Undergraduate Student Spotlight: Richard "Elliot" Martin

November 16, 2020


Richard "Elliot" Martin is a history major with a creative writing minor at VCU. Elliot is the recipient of an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) fellowship in which he is researching the use of music to combat trauma in Civil War soldiers. He is working with history professor Sarah Meacham as his mentor. Professor Meacham praises Elliot's beautiful narrative history writing, and states, "once he has a person to write about, he's an unstoppable sleuth." Sianna Westley, a junior in VCUarts and student worker for the Department of History, reached out to Elliot to ask him about his UROP fellowship and the challenges of being a student and doing research during a pandemic.


When and how did you get involved with UROP?
I am a transfer adult student, and in my first semester (Fall 2019), a friend/fellow student recognized my writing ability and referred me to Herb Hill (Director of Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry). I had been wanting to do a Civil War related project for a while, and was looking for an opportunity to do it. My faculty mentor was very complimentary of my writing style and agreed to do the project with me.

Any recommendations for other interested students in the fellowship?
Find a mentor that knows your capabilities and work ethic, preferably a professor who teaches a class you have taken. Most of them are willing to at least discuss the project with you, but don’t get discouraged if one or more of them decline because of time constraints. A fellowship can take a significant amount of time and work. Also, don’t let it distract you from your academics. The best time to do a fellowship is over the summer, or some other period when you can afford to make it your focus, because it may have to go on the back burner when the next semester starts. But you’ve got time!

What is the content of your research?
I’m investigating Civil War-era music and its use as a form of trauma relief. Thus far, I’ve read several books on the subject and a wide slew of primary sources, such as letters, newspaper articles and performance advertisements, diaries, correspondence, sheet music, musical instruments, regimental band registries, and published songbooks for songs of all genres, obscure and well-known. I’ve utilized the Virginia Historical Society’s research library, and were it not for COVID-19 I would have used similar facilities at local National Parks and museums. Early on I reached out to and corresponded with several Richmond area historians and they have proven exceptionally helpful. In fact, they provided me with soldiers’ letters and other primary sources. The music of the period was an effective source of relief for soldiers and they wrote about it often.

When did you become interested in the Civil War?
I really can’t put a date on it, but I’ve been interested since I was a kid, about 1st or 2nd grade. I have vague memories of reading picture books for children in elementary school. Later on I saw the PBS documentary series The Civil War by Ken Burns, and that was what really kickstarted my passion for it.

What it has been like working with Professor Meacham and what historical research skills have you learned?
Dr. Meacham has read what I have written so far, and provided feedback for it. Over the summer she referred me to some of the sources I have used, as well as given me a better sense of what my final paper should consist of. The plan is to make it approximately twenty pages. Dr Meacham agreed to meet with me on Zoom frequently, and sent me some options for publication once the paper is complete. She also provided me with examples of historiography and how to approach the project from an analytical point of view.

How has schooling been since COVID?
It’s harder to connect with other students and instructors. My grades last semester did not suffer from the virus, but it can be a challenge to find time to set aside for a particular class if there is little to no face to face interaction. Early in this semester I had an on-campus class which ended at 3:15, followed by an online class at 4pm. This meant I would either have to find a wifi hotspot that was relatively secluded, or drive home, which at first was twenty minutes away. It can be hard to resolve conflicts such as this.

What are your plans for after graduation?
The plan right now is to do an internship this spring with VCU’s literary magazine Plain China, and then seek another internship over the summer with one of the several museums and facilities in Richmond. I will probably graduate in the summer, and intend to assess my options at that time. I’m researching graduate school and hoping to write freelance material at some point. Hopefully after graduation I will be able to find a position somewhere in town, preferably with a Civil War-related museum or site. Then, after a gap year or so, grad school.