Boston: City of History, Archives, and GLCA Research Opportunities

In unarguably America’s most historic city, Dr. Natalie Dykstra is currently flinging open archival doors, often quite literally, for the scholarship and imaginations of Midwest faculty and students. 

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Dr. Natalie Dykstra, professor of English and director of the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar (Photo provided by Natalie Dykstra)

Each June in Boston – with its wealth of recorded narratives and artifacts from the past, Dykstra – with her trademark affinity for American history and literature – welcomes researchers from Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) schools to step foot into history by working in notable archives that house a myriad of interdisciplinary stories. Once in them, participants in the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar (BSS) find that centuries-worth of artifacts and articles impact their independent thinking and learning. It’s become a win-win-win situation for all involved.

“In Boston, the GLCA faculty members win because they get to concentrate on their own work,” says Dykstra. “Students win because they get to live in this great city and do original research. And the archives we work with win, too, because they want to be part of it. They want to have their materials looked at and used.”

Dykstra, professor English, created the now-competitive and popular GLCA Boston Summer Seminar just two summers ago. Teaching at Hope in the fall and living with her husband in Waltham, Massachusetts, the remainder of the year, she wanted to expose Midwest faculty and students to the Boston institutions that changed her life when she researched and wrote her critically-acclaimed book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Lifea once hidden story about a fiercely intelligent and creative Boston Brahmin. “I found working in the archives to uncover Clover’s life and death to be moving and gripping… And I wanted others to have that same experience, that same feeling, too,” she confides.

After all, Dykstra’s dream was to make archive work the heartbeat of the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar experience, making available  tactile materials – diaries, ledgers, photos, letters, newspaper clippings – that make history come alive.

Helping others to use archival materials to unfold other remarkable stories would require partnering with Boston research institutions that house unique primary source materials. After all, Dykstra’s dream was to make archive work the heartbeat of the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar experience, making available for students tactile materials – diaries, ledgers, photos, letters, newspaper clippings – that make history come alive. So, with the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) as host, she and Hope alum and MHS reference librarian Anna Clutterbuck-Cook ’05 arrange a network of connections with the Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections, and three archives at Harvard University: the Countway Center for the History of Medicine, the Schlesinger Library and Houghton Library.

“You don’t create a program like this by yourself,” confesses Dykstra. “If the Boston Summer Seminar was my idea, Anna and her expertise has been absolutely crucial in getting it off the ground and making it a success. All our partner archivists are necessary for our success, and a pure pleasure to work with…. Plus, they have asked me, ‘Where do you get your students? We are so impressed.’ It’s a joy and a privilege to hear them say that.” Dykstra is also grateful to the strong support for the seminar from Greg Wegner at the GLCA and from her college colleagues.

Once participants are selected – three teams consisting of a faculty member and two students, from numerous applications each year – Dykstra and Clutterbuck-Cook connect GLCA faculty and students to the right archivist according to their interests. This year, teams from Albion College, Denison University, and Oberlin College are delving into topics on the experience of black Northerners in the era of Southern Emancipation, Boston and New England in Atlantic contexts, and occult practices and new literary traditions in 19th century America, respectively.

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Dr. Julia Randel, back right, Genevieve Janvrin ’15, front left, and Hannah Jacobsma ’16, front right, ride the Boston subway, off to a GLCA Boston Summer Seminar event. (Photo provided by Genevieve Janvrin)

Last June, though, the Hope team of Dr. Julia Randel, associate professor of music and chair of the department, and then students Hannah Jacobsma and Genevieve Janvrin, now graduates, were selected to go to Boston – receiving faculty funding and student stipends (as all participants do) – to conduct research on three separate, though related, projects:  Romanticism in 19th-century French ballet (Jacobsma); the tours by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that brought serious ballet to the United States in 1916-17 (Janvrin); and George Balanchine’s work with Igor Stravinsky (Randel). Randel’s research in Boston informs a book she is writing about the composer and choreographer.

“Natalie’s work for us was so wonderful,” declares Randel, who earned her doctorate from Harvard and specializes in the history of European and American classical music. “We had so much support there. And for me, going to Boston was like going home, and I hadn’t been back for a while. It was like a dream come true to receive funding to be in a place I love.”

Besides the transformative experience of archive work, faculty and students are exposed to weekly guest speakers, such as Pulitzer Prize winner Megan Marshall, receive historical tours, and are hosted at Dykstra’s Waltham home. Each activity and project gives participants both a breadth and depth of experience as well as clarity of purpose, gleaned from the past and applied to the present and future.

