FDR Seminar Class Inspires Student Research

History Major Investigates His Family's Ties to the WPA

Marist students are always encouraged to conduct independent research but for one particular student, it was a bit more personal. Dylan Woods ’16 grew up hearing stories about his great-grandfather and his work with the New Deal agency called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). “My grandparents had grown up in the Depression and would often tell me stories about their childhood,” he explained. “So I had always known that my great-grandfather was a WPA worker and for some reason that stuck with me.”

According to Woods’ grandmother, his great-grandfather worked building sand dunes in Long Beach, NY, for a few years. Prior to the Depression, he had worked on Broadway so it was not long before he got a job working for the Federal Theatre Project, a subsidiary of the WPA. The WPA employed millions of unemployed people during the Great Depression to carry out public works projects. However, the agency was controversial at the time and attracted a lot of criticism, particularly from those who felt WPA employees had little incentive to leave government-subsidized public works positions. “I had known from the stories that my great-grandfather was not too proud to work for the WPA, so it became my goal to discover what the general public thought of the WPA compared to what those in charge thought,” Woods said.

As a history major, Woods had the opportunity to enroll in the upper-level Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) Seminar class this past fall under the teaching of Dr. Robyn Rosen. The class is highly popular, usually offered only every two years. According to the Marist course catalog, it is described as “an intense study of America in the 1930s and 1940s, with emphasis on the emergence of the New Deal, specifically its nature and its significance. Attention is also given to the development of FDR, his apprenticeship for the White House, and his roles as chief administrator, politician, diplomat, and as Commander-in-Chief during World War II.”

In order to take the class, students need a foundation in historical research methods and background because of the independent research work that comes with it. Because Woods already had an interest in the WPA heading into the class, he decided to direct his research towards this subject.

Woods read and analyzed field reports written from WPA agents in New York to their administrators and would compare their concerns to letters written to the editor and published in the New York Times. Because it was a semester-long project, it took Woods approximately two and a half months overall to complete the research. This consisted of numerous trips to the archives at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY. Woods also utilized the historic newspaper database through the Marist Library and read an assortment of books written by other historians to provide context for his paper.

At the end of the semester, Woods first presented his research to a group of four members of the History Department. The presentation allowed for final critiques and suggestions as to how to best present his research. The final paper was 25 pages long and included a 12-page version that could potentially be presented at a conference.

Woods raved about his experience in the FDR Seminar class. “Although a difficult and trying experience at times, FDR Seminar provided me with an incredible opportunity that is not often offered to undergraduate history students,” Woods said. “The class has provided me with the tools to be a better researcher and has given me a stronger grasp on the historical process. It has taught me how to do ‘good’ history, and gave me a chance to feel like a real historian, which is something pretty rare in an undergraduate experience.”

Woods credited Dr. Rosen for being a huge help in the process, stating that he could not have completed the research without her. Dr. Rosen was happy for his success and for his utilization of the FDR Library.

“Every student at Marist has the unique opportunity to do research at the FDR archives,” she said. “The college has a special relationship to the library and our students get an orientation by the archivists, obtain researcher cards which gives them access to millions of documents from the Roosevelt era, and sit beside international scholars to do their research. Many of our history majors, along with some political science and American Studies majors, take advantage of this every year.”

Written by Adriana Belmonte '17


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