My work as a humanist is indebted in many ways to the time spent helping my parents with biological fieldwork as a child, and my prior work in Animal Health Care and Conservation Biology.
My parents and stepparents are all biologists, and I spent many hours as a child helping collect snakes, lizards, and salamanders both in the tropics and at my father's field sites at Eagle Lake and Prairie Creek. These early experiences not only taught me about research methods but also trained me to pay attention to details. Noticing and responding quickly to a sudden, small shift in light often meant the difference between catching an animal or ending up empty handed. My stepfather's research in the tropics also exposed me to other cultures and gave me a love of travel. Haunted by places I did not understand, many years later I would find myself returning to some of these locations such as Panama and the Dutch West Indies to do my own historical work.
As the child of biologists, I assumed I would someday work on animals as well, and indeed before I turned my gaze to culture, I worked with small animals and zoo animals, and worked briefly as a research assistant in conservation biology. Working hands-on with animals taught me to watch closely for non-verbal communications, since ignoring a non-domesticated animal's body language could mean unnecessary stress for the animals and painful bites and scratches for me. I remain fascinated by the importance of non-verbal language.
Today my own research reflects this love of visual language and codes. While my Ph.D. is in textual analysis, much of my current work revolves around material culture and space. Working on location is often key to my analysis, as I tend to think of spaces experientially and performatively. Likewise my early training in collecting data for my parents and in mapping while working in conservation biology have made seriation studies of objects like gravestones an obvious part of my work. Whereas once I used record books to help record scale counts today I often use photography while on location to help me focus on and remember different details about the objects.
My own learning style and learning history impacts the way I teach, write, and do public speaking. I have worked on summer research projects with students on material culture on site in Martha's Vineyard, Newport (RI), and Curaçao. I also like bring this experiential and visual approach to the classroom and my talks. As an author, my books are richly illuminated: The Art of the Jewish Family has nearly 100 images, many in color. Likewise my presentations, whether via zoom or in person are filled with evocative images and interactivies. I present regularly to both small and large audiences via the Jewish Book Council and AJS's Distinguished Lectureship Program.