Launching Crowdsourced History

Today is six months since the Boston Marathon bombings. Today is also the day I’m launching an experimental history project: an attempt to crowdsource history using Google Maps Engine. Please share this with anyone, and consider contributing to the map. All stories are welcome — from anywhere in the world. Just drop your pin and tell your story.

Weeks 3-4 of Tear Down that Mill?: The U.S. Survey with a Theme

With the survey theme established, the class has moved into building skills through activities in class.

The goals for the three classes in these weeks were:

  • Get students to view the textbook as a tool to be used and not just as a static text to be memorized (or not)
  • Show how the story of Lowell that we read about and suggested some causal factors for connects to broader themes in American history
  • Have students practice describing change over time

I broke the class into groups of 4-5, and they picked one of the broad thematic developments related to deindustrialization. Their choices were: the rise and expansion of corporations; labor organization; changing demographics of the workforce; government’s role in regulating the economy; and regional economic development.

I instructed students to go to their textbook and identify any key terms, people, events, developments related to their chosen theme. They were allowed to hone their theme more narrowly, and they could organize their team’s labor as they so wished.

The output for the task was to be a timeline, using Timeline JS. Each group input their id’s into a Google Spreadsheet and generated the timeline.

An example (if it works for me, it probably won’t because I have difficulty embedding items in wordpress):

With the timeline under way and the technical issues out of the way (though never very far from mind), the next and more difficult task was to develop a descriptive statement of the timeline, representing in narrative form the change over time reflected in the timeline.

Students had a much harder time with this than they expected. They continued to want to reference specific examples, and had trouble developing a cohesive statement of change over time.

The task was illustrative on a number of levels, both for me and for them. It reinforced for me that I need to differentiate for students very clearly the difference between summary and narrative and argumentation, and how to “show” and not just “tell.” It was a useful glimpse for them into how a textbook is put together, and helped them realize the various tools within it. It also provided a useful platform for getting students to think thematically and to establish a pattern of thinking, even if mastery has not yet emerged.

Weeks 1-2 of Tear Down that Mill?: The U.S. Survey with a Theme

I’ve been rethinking of my approach to the survey for about eight months, with the intent of focusing more on the skills built by doing history, so students can not just learn what happened in the past but also be better prepared to filter through and use the vast amount of information at their fingertips. Teaching students to think historically and critically has been my main focus. I came up with the following model, which I’m implementing this semester.

On the first day of class, I introduced students to the idea of arguments. I asked students “Who won the Civil War?”, then broke them into groups and gave each an answer from a historian featured in the New York Times this past summer. With this activity, I wanted them to begin thinking about the role perspective and evidence plays in how we look at the past. I used the exercise to explain the different types of historical thinking (the 5 C’s), and that we should feel empowered to allow our collective perspectives to drive the inquiry of the class — the actual “doing” of history.

With that introduction, I then presented five possible thematic focuses for the course, each driven by a contemporary dilemma. The choices were:

  • Tear Down that Mill? Deindustrialization and the Challenges of the New Economy in 21st Century Massachusetts
  • Red State/Blue State: Is the Era of Reagan Over?
  • A Post-Ethnic America?: Popular Culture and the Politics of Diversity
  • From Whistle Stops to Tumblr: The Rise of the Celebrity President?
  • End of the American Century?: The United States in a Post-Cold War World

 Students voted using a poll on our course wiki (I use The votes went back and forth, and the final tally surprised me, and it was very close, with only a 4 vote spread among the top 3.

Although it’s difficult to tell from this graph, the winner was “Tear Down that Mill? Deindustrialization and the Challenges of the New Economy in 21st Century Massachusetts.”

After reviewing some mechanics of “doing history” (more on that later), the students read an excerpt from Empty Mills: The Fight Against Imports and the Decline of the U.S. Textile Industry on the decline of the textile industry. The chapter we read focused on the economic troubles of Lowell, MA, with which a majority of students at least have some familiarity, living nearby or in similar cities like Fall River, Springfield, or Fitchburg.

