like and contain. Although we cannot make recordings of radio shows that featured recorded music available in the same way as interviews, and many of the soundcheck and in-between song announcing remains lost, there is still value in exploring the sound of these playlists. Former DJs I’ve interviewed, including those from KTRU in the 1980s, understand that the “college radio sound” often excluded Black artists, similar to MTV. Those notebooks that I need copies of contain extensive debates about that issue, which I’ll explore in more depth in my book on the construction of college radio’s modern sound and reputation, currently titled Live from the Underground: A History of College Radio. But what is clear: this era of college radio production and programming practices revisited and extended longstanding questions about pop culture and its creation, what we could catalog as part of the culture wars of the 1980s but also intricately linked to questions at the center of American culture, cultural production, cultural industries, and cultural fields.

But, doing the work of this history does let us revisit some fantastic music and playlists, as the one that I did here, reconstructed from a playlist found in the archives at KTRU. In it, the frayed pages of the archives come to life—and I continue to work to record oral histories and stories about what went on behind the scenes and sounds of college radio.

Update: I meant to also highlight archival projects ongoing, including at Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive. I’ll save the extensive list for another post, later!

A Podcast Plan

ORGANIZE, verb. (transitive) To arrange in working order.

ORGANIZE, verb. (transitive) To constitute in parts, each having a special function, act, office, or relation; to systematize.

ORGANIZE, verb. (transitive) To furnish with organs; to give an organic structure to; to endow with capacity for the functions of life; as, an organized being; organized matter; — in this sense used chiefly in the past participle.

ORGANIZE, verb. (transitive) (music) To sing in parts.


Do you ever look at your colleagues, peers, and friends and wonder: how exactly do they keep it all organized? When there are so many bits of information, meetings, inspirations, items to research, ideas to capture — how do we remember it all?

For me, it’s my friend Caroline. She’s an inspiration in many regards — she has the sharpest mind, memory, and she’s hilarious. We’ll be talking, and if I mention something that intrigues her or she wants to look up later, she pulls this little notepad out of her bag and jots something down, then stows it away.

The notepad isn’t anything special. I think one time it was a freebie from a hotel.

But there was something special about the process. It was seeing her mind in action, with thought being put to paper, to be developed later. Her process is streamlined and it WORKS. The tools support the thinking, the learning, and the reflection. And it gets to the intended result. She captures the idea with her pen, and she processes it later.

It made me think about my own systems, and how they are constantly changing. If I write a note like that for myself, I have no idea how to find it later. I’ll watch videos on YouTube of planner enthusiasts decorating their Filofaxes, Hobonichis, Erin Condrens, or Happy Planners with beautiful stickers. Mine are never that pretty (but I keep buying stickers, nonetheless). Brush lettering—it will never happen. (Yes, I own some.)

Sometimes I’m intimidated by the tools I select. The pens write so well, the pages are so pristine. Then I mark them with my unremarkable handwriting, which is usually crooked on the page.

After much trial and error, I think I finally have a system that works for me. But it is always a work in progress. Somehow, I’ve managed to stay pretty on top of things, meet my deadlines, get my classes planned and graded on time, and even launch some side projects, like this one.

And in so doing, I’ve created a kind of liner notes for my life. Most of it is mundane, or knowable only to those with certain kinds of inside knowledge. But they reveal the makings of the final products: the books I write, the lectures I give, the feedback on students’ papers, the readings I consult.

I love beautiful office supplies. I am picky about how my pens write. I have strong feelings about what paper I like to write on, and what color my sticky notes should (and should not) be. But how do I make it all come together into a process that helps me:

  • find the notes I took on that book and footnote it with correct page number,
  • record that fleeting thought I had about a chapter’s argument,
  • keep going on that service project I committed to,
  • read the book in time to submit the review,
  • or make sure to mention lessons about paper-writing mechanics to my students in class on Tuesday?
  • (Never mind make sure that my kid gets to gymnastics, the toilet doesn’t get nasty, get my eyebrows waxed before I start looking like my grandfather, and we don’t eat frozen pizza three days in a row).

Although I have a pretty good system now, and the wheels have never *quite* come off the bus, I’ve been pretty fickle. My liner notes now have a certain look to them.

And I’m nosy. I am fascinated by how others select the tools that support their thinking, their day-to-day tasks, and move their work and lives forward. I’m curious how others approach the divide between our analog tools and our digital lives.

To organize is a verb. And, if you examine the list of definitions above, it denotes group interaction. After all, the liner notes on albums are disseminated, and fans are curious about how the album gets made.

So there is my goal: to get together with other scholars, writers, and anyone who is interested in how to turn ideas into creativity and action—and see how they do it, to get a peek into how they create their own liner notes.

