Headshot of Connor S. Kenaston, a scholar of U.S. history. Photograph by Shane Lin.

Dr. Connor S. Kenaston is the Assistant Professor of History and Ainsworth Scholar in American Culture at Randolph College. His teaching and scholarship examine the social and cultural history of the United States and the Atlantic World. He also has expertise in public humanities and critical pedagogy. Connor received his PhD from the University of Virginia in 2022. His current project, “The Big Three: Commercial Radio Networks and the Making of Tri-Faith America,” examines the history of religion and radio in the American century. His article, “Step by Step: American Interracialism and the Origins of Talk-First Activism,” was recently published in Modern American History.

Below you will find a collection of Connor’s past blog posts. You can also use the navigation bar to learn more about Connor, his research, and his pedagogy.

Meet Dr. Kenaston!

Photograph of Connor S. Kenaston, a scholar of U.S. history, with his parents, Joe and Judi Kenaston, after his dissertation defense. Photograph by Maria Niechwiadowicz.

This spring, I successfully defended my dissertation and graduated from the University of Virginia with my PhD. I’m now Dr. Connor S. Kenaston!! I also accepted a job at Randolph College where I’ll be the Ainsworth Visiting Assistant Professor of American Culture. More on that later! For now, I want to publicly thank those who helped me get to this point:

Dissertation Acknowledgements

I wrote this dissertation with the advice, support, friendship, and love of so many people. Those mentioned below are just the beginning. I have inevitably omitted many folks who should be included. Thankfully, they’re good people so I’m confident they’ll forgive my oversight. As with the rest of this dissertation, all mistakes are my own.

I want to begin by thanking my advisor, Grace Hale. Grace exemplifies what it means to be an excellent teacher and scholar. Through countless conversations and line-edited drafts, she challenged me to refine my ideas and write more clearly. She paired these high expectations with an endless stream of kindness, encouragement, and laughter. Grace showed me with her words and deeds that she cared about me as both a scholar and a person. I am truly grateful to have had her as an advisor these past six years. I also want to thank Claudrena Harold, Matthew Hedstrom, Kathryn Lofton, and Sarah Milov. I have learned from each of these brilliant scholars over the years, and it was an honor to have them serve on my dissertation committee. They gave me smart and generous feedback, and I know that the next iteration of this project will be all the better for it.

This dissertation was financially supported by the American Historical Association, American Jewish Historical Society, American Society of Church History, Friends of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Presbyterian Historical Society, Renate Voris Fellowship Foundation, and Rockefeller Archive Center. I also received support from several UVA institutions including the Americas Center / Centro de las Américas, Department of History, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Scholars’ Lab, and Society of Fellows. Thank you to these organizations for making my research possible.

Several colleagues provided me with essential feedback on my work. Monica Blair, Allison Kelley, Kevin Rose, and Gillet Rosenblith were absolutely integral to this project. I greatly benefitted from their friendship and wisdom. Friends from the history department who provided me with helpful feedback include Cleo Boyd, Jon Cohen, Crystal Luo, Olivia Paschal, and Joey Thompson. Brittany Acors, Bradley Kime, Melanie Pace, Maxwell Pingeon, and other members of the Virginia Colloquium of American Religion also gave me helpful advice at various stages of this project; special thanks to Isaac May for essential and timely feedback on two of my chapters. I benefitted tremendously from participating in an interdisciplinary writing group with Sarah Winstein-Hibbs, Erin Jordan, and Kelvin Parnell. Their keen insights helped me to think broadly about my topic and provided me the structure I needed during a pivotal stage of my writing. I also received helpful feedback from participants at conferences including the U.S. Religious Studies and New Histories of Capitalism conference and the annual meetings of the American Studies Association, Organization of American Historians, and American Society of Church History.