My goal with the theme was to provide them with a relevant problem (economic, social, political, cultural, global) that they could relate to, and show how we can use history to better understand the dynamics and complexities of that problem, leading them to think about historical change, causality, and contingencies. The discussion of the Minchin piece proved fruitful; the students had a wide range of opinions on how the revitalization of Lowell was going, the role of UMass-Lowell, and whether or not Fitchburg State could follow the same role in Fitchburg. With these many strong opinions, we built a list of interpretations about the causal factors that led to Lowell’s decline, which led to our next task in developing the course’s theme and their historical thinking skills. (Also more on that, later).

In the discussion, I was able to demonstrate the relevance of this historical development to their lives and their families with a quick poll (using The first poll asked them if they had family members in the recent past who worked (emphasis on past tense) in manufacturing in Massachusetts or another state.


As you can see from the results, the poll revealed a 2:1 ratio of students who had some familial connection to manufacturing in Massachusetts. Next, I asked them how many people STILL had family members working in manufacturing in Massachusetts, or a nearby state. This time, the 2:1 ratio switched to the “No” category.

IMG_0289An informal poll of raised hands revealed that no one in the class had plans to work in manufacturing in their future. Thus establishing how the past had worked on our own lives (I, too, have relatives who used to work in manufacturing, but no longer have any that do), we move to better understand not only how historical processes have worked change for current residents of Massachusetts, but how by studying the past we can establish our agency and look to the future while acknowledging Massachusetts’ industrial past.

On Motherhood and the Academy: Time Management Edition

At my PhD hooding ceremony with my then-11 month old son. He was born when I had three dissertation chapters written.

There has been a lot of buzz generated recently about motherhood in academia. Most of the discussion has been generated by the recent book, Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory TowerRecently, historian Heather Cox Richardson weighed in with her reactions, as well as some useful tips for balance.

Frankly, though I have several reactions to these findings and the debates that have ensued, my main thought has been, “How would I possibly find the time to weigh in on these discussions? I can barely stay reasonably bathed and fed these days, let alone add my 2 cents about what it’s like to be the mother of young children while on the tenure track.” When I hear the term “brain drain,” I’m more likely to envision the contents of my skull running down the bathroom sink — which seems a likely possibility at the end of some of my days — rather than the effects of motherhood on scholars in aggregate.

But this recent post from a mother on the tenure track at Harvard (or, rather, 7-year postdoc) got me thinking. I like how she addressed the issue of 50/50 parenting, which has also been picked up by the Chronicle. I am in the third year of a tenure-track position at Fitchburg State University, which comes with a 4/4 teaching load. This summer, I am revising my manuscript for publication (which includes additional research), working on two articles, and writing a book review. I love my job, and I love teaching. I also have two children, ages 4 years and 10 months. I live in the Boston area, where childcare is dear, and thus during the summers I only have 9 hours a week where I am not caring for both of them. They are very cute, but they are poor research assistants. So when Professor Nagpal discussed a change of attitude and establishing rules to live, I began thinking about my own attitude and rules.

First, a few caveats in this discussion:

1.) The thing is, I don’t feel that my current situation is all that different from other mothers in other lines of work. Do I think that motherhood has an adverse effect on professional advancement? Youbetcha. Would more “family-friendly” policies help? Yes…but I don’t think they would be the end-all-be-all of solving this problem. Parenthood is hard. I do not have an academic for a spouse. Sometimes when emergencies come up he is able to take them on, but most of the day-to-day management (doctor’s appointments, meetings with child care providers, planning of activities and playdates) come down to me because my schedule is more flexible. My husband would love to do this, I’m sure, but his 8:30-5 workday is much more rigid than mine.

2.) My suspicion is that most people pondering policy changes and other alterations to the family/work balance in academia have children who are grown, or at least out of pre-school. Most of them also seem to be tenured when they speak about these issues, reflecting the taboo of speaking about how work/life balance is hard when you are still climbing the ladder towards tenure. For those of us untenured with kids 5 years old and under, we are just trying to get through it and keep our hair on. It could be that I will have some policy recommendations of my own when my kids are older, but I also suspect that I will NEVER WANT TO THINK ABOUT IT AGAIN.

With those caveats established, I’m going to think positively, and establish the rules that work for me and my family. These “rules” are a work in progress, but I thought it would be fun to think about:

  • Assume the work will get done, but have a plan.
  • Embrace work in 20-30 minute chunks.
  • Identify sacred work days and flex days
  • Find zen moments in everyday tasks (commuting, grocery shopping, exercising) 

I’m sure there are more, and I will certainly be adopting some of Professor Nagpal’s (have fun now, a feelgood email folder, being a whole person, those are on the top of my list).

Assume the work will get done.

I figure there is no point in worrying about how exactly I’m going to get everything done. At this point in my career, I’ve met all my deadlines, managed to show up prepared for every class, and continue to produce at a level that I find satisfactory. It’s not always easy, but I have to believe that despite how overwhelming a moment seems–like when instead of finishing that edit that has been rattling around in my brain I’m taking my son to the ER for wheezing–having faith that I will get my goals accomplished is a must.

So I have a plan.

I’ve always been a planner. I’m obsessed with my productivity levels (I use RescueTime to track my computer activity), and make sure that I have an established plan for each project. I identify the absolute deadline, and then provide myself with a two week cushion at the end, and then work back from there.

That being said, I don’t make these plans so insanely detailed that it dictates specific tasks on a daily basis. If I did that I would get too stressed about the tasks I missed in a particular day. Instead, I allocate time by weeks. For example, while completing edits for my manuscript last summer, I identified the date I wanted to have it submitted (two weeks before my baby was due), added two weeks to that deadline, counted the number of weeks I had until that cushioned deadline, and allocated edits by chapter, divided equally in time. I then made a master checklist of the changes I wanted to make for each chapter, plus any additional research I needed to complete, or books to consult. That way, I could look at the list and attack tasks as necessary, given the amount of time or brainpower I had on any particular day. I use a similar strategy for course planning. No more than 7 major task categories for any project (Chapters, Lecture Prep, Syllabus and Schedule, etc.).

With this plan established, if I have a bad day, I can rest assured that I have a certain amount of time to allocate to the project, and that with the cushions built in, I can steal a day here and there. Also, by allocating evenly, even though it is sometimes not an accurate reflection of the time needed (i.e. Chapter 7 is a mess and Chapter 4 looks pretty durn good), as I go I can adjust those broader time frames as necessary. Trust that it will get done. And it did.

And when all else fails, I remember this advice from Nora Roberts: “You can’t revise a blank page.” Just get the words on paper. The work will get done.

Embrace work in 20-30 minute chunks.

This was something I learned when writing my dissertation after my son was born. I had read up on the Pomodoro technique, which I liked, but I didn’t want to break my tasks down so discretely. Instead, I focused on time-allocated goals, rather than task specific goals. When L. was born, I developed a goal for how much time per week I wanted to spend writing. I then broke that time up into 20 minute time chunks. So if my goal for the week was 10 hours of writing time, that would be thirty chunks of time. I then put 30 to-do items in my Google Calendar, allocating an equal number for each day. (So 7 per day, plus an extra for two days of the week).

Then, as I completed each chunk of time, I would check off a to do item. If I didn’t meet all of them in one day, I would move them to the next day. If I found I had more time (like an extra-long nap for the baby), I could take the pressure off myself from other days. By not allocating specific tasks, I could flow into the harder tasks when I had the brain energy, rather than making myself depressed that I was too tired to complete the day’s tasks. Often times, that hard task I had been putting off became much easier with time, and was less intimidated to start it.

Although I abandoned the 20 minute to-dos (they were necessary when I was not working and would often lose all track of time and what I had accomplished, given that I had a young baby), I continue to use this mindset in my work. It makes me less irritable when the inevitable interruptions arise, or when it’s time to take a break and go have some fun with the baby or take L. to an activity or playdate. It also helps focus my time, and reduce the stress of thinking about the larger task at hand (i.e. “OMG one week left to revise this chapter, but I HATE it!”).

Identify sacred work days and flex days.

