Learning from the Past

By Marci Woodmansee ’90


Students value the close-knit community at Rhodes in part because it leads to opportunities to interact with professors one-on-one and embark upon research outside the classroom, wherever their interests may lie. The students whose stories unfold here have stretched their wings working on projects that appealed to their personal interests—projects that, in some cases, did not necessarily tie in to their major or primary courses of study. With the guidance of professors who trusted them and gave them plenty of room to work, these students have enriched their own Rhodes experience—in addition to the cultural knowledge of the community—in ways they never envisioned when they first arrived on campus.

Middle Eastern Fashionista

Natalija Kokoreva ’10 did not expect to become involved in a historical research project when she enrolled in a Middle Eastern dance class to fulfill a PE requirement her sophomore year. But in that class she met associate professor of Economics and Business Administration Dee Birnbaum, who introduced Kokoreva to her extensive collection of Middle Eastern clothing and jewelry.

“When she showed me her collection I was amazed—I just loved it!” Kokoreva says. “So I joined another student, Allister Wilton ’10, who was already working with Professor Birnbaum to help document and catalogue the various items in her collection.” That work led to an even bigger project the following year—Kokoreva helped organize a fashion exhibition of Professor Birnbaum’s collection for Rhodes students, faculty and the larger community.

“She does show bits and pieces of her collection to small groups every year, but nothing had been shown on this scale before,” Kokoreva says. “This is something you don’t see every day. The collection is truly valuable not just in monetary terms, but also in terms of the information it provides on the people of these areas. Certain details in the clothing and pieces serve as a sort of code that has meaning. The number of pendants in a necklace might signify if the wearer was married or had children, for example.”

A biology major, Kokoreva is also a CODA (Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts) fellow, so working on Professor Birnbaum’s collection became her CODA senior project.

“I have loved it; I would not have done anything else,” she says. “Professor Birnbaum has been collecting for many years, and visiting her house is like walking through a museum. Learning about the cultures and roles of the peoples in these communities through these pieces of clothing and jewelry was extremely interesting, and it is amazing to me that this professor who is not [ethnically] part of the culture cares so much about preserving these people’s national treasures.”

Birnbaum says her collection got its start in 1974, when she was in Afghanistan and fell in love with the culture.

“I had Hungarian grandparents who did handwork so I appreciated the embroidery, and there is symbolism in many of the pieces, with stories woven in about the people who are wearing the garments,” she says. “Students learn a tremendous amount from doing this work and going through books to learn the hallmarks of the silver, or what certain symbols mean, or the patterns of the textiles. The details we learn about each piece enrich the cultural knowledge, so the culture makes more sense to us.”

Birnbaum adds that the clothing is interesting not only from an anthropological standpoint, but also because of the political implications.

“Each area has a certain way of dressing,” she explains. “So if people understood for instance that a group connected to the Taliban is dressing this particular way, that tells you something … and you can see how this knowledge could have a military application. Look at the clothing and you can see the regional differences.”

Natalija Kokoreva ’10 with an item from Professor Dee Birnbaum’s collection

Raider of the Lost Archives

Nathan Corbitt ’11 is studying Greco-Roman history this semester as part of the Rhodes European Studies program, but it was through a project for the Geology Department that he ended up digging into the history of Rhodes itself.

“I was a research assistant for Professor Carol Eckstrom freshman year, and that led to an internship in the Rhodes College Archives involving the college’s Vanuxem fossil collection,” he explains.

The collection was acquired by William M. Stewart, president of the college, then located in Clarksville, TN, shortly after the death of noted geologist Lardner Vanuxem in 1848. It is one of the college’s oldest surviving teaching tools. But there were gaps in the history of the project, and while early published sources described the collection as numbering in the thousands, only a few hundred items remained.

Nathan Corbitt ’11 with his Vanuxem display at Barret

“It didn’t make sense,” says Corbitt. “It was understood that a majority of specimens were lost during the Civil War, but some of our college catalogues through the 1920s were still listing the collection as very much alive and in existence.”