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to discuss my scholarship with David Catchpole, Eden Consenstein, Kati Curts, Philip Goff, Lerone Martin, Bethany Moreton, Suzanne Smith, and David Walker. I am grateful for my undergraduate faculty mentors, Crystal Feimster and Glenda Gilmore, who taught me that I belonged at Yale and encouraged me to embark on this graduate school journey. Thanks to Kathleen Miller, Pamela Pack, Kelly Robeson, and Jennifer Via for the work they have done to make the History department run smoothly. Thanks also to Brian Balogh, Fahad Bishara, Kevin Gaines, Jack Hamilton, James Loeffler, Andrew Kahrl, Kyrill Kunakhovich, Kai Parker, Heather Warren, and Penny Von Eschen for their support. Thanks as well to the many archivists, librarians, and others who helped me find the materials I needed. Special thanks to Michelle Levy, Mary Pratt, Brandon Butler, and Susan Ferland.

I also want to thank the family and friends who hosted me during my travels. Bob Boyce and Tom Cytron-Hysom made me feel like one of the family during my time in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Staying with Gavan Gideon for a few days when he was back in Minnesota also warmed my soul during frigid January days. Krisha Desai graciously let me use her apartment while in Philadelphia. Though they knew me only as a “friend of a friend,” Robert and Sarah Emerson agreed to host me for several weeks in Madison, Wisconsin, and we became fast friends! Fiona Vella, Chelsea Spyres, and Ryan Palmer hosted me and provided me with transportation for various mid-Atlantic archival trips. Daniel Gordan, Lea Winter, and Rachel Kenaston hosted me during trips to New York City while my uncles, Tom Kenaston and James Adolf, treated me to several laughter-filled meals. Willis Jenkins and Rebekah Menning generously allowed me to use their cabin for writing retreats. I’d also like to thank my digital and public humanities communities for helping me to imagine and live into a new, kinder academy. Special thanks to my Praxis Fellowship friends Janet Dunkelbarger, Natasha Roth-Rowland, Lauren Van Next, and Chloe Downe Wells. I am exceedingly grateful to have had Brandon Walsh as a mentor and friend for the last few years. I am also thankful for other staff at the Scholars’ Lab, especially Jeremy Boggs, Ronda Grizzle, Shane Lin, Drew Macqueen, Laura Miller, Ammon Shepherd, and Amanda Visconti. I have appreciated the opportunity to work this past year with the brilliant staff at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center including Andrea Douglas, Sherry Bryant, Leslie M. Scott-Jones, and Jordy Yager.

I also need to say a big thank you to my union, United Campus Workers Virginia. UCWVA gave me dignity and purpose during my last few years in graduate school. I’d especially like to thank Gary Broderick and my fellow workers on the statewide UCWVA steering committee: Evan Brown, Crystal Luo, Rosa Hamilton, Ida Hoequist, Kelsey Huelsman, Matthew Conover, Cecelia Parks, Jon Rajkovich, Stephen Marrone, Rose Szabo, Kristin Reed, Waleed Sami, and Mark Wood. Thanks as well to Jess, Carmen, Laura, and Daniel. Solidarity forever!

Loved ones affiliated with the Charis community nourished my soul when I needed it most: Anna Markowitz, Eric Martin, Lindsey, Jordan, Ruby, and Hazel Leahy, Lindsay and Brittany Caine-Conley, Grace Aheron, Rowan Hollins, Claire Hitchins, Julio Quispe, Rebekah Menning, Willis Jenkins, Karl-Jon Sparrman, Martha Morris, Owen Brennan, Christine Hitchins, Laura and Steve Brown, Mark Heisey, and Leah Ruth. The UVA Wesley Foundation positively shaped my experience in Charlottesville. Special thanks to Deborah Lewis, Woody Sherman, Sheila Rush, Justice Eliz, Madi Alvis, Asa and Lauren Nichols, Claire Corkish, and Mary Elder. I also want to thank the wonderful community at Trinity Episcopal Church. I especially want to express my appreciation for Jim and Cathy Loman, Cass and Tish Bailey and family, Leila Brown, Leah Puryear, Barbara Yager, Bethany Gordon, Melissa Moore, Colleen Fennessey, Mark Bell, John Edwin Mason, Patricia Jones-Turner, the Fadils, Ikefunas, Duncans, Stoltzes, Kevin and Jackie Rose, Kristen and Joe Szakos, Elizabeth Cobb, Blair Wilner, Abby and Kyle Nicholas, Helen Plaisance, and Cleve Packer. Thanks as well to Neal Halvorson-Taylor, Maria Chavalan Sut, and Isaac Collins.