This week, I start interviewing guests for my limited video podcast series: The History Mixtapes: Liner Notes. (I hope to do something with this History Mixtapes title later — so Liner Notes is a pilot/subseries. I know, it’s a bit complicated, but it’s a pandemic, people).

I don’t have a process to or system to sell, or even one I think everyone should adopt. I’m just someone who loves pens, paper, and talking about how to take notes and find them later. And, in the end, as my friend Caroline’s system reminded me: it’s all about the ideas.

Visting Gropius House

While I was composing Resources for Pens and Paper Part I: Brick and Mortar (Boston), I remarked upon how visiting Bob Slate Stationer has a timeless quality, reminiscent of Walter Gropius’s desk. It made me nostalgic for visits to Gropius House, one of the properties of Historic New England.

Gropius came to the United States with his family to revamp Harvard University’s School of Architecture. He was given a housing allowance to build his own house, which he did in Lincoln, MA, completed in 1938. It’s not a large house: just enough room for him, his wife, daughter, and a housekeeper. He also saw clients in the house, hence my ability to see some of his office tools.

A closeup of the Gropius’s shared desk. The office doubles as a hallway, in efficient style.

The house is quite the sight, tucked in between classic examples of New England colonial homes (mansions) and beautiful forests. I frequently detour on my commute to Fitchburg to just get a glimpse of the modern style.

The view of Gropius House from the road. The sight of it is uplifting in the midst of difficult spring semesters.

Since visiting is much harder at the moment, I thought I’d share some of the images I’ve taken during my several visits to the property.

There are worse views.

The desk makes me want to throw away everything I own and start fresh. It’s not that it is spare – there are cards, papers, decorations around. But the minimalist function of all the tools, the quality, the heft to them. It is pleasing.

The desk in their daughter’s room displays a rather mod calendar from 1967. She requested her own entrance to the house, which her father granted — hence the spiral staircase on the side of the house. She also has a balcony, with a wall painted in pink, which apparently reduces glare.

The pink makes for an excellent backdrop for portraits.
It also captures the shadows of the trees surrounding the house.

At every turn, there is a vignette waiting to be photographed.

A Knoll womb chair by Eero Saarinen: much of the furniture in the house came as gifts from the designers, students from Bauhaus.

I particularly appreciate the textures and designs intended to create shadows and reflect the surrounding environment.

Rather than defying the New England woodland surrounding the house, the design instead honors the nearby architecture and landscape, bringing it into the house and considering it through a new lens. I’m no artist or architectural historian, but I always appreciate visiting.

I hope you enjoyed this brief, virtual visit to Gropius House.

Resources for Pens and Paper Part I: Brick and Mortar (Boston)

Now that I’m starting the process of launching an interview podcast/video series on the tools that historians use to organize and record their research and teaching, I thought I’d start by highlighting my favorite sources for the tools that I use.

Brick and Mortar Stores

Sometimes you need to try the pens. Or feel the paper. Plus, there is something about strolling through tightly packed aisles of unique notebooks, lab books, manila envelopes, and legal pads. Or you might want to see *exactly* how puffy the stickers are — or stumble across a brand you haven’t heard of, or gaze at the colors of Clairefontaine notebooks. With three small kids and an hour commute to work (and now a pandemic), I don’t get out very much. So forgive my limited range, but here’s where I go if I have a minute.

First up, just a bus ride away from where I live:

Bob Slate Stationer in Harvard Square, Cambridge. I love visiting here in the winter, when it’s 5:15pm and already dark.

There is a timeless quality to this store that makes me think of the tools laid on on Walter Gropius’s desk.

They have a range of notebooks designed for academic study, as well as planners, notecards, diaries, wrapping paper, leather goods, and custom stationery. The store carries Filofax, my previous planner system, as well as Traveler’s Notebook and other Japanese and British paper goods. But there is so much to see here, I’m only scratching the surface in describing it.

A pre-pandemic view of the door.
A rack of MD Paper by Midori — a lay flat notebook with subtle covers and fine details. I picked one up on my recent visit.
Travelers Notebook Supplies (2018)
I mean, does it get any better than this?

Bonus: not too far away are bookstores, including the Harvard Coop, the Harvard Book Store, plus rare book retailers. A recent haul says it all:

While we are here…I’ll include this memory of editing Dollars for Dixie at the now-closed Crema Cafe. Sob.

Next on the list is Black Ink — which used to have a Harvard Square location that is now closed. (A recent visit revealed that an accoutrements store has moved into that space, but I haven’t checked it out yet). But it’s worth going to their Charles St. location in Boston because you can also stop in at Rugg Road Paper, order custom stationery and invitations, and see their range of products. Get off at the Charles/MGH stop, ponder that the prison is now a fancy hotel, and walk toward the Public Garden. Alternatively, park in the lot under the garden.

