First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection

This weekend we attended the opening of the First Hand exhibit, a remarkable collection of Civil War Era sketches never seen by the public before. This exhibit is special for me because I’ve been managing the website development for both the Becker Collection and the First Hand exhibit site over that last three years.

Though I’ve been looking at the digital versions of these pieces for quite some time, I was a revelation to see the physical items in person.


If you live in the Boston area, it would be well worth your while to stop by to check it out (and please get in touch with me if you do–I’ll try to meet up with you).

McMullen Museum of Art
Boston College. Chestnut Hill, MA
September 5-December 13, 2009

If you aren’t in the area, at least check out the web versions of the drawings: Becker Collection and First Hand

More on the exhibit: “Picturing America: How artists reported the news—or tried to—in the years before photography


The Transcendentalists were fond of looking for “correspondences” between the external world and the inner world, between say the weather and one’s emotions. As I sit working on the last revisions to my dissertation (I have the week off), such connections seem pretty clear. It’s a cold, rainy march day, drab above and below. The snow has melted but nothing has sprouted to give the landscape much sign of life.

Likewise, the PhD program has hung over my life like a long winter. I have survived, even thrived at times, but in generally it often feels like life has been stunted by this extended season.

From my window I look at the purple three-flat across the street with the porch that was left half finished in the fall, as if they just decided let it dangle until spring. In our yard, sections of the fence stand in disrepair, or don’t stand at all, because we didn’t get them fixed in the fall as we hoped. These remind me of all the unfinished business I’ve accumulated over the years, all the things that I’ve been putting off “until the dissertation is done.”

After four days of stewing in my own words, I’m craving a taste of someone elses’s for a change. It’s hard to cook up a fresh thought when you have to keep thawing out and reheating material that was first collected many years ago.

But I can see the end now, and I’m trying to enjoy the unique moment that I find myself in. I don’t have to shower or leave the house or socialize. I don’t have to care about anything else or wonder what its all about. All that’s in lock-down now, and all that exists is the job of finishing this thing. It’s a luxury, and I’m thankful to have the space to see it through.

This afternoon I’m glad for the correspondence between my inner state and the external world, because it means that spring will be cued to arrive at just the right time to greet the conclusion of the dissertation and my graduation. It’s hard to imagine what this next phase in my life will be like, but I’m sure it will feel a lot like spring for a while.

Facebook and Blogging

I've been working on the preface to my dissertation this morning, a kind of personal narrative of how I got interested in place blogging and where I've ended up now as I finish up. I began wondering if the rise of Facebook has affected the blogging practices of those I've been following in my projec, so I posed the question to place bloggers who are also Facebook friends: 

Hi Alison, Fred, Maria, and Lorianne,

I'm working on the final revisions of my dissertation and in my preface I'm reflecting on how I got interested in placeblogging and where I've ended up now. Since Facebook has emerged as a significant shift in social media since the time the early days of place blogging, I thought I would invite all my Ecotone Facebook friends to reflect on the relationship between Facebook and your blogging practice.

Here are some questions that I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on, should you be so inclined to reflect:

— Do you feel like your Facebook activity is a response to the same impulses/needs/interests that got you into blogging?

— Do you think that these tools have affected what you're doing when you blog? Are you doing things in Facebook that you might have done in your blog in the past?

— What about the role of microblogging tools like Twitter or Facebook status?

— How would you compare the social network of Facebook and the network associated with your blogging?

— How does Facebook affect your personal attention economy, how you allocate your limit resources of attention toward blogging or other parts of your life?

Thanks for any thoughts you might be interested in throwing out–that is, if you can find any time between blogging, FB, Twitter….. 🙂


 Of course, if anyone else has thoughts, please feel free to comment. 


Dancing My Dissertation

This last week I began the final Dissertation Smackdown, the last days of vacation I take to try to finish up the dissertation. When I have to spent extended periods of time writing, my body needs some role to play while my mind is doing most of the heavy lifting. Often my body gets involved through pacing, walking out the ideas when they get particularly troublesome. But the last few days, I've found myself dancing rather than pacing, doing a little dissertation gig each time I feel the urge to get up. Sometimes I dance to jazz (Dave Brubeck Radio on Pandora) or more electronic stuff like the Quantic Soul Orchestra. Whatever the style, it's helped keep me from going crazy after a day of wrangling with the same intransigent ideas.  

So yesterday it seemed like a sign when NPR interviewed someone who created a dance competition for PhD's called "Dance Your PhD." I'm not sure I have time at the moment to begin choreographing my routine, but somehow it's nice to know there might be another creative outlet for this project after it begins gathering dust in the library. 

Who is My Neighbor?

This past week I’ve been reflecting on how my sense of place has changed now that a neighbor has been shot and killed across the street from where I live.

While I was away last weekend, Garibaldis Pena, 27, was gunned down as he put a car seat into his sister’s car. It appears to have been a gang-related incident police think might be tied to other killings early this year in JP and Roxbury.

It still seems surreal that this happened so nearby since I wasn’t here as it took place, to hear the three gunshots, to hear the screams of his mother as she emerged from the house, to hear the police cars and ambulances turn down the street, to see the mourners gather on the sidewalks around the house to light candles and weep together. Now things are back to normal, with little sign that anything happened.  

Mauricio, a Boston cop in my condo association, was on duty and was one of the first on the scene. He has a long history in the neighborhood and says this kind of incident is extremely rare. But this happens every day in other parts of the city, he said, a reminder to me that my experience of urban life quite different from many of my fellow Bostonians just a mile or two away. Our physical proximity might be relatively near, but in terms of social proximity we are usually worlds apart.

While this killing is disturbing, it doesn’t make me feel less safe or make me second guess my choice to live here. It does, however, make me more sensitive to the complexity of urban life and how easy it can be to exist in my narrow perspective without much awareness of the many other layers of experience going on around me, even in the same places. And it reminds me that I have a lot to learn about where I am and what it means to know my neighbors.