Chelsea Spyres, Fiona Vella, Mike DiScala, and Dan Gordan never failed to check in on me and to raise my spirits. Kaitlin Scott filled our home with joie de vivre in the midst of a depressing pandemic. Matthew Paysour and Alli Burks gave us needed laughter, songs, and puppy playtime. Hikes and gatherings with our quarantine family, Matt and Jenny Kragie, have truly been a source of deep joy and love. Good times with Earl, Lee, and Fernanda Vallery and Fran Rinaldo helped fill both hearts and bellies. Other supportive friends from Bowerbird Bakeshop include Mariah Wesley, Kevin Simmons, Drew Reynolds, and the Cincinnatis. I am grateful for the friendship of UVA history graduate students including Isabel Bielat, Clayton Butler, Daniele Celano, Vivien Chang, Malcolm Cammeron, Ari Cohen, Erik Erlandson, Amy Fedeski, Jack Furniss, Alice King, Shira Lurie, Josh Morrison, Brian Neumann, Laura Ornée, Abeer Saha, Jacqui Sahagian, Nicole Schroeder, Daniel Sunshine, Christopher Whitehead, Justin Winokur, and Kevin Woram. I have appreciated those that have cheered me on from a distance such as Lucas, Owen, and Elisa Endicott, David, Emily, Mark, and Amy Sinclair, Tiffania Willets, Jun Luke Foster, Josh Rubin, Chris Zheng, Jeff Zhang, Adam Sperber, F. Willis and Kristina Johnson, Marcharkelti McKenzie, the Smoots, Ceewin Louder, Katy Wrona, Sarah Roemer, Gretchen Brown, J.F. Lacaria, Julia Hosch, Jarred Phillips, Julie Qiu, Emmalee Fishburn, Zane and Maggie Foster, Eduardo Bousson, Tara and David Hartsfield, Brandon, Katherine, Billy, Diane, and Jamamaw Collins, Kathy and Malcolm Chaney, Susan March, Sarah Cato, Betsy and Alex Canterbury, Ira Slomski-Pritz, Shuaib Raza, Andre Morales, Matt and Lori Brooks, the Bickertons, Groves, Lyghts, Cramers, Claire Daviss, Clare Kane, Nicole Ivey, Zaina Zayyad, Tiffany Bell, Barbara Lutz, the Smiths, Krimmels, Schmidts, Seeleys, Scotts, and so many more wonderful people.

During my second year of graduate school, I gained an entirely new set of family members! My in-laws were loving and supportive throughout this long PhD process. Special thanks to Joe Niechwiadowicz, Kristi and Mark Reierson, Kaitlyn and Mark Niechwiadowicz, and Peter Niechwiadowicz. Thanks as well to Tom and Kathrine Schnabel, Kelli and Zach Robinson, Katie and Nich Pape, Michelle Niechwiadowicz, and Lou Tendeiro. Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention my love and appreciation for a host of other Sortebergs, Eidnesses, Kulzers, Merkleys, and Niechwiadowiczes.

I am forever grateful to be so deeply loved by my parents, Joe and Judi Kenaston, and my sisters, Rachel and Diane Kenaston, since my first breath. They have been unbelievably supportive throughout this process and even pitched in as last-minute proof-readers! I am also incredibly thankful to love and be loved by my brother-in-law Adam and three-year-old nephew Isaac. Adam has been a fountain of wisdom for navigating academia while Isaac has been an essential source of delight and giggles in the midst of a sometimes-grueling process. I have always felt loved and supported by my Nana and Grandaddy, Karen Kenaston, Skip French, Tom Kenaston, James Adolf, Barbara, Gary, and Carol Good, Nate and Laura Kennedy, Shauna and Josh Riggs, Chris, Joan, and Robert Prasse, Jane Modlin, Andrew Potter, Joanne Farley, Patricia Ployd, Bob and Jill Modlin, and so many other Modlins! I also want to thank those who have gone before, especially Glenn and Sally Kenaston, Trey Prasse, and John Farley. Finally, the last few months of completing the dissertation was lightened by the newest—and furriest—member of our family, Franklin. Franklin’s dogged persistence that there was more to life than my computer was a life-lesson that I needed and will continue to try to live.

