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Project takes crime scene photographer back to the Civil War

May 11, 2010

ASU senior Kristilyn Baldwin, a Chandler, Ariz., native and recipient of a Sun Angel Excellence in the Humanities Research Scholarship this semester, is completing a research project in history, one of her two majors. The entirety of her experience, from writing the research proposal to taking a trip over spring break to Washington, D.C., to accessing the National Archives, has greatly enhanced her experience as a student and given her the opportunity to work on a topic about which she is passionate. 

Having approached one of her history professors, Brooks Simpson, about opportunities to participate in a research project, professor Simpson recommended she apply for a research scholarship in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She and Simpson used the first few weeks of the fall 2009 semester to write a successful project proposal. The foundation of the project revolves around Baldwin’s experience as a crime scene photographer and what she found in photos of Civil War soldiers. In looking at the Battle of Antietam, in particular, she noticed that the photos of the fallen soldiers looked inaccurate. In researching the photos further, she found that they conflicted with news reports and letters from the soldiers. 

In a trip to the Gettysburg Library in Pennsylvania and the National Archives, she found that the experience of simply being there, in a place that changed the course of a nation and a place she had learned about all her life, gave her a new understanding and appreciation for what the soldiers and the civilians experienced in such a turbulent time in history and how important historical research is. She also experienced some surprising challenges while doing research – one of which was trying to decipher the handwriting of 19th century letter authors. Reading the letters took her much longer than she anticipated. 

She learned, by encountering some of these unexpected challenges, that she had to rearrange her focus and adapt to the situation to make the best use of her time. But that, in itself, was a good learning experience about what it is like to do hands-on research. One of her favorite parts of the trip? Sitting in the main reading room of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. She found it to be so awe-inspiring that it was hard to leave. 

In this interview for the college’s “peer” newsletter, Baldwin provides insight into selecting a major, her approach to undergraduate research, and the value of a liberal arts education that blends science with the humanities. She is scheduled to graduate in May 2011, and then plans to attend graduate school.

Why did you choose history and English literature as your majors? 

I chose history for three reasons. First, I wanted to learn how to efficiently do in-depth research. Second, historical context is applicable to all fields of study, and I wanted the ability to relate my education to many aspects of my life. Lastly, and most important, history is just fun, and I truly enjoy it. I chose English literature because I love to read. I also wanted to sharpen my writing skills and learn how to critically analyze a text. 

What course outside of your majors has been most interesting to you? 

I took a music class called "Elvis," which was completely fascinating. Elvis (Presley) was an important American icon and had a huge impact on American culture. He was also a fantastic and talented performer, and as part of the curriculum I got to listen to great music and I could tell the professor was passionate about the subject. 

What was the most significant or impactful moment in your experience at ASU? 

I would like to say the most significant moment in my experience at ASU was the first day I met Dr. Brooks Simpson. But it wasn't meeting him that made such an impact; it was when I realized he believed in me. I can't remember if it was receiving a hard earned "A" on my capstone project, or when he gladly agreed to do a section of individualized instruction, or the first time he wrote a letter of recommendation. It could have been when he referred to me as a "bright undergraduate doing interesting research," something I hadn't heard from a teacher before, or maybe when I asked him for help applying for a large scholarship and he replied "we" can try if you'd like. I am sure there will be more moments like these, making it hard to pinpoint just one. I can say that knowing Dr. Simpson has been a blessing, and his impact on my education is immeasurable. 

What activities are you currently involved in or have been involved in? 

In my Capstone Research Seminar (HST498) I researched the photographs taken at the Battle of Antietam, and what they revealed about civilian response to the Civil War. Having a background in crime scene photography, I have seen the graphic reality of death. The Antietam photographs, if accurately documented, would have been much more graphic than they are. I wanted to know why they were taken in a pastoral manner, and what that implied about the northern population. After the paper was completed, I still had questions relating to civilian perception. I was awarded the Sun Angel Excellence in the Humanities Research Scholarship, and am currently working on exploring how newspaper articles, journals, personal letters, photographs, and sketches influenced the civilian perspective of the mass casualty battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. I traveled to Gettysburg National Park Library and the Library of Congress during spring break to search through Civil War manuscripts unavailable anywhere else. It has been an amazing opportunity. 

I interned as a research assistant for Susan Gray one year in the history department. I spent most of the first semester in the "catacombs" of Hayden Library, and the second semester transcribing the journal of a missionary in 19th century Michigan. The experience taught me how to sift through enormous amounts of information, while identifying what is valuable. The transcription work, while tedious, allowed me to develop an emotional connection with the author by reading the thoughts of his daily life. It was a wonderful experience and I am grateful for professor Gray for allowing me the opportunity to learn under her direction. 

In my other life (the one outside of academia) I am going into my fifth year as a crime scene technician for a local police department. I document, collect, and preserve physical, biological, and latent evidence at various types of crime scenes. I work more than 40 hours per week, which makes balancing a full time school schedule a challenge, but my love for both keeps me motivated. 

What has been your greatest accomplishment as a student at ASU? 

Since I plan to attend graduate school at ASU, I believe my greatest accomplishments as a student are yet to come. The completion of my current research project, however, will be the greatest accomplishment at ASU so far. And, in all fairness, making the Dean’s List while working full time and still managing to remain happily married was an accomplishment too. 

My greatest accomplishment was being able to be a student facilitator and teach a class of freshmen about different topics that would help them be a successful student and person in life. It really helped me become a better public speaker and helped new students become adjusted to the college atmosphere. The fact that I had the confidence to lead a college-level class and that I was a positive influence on students' lives is really what it is about for me. 

What has been your biggest challenge as a student at ASU? 

Balancing school with my family time and current career, while living 40 miles from campus, has been the biggest challenge as an ASU student. Parking is a close second. 

What advice would you give to a new student? 

Study something you love. It makes all the difference in the world when you enjoy going to class. Second, learn to manage your time by being organized, and look for opportunities to maximize each minute. For example, instead of flipping through Vogue while you're riding a stationary bike at the gym, read the Hamlet scene assigned for class the next day. If you have a paper due in a week, but you have a free hour until your next class, write one or two paragraphs. If you prioritize and schedule your responsibilities, you will find a balance between studying and a social life. This eliminates stress and will do wonders for your GPA. Lastly, appreciate and get to know your professors. A caring professor who will mentor and support you (and listen to you babble) will make your experience at ASU easier and will open doors you’ve never seen before. 

What does ASU mean to you? 

ASU has given me a foundation and the ability to think in new and creative ways. Many people can't understand why I chose to study history and English literature, and work in the field of forensic science. Yet each field gives me a unique perspective on the other. In many universities, it is unacceptable to have an interest or be good in both science and humanities. ASU’s innovative focus on transdisciplinary studies has given me the opportunity to develop and grow in traditionally “clashing” fields. 

Having a liberal arts degree has given me the ability to fuse different ideas together, and apply them to real life. In an ever-changing society, the ability to think in new and creative ways will allow me to make a difference in the world.

Shannon Keen,
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences