Students Present Papers on Historical Fiction at Phi Alpha Theta Conference

April 20, 2011

Carlee Hoffmann (Class of 2013), Matt St. Jean (Class of 2011) and Sebastian Novak (Class of 2012)

Carlee Hoffmann (Class of 2013), Matt St. Jean (Class of 2011) and Sebastian Novak (Class of 2012)

Professor of History Claire Strom holds herself to a high level of excellence, and expects the same from her students. On April 2, the hard work to meet these standards paid off for three of Strom’s students—Matt St. Jean (Class of 2011), Sebastian Novak (Class of 2012) and Carlee Hoffmann (Class of 2013)—who presented their papers at the Phi Alpha Theta regional conference at Flagler College.

Rollins’ participation in Phi Alpha Theta, a national honor society for students and faculty of history, is nothing new, but this marks the first time since Strom began teaching at Rollins that students have participated in the conference.

As part of her class History of the South, offered in the fall semester, Strom assigned students Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Seraph on the Suwannee, which profiles a middle-class white woman named Arvay Henson living in Central Florida in the early 20th century. As part of their final paper, the students wrote about the historical accuracy of Hurston’s fictional writing.

Since the conference considers papers written by undergraduate students, Strom decided to encourage a few students to submit their papers to the conference committee. “I felt that Matt, Sebastian and Carlee really excelled on this assignment and could benefit greatly from the experience of sharing it with other historians,” said Strom. “Matt and Sebastian in particular did great work with primary documents to piece together the actual histories of citrus and turpentine production during this time period, and their research provided great insight into the author’s intentions.”

Through their work with these primary sources, St. Jean and Novak found key information about the levels of accuracy in Hurston’s novel regarding the production of citrus and turpentine in Florida during the early 20th century. While Hoffman’s research was less focused on primary documents, her paper offered an insightful comparison of Hurston’s portrayal of middle-class white women and actual women living at the time.

The papers were part of a larger project at Rollins called Project Mosaic, aimed at combining several educational facets to strengthen and enhance Rollins’ African and African-American Studies program. Novak and St. Jean used sources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop their points, and both students were honored to read their papers at the conference, which isn’t typical for undergraduate participants.

“It was very rewarding to be involved in this experience, but it was kind of scary not knowing exactly what to expect at the conference,” said Novak. “There were so many questions like how many people would be there, would they ask questions, would they like our papers? Putting yourself out there in that way is always a challenge, but they were very receptive to our participation, and I was proud that my paper was appreciated enough that it was deemed appropriate for the conference.”

St. Jean agreed. “The biggest reward and what I took away from the experience fall into the same category. As a student writing a final paper, you are interested in what you are writing about, but mostly you just want to get it done because it means you are one step closer to either winter or summer break. However, this paper turned into so much more. Being able to represent my college and my family at a conference such as Phi Alpha Theta was a great honor for me.”

At the end of the conference, the students walked away with meaningful experiences that enhanced their undergraduate education and made their professor proud, providing them with a first-hand account of why dedication to excellence is a necessary component of academia.

“All three students did very well. I was proud of them and the ways they presented themselves,” said Strom. “This project was important, as historical fiction is so prevalent today. It’s important for students to understand how to distinguish fiction from reality. I hope the students enjoyed themselves and continue to examine similar issues in their future works.”

By Sarah Hartman (Class of 2011)

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