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Professor Spotlight: Kelley Kreitz

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What happens when a place-based academic seminar must pivot to a virtual format? Magic. Dyson Associate Professor Kelley Kreitz, PhD, talks about this year’s City of Print Institute and how a commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration can continue moving academic scholarship forward.

Earlier this year, Dyson Associate Professor Kelley Kreitz, PhD, was preparing for the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) City of Print Institute, a two-week interdisciplinary academic seminar for a select group of scholars from throughout the United States focused on advancing their research and teaching on the history of New York City’s periodical press.

Kreitz, who has done extensive interdisciplinary research pertaining to the Spanish-language press in New York City, was a participant when the event was last held in 2015. For this year’s Institute, she was appointed co-director by the Institute’s organizer and director, Professor Mark Noonan of CUNY’s City College of Technology (City Tech). Kreitz was thus excited about bringing together leading scholars and archivists in the fields of American literature, African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Latinx Studies, urban history, art history, and periodical studies to perform research in the collections of the New-York Historical Society and the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. They also planned to visit iconic sites important to the rise of New York’s periodical press, including the area once known as Newspaper Row, where Pace University’s lower Manhattan campus now resides.

“The idea was to provide a combination of in-person lectures, visits to archives, and walking tours. These sessions would immerse participants  in New York City and its many communities of print—from the mass-circulation newspapers, like the New York World and the New York Journal, that once towered over Newspaper Row, to major publications of the city’s the Black press, such as Freedom’s Journal and the New York Age, to Spanish-language periodicals, including La Revista Ilustrada de Nueva York (New York Illustrated Magazine), whose presence in Lower Manhattan in the nineteenth century had been largely forgotten until recently,” said Kreitz.

Then of course, the COVID-19 pandemic altered life as we know it. The Institute, scheduled to be held in late June, was suddenly thrust into limbo. Kreitz and her collaborators in organizing the Institute—Noonan along with Co-director Adam D. McKible, PhD—debated through much of April as to what actions to take.

They asked themselves: Would it be possible to replicate such a place-based experience through Zoom? Would the stresses of life in the midst of a global pandemic, especially as New York City was still struggling through the height of its outbreak, be too much for the Institute’s faculty and participants? Would it be more prudent to hold off until next year, or whenever a vaccine is readily available?

“We debated, first of all, if it was even workable online—so much of the Institute last time was about visiting archives and touring former sites of editorial offices, bookstores, print shops, and cultural institutions. We also thought about the many challenges posed by the pandemic—including for those who were dealing with illness and loss and also for those who would be managing a lack of child care while participating in the Institute,” said Kreitz.

After many discussions and considerations, Kreitz and her co-directors decided to move the event online. In lieu of in-person lectures and physical tours would be pre-recorded talks and virtual tours, as well as live discussions and workshops on Zoom on topics ranging from digital research tools and best practices, to literary Harlem, to a history of New York City’s “newsboys.”

“We came around to the idea that we needed to make this happen even if we couldn’t do it in person,” said Kreitz. “Then, in May, the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed also led us to think about how to best support the movement and New York City. Ultimately, we felt an obligation to run the Institute for our faculty and participants—particularly because so much of their research directly addresses what we saw as an urgent need to connect the inequities and omissions of our history with our ongoing struggles for racial justice.”

From an infrastructure standpoint, the Institute received a major assist from the University’s Office of the Provost, Academic Technology, and Educational Media, which  provided the necessary Zoom account and technical support to ensure the synchronous portions of the event ran smoothly. Running the Institute on Zoom gave Pace a “virtual campus” presence that the University would likely not have had if the Institute was held as originally planned, anchored at CUNY’s City Tech in Brooklyn, with some sessions held at differing schools and locations throughout New York City. The Institute, which ended up having 27 scholars and researchers from across the country (up from 25, had the event been held in person), ended up a resounding success. Although there were certain elements impossible to recreate via pre-recorded talks and tours and Zoom sessions, Kreitz noted that there were in fact a number of unforeseen positives of the format; namely, that there was an element of democratic collaboration through use of the Zoom chat, that often isn’t replicated in-person.

“In our Zoom discussions, so many people were commenting, sharing their work, and providing resources that could be helpful to others. The chat function in Zoom enabled an extremely rich exchange of ideas  at a level that I don’t think ever happens when you’re in a face-to-face seminar with 25 people. We ended up saving them and sharing them with participants as a resource.”

Kreitz also noted that the digital renditions of walking tours—despite not having the tactile, place-based feel of an in-person tour—were arguably more effective given the ability to incorporate multi-media elements. She also pointed out that a digital tour doesn’t have to compete with the blistering summer heat, or large crowds, or the many unpredictable realities of busy spaces in New York City.

“In the digital walking tours, the guide could show a map and virtually walk us through, while also incorporating historical images and including more detail than would be possible in person. In some ways, the tours worked better online than they did in the heat and noise of New York City in summer 2015—although it was a common refrain throughout the Institute that we all missed the city.”

For Kreitz, the lessons gleaned from the alterations from this event, as well as some of the unforeseen positives, demonstrate a possible way forward amidst the uncertainties of the pandemic. That, although it is impossible to recreate certain elements of conducting interdisciplinary scholarship in-person, it is still possible to produce impactful scholarship and collaborate effectively. And, with the help of strong institutional infrastructure committed to making it happen, Universities can continue to lead the way.

“For some aspects of this Institute, there was no replacement for face-to-face learning. But we also learned how to make better use of digital tools—including Zoom, digital archives, and digital maps and virtual tours—to collaborate more effectively and to research lost and repressed histories of New York City that inform our present,” said Kreitz. “My teaching—as we continue to grapple with the pandemic this fall and when it is finally behind us—will incorporate these lessons.”

>>Take a version of Kreitz’s virtual tour of the nineteenth-century Spanish-language press in lower Manhattan.