(For these spots and the next, I don’t have a plethora of images as I do for Bob Slate. This must be rectified!)

This store is one of my favorites to visit because we used to live just up the street: a garden-level apartment complete with a tunnel entrance and an address that was 9 1/2, very evocative of Harry Potter.

Again, winter visits are best for viewing the decor. But May will also yield magnolias, dogwoods, and cherry blossoms, and the Public Garden in autumn is lovely. And there are always bumper stickers to find.

Anyways. Black Ink has toys, books, kitchen wares, umbrellas, useful items, and, for my purposes: stickers and paper fasteners, as well as cards. Visit them online at the Museum of Useful Things.

A bit further afield, but on the way to my favorite vacation spots in Down East Maine, is the delightful Rock, Paper, Scissors, in Wiscasset, located right on Rt. 1.

I mean, really, when you are going to see views like this, you NEED a new notebook.

But Rock, Paper, Scissors has more than notebooks and cards. They have beautiful tableware and linens, books, toys, and various tools and all sorts of bits and bobs tucked away. It’s a great place to stop on Route 1, and I always make a point to when traveling that way. It’s also exactly the right distance from Boston to stop for lunch. Most people go to the famous Red’s Eats down the way for seafood, but we like going to Sarah’s restaurant across the street for fish chowder.

There are also the many retail locations for the Paper Source around here. I often end up at the one in Burlington, but I prefer to visit the Porter Square and Brookline stores, simply because that is where I sourced the material for our DIY wedding invitations.

Boston and the surrounding area has so many places to visit, and my list is growing. There is also the Bromfield Pen Shop near Downtown Crossing, for when I want to invest in a truly fancy pen. Shockingly, I have not yet visited the MUJI store on Newbury Street. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I was on Newbury St., or in any other Boston neighborhood. What year is it? Oh, right, it’s still 2020. Much more to explore in 2021 — but there is always online, to be covered in Part II.

Why the “Rye”? It’s a long story…

The Hidden Political History of Southern Naming Traditions

I share a middle name with my grandfather and my uncle, James Rye Jewell, Sr., and James Rye Jewell, Jr., a retired commander of the U.S. Navy. My cousin Blythe, Jr.’s daughter, has my Dad’s middle name, so it was only fair that the name swapping tradition continue.

Yet there is an ironic symbolism in my middle name with a connection to the subject of my first book. As I child, I was unaware of its origins in Tennessee politics. At the same time, it is symbolic that though I grew up with little connection to the name’s 1914 origin, I nonetheless gravitated toward the era and issues that prompted its emergence as a family name. The pattern of the invisibility yet simultaneous presence of the past is at the heart of historical inquiry and structures the research questions tasked in Dollars for Dixie.

My grandfather was born in September 1914 in Lebanon, in Wilson County, Tennessee, some thirty miles east of Nashville. That fall, Tom C. Rye won election as Tennessee’s governor. A Democrat from Paris, Tennessee, 100 miles northwest of Nashville, Rye won the nomination after prosecuting bootleggers as Henry County attorney general.

Rye was a reformer and a prohibitionist — ironic given his last name. Running as a “law and order” candidate, he capitalized on prominent Tennessee Democrats’ desire to unite the party, drawing support in the 1914 election from the powerful, Memphis-based Edward H. Crump machine despite his lack of affiliation with party factions.[1] Still, his nomination marked the relative reunification of the party after it divided in the previous decade, leading to the election of a Republican, Ben W. Hooper, for two terms.[2] As southern members of Congress benefited from Virginian Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912, the taste for reform in Dixie likely helped Rye assume statewide leadership.[3] Moreover, as the southern electorate narrowed and whitened after Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, southern voters were more willing to support reform that would be directed toward largely white communities and interests.

Reform and war-related economic development dominated Rye’s four years in office. As governor, Rye balanced competing interests in state highway building, but also encouraged business progressive policies that would encourage the development of the Alcoa plant at Maryville, taking advantage of the expansion in the industry during World War I.[4] Despite having received support from Crump and Memphis voters, Rye’s strong prohibitionist sentiments, which expanded the efforts of the previous Republican governor, led him to go after the Memphis leader for not enforcing the closure of saloons, resulting in the removal of Crump from office.[5] Rye signed the Elkins Ouster Bill, allowing the state to remove public officials who refused to enforce standing laws. Rye’s actions seemed to stem more from his prohibitionist sentiments than his desire to break up the powerful Crump machine, but the effect was to throw Memphis politics into a state of disarray and thwart Crump’s political ambitions, though he regained control of city politics by 1918.[6] The Jim Crow system in the state persisted and solidified under established legal structures during these years.[7] Along with maintaining the color line, the prohibition issue blurred the lines of party and intra-party factionalism in the state, revealing the power of reform in the state during these years.