So Corbitt began sifting through a variety of historical sources, from early college catalogues to board minutes, insurance papers and presidential correspondence, and ended up finding a
scrap of paper that referred to a fire, which likely damaged a portion of the collection.

“We turned up a lot of information, and by the end of the internship I had written a 40-page paper that fleshed out a lot of gaps in the collection,” he says. “It was a great experience, and Bill Short and Elizabeth Gates on the library and archives staff were extremely helpful. I had had some experience with electronic databases, but I had never looked at an archive before, so I was kind of learning as I went.”

In the course of his research on the fossil collection, Corbitt unexpectedly uncovered another amazing find— the oldest record of a catalogue published by the college.

“I was especially pleased to receive the photocopy of the college’s 1853 catalogue that Nathan obtained from an archive in Pennsylvania with the help of our Inter-Library Loan Librarian, Kenan Padgett,” says college archivist Elizabeth Gates. “It was very rewarding to work with Nathan, whose enthusiasm for finding answers to his questions about the history of the Vanuxem collection was contagious. The project was a good reminder for me that the college’s ‘analog’ records, which have been preserved since 1848, have an important role in a ‘digital’ research project. Using the leads he found in our archives, he searched online databases and was able to locate and often access digital materials that were not known to me. Even though we maintain the college’s paper records in archival-quality storage in an environmentally controlled vault, they are deteriorating. We are moving toward digitizing the archival records to ensure that our historical memory will continue to endure.”

While Corbitt admits that scientific history isn’t his particular area of interest, he nonetheless found his work on the Vanuxem research project thoroughly enjoyable.

“It was an incredible experience to put what I was learning in my history classes into action—I applied the methods of research I was being taught at the time to tackle this problem. Looking at an unknown portion of history, you realize that even though you might not know the answer, you know the questions to ask.”

Restoring Zion

The Zion Cemetery restoration project was not a part of her coursework as an English major at Rhodes, but Catherine Lawson ’09 applied to work on it because it was of special interest to her. Lawson had already done some projects on the cultural history of Memphis and saw restoration of the oldest African-American cemetery in Memphis as a vital project.

“That’s the beauty of a liberal arts college—over four years I was able to be involved in all kinds of different fields,” she says. “I ended up doing a lot of preservation of the cemetery’s original ledger—creating a digital version by photographing pages and building an Excel database of the entries. I got to see the ledger actually being put up on a Web site we created, so for the first time families can type in the name of a relative and figure out where they are buried. It was really neat to see the tangible result of information I entered, and it’s exciting to know that will be used.

Catherine Lawson ’09 at historic
Zion Cemetery

“I worked with Professor Milton Moreland on the project, and he gave me a lot of freedom to take charge of my part of it,” she adds. “I think Rhodes’ low student-faculty ratio helps in being able to work on projects like this so closely. You have the benefit of building a close relationship and trust with faculty, instead of being micromanaged.”

According to Professor Moreland, Lawson’s work was extremely important to the success of the project.

“This type of collaboration provides students like Catherine a project that they can call their own,” he says. “I oversaw her work and gave her ideas about what needed to be accomplished, but she was responsible for getting the job done. She not only became connected to an important part of Memphis history, she helped to provide access to hundreds of people who are seeking information about the first major Memphis cemetery that was established for formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. She took ownership of the project, and while working with the IT team at Rhodes, she came up with creative ways to make the historical information available to the public.”

The Holocaust in the Here and Now

Zach Albert ’10 with Religious Studies professor Steve Haynes

Since high school, religious studies major Zach Albert ’10 has been interested in Holocaust research and working with the Holocaust survivor community.

“I’m from Texas, and my volunteer work with the Dallas Holocaust Museum kind of sparked my passion in Holocaust education,” he explains. “When I applied to Rhodes, I fell in love with the school and the Bonner Program, which I knew would give me the opportunity to continue
my passion for service work in college.”