“I got carried away with the stories and the questions,” wrote Janvrin in a BSS blog entry about her experience. “I got carried away with the quiet Houghton atmosphere and the kind souls, both living and dead, who guided me. I got carried away with Boston. My time at MHS, Houghton, and Harvard helped formulate a desire for the future: I want to be a researcher.”

The First Great Inoculation Debate

A heated debate rooted in a distrust of science about the safety and effects of childhood vaccinations has, in recent years, been under a microscope in this country. But another inoculation debate raged in the U.S. almost 300 years ago, and it was this tense, centuries-old discourse, rooted this time in both scientific and religious misgivings, that became junior Elizabeth Ensink’s research focus during the summer of 2015. Her original work on the topic earned her a prestigious place at last week’s 20th annual national Posters on the Hill event in Washington, DC, a selective poster session sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR).

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Junior Elizabeth Ensink, right, presents her research at Posters on the Hill in Washington, DC

One of only 60 projects selected for this year’s showcase from among several hundred highly competitive applications nationwide, “The First Inoculation Debate: A Quantitative Text Analysis of the Boston Smallpox Epidemic of 1721” by Ensink, looks at communication practices between doctors and religious leaders when a smallpox epidemic broke out in Boston. Puritan ministers saw inoculation as distrust in and interference with God’s will; doctors fumed at the meddling of ministers and “unlearned men” in scientific affairs; and all the while colonists, fearing for their lives, just wanted people in positions of authority to give them clear words of encouragement and actions of help.

It all sounds so familiar even today. History tends to eerily, annoyingly repeat itself.

Ensink, who is from Hudsonville, MI, became interested in the inoculation topic when looking through the digital Contagion Collection – historical documents about various epidemics and diseases – from Harvard. As a Mellon Scholar, she was set to conduct summer research after her sophomore year, and as a biology and creative writing double major, Ensink felt she found the right subject for her interdisciplinary interests.

So, using digitized documents and an online text analysis tool called Voyant, Ensink analyzed words that pro- and anti-inoculators would frequently used in their letters and other documents – words such as God, belief, providence, and symptoms, infection and incision. Not surprisingly, she found that doctors used mostly secular language and ministers spoke more in religious terms.  All except for Cotton Mather.

“This subject showed me how important it is to have people know how to communicate science to the general public. One of the most important parts of my research was questioning how we get meaning from words that are being used to convey vital messages.”

Mather, the fiery Puritan minister best known for his involvement in the Salem witch trials, was supportive of inoculation when he learned of it from his African slave and a report from the Royal Society of London, Ensink learned. Mather then encouraged Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to start inoculations. Though the practice was successful – 6,000 infected, 844 deaths overall, 280 saved due to inoculation –Mather and Boylston came under attack for the practice. And often it was because of the words they did or did not use.

“This subject showed me how important it is to have people know how to communicate science to the general public,” says Ensink. “One of the most important parts of my research was questioning how we get meaning from words that are being used to convey vital messages. In this case, religious and secular language was often blurred.”

Ensink presented those findings with her poster for two hours in the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, where she also had the opportunity to engage with other students from Georgia to Utah, about biochemistry and anthropology and other various subjects. “This event exposed me to diverse projects and people from diverse institutions. It was an honor.”

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Michigan Congressman Bill Huizenga with Ensink (center) and Dr. Karen Nordell Pearson, associate dean for research and scholarship (right)

After the prevention of her poster on the Hill, Ensink and Dr. Karen Nordell Pearson, associate dean for research and scholarship, had the opportunity to meet with Congressman Bill Huizenga at his office in the  Capitol. “It’s really cool that in America we can go and talk to our representatives in government about what we think is important. “

And what did they talk about?

“I told him that undergraduate research should continue to receive federal funding. Events like Posters on the Hill show what students can do when funds are available.

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Elizabeth Ensink on Capitol Hill

“I also let him know how important programs like Mellon Scholars are to undergraduates. Being in Mellon allowed me to develop my own project, gave me greater critical thinking skills and a great mentor who I met with twice a week.” Ensink’s mentor, Dr. Jonathan Hagood, is an associate professor of history at Hope College. “I learned self-motivation and the ability to overcome obstacles. This work stretched me and confirmed that in the future I want to focus on science and writing.”

In every way, Ensink’s research, and her experiences because of it, have given a potent shot to her strong academic arm. “I’m so thankful for the Mellon Scholars Program for all of this,” she concludes.