How have fire, disease and catastrophe shaped public space throughout Brooklyn’s history? That is the question that students in one of six New York City College of Technology (City Tech) classes will attempt to answer this fall through research at the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS).
The initiative, “Students and Faculty in the Archives: History Museums, Colleges and Critical Thinking,” or SAFA, has been funded by a three year, $749,997 U.S. Department of Education fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) grant to the BHS.
And by immersing them in rich primary source material, from city maps to historical diaries, the SAFA project will help City Tech students develop the research and critical thinking skills crucial for their academic success. By engaging first-year college students in this experience, the project hopes to improve student engagement, student learning, academic performance and retention rates.
“Participation in this grant is one of several innovative initiatives underway at City Tech to promote learning and retention through civic engagement,” says City Tech Provost Bonne August.
“Understanding the history of Brooklyn and the roots of some of today’s problems prepares our students to be informed citizens and tomorrow’s problem solvers.”
City Tech English Professor Matthew K. Gold is one of the faculty members collaborating with BHS on this project. He has received several National Endowment for the Humanities grants focused on the life and times of Walt Whitman, and with his students used the BHS archives to research the history of some of Whitman’s early residences in Brooklyn. This fall, his SAFA English class, which is paired with two City Tech architectural technology courses, will be exploring the ways in which Brooklyn’s built environment has been shaped by fire, disease and catastrophe.
“This project offers our students a unique chance to spend time in the gorgeous Othmer Library, looking over archival manuscripts, maps and images from the archive as they piece together history from primary documents,” Gold says. “It’s my hope that they’ll develop an appreciation for the ways in which the smooth historical narratives we hear about the past are belied by the rough, discordant, always fascinating and sometimes frustrating primary record.”
During the next two summers, select students from the SAFA classes will be chosen to do summer internships at BHS. They will have the unique opportunity of curating an exhibition featuring materials from BHS’s collection.
In addition to Gold, City Tech faculty involved in this project include Jody Rosen (English), Peter Catapano (social sciences/history), Geoff Zylstra (social sciences/history), Barbara Mishara (architectural technology), Robin Michals (advertising design and graphic arts) and Maura Smale (library).
Professor Michals will be teaching digital photography as part of the SAFA project. Her students will use BHS documents to contextualize and write captions for their photographs of the present areas in Brooklyn where the six original towns making up the borough first developed. Students’ work will be presented on a public website hosted by BHS.
“Working with original documents challenges students to synthesize information about the places that they are representing in their photographs,” Professor Michals says. “Being able to effectively process, evaluate and use information are key skills students need in their careers and as citizens in a participatory democracy.”
Professor Catapano’s students will be researching “What is Vaudeville: The Brooklyn Experience.” They will study the popular theater in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Teams of four students will be assigned one of five Brooklyn theaters of that era — Hyde & Behman’s, Academy of Music, Orpheum and Gayety or the Novelty. After spending an afternoon in the archives, they will write up their research and post it on the class website.
Professor Jody Rosen’s English Composition course for the project, “Telling Brooklyn Stories,” will have students examining archival photographs, maps, journals, pamphlets, brochures, letters, sermons and ephemera such as ferry and train tickets. They will consider how to use these materials to construct narratives about Brooklyn and also to make presentations in their learning community’s speech course, “Effective Speaking.”
In addition to City Tech, BHS is partnering with Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus and St. Francis College. The 18-partner faculty are from a variety of academic disciplines, including English, history, religious studies, architectural technology, art history and American studies.
Participating faculty met in the spring for an initial orientation followed by a one-week seminar during the third week of June led by BHS Public Historian Julie Golia and Outreach & Public Services Archivist Robin M. Katz. During this time, faculty members explored the BHS collections as part of preparing their courses, creating course plans and course websites.
“During the next academic year alone, the SAFA project will bring more than 800 college students to our beautiful library,” says Golia. “Each class will use archival material in assignments, projects and class visits, and produce a class website chronicling their learning experiences.”
By the end of the final year of the project, a replicable pedagogical model will be in place for collaboration between museums and institutions of higher learning like City Tech.
“We hope to demonstrate that there is tremendous value in developing rigorous partnerships between cultural institutions and college faculty,” says BHS President Deborah Schwartz.