Albert began his very first semester at Rhodes in a Holocaust course with Professor Michelle Mattson. At the end of his sophomore year, he enrolled in the inaugural Holocaust Travel Seminar and spent two weeks visiting concentration camps and museums in Europe with other Rhodes students and his adviser professor Stephen Haynes.

“Needless to say, that was a very emotional, amazing two weeks,” says Albert. “All the things I’d been hearing and reading and studying, I got to see firsthand. But when the rest of the students went home after two weeks, I stayed.”

Albert went to Ostrava in the Czech Republic to help repair Jewish cemeteries that had been forgotten or destroyed by Nazis.

“It’s the third largest Czech town and it used to have an enormous Jewish population before the war; there are about 30 remaining today,” he says. “It’s a dying community, so any attempt to preserve it is worth it. For two months I worked with the cemetery groundskeeper, whose name is Peter. He would be speaking Czech and we couldn’t understand each other at all, but we shared this passion for the work we were doing.”

Although he entered Rhodes as a premed major, Albert says Holocaust studies is an area he definitely will pursue after graduation.

“I’ve basically taken every course Rhodes has to offer in that subject, while still doing the science courses. But after the Holocaust Maymester, this was almost a calling. I just felt like that’s where I needed to be, and that’s where I needed to help.”

Albert spent part of this summer in Washington, DC, doing research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His independent research as a J.R. Hyde Award recipient focuses on Jewish spiritual resistance during the Holocaust.

“I want to uncover relationships among the human soul and God that were formed or severed during this time,” he says. “I hope to use research compiled over the summer on my senior project. After college I would really love to pursue a degree in religious studies or Holocaust studies and teach. I’m inspired by the professors I went on Maymester with. I’m attending a Holocaust studies conference with Professor Haynes and Professor Mattson this fall to present a bit of the paper I’ve been working on.”

Albert adds with a laugh, “Not in million years did I think that in coming to a small, Presbyterian liberal arts college would I become even more committed to Jewish studies! I think it’s a real testament to the college and the professors I’ve studied with.”

According to Professor Haynes, Albert came to Rhodes with a unique set of interests and experiences related to the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust.

“He also came with a sense of duty to preserve and honor pre-war Jewish culture,” Haynes explains. “Zach was one of seven Rhodes students who enrolled in the seminar and he shared with me his bar mitzvah project of rescuing a Torah scroll that had been looted from the Czech village of Horovice. We decided that we would try to incorporate a visit to this village into our trip. We also set out to find the Jewish cemetery that Zach had heard about. Finding it and walking among the grave markers was a very poignant example of what the Holocaust has meant for Jewish life in many parts of Europe. For Zach and for the rest of us the excursion to Horovice and to the cemetery became a journey of discovery.”

Haynes sees Maymester experiences like the Holocaust Travel Seminar as unequaled opportunities for developing deeper academic and personal connections with students.

“The eight of us traveled, ate, read, discussed, questioned, laughed and cried together for two weeks,” he says. “This kind of experience not only supplements the curriculum by expanding students’ knowledge, it deepens their encounters with the history they’ve studied in the classroom. The conference in October, at which Zach and I will both be part of a panel dealing with the travel seminar concept, is symbolic of the way Zach has seized the opportunity to become a co-learner with me—a co-creator of the academic experience, if you will. This is one of the things that makes the residential liberal arts experience at Rhodes so special and so valuable.”

With successful projects like these becoming a hallmark of the Rhodes experience, it’s no surprise that students and faculty get excited about the chance to work on collaborative research projects. As Natalija Kokoreva explained it, getting to work one-on-one with a professor on a project of personal interest is simply what Rhodes is all about.

“You study your major but you get to do things you like,” she says. “It’s a special attribute of Rhodes that there are so many ways to collaborate with faculty, and that each one has a passion or interest they are more than willing to share with students.”

Professor Dee Birnbaum believes she understands why Rhodes stands out.

“I think at larger colleges and universities professors tend to keep their private lives sacrosanct. Here we’re much more open to sharing our interests with students. That aspect is special to Rhodes.”

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