Teaching History, Empathy, and Understanding through Oral History
By Erin Conlin & Christine Baker
In many Americans’ minds, the Middle East is inextricably linked to terrorism and upheaval. We often hear horror stories in the news about violence, chaos, and general turmoil. Most of us are far removed from the situation. Hearing only the negative news easily breeds fear and suspicion of people who appear to be very “different” from “us.” This raises an important question for historians. What can we do to teach content and help students overcome feelings distrust or antipathy so they better understand the world today? As educators and historians we should develop activities that build knowledge, understanding, and empathy.
Dr. Christine Baker undertakes this challenge every semester. As the Middle Eastern historian at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), Dr. Baker teaches a variety of courses that cover different periods and people within the Middle East. This past spring semester (2016), she taught a Modern Middle East class. Most students enrolled in the class had limited knowledge of the region or its people (past or present). IUP draws largely on students from Western Pennsylvania. Most live in small towns with relatively homogenous populations, and few students have interacted with anyone from the Middle East.
Dr. Baker uses a variety of teaching and historical methodologies to engage her students. She approached me about incorporating an oral history component since I am the department’s oral history specialist and coordinator for the IUP Oral History Program. Dr. Baker and discussed the logistics and goals of the class, starting with the goals of the project and identifying how many interviews she hoped to have her students conduct. She identified potential intervieews by networking with Middle Eastern students she knew from previous classes and she asked both IUP’s International Office and the Muslim Student Association to email students to request participants.
For this blog post, I asked Dr. Baker to reflect various aspects of on the experience. (She was traveling at the time so we communicated in writing rather than doing an oral interview.) We selected a few segments to illustrate how oral history can be incorporated into a traditional content-driven history course and highlight the different purposes it serves and opportunities it provides.
Why did you want to do an oral history project with your students? What were your goals?
I had a few goals in mind with this oral history project. First and foremost, I wanted to teach my students about historical sources and how they’re ‘made’. I thought that this oral history project would achieve this because they’d be able to see how they were creating historical sources; by interviewing students from a minority (and sometimes maligned) community on campus, they had the opportunity to go beyond traditional media/scholarly sources about the Middle East or Muslims in America and
create something that future historians may be able to use. In doing this, I encouraged them to think about what kinds of sources are traditionally available to historians and the ways that some people and groups are often ‘left out’ of those sources. In addition, I wanted them to compare what they had learned about the Middle East from scholarly and media sources that with the way that people from the region would talk about what was going on.
Dr. Baker then elaborated on the need to teach undergraduate students to “consider the nature of expertise and the need to interpret evidence.” Part of this process entailed evaluating an interviewees’ testimony and determining what elements were fact-based and which were opinions. She noted with the 2016 election around the corner, this is a valuable skill for students and general citizens alike. If we can teach students how to do this in a structured class setting, they will eventually learn how to apply it to other facets of life.
In addition to teaching students useful analytical skills, the project would also
humanize “the Middle East,” by giving students studying the history of the region an opportunity to interact with someone from the area. Dr. Baker noted, “Especially with the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric in the US right now, I thought it was important to have them actually meet Muslims and people from the Middle East to learn that they are also multifaceted real people, not some kind of caricature.” It’s worth noting recent studies have found that simply interacting on a personal level with someone of another race or ethnicity is most effective at combating negative stereotypes or attitudes. Providing students with opportunities to interact with different people on a personal level is one of the most valuable tools we have as oral historians.
I know we discussed possible issues of “tokenism” and concerns over making an interviewee feel like what they said represented everyone in their racial, ethnic, or religious group. What did you do with your students to help mitigate this issue?
I will admit, this was difficult and I am not entirely sure that I managed to really ‘solve’ this issue. I emphasized to my own students that their interviewees represented only one opinion on issues in the Middle East – and not necessarily a more informed opinion than they would find in the news or more scholarly sources. I talked to my students about their own knowledge of US politics and international relations and, of course, there was a spectrum of knowledge and interest – some of my students knew lots about politics and some knew nearly nothing. I reminded them that they were interviewing fellow IUP students – and that, just like we don’t expect other American students to be experts in US politics and policy, the Middle Eastern students they were interviewing would not necessarily be ‘experts’ on issues related to Middle East. I encouraged them to think of their interviewees as providing a ‘snapshot’ – just one person’s view of the region.
I also worked with my students to create an Interview Guide with them. We brainstormed questions as a class and discussed problematic questions (such as asking them to ‘explain’ regional conflicts). I emphasized that they were getting to know these students as individuals.
With the interviewees, I emphasized that students would be interviewing them as individuals, not as representatives for the region. Although I suspect that this was not wholly successful and they still felt the need to ‘explain’ their entire region, race, religion. But I think that this is more of an issue of being Muslim in the US right now, and less an issue about this particular assignment.
Students’ reactions to the activity varied, but most found it interesting and illuminating. As Dr. Baker noted, in some cases interacting one-on-one with a Muslim forced the interviewee to confront their own pre-existing views about Muslims. In particular they saw that Muslims, like people of any religious faith, vary in their level of devotion. Additionally, students often seemed to have an image of all Muslim students as defined nearly exclusively by their religion (and the most stringent rules of their religion), so it was eye-opening for them to see the diversity.
Some students actually became friends with their interviewees, which Dr. Baker considered to be another great benefit of the project. As she noted, international students can often feel kind of isolated on campus. She hoped bringing students together could help put different groups in contact with one another. For that reason, she also hosted a party at her house at the end of the semester for both the students in her class and their interviewees to thank the Middle Eastern students for participating (and, in part, to facilitate the development of relationships between the groups). Community-based oral history projects strive to foster a sense of community and to serve the interests of both the oral historians and the participants. Providing avenues for engagement outside the interview facilitates these goals.
We worked with students and their participants to determine the best course of action regarding their interviews and transcripts. Most participants agreed to have their interviews and transcripts archived and made available to the public. Since one of the goals of the course was to teach students about creating and interpreting sources, I concluded the interview by looking to the future and how the sources may be used.
How do you think future students could use the archived interviews?
I am hoping to do a longer-term project related to this – I hope to have future classes of students continue working on oral history projects with students from the Middle East. I think that, especially considering the rhetoric around Muslims in the US right now, it could provide an interesting snapshot of Muslim views of the US and American politics. I have also considered assigning the archived interviews as a source for future classes when they are researching conflicts in the Middle East and how Muslims react to them.
I also know that other faculty are considering using the interviews as a source – in Fall 2016, a sociology prof at IUP will be teaching a class on “Islam in the US” and may use the interviews as part of a larger assignment.
I am also hoping that they’ll be used by future students and historians who are interested in social life at IUP. I think that, in archives like this, it’s easy to focus on majority communities on campus and international students often get left out of them. So I hope that adding more interviews by international students will give a fuller picture of life at IUP.
Dr. Baker’s project illustrates how instructors can incorporate oral history in a more traditional content-driven course. It is an excellent tool for understanding and evaluating historical sources. It also provides students the opportunity to move beyond talking about how sources are created, to engaging in the actual process of making an historical source. Additionally, oral history projects can help humanize subjects, which makes it easier to apply classroom content knowledge to the real world. Students engaged in these types of projects may not be expert oral historians, and there may be some issues with the quality of the interview as a historical source. Nevertheless, the experiences students’ gain can help them to become more knowledgeable and thoughtful. The value of a liberal arts education resides in teaching students how to understand and interpret the world around them. Hopefully equipped with greater insight and empathy, our students will become aware and informed citizens and leaders.