The dominance of reform and prohibition politics in Tennessee could have been the reason my grandfather gained the name. My great grandmother, Myrtle Orrand Jewell, was a devout Christian and supported prohibition. None of her other children have names of prominent politicians, which leads me to think that there was something about this governor and the timing of James’s birth that prompted the name. But the true reasons behind the name remain a bit murky. My mother once asked my grandfather where his name had come from, and he replied, “I dunno, the governor,” offering few additional details. Given that my grandfather was born in September 1914, and elections take place in November, was the decision made at his birth to select the name of the Democratic candidate, knowing he would become governor? Or was it selected later, after the election, when they filed for a birth certificate — a process perhaps delayed because of their rural location? (Perhaps I need to dig a bit deeper here into electoral results, campaigning, and the dates of this election, using resources unavailable to me remotely, from Massachusetts). Or was this reflective of larger naming traditions in middle Tennessee, or the South more generally, hearkening back to naming kids after certain generals or other prominent figures? Or does the name, and its subsequent passage along to me, stem from the power of the prohibitionism in Tennessee politics in 1914?

The subjects of my book, mill owners and industrial boosters, would likely have supported the governorship of Tom Rye, though many moved within state Republican circles (many industrialists voted for Taft in 1908 before becoming Hoovercrats in 1928, if not already registered Republicans). Most linked mill building and economic development to social reform, and many supported prohibition. Yet that generation of the Jewell family were no mill owners. My great grandfather moved to town of Lebanon in 1906 to work in a pencil factory. Eventually, he purchased his own mobile sawmill, which my grandfather would help operate at age six. My great grandfather eventually lost his hand in that sawmill and became a janitor at the local high school. My grandfather would leave high school in the depths of the Depression to work in the spinning room at the Lebanon Woolen Mill before becoming part owner of and mechanic at an auto shop after World War II. James Rye Jewell, Sr., was a lifelong Roosevelt Democrat. Perhaps class dynamics and economic development played little role in the story of the name, trumped by the politics of reform in this era, as with the state’s politics overall.

When it came time to publish, I never questioned using my full name. I like the cadence of the three words together. It looks good on a book cover. Yet its use as a family name, imbued with meanings related more to kinship and familial reciprocity than southern identity and Tennessee politics of reform, reveal how the past remains yet is also constantly being reused and reinterpreted. Tennessee’s business progressives and industrial boosters perplexed me, given that their role in shaping the state and region has largely been lost to popular memory.

Much like my middle name, the complexities and sentiments of a previous generation of industrialists bear little weight on the Sunbelt politics and global flows of capital that shape the region today. Still, their effect remains. Historians, looking closely and reconstructing timelines and lineages, can uncover deep continuities that underlie the transformation and persistence of language. In the case of my book, the idea of free enterprise and the South, and the promotion of the South as an “economic hope” of the nation, have roots in the lost politics of reformers in the early twentieth century. As for my name, it will always mark my origins, both familial and scholarly.


[1] G. Wayne Dowdy, Mayor Crump Don’t Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis, p. 22.

[2] Dewey Grantham, The Life and Death of the Solid South, p. 44.

[3] Grantham, p. 67.

[4] Tammy Ingram, Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, p. 51; Margaret I. Phillips, The Governors of Tennessee, p. 130.

[5] Dowdy, p. 23-24.

[6] Dowdy, p. 27.

[7] The legal structure of Jim Crow was already largely established in Tennessee by 1914. State statutes segregated streetcars and other public facilities in the early years of the century, followed by legal segregation of schools in the 1920s.

History as Therapy: Reconstructing the Boston Bombings

The last two weeks have been difficult ones here in Boston, from the immediate trauma and shock of the bombings, to false reports of arrests, to a manhunt and lockdown, and now to the re-opening of Boylston St. and the resolve of moving forward.

As I look back, I realize that not only are my memories of the actual event hazy and distorted, but my memories from the entire week of April 15 are a jumbled and foggy mess. Last Tuesday at Fitchburg State’s convocation, our Assistant VP of Academic Affairs and former chair of my department (with whom I share an appreciation for Survivor) asked me about the previous week’s episode. If you didn’t see it, it was an exciting one (immunity idols played! A major player blindsided!) At first, when Paul asked me about the episode, I had no memory of having watched it. Intellectually, I knew that I had, but the memories just weren’t coming. A few vague flashes darted through my brain, but that was it. Other similar experiences registered similar memory problems, which various sources explained to me was a symptom of post-trauma and should diminish with time.

Furthermore, as the week went on, the historian began to kick in. I needed details. I needed to find out what actually happened. I needed evidence — and clearly, I needed more evidence than what my memory was providing me.

