Oral History & Folklife Research, Inc.
My first introduction to oral history was in the form of a 2001 radio story that aired on This American Life. (I feel like a lot of oral historians’ origin story begins this way.) Reporter Carl Marziali was telling the story of David Boder, a psychologist who escaped the Russian Civil War and came to the United States in 1919. Boder returned to Europe in 1945 to record the first Holocaust testimonies, over a decade before we called the Holocaust the Holocaust. Terms such as “death march” don’t appear in any of the 109 interviews recorded in a dozen different languages. Names like Josef Mengele are mispronounced as “Wengele” in the recordings. These interviews are so different from later Holocaust testimonies and memoirs that have been shaped by time and other survivor’s accounts.
At the time I heard this radio show, I thought I wanted to do for a living what Carl Marziali was doing – produce radio documentaries. I didn’t know that I would also end up doing what David Boder did – recording life stories. I went on study at the Salt Institute in Portland, Maine. Here I learned how to produce radio documentaries – podcasts. My education at Salt, much more than my graduate work in library and archives management, has informed my approach to doing oral history. At Salt, we were taught how to be professional sound engineers, but also how to capture “felt life” from narrators, meaning the closest understanding of another person’s life experience. I became embedded in a story for four months documenting the experience of two men who claim to be abducted by aliens in Maine’s Allagash Wilderness. And my approach to interviewing Jack and Charlie has been the same for everyone I have interviewed since – veterans, activists, immigrants. This is their version of their life. I am the midwife to their life story. I am there to guide it out and record it well.
Salt changed the trajectory of my life, helped shape my career and made me a good oral historian. I have since urged every oral historian, colleague, and stranger on the street to attend this program or the Transom Storytelling workshops. Because of Salt I get good tape and good content. This has been my big push in the field of oral history – the quality of the recording is as important as the information contained within it. Poor sound quality precludes access and use. Oral historians need to adopt the standards of public radio – good equipment, mic placement, soundchecks, soft space, and NO extraneous interviewer noises (mm-hmm, yeah, etc.). Interviews are easier to transcribe, excerpt, and share if recorded well. It honors the story of the person you are interviewing if recorded warmly, closely and crisply. It’s embarrassing to turn over a recording that sounds like it was recorded under the sea, in a wind tunnel or with an adult from the Peanuts cartoon. And it’s so avoidable. As much attention should be paid to the questions we are asking and the content we are creating as to the medium we record these memories and stories on.
Podcasts have become a popular way for oral historians to feature their stories, share bite-sized portions of their work. There’s been a lot of buzz about this topic in our field. Lots of oral history institutions are getting into podcasting – talking about and featuring their material. It’s a great opportunity to have the content reach broader and more diverse audiences. It gives our collections longer lives and a wider geographic and demographic scope. Our interviews become more flexible and versatile if shared in this way. It’s also a great way to get reacquainted with your collection and the stories in it. But if oral historians are not trained properly in sound recording techniques, podcast pieces won’t be a successful way to highlight our important work.
Check out the OHR’s New Blog Post:
In this week’s post, Rosemarie Esber discusses how oral history has served a vital role in preserving Palestinian voices during the post-1948 period. Here she recounts some of her experiences interviewing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Welcome back to our blog series!
Our OHA blogger this week is Jason Higgins, who says that he was “drawn to oral history by my appreciation for story-telling and the shared experiences that form what we call the human condition. Oral history speaks to my natural curiosity in the stories and memories of ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times.” With a background in both English and History, he states that “oral history allows me to transcend intellectual and disciplinary boundaries. Oral history provides innovative methods to explore the past in search of ways to make meaningful change today.” Jason indeed seeks to make meaningful change through his Incarcerated Veterans History Project, which he is sharing with us today. We encourage you to reach out to Jason via email or any of the social media he has provided.
Jason’s Background: I earned a bachelor’s in English and history from University of Arkansas at Monticello in 2013. Since 2012, I have documented the experiences of over forty veterans of war from WWII to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As an intern for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program in 2014, I interviewed over thirty veterans as part of the Spotlighting Oklahoma Oral History Project. I earned a Master of Arts in English from Oklahoma State University and wrote my master’s thesis on Vietnam veteran autobiographies, trauma, and suicide.
