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The Power of Research

December 30, 2019
Maya Holman at the National Constitution Center, August 2019

--by Maya Holman

When I first entered my Community College of Philadelphia Religious Studies course with Professor Presjnar, I had no idea of the genuine impact the class would have in my academic career and in my life. Truth be told, Professor Presjnar and I did not see eye to eye with a lot of things. His teaching style and my learning style clashed sometimes, and we would disagree on several points. At the end of it all, my professor and I were able to find a common ground, and I completed the course with a new respect for Professor Presjnar and his patience with my attitude, as well as for Religious studies. I was just happy to have passed the class with a high grade, but it wasn’t without sweat and tears (luckily no blood was involved).

A few weeks after completing the course, Professor Presjnar informed me that the essay I wrote as my final assignment had been chosen to be put on display at the Presbyterian Historical Society showcasing the benefits of doing research within the society’s archives. This shocked me, as going through the ups and downs of this difficult course I never would have thought he would choose my essay. I had been to the Historical Society twice in order to do research for this essay, about African American Churches in Philadelphia, and had met Archivist Jenny Barr and other employees who were very helpful in my process. But I was also fully prepared to never have to set foot in PHS again. I had nothing against Ms. Jenny or the Society but being a non-religious person, I felt that this type of place wasn’t for me and never would be. Boy, I was sorely mistaken.

Maya Holman's essay featured in PHS lobby, December 2019. Read the full essay here.

After the joy of seeing my paper on display at the Society, I basked in the glory of my accomplishment. I really appreciated them putting my photo and my essay on display in their establishment because they felt it was worthy—a true confidence booster and feel good moment to remember them by. It wasn’t until a few months later that I was contacted by the Presbyterian Historical Society and asked to be part of a panel. Not only did I not really know what a panel was, I really didn’t know of any ways I could possibly contribute or make a difference. I didn’t know how much more there is to discover and learn through the Presbyterian Historical Society until I became a member of the panel.

Being a non-religious person, I felt that this type of place wasn’t for me and never would be. Boy, I was sorely mistaken.

Along with other Community College of Philadelphia student panelists, PHS employees and video and tech support, we are creating an exhibition for the society that will showcase all the wonderful resources that are available within. So far, we have gone on tours of museums in Philadelphia, spoken with seasoned researchers and exhibit designers, had important discussions about our exhibit project and how we each want to express ourselves, as well as us getting to know each other and becoming acquainted or reacquainted with PHS and its historical glory. Being a part of this panel so far has shown me several things that I wanted to share.

The first thing I learned is something I already knew but somehow always lose sight of: Don’t judge a book by its cover. I went to PHS to do my research, and because it had the word “Presbyterian” attached, I automatically assumed it would be a super religious place with very little room for varying opinions and perspectives. I was absolutely wrong. PHS isn’t a place of worship or a place that tries to convince you to join any religious sect or believe anything pertaining to religion. PHS is a place of archives and history. It houses documents, clothing, books, films, and even some really cool moderators’ gavels that give crucial insights into the role religion played in many different areas. I discovered from PHS a lot of valuable information about prominent ministers within the Baptist church, which is what I grew up in.

Maya Holman, right, with others from student exhibit panel group, August 2019.

Something else I have learned is the incredible power of research. When I wrote my essay for my Religious Studies course, it was the first time I utilized an historical society for research purposes. Before PHS, I would always use my trusty internet connection and second-hand sources. Being at PHS and getting to hold an actual book written in the 1800s is an experience I won’t soon forget. The power in knowing that you’re getting the exact words as the person who wrote them is an awesome feeling.

PHS isn’t a place of worship or a place that tries to convince you to join any religious sect or believe anything pertaining to religion. PHS is a place of archives and history.

I think the biggest lesson I learned so far from this experience is the power of exhibits and how they are communicated to their audience. I grew up going to museums and not really being about to question how the exhibit was set up or disagree if I didn’t really connect with the exhibition. I grew up believing that I had to like an exhibit because it was professionally done and probably cost a ton of money to erect. I didn’t realize until my adult years, and being a part of the student exhibit panel, that I can go into a museum and not just look at the content but look deeply at how the content is displayed--the motivation behind it, visualization, and what audience they were trying to appeal to. It opened my eyes to a lot of things, and I won’t be looking at exhibits the same way anymore. I won’t be looking at a lot of things the same way anymore, all because Professor Presjnar saw potential in my stubbornness and my need to inquire about anything I disagreed with. He saw a potential panelist, and I now have the pleasure and the honor to be one through PHS. I look forward to displaying an exhibition this summer that is the product of my new insights.

--Maya Holman is a student at the Community College of Philadelphia and a Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers Student Exhibit Panelist.