The process of putting these details together, although they may not make for the most interesting reading, reveal the process by which historians reconstruct the past through evidence. It isn’t pretty, and sources don’t always neatly line up in succession to allow for an easy chronology of details. Here is the process I used, however imperfect. I am not yet at the place where I can put these details into a narrative. This post might be a bit of a mess, but so is the process of doing history. Perhaps outlining is the next step?

So to the sources I went, looking for answers. A few items needed to be clarified regarding my initial account. Things were not adding up in the story I was telling.

First, my location.

In the days afterwards, I told a number of people that we were “two blocks” from the explosion. This didn’t sound correct, but there was a part of me that didn’t want to face how close we were. But with my memories being unreliable, I had to look to evidence to reconstruct my location.

In my initial blog post, I captured some details about our location, but they are imprecise.

Detail 1:

We found a great spot right near the corner of Boylston and Gloucester St. where we could see the 26 mile marker and hang out the sign we had made.

So, near the corner.

Detail 2:

We felt the wave of the blast and smelled the smoke…as the crowd began to scream and run, I ran, too, pushing Leo in the stroller.

But close enough to feel and smell the bomb, and far enough from the corner to run straight (for what seemed like forever in the aftermath).

Detail 3:

I saw a nondescript door leading to businesses upstairs over Boylston, (I believe it was 883 Boylston St.), and headed for it. Other spectators dove into restaurants, but I didn’t want to be near any glass.

So we were past at least two restaurants, and far enough from 883 Boylston to have to run. Aha, and that photograph I took to document our location. Perhaps other photographs could provide some visual clues as to our exact location.

Photograph 1, taken at 2:29 PM.


At first, I didn’t think there would be much to glean from this photograph about our location. The geotagging placed us across the street in the Prudential Center, so that was unreliable. Then I noticed the brick detail on the building behind my head and the bowed windows.

Using Google maps, I determined that we were in front of the building housing Eastern Mountain Sports and a Bank of America branch. Saturday, on Boylston St., I took this photo to corroborate my location.

IMG_3092As this photo demonstrates, there are only two possible locations in which we could have been standing — either on the far right on the right side of the Bank of America, or on the left, just to the side of the Eastern Mountain Sports sign.

From the following photo it is possible to discern that we were across from the Prudential Center Mall, but Hynes was still visible, suggesting that we were at the left location.


Mapping this location along with the approximate location of the second bomb reveals we were about 1 block, or 400 feet, away. Revisiting Boylston St. also allowed me to confirm that it was not 883 Boylston, but rather 867 Boylston through which we escaped the street.

Second, the time frame.

My blog post is very fuzzy on timing and chronology. Note the lack of detail here:

I saw a nondescript door leading to businesses upstairs over Boylston, (I believe it was 883 Boylston St.), and headed for it. Other spectators dove into restaurants, but I didn’t want to be near any glass. I told Leo that we were going to find a hiding spot. I managed to text my husband and my brother that we were okay.

In the hallway, it was quiet, and I couldn’t get a signal on my phone to figure out what was happening.

I know I told a few people that we were in the hallway hiding for a few minutes, but it seemed like an incredibly long time that we were in there. Other details from my initial post also don’t help in reconstructing the timeline:

Outside people were running and crying. I managed to get a call through to my husband. I told him we were going to cross the Mass Ave bridge, and after a minute the phone service cut out. …As we approached the BU bridge I got cell service back (along with a deluge of text messages). I told my husband that we were headed toward the River Street bridge and that we would meet him on River towards Central Square.

So to my phone records to help reconstruct the timeline.

My phone records didn’t have the call to my husband when I thought of recording these, but his phone still maintained a record of our calls.


I already know from the photograph I took in the alleyway that I emerged into the alley behind Boylston at 2:54 PM. At 2:56, two minutes later, I had a 1 minute conversation with my husband before cell service cut out.

In between this phone call, in which I told him we were going to the Mass Ave Bridge, and the next series of phone calls, I decided not to go over Mass Ave and instead headed for BU.

At 3:11 I began a series of calls to my husband, attempting to tell him that we were no longer going to the Mass Ave. bridge.


My text messages revealed that I managed to get my text (as well as a post onto Facebook) out the few seconds after I came out into the alley way, as well as indicated that it was possible to text even when calls were not possible.



Reconstructing the time line from these texts and calls, I can now see the timing of our walk and the process out of Boston.

2:54PM to 3:11PM: we walked from behind Boylston St., down Gloucester to Beacon St.

3:11 PM: we reached Mass Ave, and after seeing the number of people fleeing across the bridge I decided that using that route was not a wise decision. I then tried to call my husband and let him know that we were going to BU instead, but was unsuccessful.