Currently, I study history under Christian Appy and work with Samuel Redman in the UMass Oral History Lab. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I focus on the social history of modern war and collective trauma.
Incarcerated Veterans Oral History Project
I am launching an Incarcerated Veterans Oral History Project, working with the support of the UMass Oral History Lab, Samuel Redman, and Christian Appy. My project seeks to document the experiences of incarcerated veterans from the Vietnam War to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have recently begun the process of reaching out to communities to locate and contact combat veterans imprisoned after their service. I hope this blog will help me extend an invitation to veterans who might be willing to share their experiences in the military and the criminal justice system. Please contact me if you have ideas that may help me pursue these goals.
This project investigates the relationship between war-related trauma and the difficulties of post-war readjustment. To connect mass incarceration to the Vietnam War, my research examines the ways in which trauma, disability, institutional racism, and the disparities in the criminal justice system contributed to the imprisonment rates of hundreds of thousands of veterans. Compounded by inaccessibility to disability benefits and resources, counseling, and legal representation, many of the most vulnerable Vietnam veterans experienced a crisis of post-war readjustment in a decade of rising unemployment rates and little opportunity.
Historians have customarily overlooked the post-war lives of veterans, and none have adequately sought to preserve the experiences of imprisoned veterans. The Department of Justice reported 73,000 veterans in prison in 1978, an alarming 23.8% of total prison population. Following the Vietnam War, veterans were more likely to be imprisoned than non-veterans. Many traumatized veterans reintegrated from Vietnam without access to mental health services or community support. The DSM-III officially recognized PTSD in 1980, but it took decades for trauma to be acknowledged in the court system.
Since 1978, the total number of American citizens in prison increased from 300,000 to 1.5 million. Thanks to grassroots organizations and activist veterans, the growth rate of incarcerated veteran populations did not rise as exponentially as the rest of the country, but the total number still doubled.
My oral history project seeks to humanize incarcerated veterans—to bring them out of the shadows of the criminal justice system—and preserve their testimonies for future generations. I plan to archive these oral histories within the W.E.B. DuBois Library and the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, ensuring their experiences are included in the history of the United States.
I am asking for the help of this community of oral historians to share the goals of my project and bring awareness to the systemic crises facing military service men and women.
Please contact me at moc.l1635439947iamg@16354399476102s1635439947niggi1635439947hnosa1635439947j1635439947.
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I follow the Principles and Best Practices of Oral History as established by the Oral History Association.
If you are interested in writing a blog for the OHA, please email ude.u1635439947sg@ah1635439947o1635439947 for more details.
by Michael Kilburn, Vice-Chair OHA International Committee
On Feb 15-16, the Czech Oral History Association held its annual conference, this year entitled, “The Many Faces of Oral History: From Theory and Education to Research, Education, and Popularization” at Masaryk University in Brno, Czechia (Czech Republic). There were indeed many faces represented, including a variety of disciplines from History, Sociology, and Economics to Education, Ethnology, and Cultural Studies, and a number of academic and public institutions from across the region. The Oral History program at Charles University and the Oral History Center at Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History were well represented by faculty and students, but others also came from a selection of universities, institutes, and museums from Slovakia to west Bohemia.
This author, invited as one of the plenary speakers, was the only non-Central European and the only one presenting in English (I apologized to my gracious hosts both for my incapacity in Czech and for the neo-colonial impulse of everyone to switch fluidly to English in my presence). Ironically, my presentation, on the Czech Underground rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, was the most esoteric and specifically local topic, while others addressed a range of topics -methodological, theoretical, and substantive- of much broader relevance. Generally, the level of sophistication, global awareness, and interdisciplinary fluency was inspiring.