Multitasking is hard, and some say impossible. And we can’t be in two places at once. So when I’m at work, I try to keep that sacred. That means identifying the days of the week that are the most essential for me to not be interrupted, or have appointments slipped into the mornings before class, etc. This is only a new rule for me, and not yet fully implemented. Essentially, it will go something like this: my husband and I share responsibilities, so if certain things fall on one of my sacred work days — like daycare closing, or a sick kid, or an important dr. appointment — it will be his responsibility to figure out a plan. For me, these are my heavy teaching days and class time on the less-heavy teaching days (so for example, all day Wednesday when I teach 3 classes, and Monday and Friday afternoons, when I have class). Teaching is the number one time commitment, and along with the preparation time, that comes first. The rest can be slotted in around those commitments. But on the flex days, or in the flex time, it will be my turn to fill in the gaps. Only pants on fire emergencies interrupt the sacred time, and the reverse is true for my husband. That being said, again, this has only been true on a case-by-case basis so far, so I’m not sure how it will work as a hard and fast rule, so we will see.

Find zen moments in everyday tasks.

I have an hour commute, each way. That is a lot of time spent in the car each week, not doing work and not spending time with my family. So I decided to shift my attitude and make it “me” time. I rarely listen to the news. I try to sing and listen to music. Sometimes I listen to the Spa station on Sirius/XM, relaxing while maintaining enough presence to not run off the road. Occasionally I will listen to audio books, or TED talks, or some other intellectually stimulating content. Many times I will emerge from the car with a list of ideas to write down. Some of my best brainstorms have come from being in the car–whether it was to reorganize my survey course or a small note I needed to add to an article. But whatever I do, I try to go with the flow and not set high expectations for myself. No goals, no agendas, I do what I like. If that means listening to crappy dance music the whole way home, I do it.

Same goes for running and exercising. These activities are my brain space. I used to hate to run. HATE it. But now I look forward to it as time when I don’t have any other responsibility other than to run. With grocery shopping it’s a set list of goals that I have accomplished quickly and efficiently. It’s the small things.

Doing it all.

Of course, some days I’m a stark raving lunatic. Other days I feel like I’ve got it mastered. These are some of the strategies I use for those in between days when I need to get stuff done. And I let myself off the hook. I don’t have to say anything profound about the experience of mothers in the academy, or on the politics of parenthood (I avoid the mommy wars at all cost). Nothing in this post will help solve the financial burdens of having two kids in daycare, which certainly adds pressure to the above rules. But I thank Professor Nagpal for her inspiring article that made me feel like sharing some of the strategies that work for me — naturally, they won’t work for everyone, because every family is different. But if anything in here helps someone get just one day organized, that makes me happy.

Rethinking “Scavenging the Survey”

This summer I’ve been thinking about how to put my idea for a revamped U.S. survey into practice. In a fit of brainstorming, I put together a site and course called “Scavenging the Survey,” (see the previous post here). Since then I’ve been letting the idea simmer and have been developing a few other ideas for courses (more on that soon).

In the interim, I’ve rethought a few of my approaches to the course. While I still think the idea is a good one, and would make for a very interesting course, a few of my absolute must-haves in a course would be difficult to achieve with this format.

My must haves:

  • A strong thematic structure to the course
  • That thematic structure should promote students’ skills in the area of being able to explain change over time
  • The opportunity for students to write individual primary source analysis and research papers
  • To feature a few “pet” primary sources and secondary sources that I feel are particularly useful in killing several birds with one stone (we all have them)

After reading Allan Kulikoff’s essay, “A Modest Proposal to Resolve the Crisis in History,” in the Journal of the Historical Society (V. 11, Issue 2, June 2011, 239–263), I began to play around with an even more strongly thematically-structured survey. Kulikoff, in presenting two scenarios of history education, presents how one fortunate-yet-fictitious history major experienced her undergraduate courses.

