February 18, 2011

Three Students Explore New York City’s Rich History for Professor Donald L. Miller’s Latest Book Project

Ross Tilchin ’11, Tyler Bamford ’12, Hannah Finegold ’11, and Professor Donald L. Miller

Hannah Finegold ’11 (Syosset, N.Y.) clearly remembers the moment she became a history major. After a scheduling conflict left her unable to take a science elective her first year, she signed up for The Story of World War II, taught by Donald L. Miller, John Henry MacCracken Professor of History. Her first day of class, there were students clamoring at the doorway hoping Miller would override the class capacity.

“I went to the first class with drop slip in hand, but started second guessing my decision when I heard people talking before class,” recalls Finegold, who planned on majoring in neuroscience. “When Professor Miller said he was sticking to the course capacity, they all looked extremely disappointed. I thought I’d stick around; it was one of the best classes I have taken here. Professor Miller’s lessons and lectures were captivating and inspiring and instilled in me a genuine passion for history. After that class, I decided to be a history major.”

Now Finegold is part of a student research team that includes Tyler Bamford ’12 (Souderton, Pa.) and Ross Tilchin ’11 (Bethesda, Md.), helping Miller research his latest book project, Supreme City: New York City 1927, through the EXCEL Scholars program. Each student has a specific assignment and all are responsible for sending edits on the entire book to Miller for his consideration in the final draft. Finegold is the team leader, delegating assignments and ensuring the projects run smoothly in addition to her research duties and overseeing the bibliography.

A history major, Bamford is charged with compiling research for the book’s last chapter on city congestion in the late 1920s resulting from the advent of the automobile and skyscraper. He’s discovered that many of the problems facing New Yorkers then – congestion, decentralization, skyscrapers, automobiles, and pedestrians – are the same ones they face today. The opportunity to have such a hands-on role in a project of this magnitude is why he chose Lafayette.

“I turned down other schools with large history departments,” says Bamford, who plans to become a history professor. “Here, I knew I would be able to work directly with professors who take a vested interest in my personal growth and success. Being a paid research assistant has given me a taste of the other side of being an academic outside the classroom.”

Tilchin has been combing New York Times archives and other sources for information on preeminent gangster and bootlegger Arnold Rothstein, the drug subculture, and the construction of city infrastructure. He was excited to learn more about William McCoy, who organized a group of ships loaded with alcohol just outside U.S. waters in what became known as “Rum Row.” His refusal to water down or alter his alcohol led to the popular expression “the real McCoy.”

A double major in history and government & law, Tilchin plans to pursue a Ph.D. or attend law school. Originally only a government and law major, he believes adding a history major filled the gaps in his education.

“My understanding of the material was a little hollow without history backing it,” he says. “The way I see it, you can open a book to page 100 and eventually figure out what’s going on, but you won’t catch references to the first 100 pages as you move forward. Of course, if you do read the first 100 pages, you’ll understand all the plot nuances, references to the beginning, etc. That sums up the relationship between my two majors for me.”

The students agree that seeing their research contributions and edits in Miller’s final work is a thrill. Bamford calls the experience “unbelievable,” while Tilchin describes watching Miller juggle his teaching and research projects as “inspiring.” For Finegold, the EXCEL opportunity has been an academic boon.

“Working with Professor Miller has been a much different experience than taking a class with him,” she explains. “I have gotten to observe and participate in creating ideas, researching, outlining, writing, and editing. I never could have learned this complex process in a classroom.”

An award-winning author and expert on WWII, Miller is screenwriter and historical consultant for the History channel’s latest installment of its Emmy award-winning series WWII in HD, The Air War. Inspired by Miller’s book Masters of the Air (2006), it premiered Nov. 10. He also was writer and chief historical consultant for the original WWII in HD, a 10-hour series that aired on the History Channel in November 2009. The series was inspired by Miller’s book The Story of World War II (2001). He has won six awards for excellence in teaching, five fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a number of prestigious book awards.

posted in Academic News, Collaborative, High-Impact Learning, News and Features, Students, Work with Stellar Professor-Mentors

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