Over two full days of multiple sessions, the speakers demonstrated a strong grasp of theory and method and the range of projects represented combined a strong and specific grasp of local geography, culture, and history with a broad awareness of the inductively global relevance of their research. All oral histories -to paraphrase Tip O’Neill- are local, but this regional conference clearly demonstrated that they are all increasingly and self-consciously part of a global movement and conversation. Parallel sessions focused on theory and method, education and popularization, memory, regional research and the role of museums and public institutions. The groundedness of the student participants in OH theory and the specificity of their practice was particularly notable.
The host institution, the faculty of arts at Masaryk University, was gracious and accommodating, with excellent facilities and logistics, the city of Brno was beautiful, and the level of scholarship and engagement by participants was inspiring and energizing. The conference included specific attention to local culture, with an evening of traditional Moravian song and dance at the national museum and a city tour of functionalist architecture, but the overall impression was one of fluency, outreach, and engagement with a global community of scholars. While the Czech Oral History Association was founded only 10 years ago, the breadth, focus, energy, and momentum of its achievements is impressive, consolidating a strong community of scholars and a variety of academic and public institutions in its network. The conscientious and systematic efforts of COHA to develop the capacity and professionalism of oral history practitioners in central Europe is a model of entrepreneurship, professional development, and best practice that bodes well for the future of OH in the region and beyond.
It was an honor to participate in this conference; many thanks and congratulations to the organizers and participants.
by COHA President, Pavel Mücke
The 5th Conference of the Czech Oral History Association (COHA), hosted by Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University (under auspice of Dean, prof. Milan Pohl) and the Moravian Museum was held in Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic, between February 15 and 16, 2017. In more than forty papers, presented in three parallel panels, several topics from the fields of contemporary history, ethnology, anthropology, sociology, pedagogic studies and psychology were discussed. This successful event was visited by a record attendance of more than hundred participants (coming from several regions of the Czech Republic, but also from Slovakia and one from Canada/U.S.A.). Among the key note speakers can be mentioned Dr. Radmila Švaříčková Slabáková, dealing with family memory studies, Prof. Michael Kilburn, presenting a paper about the politics of memory of Czech underground and Miroslav Vaněk, past-IOHA president and Honorary Czech Oral History Association President, who was re-thinking in his presentation the actual development of oral history in worldwide context. During the Evening Ceremony, which was held in the baroque palace of the Moravian Museum, in the presence of the General Director of Museum, Dr. Jiří Mitáček, the collective monograph “On the Border between Past and Present: Contemporary Perspectives of Oral History” was presented for the first time in public. In this new book (co-published by Czech Oral History Association and Ostrava University) are collected the best contributions presented during past COHA conferences and workshops since 2013.
I would like to thank the local organizers (mainly Jiří Zounek and Jana Poláková) for brilliant hosting and also all participants (especially to abroad ones) for a lot of well-prepared presentations and fruitful discussions. The next venue and locality for the 2019 conference is still unknown (it seem to be city of Olomouc, also in Moravia region), however I wish to prospect organizers and participants for such nice conference event like Brno.
Welcome to what we hope is one of many upcoming blogs! Our goal at the OHA Blog is to provide more member-driven content in order to create a space that allows for the expression of ideas and initiatives in oral history and to showcase our members.
For our first blog, Monica Sun writes about her mentor and friend Joseph Zhao, who she says “is extremely talented and experienced in doing oral history.” Joseph Zhao is with Cui Yongyuan Oral History Center of Communication at the University of China, and he is doing oral history projects while giving lectures in workshops and training programs. Besides being an oral historian, Joseph is a sports lover, and football is his strong suit. Alistair Thomson once compared oral historians to magpies because they have this exuberant zest of collecting various items. Joseph is collector of memories, books, coins, mini-sculptures…
Born in 1969, Joseph is a man with a natural gift of communicating and insatiable curiosity. He starred in the film “Saihu the Dog” when he was 12. After graduating from Beijing Film Academy, Joseph made several famous TV ads and then became the program planner of China’s first talk show, “To Be Honest”, in 1996. Thanks to a documentary series named “Story of Movie”, Joseph got a chance to make oral history interviews with old Chinese filmmakers, which is how he turned into a “memory collector”. In his own words, the first ten years of doing oral history is like an evolution from ape to human being.
