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Three Eastern Faculty Researchers Featured in TV Documentaries

Published on December 29, 2015

Three Eastern Faculty Researchers Featured in TV Documentaries

Three assistant professors at Eastern Connecticut State University had an unusual fall 2015 semester. Because of their academic expertise and research activities — and a little bit of luck — they were pursued by nationally televised documentary programs. Environmental Earth Science Professor Bryan Oakley recently appeared on “Xploration Awesome Planet”; Anthropology Professor Sarah Baires will appear on the Smithsonian Channel’s new series “Ancient Mysteries”; and History Professor Thomas Balcerski will appear on “Lectures in History,” a C-SPAN series.

Bryan Oakley recording the profile (position and elevation) of the beach at Napatree Point, RI, during the filming of “Xploration Awesome Planet” in October 2015. Photo credit: Janice Sassi, Watch Hill Conservancy.

Professor Oakley, an environmental geoscientist, appeared on “Xploration Awesome Planet,” a television program hosted by Philippe Cousteau, grandson of famed explorer Jacques Cousteau. Producers of the program sought out Oakley because of his expertise in shoreline change along Napatree Point, RI — an undeveloped extension of beach that responds uninhibitedly to coastal weather.

Since 2013, following the crushing swells of Super Storm Sandy, Oakley has been monitoring the migrating landform that is Napatree. “We go out four times a year and before and after big storms,” he said. With the help of Eastern students, Oakley measures the position of the shoreline via handheld GPS. “We do that to track changes season to season and over the long-term.”

Since Napatree is one of the few undeveloped regions along the New England coastline, “we can study processes in a fairly natural sense,” said Oakley. Landforms such as Napatree (also known as “barriers”) “are formed by wind, waves and tides, so those same processes then impact them.” The intense conditions brought on by storms particularly impact barriers — the shape of the shore, the width the beach, the height of the dunes and other features.

During the October filming at Napatree, the approaching Hurricane Joaquin battered the Northeast. Cameras and microphones were pointed at Oakley and Cousteau as rain poured down and wind gusted. “It was a bit surreal,” said Oakley. “I was wearing a dry suit, getting smashed by waves, trying not to fall down and look silly, all while having to maintain this dialogue with the host.”

Because of development along shorelines worldwide, it is important to understand how they are impacted by geological and climactic processes. “Most coastlines around the world are receding,” said Oakley. “These are migrating landforms we try to fix in place by putting in roads and houses and buildings.” The strip of undeveloped shoreline in Rhode Island that Oakley is studying provides valuable insights of coastal change.

While the impact of Joaquin was minimal on Napatree — “a blip on the radar,” as Oakley put it — “it probably made for some dramatic footage.”

This episode of “Xploration Awesome Planet” aired on Fox-affiliated stations in December, and can be seen at,p20,d0.

Sarah Baires (left) working at a site three years ago (as a PhD student) near Cahokia. The site (Collins Site) can be thought of as a suburb of Cahokia. She and her then-classmate were studying the site to determine the size of the Native American dwelling that once stood there.

Professor Baires, an anthropologist, will appear in “Ancient Mysteries,” a brand-new documentary series on the Smithsonian Channel. She was sought out because of her knowledge of historic Cahokia, the largest indigenous city in North America north of Mexico. Located in southern Illinois, the short-lived metropolis (dating from 1050–1400 A.D.) is relatively unknown by the masses, despite containing approximately 120 earthen mounds, some of which are among the largest in the world. The emergence of Cahokia perplexes scholars to this day.

“People don’t hear about Cahokia partly because of the erasure of native history through the colonial process,” said Baires. “A lot of the mounds were destroyed in the 1800s from farming and construction; people would bulldoze the area without thinking about it.”

Baires has been researching Cahokia since 2007, participating in archaeological digs and using ground-penetrating radar to create maps of the city’s unexcavated features. Among the peculiarities surrounding Cahokia is the fact that it was built within a floodplain — a seeming disadvantage from an urban development standpoint. Yet approximately 20,000 people migrated to the area and immediately began constructing mounds and other raised earthen features.

“There has to be something more to this location than just fertile farmland,” argues Baires. “It really is an anomaly, there is no other place like this in North America, except for Mexico. At the moment, Cahokia is this behemoth, and it literally comes out of nowhere.”

Furthermore, all predominate features of Cahokia, from the mounds to the city’s main causeway, are organized exactly five degrees off north, which happens to align with a “lunar standstill.” Imagery from unearthed artifacts, like pottery, show a lunar connection as well.

Researchers speculate that many of the mounds served as religious and burial centers. “I would argue that they built the city in reference to the moon, their ancestors in the mounds, and to fertility and agriculture,” said Baires.

This episode of “Ancient Mysteries” will air sometime in 2016.

Thomas Balcerski addressing his class during the C-SPAN filming of “Lectures in History” in Webb Hall at the Eastern campus.

Professor Balcerski, a historian, will appear on the C-SPAN program “Lectures in History.” C-SPAN came to Eastern in November to film Balcerski delivering a lecture in front of one of his introductory U.S. history classes, titled “Political Culture of Antebellum Congress.”

The lecture focused on three aspects of the political culture of pre-Civil War America: “tobacco culture,” “political friendships” and “affairs of honor.”

The segment on tobacco culture is how C-SPAN found out about Balcerski in the first place. Last year, he presented a paper on the topic at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting. The paper was titled “‘That Body Destroying, Heartbreaking, Dangerous, Desolating Habit’: Tobacco Usage in the Antebellum Congress.” C-SPAN contacted him shortly after.

“Frankly, it was just a bunch of lucky things that happened to me,” said Balcerski, reflecting on the interest C-SPAN took in his paper. Balcerski researched the topic as part of his dissertation, and noticed that a shared taste for tobacco in the Antebellum period (1815–1861) facilitated interactions between opposing politicians.

The segment on political friendships described the fraternization of politicians outside of the workplace, suggesting that big political decisions were made after hours at parties and boardinghouses — often over cigars. Lastly, the topic of “affairs of honor” described the tendency for “elite” men to duel in order to resolve disputes.

“Through an investigation of Antebellum political culture, those three patterns emerge,” said Balcerski. Though this era is nearly 200 years in the past, its legacies carry on. “This stuff doesn’t die, it changes,” he continued. “The idea that you can lodge political power through your domestic arrangement, that’s not dead. The idea that men and politicians drink together, that’s not dead. As far as challenging to a duel, while the actual affairs of honor are no more, the discourse about honor still persists in politics.”

This episode of “Lectures in History” is expected to air in early 2016.

Speaking to the importance of faculty research, Eastern President Elsa Núñez said, “The strength of a University’s faculty is in balancing the experience and insight of senior faculty with the innovation and enthusiasm exhibited by newer faculty members. I am delighted to see a number of our junior faculty establishing themselves as successful scholars in their chosen disciplines.

“Professors Oakley, Baires and Balcerski, as well as other junior faculty, are making names for themselves on the national stage while bringing recognition and honor to Eastern,” continued Núñez. “Our students benefit from their research, the campus is invigorated by their dedication to their work, and they lay the foundation for their own future success as members of the Eastern faculty.”

Written by Michael Rouleau