Most of all, I want to thank Maria Niechwiadowicz. Even when times are hard, life with you is so, so good. You spread community, compassion, and joy wherever you go, and I am eternally grateful to have you as my companion on this adventure. Thank you for all the shared hikes, coffee, meals, conversations, pastries, mysteries, laughs, smiles, jokes, walks, travels, tears, friends, blessings, songs, poems, prayers, sunrises, and sunsets. I could write three more dissertations about how your love and support helped get me to this point. But don’t worry, I won’t! Maria, this dissertation is dedicated to you.

Step by Step

My article, “Step by Step: American Interracialism and the Origins of Talk-First Activism” has just been published in Modern American History!

Why are diversity trainings, dialogues, & social justice book clubs often proposed as first steps to creating an equitable society? “Step by Step” suggests that the answer lies in the history of an idea I call “talk-first activism.”

TLDR; in the first half of 20th century, a nationwide movement tries to fight prejudice by facilitating talk across the color line. In the 1940s-1950s, Black staffers in predominantly white Protestant organizations transform that movement through their insistence that talk must lead to action. Cue unintended consequences…

Because “Step by Step” was published by Modern American History as an open access article, you can read the article without a paid subscription! I’d be happy to discuss Step by Step with your classroom or organization.

Thanks to Sarah Phillips and the MAH team for their excellent editorial assistance, as well as to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful critiques. Special thanks to Monica Blair, Allison Kelley, Gillet Rosenblith, and, most of all, Grace Hale for their generous and insightful feedback. And shoutout to the Smith College Library, the University of Minnesota Library, and the University of Virginia’s department of history for their generous financial support of this project!

With Care and Context

I use images all the time in class. But what about images that could cause harm? Check out my new Hybrid Pedagogy article, “With Care and Context” where I reflect on viewing lynching photographs as an undergraduate and how my thinking about the merits of teaching with such images has evolved over time.

I close my article with a few specific takeaways that I want to include here:

  1. Ask yourself if showing the potentially harmful image is truly necessary. Does presenting such images prioritize the learning experiences of white students over their classmates of color? Are there ways you can convey similar ideas without showing the image?
  2. Reflect on how these images fit with the rest of your course. Are most of your discussions of marginalized groups focused on pain and trauma? If so, consider how you might emphasize narratives or images of resistance, resilience, or joy.
  3. Provide students a chance to opt-out of the in-class viewing. Better yet, due to classroom power dynamics, try framing this as an “opt-in” rather than an “opt-out” experience. Try listing that day as “optional” on the syllabus or consider scheduling a time outside of your regular class session.
  4. Prepare your students beforehand. Provide ample context for what students will be seeing before presenting the images. Again, this context can frame how your students experience these images and help undermine their dehumanizing potential.
  5. Clearly state and contextualize the dehumanizing work that the image is doing. Remind students of the personhood of those being represented in the image.
  6. Maintain a posture of care. Share about your experience viewing the image and acknowledge that the experience of viewing the image will be different for different people. Though it can be harder in larger classes, be sure to check-in with your students before, during, and after the experience. Consider using small groups or “free writes” to provide students a more intimate space to process what they are learning.
  7. Keep working at it. Giving careful consideration to the images you use in class takes time and persistence, but it’s worth it!

Check out the rest of the article and let me know what you think!

I want to say a big thank you to all the people at Hybrid Pedagogy who made the article better, especially Managing Editor Bethany Thomas and reviewers Brandon Morgan and Daniel Lynds. Thanks for making my first time with a “double-open peer review” process a great one! I also want to say thanks to my wonderful friends and colleagues here at UVA who gave me helpful feedback early on in the process: Gillet Rosenblith, Monica Blair, Allison Kelley, and Grace Hale. And finally, a special shoutout for the Scholars’ Lab and especially Brandon Walsh for pointing me toward Hybrid Pedagogy and digital pedagogy in general!

Review of Land and Legacy

Land and Legacy, a digital project I co-created, was recently reviewed in the May edition of Reviews in Digital Humanities.

In their review, Claire. A Tratnyek of Northeastern University made a number of astute observations about the project. I appreciated Tratnyek’s insights and generosity. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“In both form and content, Land and Legacy is an exemplar of collaborative research and the integration of digital and traditional historical methods. As scholars and citizens across the United States continue to uncover and confront the difficult histories of our localities, this kind of project can provide us with new vocabularies for interdisciplinary thinking and integrated storytelling — without sacrificing rigor or eliding uncomfortable questions.”