In 2002, the documentary series came to an end and he made over 1,500 oral history interviews with old Chinese directors, actors, actress, cosmeticians, screenplay writers, concept artists, composers, editors, sound mixers and producers. This project is like a talking encyclopedia of Chinese filmmakers and a dynamic version of Chinese film history. Traditionally, only famous directors and actors could be written about in film history and the role of other film artists have been diminished in the development of film industry. This project is kind of like a panorama of Chinese film industry after the founding of New China in 1949.
Any oral historian would understand the dilemma of interviewing the elders: you have to give them enough time to rest given their health condition; at the same time you also wish to have a thorough conversation. Director Xie Jin’s narration amounted to nearly 20 hours, and the conversation was divided into 6 sessions since he could only do 3 to 4 hours per day. What’s worse, sometimes you are waiting for someone to accept your interview, but the only reply turns out to be an obituary. Joseph has become good friends with many of those film artists and he claims that drawing strength from their stories would be the most precious reward of doing oral history.
The oral history project that Joseph currently works on is “Zhiqing (educated youth) in Cultural Revolution”. Cultural Revolution, as an appellation of a series of political movements over nearly two decades, drags in more than 17 million youngsters who were sent to rural areas to be re-educated by peasants and created a “Cast-off Generation”. Up to now, Joseph has made nearly 500 oral history interviews with Zhiqing who come from more than 20 provinces in Mainland China. Their stories count an indispensable part of China’s contemporary history but were somehow erased from official historical records, making their stories even more rare and precious. “If each and every minute of the interviews could be broadcast on CCTV, then the oral history would be of no value.” Joseph always says the beauty of oral history is that you get a chance to learn about the history from a non-official perspective.
Almost every oral historian is talking about the excitement of listening to fabulous stories and meeting different people, but few have been talking about how to react to the miserable, even horrible stories. To those narrators, the conversation is like a healing process, and most of them took a great relief after sharing their “experienced” political movements. Some of the interviews would remain confidential for a long time, but they will be a valuable source for the future generations to learn about their nation and predecessors.
If you are interested in writing a blog for the OHA, please email ude.u1635439947sg@ah1635439947o1635439947 for more details.
On the afternoon of Oct. 13, 2016, a “dream team” of international oral historians spoke at the OHA annual conference in Long Beach CA. Chaired by Robert Perks of the British Library, the session, International Perspectives @ OHA50, addressed the global roots of oral history from storytelling as a basic human impulse to its modern development as both an interdisciplinary and a research methodology. While modern oral history finds its institutional roots in America, particularly through the work of Allen Nevins at the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University, Perks noted the speed and fluidity with which it has spread around the world as researchers intuitively adapted it to local conditions and various research agendas. Sociologist and founder of the British Oral History Society Paul Thomson, for example, radicalized the discipline by employing it in the service of social history and shifting the focus from elites to the working classes, making ordinary people the protagonists of their own history and giving them a voice of the past. Perks concluded his introduction by noting major thematic turning points in modern oral history. The first was abetting the qualitative turn in the academy, which had been under the thrall of empiricism in the social sciences, with a serious consideration of subjectivity and memory. Oral history methods of research and analysis were quickly mainstreamed and applied across a variety of fields from business to science to environmental studies to public health to politics, and even to history itself. The third major shift Perks noted was the digital revolution, which facilitated a variety of means for research, analysis and dissemination, but also raised thorny issues of privacy, control, fair use, and surveillance. With the scale and intersectionality of research growing, secondary and metadata analysis have thickened the field. Finally, Perks noted a regenerative movement within and around the discipline, investigating the social role of oral history and storytelling for community building, reconciliation, and healing in the aftermath of crisis.