3:34 PM: Phone service returned and I was able to tell my husband we were going to BU Bridge.

3:40 PM: because Leo wanted to walk on the path by the river we were not able to ascend to the BU Bridge without retracing our steps, and so I texted that we were going to continue to the River St. bridge (which I mistakenly said went towards Harvard in a later text message).

3:58 PM: A text from a friend indicated that text message service was unreliable, and that it was difficult for all messages to get out. Finally a message went through successfully, which also cataloged my location at the time of sending the text, close to the Central Square (River St.) bridge.


4:41 PM: A text message with my brother recorded that I arrived home (along with my text message to him at 2:54PM that we were okay).


Third, with the details emerging of the bombers and their pathway into the event, how close did we come to them, and at what time?

Given that the bombs detonated on the same side of the street we were standing, I knew it was possible that we had come into close proximity of the bombers. Photographs that emerged after the bombers’ capture revealed the truth.

The surveillance footage released showed that both bombers had come up Gloucester St. and walked up Boylston, meaning they had passed right behind us.

Watching CBS Sunday Morning on April 21, I captured this image (working on the proper citations. A close up of this image appears here.).


This image corroborated several of my initial responses, though I was still cloudy on a few details.

The two bombers appear in this photo in front of 867 Boylston, in between two restaurants. A policeman stands in the road, patrolling the barricades. This image is taken west of my position, and time stamps on the surveillance footage reveal the timing to be 2:37 PM, after I took the photo of Leo and myself with our sign that documented our location. The policeman in the photo is the same that stood in front of us when the bombs went off, which also corroborates that the bombers walked right past us as they moved up Boylston St.

What’s missing?

I now have a sense of how far I was from the second bomb (my mom walked it with me and counted 250 steps). I now have a clear chronology and time frame for how long it took me to get off of Boylston, and when I made decisions about my route home and how and when I was able to communicate with others. Although it is still difficult to process, I also now have a sense of how close I came to the perpetrators of this terrible event.

What I’m missing are the memories of being on Boylston, of the faces and images of those who ran by me, of the sounds that are only muffled in my ears. I’m missing a sense of how many people were on Mass Ave., if they were upset, or even injured. Why does this matter? Why do I want to remember? Because I had a little boy with me who clearly remembers details about this. “The loud noise broke everything,” he says. “What am I made of that I don’t break” he asked my mom the other day. “What are people made of?” On top of that, there is the sheer disbelief and the enormity. For two weeks, images of something I experienced have been splashed across the news. Thirty seconds out of the hours upon hours that I have spent on Boylston seem to have shifted my world — how is that possible? Being able to talk to others who were there, to hear their experiences, would help make sense — if not sense of the motives or the loss, at least of the experience, that it happened and that others had similar and divergent reactions, all of which are valid.

This leads me to the next step in my process: big data. I have created a Google map on which people who were along the marathon route can record their location and tell their story, as well as post links to pictures. It’s a work in progress, but I hope to generate a crowdsourced database of the experiences of the Boston bombings, to create a historical record, one that can generate a sense of community out of that terrible day. Maybe, together we can find healing.

Please. Donate to the One Fund.

Our Boston Marathon 2013 Story

Some blog posts you just don’t want to write, and this is one of them. I’m thankful to be writing it, that I’m able, and that for us, it all turned out okay. “Okay” is such a relative word, but it works.

Yesterday I took my almost-4-year old and 7 month old to Natick with some friends to watch the runners. A friend of mine from high school was running, and I thought it would be fun for Leo, and also get him used to a race because I am training for the Boston Run to Remember in May. We had a great time watching the runners, and Leo thought giving them high fives was the best. He was very excited to have a one on one trip with mama to the finish line to go see more runners and see them “win the race.”

Here are some of our Natick photos:






After leaving Natick, we dropped my daughter and our car off in Kendall Square with my husband, and Leo and I walked over the Mass Ave bridge towards Boylston. The magnolias on Comm Ave were fantastic. We found a great spot right near the corner of Boylston and Gloucester St. where we could see the 26 mile marker and hang out the sign we had made.


Then the first explosion happened. The crowd became silent. Leo was in his stroller, and I turned him away from where the sound had come from. The cop standing in front of the barrier put his hand on his gun and stood his ground.

People milled for a few seconds, confused, before the second explosion. We felt the wave of the blast and smelled the smoke. Someone yelled, “they blew up a building!,” and as the crowd began to scream and run, I ran, too, pushing Leo in the stroller.

I didn’t know if there was another, perhaps closer, blast about to happen. I knew that potentially more people would be heading our way, and I didn’t want to be on Boylston St. I saw a nondescript door leading to businesses upstairs over Boylston, (I believe it was 883 Boylston St.), and headed for it. Other spectators dove into restaurants, but I didn’t want to be near any glass. I told Leo that we were going to find a hiding spot. I managed to text my husband and my brother that we were okay.