“The department she enters has abandoned factoid-based surveys, complete with thick, impenetrable textbooks. The course, shared by all department faculty, meets once a week in a large lecture hall. Faculty structure the course around global economic relations from the Ming to the present. Each lecture covers a discrete topic, in global context: trade, imperialism, diplomacy, family relations after the spread of modern industry, and the diffusion of revolutionary ideals, among others. For the other two weekly class meetings, students choose from among many small seminar topics directed by department professors and PhD candidates — booms and busts (the South Sea Bubble and the Great Depression), common people (biographies and autobiographies of common and some not-so-common people), the global role of cities, among others.” (p 252-253)

Given that my own classes are not large lectures, I do not face some of the same obstacles in scheduling and organizing. Rather, Kulikoff’s later suggestion for a radically new survey structure could inform my reworking of the survey. Kulikoff writes:

“We would need to abandon survey courses as currently taught, and we would have to restructure the history major. Survey courses would emphasize a key topic. These topics should relate to central contemporary concerns and allow students to see the historical origins of critical political and social issues. In the first half of the American history survey, such themes might include democracy and its discontents; race and slavery; women’s and men’s work; or religion in American life. In a modern world history course, instructors might choose such themes as imperialism; the rise of capitalism; religious and cultural diffusion and resistance; or women’s roles.” (p 256)

In Kulikoff’s own honors survey course, which he describes, he uses no textbook but rather assigns a diverse array of primary sources. In my smaller survey courses, this approach could be beneficial, as well as provide the means to impart the kinds of skills and vocabulary about the uses of history and writing that I think students with a liberal arts curriculum should have.

So in my new approach, I will be employing a choose-your-own-adventure approach. I will give the students a choice of five themes that roughly correlate to the broad themes I have explored in the survey in the past. We will begin by reading a recent historical essay or book chapter that both offers a historical argument yet also intersects with an important current issue. Then students will “gut” the textbook for useful information related to that theme, creating a list of terms and events that will serve as a glossary going forward (and to which they will add). After that, we will identify as a group what the key eras are and chart the broad changes over time. Then, in a series of primary source analysis excursions, students will build their historical skills for reading, research, writing, and analysis as well as collaborate to produce several findings related to each of the eras identified. In some cases I will provide the sources; in others, the students will conduct broad-based searches for sources to back up their findings and arguments. At the end of the semester, students will complete a guided research paper. Throughout the course, students will also read textbook chapters and complete online quizzes to continue to add to their historical knowledge.

I am still working through the details, but right now my five question-based themes are:

Tear Down that Mill? Deindustrialization and the Challenges of the New Economy in 21st Century Massachusetts

Red State/Blue State: Is the Era of Reagan Over? 

A Post-Ethnic America?: Popular Culture and the Politics of Diversity

From Whistle Stops to Tumblr: The Rise of the Celebrity President?

End of the American Century? The United States in a Post-Cold War World

Has anyone else attempted a single themed survey course? I have read a number of examples in the past for a student-created syllabus (I cannot for the life of me locate the sources at the moment, so if anyone has some resources for this, please share!), but none from history faculty. What other themes would be useful? Are there any primary sources that absolutely should be included in one of these categories? These are my scattered thoughts at the moment, but it’s beginning to come together.

Run to Remember 2013

Ran today’s Boston Run to Remember, 8 months post baby. Time 2:28:35, with some nasty blisters from new shoes (had to get them, alas no choice there). Ran, as other runners did, with an extra bib #179 for Officer Sean Collier. Loved high fives from law enforcement on Memorial Drive, first in line was a Fitchburg policeman. Thanks to all who serve. And now for some strength training so I can improve my speed…



Summer 2013 Plans

The last month or so has been a bit hectic, to say the least — a bombing, manhunt in the neighborhood, lockdown, etc., let alone the general end-of-semester fun. 

Now that commencement is behind me, I can begin to plan my summer. To make myself publicly accountable, here are my planned projects (some with more immediate deadlines than others):

  • Write book review for JSH
  • Prepare response to readers’ reports for Dead as Dixie
  • Plan and conduct supplementary research for DAD (UVA, Alabama, Filson, UMich, MassHist, Wyoming, some in person, some remotely)
  • Hire research assistant for my Army-Navy “E” Award for Production (WWII) article (data entry project and mapping assistance)
  • Write/rewrite “E” Pennant article
  • Continue to elaborate on plans for Scavenging the Survey
  • Plan my Postwar America experiment (more details to come)

On the personal front, and mixed in with the research plans, as a family we will travel to Iowa and Tennessee. Needless to say, the summer looks busy, but I’m looking forward to it.

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.