We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Irene Reti, Cameron Vanderscoff, and Sarah Rabkin discuss their book Seeds of Something Different: An Oral History of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
Seeds of Something Different is a sweeping and ambitious book. First of all, it is a compelling history of UC Santa Cruz, a unique experimental college campus founded by a small team of innovators in the 1960s. Gathered on a stunning sweep of land overlooking the California coast, these visionaries imagined a new and different kind of university—one that could reinvent public higher education in the United States. Published at a time when the basic tenets of education are once again being rethought, Seeds will be of interest to anyone engaged in that project. The book offers useful insights not only for readers who know and love this unique campus tucked into the redwoods, but for anyone who cares about the past and future of public higher education.
But for oral historians, Seeds of Something Different: An Oral History of the University of California, Santa Cruz also offers an inspiring model for stitching together archival oral history to tell a riveting tale. We composed Seeds almost entirely from excerpts from two hundred oral histories collected by the UC Santa Cruz library’s Regional History Project (RHP) over the past fifty years, as well as other archival oral histories and primary sources preserved in the library’s collections.
One of the oldest oral history programs in the United States, RHP, founded in 1963, helped create the Oral History Association itself. Elizabeth Spedding Calciano, the project’s founding director and initially its sole staff member, was UCSC’s thirteenth employee, joining the architects and planners housed initially in the campus’s temporary offices at nearby Cabrillo College, the community college that preceded UCSC in Santa Cruz County, and later in a converted barn on the city’s historic Cowell Ranch.
Seeds weaves together excerpts from interviews with students, staff, faculty, community members, and campus leaders to tell a dramatic story in multiple acts, featuring diverse perspectives, complete with recurring characters, surprising plot twists, unlikely endings, and new beginnings. It is authentic history from the bottom up.
Printed on elegant semi-gloss paper with a cover photo by Ansel Adams, who was UCSC’s first official campus photographer, the two 8×10 volumes feature more than 250 images from the library’s historical archives. The entire set (indexed and with extensive footnotes, a timeline, and bibliographic material) runs 925 pages.
Transcending nostalgia-driven reminiscence or university-relations marketing, Seeds presents a penetrating portrait, through the lens of one rather unusual college campus, of the social movements and historical changes that have swept through the United States and the world over the past several decades. The book locates UCSC’s history in a context involving a half-century of pivotal events including the Vietnam War; the civil rights movement, feminist and queer movements, recessions, elections, and more. “What I appreciate most about Seeds,” notes UCSC’s Professor of History of Consciousness Jim Clifford, “is that it finds ways to make UCSC’s past always be about its future. By featuring dialogue, debate, and change… it sidesteps nostalgia and narrates a radically open history.”
How does oral history contribute to your book?
We combed through 40,000 pages of oral history transcripts to choose potential excerpts. We three editors are all oral historians and writers; one of us is a professional editor, one is a photographer and book publisher, and one is a musician. All of these skills proved to be invaluable. The book was designed and published through the UCSC Library on a shoestring budget with unusual editorial independence. Only one of us was a full-time staff oral historian; the other two were freelancers. Seeds offers an example of what a small oral history program can put together with determination and creativity.
Through an iterative process, we built a fitting structure for the narrative and populated it with quotations that created the feeling of a “round table,” as if our narrators were engaging in conversation with each other across time. We wanted to emphasize anecdotes in and of their time—sensory details and compelling stories that keep the reader in what writer John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls “a vivid and continuous dream.” So we chose excerpts that we hoped would inspire and provoke, making judicious use of relatively abstract and theoretical segments in cases where those effectively provided meaning and context. We conceived of the book as a kind of musical composition or a radio documentary in written form, with no Voice-of-God narrator.
During the five years we spent wrestling with this mass of material (we came to refer to our unwieldy project as “The Dragon”), we began to think of Seeds as a literary endeavor, and plotted the book around dramatic points in the campus’s history. These include, for example, its utopian beginning; a campus rocked by the counterculture; an enrollment crisis that threatened a campus shutdown; a chancellor lacking leadership abilities who was ultimately forced to resign; a controversial reorganization and remaking of the campus’s college system; battles and tensions over diversity and difference of all kinds; affirmative action and backlash; a major earthquake in Santa Cruz, and tensions between the campus and the community over growth.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
One of the great strengths of oral history is its power to make room for ambivalence and creative tensions. We wanted to use the multivocal power of oral history to present a more complex, nuanced story than could be told in a single written narrative. At the same time we took care to bring out a sustained, coherent conversation through skillful editing. The resulting discussion in Seeds is by turns celebratory, passionate, humorous, ecstatic; sometimes anguished, angry, elegiac. The characters converse with each other across the years—not always in agreement, but certainly in dialogue. This is a book with voice. We’ve been told it’s a page turner.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
Seeds offers a powerful model for oral history programs seeking to connect with their communities by overcoming the sometimes intimidating impression that can be presented by undigested archives. Far more accessible and appealing than a mass of archival transcripts, a book like this draws in the public in a way the raw sources cannot. Seeds now serves as a gateway to the rich archives available to researchers who want to dig deeper into the library’s collections; several UCSC courses have already adopted it as a teaching tool; others have featured it in community-based discussions about local history. Thanks to the book’s publication, our program’s profile is now higher than it has ever been. Just after the pandemic began, we held a series of six book-launch events on Zoom that attracted hundreds of engaged people. The book stimulated fascinating discussions about both the past and future of UCSC. It is a tribute to the power of oral history to start conversations and strengthen community.
Finally, Seeds is good history and it’s fun to read!
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
Oral history can be as compelling and immediate as a live concert or street theater. Don’t underestimate its literary and artistic power.