In the hallway, it was quiet, and I couldn’t get a signal on my phone to figure out what was happening. At the back of the building I peeked out and saw that there was a loading dock down some stairs.

Although I probably could have hefted the stroller and Leo, I wanted to keep him as close to me as possible so that if there was another blast I could shield him. Or, more generally, I just wanted to have his hand in mine. He kept saying, “that was a loud noise, mama,” and that there was a monster in the ground “firing” at people.

We left the stroller in the hallway and I walked with Leo into the alley behind Boylston. I took a picture when we emerged in case I forgot what building we had come from, hoping that my phone would geotag the photo so I could remember the location, or that the scenery would help me find it again.


Outside people were running and crying. I managed to get a call through to my husband. I told him we were going to cross the Mass Ave bridge, and after a minute the phone service cut out.

When I got to Mass Ave I was not comfortable with how many people were going over the bridge, and so I decided to continue down to Bay State Road towards the BU History department, where maybe I could find a phone and call my husband.

Along the way, Leo told everyone we passed that there was a loud noise. But he kept walking.

We went in to 226 Bay State Road and took a break in the seminar room, had some water, and went pee (in a toilet, not in the seminar room).

Back outside we continued along Bay State Road, and Leo declared he wanted to walk by the river. We went over the pedestrian bridge to the bike path. As we approached the BU bridge I got cell service back (along with a deluge of text messages). I told my husband that we were headed toward the River Street bridge and that we would meet him on River towards Central Square.

Leo began to tire a bit and so I carried him intermittently. When we crossed to the Cambridge side of River Street he wanted to walk again so he could look for his Dad. We finally reached him and my daughter. In the car I began to feel the physical effects of our walk as well as the shock. I talked to my Dad, who relayed the details of what had happened as they were being reported then. At home, I was finally able to talk to my mom, who had been in an appointment.

Later that night I scrawled off a note to my online class students that I might be a bit delayed in responding to emails, or in grading their papers. Both their class and my Honors class are discussing World War II this week. Today’s class is on the home front, and in this discussion I use some personal letters from my family to help us think about the experience of the war and to introduce the idea of how we create historical memory. I am so happy to be discussing this today.

I was pretty tired and perhaps a bit delirious when I wrote this to my online students: “There are many sad and scary stories in history, but if we look with an educated eye history can also teach us about humanity and the beauty, joy, and fellowship that comes with the human experience. History helps connect us.”

I’m grateful for my family and to live in a city and country that I love, to be a historian and to have a job that I love.

Words are not flowing so easily today, but I felt I should get this out. I’m thankful that Leo and I were not closer, but so incredibly sad and so very angry that others were not as lucky as us.

I’m going to go do some data entry. Or something.


Writing by Formula: Primary Source Analysis

It’s no secret that historical writing, or indeed structured analytical writing, can be formulaic. Sure, as historians we tell stories, and that is an important part of our relationship to the public, each other, and our students.

But when it comes to teaching writing to undergraduates, it’s also no secret that imparting the skills of analytical writing can be daunting, demanding, and sometimes downright frustrating and futile. Having conducted countless in-class writing workshops, I nevertheless always receive student essays that exhibit little to no semblance of the skills and methods I tried to impart.

In a fit of frustration having graded yet another round of papers — where the students were interested in the subject but struggling with mechanics of essay writing — I spent Christmas Eve 2011 (I know, I know…) coming up with a formula for a simple 3-4 page primary source analysis. I included a detailed process, and even wrote a sample essay.

The Process

Step One:

Select a Primary Source from the list of sources handed out in class.

Read through your primary source. What does it say? Are there quotes or images that stand out to you? List key examples and quotes you find interesting. Where does the author or artist make his/her key argument? (These will become Examples 1 – 7 for your paper. You should list more than 7 in your list to have a decent selection from which to choose in Step Three).

Step Two:

Review your list of examples and brainstorm the connections you can make to the historical context. What larger themes or ideas that you’ve studied in class connect to the image? Identify other sources to help explain the text (consult your textbook and class notes, or other primary sources from the era). Create a page of notes (with citation information) to help analyze the primary source.

Step Three:

Identify three connections between the primary source and the historical context.

    • (Example: The Tarzan cover reflects several impulses that lay behind America’s experiment with Imperialism: (A) the idea of the white man’s burden, (B) a fascination with primitive masculinity, and (C) helps explain why leaders like Teddy Roosevelt believed that the United States should take an active role in world affairs alongside other great powers).