Riffing on the title of an earlier panel, Alexander Freund of the University of Winnipeg asked whimsically and rhetorically, “Who was Allen Nevins’ grandfather?” As a native German working in Canada on migration studies, Freund situated his own work as an example of transnational oral history practices. He linked his own professional genealogy to that of the discipline, citing the precursors of oral history in pioneering ethnographic studies of anthropologists like Franz Boas among indigenous peoples in Siberia, the Canadian far north and the jungles of Columbia. Freund also noted an emphasis in Canadian oral history on aurality and publicity, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and other federal agencies consciously using stories to foster community and national identity, compared with the American tendency towards institutional archives. His current work cautiously examines the global surge of storytelling and self-reporting as a Foucauldian technology of the self, situating what appears to be the validation of developments in oral history in a global story of democratization and neoliberalism.
As the lone American on the panel, Don Ritchie brought a characteristic humility and geniality to his reflections on the internationalization of oral history. He recalled the first OHA meeting held outside the United States in Ottawa in 1976 and his self-consciousness of the “isolationism, parochialism, and chauvinism” that had characterized much of American oral history. Ritchie traced the growing internationalization of his own thinking and the field in general by citing editorial shifts across the three editions of his own popular handbook “Doing Oral History,” which has included more and more international perspectives, case studies, and citations. The growing realization of the potential for international cooperation in the field led to the establishment of the International Committee of the OHA in the early 1980s and the founding of the International Oral History Association at Oxford in 1987 and the end of the Cold War facilitated the emergence and increased collaboration of oral history projects and centers in the former second and third worlds. While noting challenges in the further development and integration of international oral history, such as regional disparity in resources and representation, linguistic and cultural competencies, economics and logistics, Ritchie sees the future of oral history as an increasingly international, interdisciplinary and global enterprise. He cited Alessandro Portelli’s study of Appalachia, “They say in Harlan County” as an example of the viability and insight of outsider knowledge and perspective and unexpected sympathies and alliances. Richie noted from Portelli, “An Italian is fine. Had he been from Chicago or New York that might have been a problem.”
As past president of the International Oral History Association and co-founder and current president of the Oral History Association of India, Indira Chowdhury brought a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the panel. Dr. Chowdhury focused her remarks on how indigenous oral traditions shape the understanding and practice of oral history in different cultural contexts. She noted the long range and history of oral practice and tradition in India and contrasted its more formalistic, ritualistic approach – which she termed “non-narrative orality” – with the confessional style of western subjectivity. Songs, performances, and storytelling in non-western contexts are often ways of understanding and social positioning that do not necessarily constitute a source of historical understanding in terms of metanarrative, but are rather, “an encounter with the vulnerable nature of life itself.” Chowdhury expressed her gratitude to the OHA for inspiration and support in founding the OHAI, and noted that oral history at the boundary of two worlds has great potential for cross cultural understanding, but should be approached with humility, respect, and care.
Alistair Thomson of Monash University spoke of the development of oral history in the context of the oldest continuous human culture in Australia. While it was initially influenced by anthropologists and folklorists from white settler culture, indigenous traditions also had an important influence. Thomson credits Wendy Lowenstein, whom he described as the “Australian Studs Terkel,” as instrumental in wedding the practice of oral history to a progressive agenda in documenting labor history and the conditions and experiences of ordinary Australians. A unique aspect of the Australian development of oral history in Australia has been the central role of federal public institutions like the National Library rather than universities in developing the funding, infrastructure and outreach of the discipline and practice. Another characteristic feature of Australian oral history has been its function in projects of historical truth and reconciliation, for example documenting the experience of the “stolen generation” of aboriginal children and of other “forgotten” Australians. A promising and innovative recent initiative has been the development of an Australasian indigenous oral history network among Australian aborigines and New Zealand Maori, which promises fresh perspectives on the application of native oral culture to the discipline.