Reading Tratnyek’s generous review reminded me of how thankful I was to have such incredible project collaborators: Janet S Dunkelbarger, Natasha Roth-Rowland, Lauren Van Nest, and Chloe Down Wells. Working with such wonderful colleagues (and now friends!) definitely makes me want to do more collaborative scholarship in the future. Tratnyek’s review also made me super appreciative of the Scholars’ Lab community at UVA, my time with the Praxis Program, and all the incredible people at UVA and around town who helped us out along the way! You can read more about the specific roles I played on this website’s Projects page.

Finally, I want to note how cool it felt to have Land and Legacy reviewed alongside other great digital projects like “Mapping Marronage,” “GeoNewsMiner,” and “Visualizing Objects, Spaces, and Places.” If you’re not following Reviews in Digital Humanities, you should be!

Praxis in a Pandemic

Crossposted to the Scholars’ Lab blog

Before I begin this mostly self-focused blog post, I want to acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic has affected so many people more than me. My heart goes out to all who are sick, suffering, or have died, and to their friends and families. I want to thank all those responding to the crisis and making sure people’s needs are met. You are appreciated.

I have tried to exercise outside at least once per day the last few weeks. I make sure to stay away from other walkers and runners–many of whom are probably like me and only recently re/discovered how much they love exercising outdoors. Trapped inside while attempting to social-distance makes exercising outside a wonderful breath of fresh air, a brief moment away from the attempt to do remote work amidst the steady stream of anxiety-producing news about the virus.

In the last couple weeks, there have been a number of sidewalk chalk messages along my favorite running route. One of the messages was “be gentle with yourself.” Recently, I have found my mind—and my feet—returning to that piece of advice.

A few weeks ago, our Praxis Team was struggling. The coronavirus pandemic had recently begun escalating rapidly in the United States and institutions like UVa were taking necessary precautions. These changes affected Praxis. We would no longer be able to meet in-person as a team. We would no longer be able to publicly present our findings at an in-person gathering in May. Many of us were struggling to remain focused on remote work. How could we continue doing schoolwork when the world outside seemed to be crumbling? Frankly, what was the point?

Thankfully, our outgoing project manager Chloe recognized how people were feeling. Near the beginning of our first Zoom meeting, Chloe encouraged us to have a short meeting and take the rest of the week off from Praxis. Chloe may not have used the same words as my sidewalk messenger, but she might as well have. Be gentle with yourselves, she seemed to be saying.

The week off was helpful. Though the tragedy and the stress remain present, the shock had at least worn off. When we returned, we needed to figure out how to move forward. What elements of our project did we want to prioritize and what elements should we let go of?

Our first time reconvening after the break was to meet with Barbara Brown Wilson and Alissa Diamond. They are two incredibly smart scholars who have thought a lot about space, Charlottesville, property, and equity. They had agreed to meet with us before the pandemic, and they generously agreed to keep the meeting, now to be held over Zoom. While I was glad they could still meet, I couldn’t help but wonder—how helpful will this meeting be considering our new circumstances? Would it be better to get our own ducks-in-a-row first?

To my surprise, the meeting was exactly what we needed. Our guests gave us some excellent feedback about our project. Alissa Diamond even generously offered to share some of her findings from the UVa Library’s now-closed Special Collections. I was especially appreciative of Barbara Brown Wilson’s words that all good scholars have to constantly adjust the scope of their projects. Narrowing the scope of our project was not a sign of failure. Again, the sidewalk messenger seemed to call out, “be gentle with yourself.”

I am unsure of what the next six weeks will look like. As a Praxis Team, we still want to accomplish a version of what we set out to create. We know our project likely won’t look the same as what we dreamed of creating a few months ago. But we are resolved to be ok with that. As the first bullet point in the Charter we created last fall reminds us, we value “process over outcome.”

Even though yesterday’s rain washed away the chalk, I want to continue returning to my sidewalk message. In this time of tragedy, we could all use with the reminder to be gentle with ourselves and each other.