Create an outline of these ideas (A, B, and C). Go back to your list from Step One and identify which examples will best support each of these points. Consult your list of resources from Step Two and add these sources to your outline.

Step Four:

Write the paper according to the formula provided

The Formula

The formula was specific, detailed, and elaborate. It featured a sentence-by-sentence structure, and included where to use primary source evidence, where to bring in the secondary sources, and where to cite. I even specified style settings and fonts. See the Primary Source Analysis Formula document itself.

Doubt Ensues

Having spent a few hours crafting this document, I was then seized by several anxieties about actually using it in the classroom. Wouldn’t this impart the wrong lesson to my students — telling them that there is only one way to write, to think, and that it has to be MY way? Wouldn’t it squash any creative thinking they might have had about a subject to begin with? Most of all, maybe my formula stinks. Maybe it’s not the best way to even go about this assignment — I could envision myriad versions of this formula, each as useful (or limiting) as the next.

What to do?

I decided I couldn’t give up — something had inspired my creation, and I decided it was worth pursuing.

So I printed it up and handed it out to students, indicating it was a guideline, or handbook, to writing the first paper. I didn’t require that they use it, but I used an in-class writing workshop to go through the process steps as outlined.


Well, it was my own fault. I didn’t require that they use the formula — so guess what? They didn’t use the formula.

But. I did receive better papers. The least successful papers resembled those I had received in the past, but the better papers were, well, better. And the students that did use the formula (there were a few) turned in the most creative and most specific papers I have ever received. Even the papers that diverged from the formula came out better than papers in past.

I asked a few students who used the formula religiously for some feedback. One student wrote:

The guide was extremely helpful for me, especially the format for the introduction and thesis which I generally have trouble with. It was great to know exactly what we were to be graded on and how you preferred the paper to be set up. …I also found the example paper you posted on Blackboard and the Tarzan example that was presented in class to be very useful as models for the paper.

Yes, the feedback indicates that students just want to “do what we want,” suggesting a sense that professors have arbitrary hoops for students to jump through. But, her thesis was good; it did the job and clearly structured her paper. And she was able to break through a past roadblock to writing: creating an introduction and thesis. Her thesis:

“The lyrics of the song “The Temperance Army” reflect the swell of support received by the movement to “march on” towards total prohibition. The music exposes the Christian context of the temperance effort, emphasizes the new role of women as leaders within the movement, and displays the advancement of temperance as an unstoppable force. The lyrics do not display the negative implications of the elimination of alcohol, but show an overall promotion of the temperance movement and its growing strength.”

The paragraphs followed this structure, and used specific evidence from the song she chose as well as clear contextual information and analysis to support her reading of the source. One supporting paragraph included the following:

“Led primarily by members of religious organizations, the anti-alcohol movement utilized Christianity as a motive for convincing citizens of the evils of the drink and its parallel damages to society. The first lyrics of the song proclaim “Now the temp’rance army’s marching/With the Christian’s armor on/Love our motto, Christian Captain/Prohibition is our song!”[1]. There is a blatant emphasis on the guidance of God in the temperance supporter’s quest to rid our nation of the sin of intoxication. The “Christian Captain” is a reference to God as a leader-figure of the temperance army and the reason behind their actions. People of faith believed that salvation was the solution to the evils of the drink, and that by enacting laws to prevent its consumption, we would perfect a moral society that lacks the violence and disarray that results from intoxication[2].”

Feedback from students included the sense that the formula, rather than being restrictive, gave them a better ability to think more creatively about the materials, and most of all helped with writer’s block. One student remarked that she would spend what seemed like hours staring at a blank Word document lost about where to start. Another student said that he found it much easier to focus on fixing his grammar with this formula.

I found that the grammar and word usage remained the same for these essays, still needed work, but that with their ideas more easily structured, these essays were easier to grade. At first, I was surprised at receiving such well structured papers that I almost didn’t see some of the errors. After a second reading it became easier, however, to focus more on the content of their essays.

This last result suggested that my experiment might be more useful than my doubts suggested: by helping students overcome the structure roadblocks to writing, I was better able to hone in on the specific historical skills I was trying to get at in the first place. It became easier to point out facile connections or where analysis could be enhanced or more nuanced.

Thus, my experiments with writing by formula will continue. The formula itself could use some revisions, as could the sample paper I wrote. But as a tool for survey students, I think the formula has merit, though in limited application. I would hate for students to think that all writing can be accomplished by formulas such as this, but if they can’t formulate a workable thesis based on connections they make between sources and context, then the space for creative thinking is much smaller. Later posts will examine how I built on these skills in later assignments.

[1] Kieffer, The Temperance Army, (Cleveland, Brainard’s Son’s, 1874) pg 1

[2] Katherine Jewell Class Lecture 2/13/12