Finally, Miroslav Vaněk of Prague’s Center for Contemporary History closed the session with some remarks on the experience and lessons of establishing oral history as a legitimate discipline and practice in post-Communist Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic. Like Chowdhury, he expressed gratitude to the OHA for guidance and support, but he also cautioned the importance of sensitivity to local political and cultural conditions in adapting its protocols and methods. Vaněk described oral history as a fundamentally democratic practice, but said its institutionalization in a newly democratic society has been ironically rocky. There was initial resistance from traditional conservative (“Hapsburg”) historians skeptical of its methods and interdisciplinarity and ongoing competition with the various historical agendas of formerly exiled academics, politicized research institutes, entrenched patriarchal systems, a vulgar and demagogic media landscape, and a cynical populace. Happily, the historical disciplinary tides have turned, the work of the Center for Oral History is now well respected and regarded by both the Czech academy and the public, and Oral History programs have been established at major universities, training a new generation of scholars and practitioners. But history is still a contested terrain in Central Europe, discredited by the ideological pre-determinism of the Communist ancient regime and rent by contemporary political agendas. While a vital corrective and complement to the historical distortions and silences of ideology pre and post 1989, oral history still faces challenges in responsibly filling the gaps of Central Europe’s “interrupted history.”
Vaněk concluded his remarks with a principled call for professionalism and consideration, “non-ideologically and without prejudice” of those whose voices are “not guaranteed by the historical record.” Like the man himself, the Czech perspective on oral history is modest and skeptical, encouraging us particularly to be mindful of ideologies and counter-ideologies that shape our metanarratives. While grateful for the inspirational example and institutional support of the American oral history establishment, Vaněk, like the other international perspectives on this panel, reminds us that we have much to learn from each other.
The vitality, seriousness, and collegiality of this panel of international experts in oral history bodes well for the future development of the field.
Everyone is welcome!
Mark your calendars and please come to the International Committee meeting during the Oral History Association Annual Meeting:
Date: Thursday, October 13, 2016
Time: Noon until 1 PM
Venue: Ebell Room at the Renaissance Hotel in Long Beach, CA
Looking forward to seeing you there,
OHA International Committee Chair
“’The Walls Are Going to Come Tumbling Down:’ An Oral History/Digital Archive of an Unconventional Public College” by Carol Quirke, American Studies, SUNY Old Westbury
First Lady Michelle Obama recently rapped with Saturday Night Live star Jay Pharoah, “If you wanna fly jets you should go to college; Reach high and cash checks, fill you head with knowledge.” Americans are told college is a necessity for a stable lifestyle, and in a world with few union protections, stagnant wages, and corporate “disruption,” this advice seems on target. Yet college costs are ballooning and are mostly borne by students and their families, while the government cuts support for higher education. According to the American Council on Education’s report, “State Funding: A Race to the Bottom,” at the rate of current cuts the average state support for this engine of democracy and individual and societal mobility reach zero in less than fifty years.
How different it was half a century back, when the GI Bill and federally supported loans and grants democratized education, and the Cold War fueled financial support for publicinstitutions. How different when women, African-American, and Latino citizens clamored for access to college and for curricula that reflected their lived experience. Experiments: Old Westbury Oral History Project captures the College at Old Westbury’s origins. Founded by the State University of New York (SUNY) in 1965 and planned in an era of great optimism for higher education, Experiments explores how SUNY invested in a group of citizens—high school students, Long Island residents, national higher education leaders, Peace Corps administrators, conceptual artists, novelists, and political theorists—to get the experimental college off the ground. Small groups planned admissions criteria and curricula, even the college’s physical plant. Once the college opened its doors in 1968, many faculty and students believed they would continue to shape the college’s direction, as the 1966 Master Plan encouraged “admitting students in full partnership in the academic world and granting them the right to determine…their own areas of study and research.”
“Full partnership” became the flashpoint for conflict between students, faculty and administrators. For some, the term included student involvement in every aspect of college governance and administration—developing courses and delineating the curricula, grading, and hiring faculty. Students also demanded that the college become an institution promoting equality, by attracting more Latinos and African-Americans. By contemporary standards the college was exceedingly diverse, nearly a quarter of the student body was comprised of students of color and many students were the first in their families to attend college. But for students active in Students for a Democratic Society, Black Power groups, and the Young Lords, the college could do better.
1968 was an inauspicious year to open a college. Conflict over the college’s mission ultimately led to student sit-ins, police response, and at one point, a fire in the college president’s home. The college president, Harris Wofford, who later became a U.S. Senator for Pennsylvania, left and the college shut its doors. When it re-opened, it seemed as if students had won, as non-traditional students, (housewives who had dropped out of college, and African-Americans and Latinos) became the college’s primary student body. And while the interdisciplinary program that Wofford had sought, grounded in the Great Books tradition was scrapped, new faculty were hired under John Maguire (president emeritus, Claremont College) committed to interdisciplinary scholarship in place of traditional disciplines. Many professors were radical or New Left or embraced critical pedagogies.
I began teaching at Old Westbury in 2004—and learned much about the college’s activist past and non-traditional traditions. But in 2004 this spirit felt diminished—particularly among the students. In an assignment where I ask students to respond to a 2008 New York Times op-ed piece by Charles Murray, too many of the students answered his plea, “Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?” in the affirmative. For these working students college was not a locus of activism or transformation. An instrumental view of college predominated—a college degree would confer economic success they believed.
Experiments: Old Westbury Oral History project explored the college’s unique roots and story in the hopes of rekindling its mission of social justice. Three faculty members from the American Studies department worked closely on the project’s design and implementation, two of whom are historians, one of whom is an experienced documentarian and new media practitioner. Additional faculty in American Studies and Sociology helped with interviewing. Our TV station manager supported equipment and studio needs. A former student filmed most of the interviews and did the labors of transcribing, editing clips, creating an introductory film, and setting up the website. Other alumnae helped by providing primary source material such as photographs and early documents related to the college. SUNY supported the project with an Explorations in Academic Excellence and Diversity award, and the college supported it with a Faculty Development Grant and in-kind resources.
We designed an interactive digital format that allowed many histories to surface; contentiousness surrounding the college’s early years had not abated more than forty years later. We interviewed three college presidents, three former faculty, and six students. We edited their stories into short clips focused on particular themes—for example, the paths that brought each interviewee to Old Westbury, the college’s roots, it’s curricula, and it’s relationship to its times. A primary focus was the college’s diversity—rooted in the first president’s desire that Old Westbury be a college of the world as well as student demands for educational equity and racial justice. Experiments made clear that the college’s diversity had been fought for initially, but that over time faculty, students and administrative commitment was required to maintain our inclusive student body. Also included in Experiments’ archive are transcripts of each interview, photographs and primary documents such as news clips, “lookbooks” of the entering class, early college catalogs, and reports to UNESCO on the college’s prospects. This digital archive allows viewers—students, educational analysts, historians—to make sense of Old Westbury’s story and to do history from multiple vantage points. The archive is far from complete, but the competing narratives and primary sources permit viewers to obtain a sense of the complex currents shaping public higher education from the late 1960s into the 1980s.
Most exciting is student response to the project. Faculty in our First Year program and in basic composition courses use the digital archive to help freshman imagine what their college education can mean by bringing them face to face with other students like themselves who were considering similar questions: “What does learning mean?” “What does teaching mean?” “What’s the purpose of a college education?” “Who decides who needs to know what?” I have used Experiments in an advanced history research course. Students read and abstracted multiple interviews which acquainted them with the oral history interview as a source, which like all sources must be examined as partial truths that provoke further questions and investigation. Abstracting interviews also forced advanced students to synthesize what they had read. Reading an early college catalog allowed students to understand a college’s structure, and how that structure might engage students in their education. Students were astonished by some of the primary sources—particularly the desire for experimentation expressed not just by students or activist faculty, but by the State of New York. Parsing participant transcripts and news clippings allowed students to identify key aspect of Old Westbury’s founding that were linked to the social ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, training students in contextualizing, a critical analytic tool for historians.
The history of colleges and universities is still being written, and this is especially true about institutions which serve non-traditional students. Debate about higher education’s meaning and effects has never been higher. Oral history projects like Experiments shed unique light on such debates, suggest a more expansive agenda for higher education than its instrumental value, and give students a catalyst to reflect on the individual and social meanings of higher education.