By Andrew Shaffer and Troy Reeves
Here on the blog we have talked about the value of oral history in preserving spaces and memories, its importance in social change, and the work that goes into producing and presenting quality oral history projects. Throughout January we are focusing on educators who are using oral history in the classroom, and its transformative potential. Below we hear from our own Troy Reeves and students from his First-Year Interest Group (FIG) class on oral history and food production in Wisconsin. Make sure to check back in two weeks when Abigail Perkiss will join us to talk about her article in the most recent OHR and the profound changes she saw in students. If you are interested in contributing your own pedagogical experiences and insights email our blog editor, Andrew Shaffer, or Abigail Perkiss, Pedagogy Editor at the Review.
Fate intervened this summer, giving me the opportunity to teach a History 201 class this fall at UW-Madison. Over the course of fifteen weeks I instructed 15 first-year undergraduates about oral history. They all conducted a recorded audio interview and wrote a “Labor Portrait” – think Studs Terkel’s Working. In the end, as I hoped, I learned as much from them as they did from me.
At the end of the class I asked the students to think back on what they had learned. Below are a handful of excerpts from their reflections that give a glimpse into the transformative potential of oral history. They are as diverse and distinct as the students themselves, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have met and worked with such a fantastic group of human beings.
For one student, the class helped to forge connections between his disparate identities, connecting his childhood to his life as a college student.
It’s tough to say who I am, because I have always been constantly changing as a person. I have different accents, mannerisms, and even beliefs based on who I am surrounded by. Sometimes I am Mario Carrillo, the goofy nerd who enjoys reading old political books and drawing cartoons. Sometimes I am “Mah-yo Carreeyo,” a strong-willed Mexican kid who would rather see change out in the streets rather than in a classroom. I found that my time here at UW-Madison has challenged these two identities of mine. I am from the Illinois Rust Belt, a place where the atmosphere tastes like aluminum and ash. A place where hard work was valued more than your brain, which is something I’ve always struggled with.
I was a little afraid of what my parents would say about my choice of this FIG. After all, I was here to learn skills necessary to never again experience poverty, and a political science degree itself isn’t exactly a competitive degree. But taking this class reminded me of issues I faced as a kid. Even the narrator I chose reminded me of my own father: they both were Mexican immigrants who got their first jobs as low paid restaurant workers. I feel he has a story that is more common than it should, but it is the cultural barrier that stops American society from truly empathizing.
– Mario Carrillo
Some students latched onto the ability of oral history to amplify voices that rarely get an audience.
The woman I chose to interview is a type of worker that doesn’t often get a lot of credit. She works in the dining hall and is a student so her position is often overlooked and gone un-thanked. So I thought it would be nice to give her a voice.
– Annika Hendrickson
I chose my narrator because we had previously had conversations about work, and he seemed very opinionated on issues of workplace climate and the tipped wage. I also knew a bit about his life before coming to Madison and thought he had a story worth telling.
– AJ Hirschboeck
For some students, the class helped them see how history is constructed, and to see their own lives as a part of history.
The class certainly expanded my perspectives on a variety of topics, from destroying any misconceptions about history to all the social movements occurring today and the complicated commodity chains that put food on shelves.
– David Chen
I want to get more involved on campus to be a part of something and I hope that one day, a student will interview me and I will be in the UW Archives.
I wanted to have some information before choosing a person to interview so I went to the UW Archives to look at materials. I kept stumbling upon one person’s name over and over again, so I shot him an email and he was very willing to meet with me. At the time of the interview, I was in my first semester as a freshman at UW Madison. I absolutely love this school and I am very excited for next semester, next year, and all of the education I will get until I graduate. I want to get more involved on campus to be a part of something and I hope that one day, a student will interview me and I will be in the UW Archives.
– Stephanie Hoff
I never realized how much more there was to history besides multiple choice tests on wars. Although the interview was stressful, it was easily my most fun assignment that I had all semester. This class has even made me consider working for my local newspaper over the summer where I could conduct interviews with people and write articles.
– Madeline Kallgren
Some students saw the potential of the interview to make and improve relationships, building meaningful connections with people inside and outside of their communities.
I chose my narrator because Slow Food was a place that I really wanted to visit, but I could never muster up the courage to go alone and volunteer. So, I used this project as a way to get to know the people of slow food. I’m glad I did that because I was able to meet some really awesome and welcoming people. I’m also glad that I chose to be a part of this FIG because I got to meet some really cool people out of it.
– Yesha Shah
I chose my narrator because I had developed a good rapport with him before I even knew I was going to interview him. We are from the same country originally and I was interested in his story about his life in Madison as a fellow Indian. Oral history was the best to find out.
– Tanvi Tilloo
I may be a bit biased, but I agree – oral history is the best way for us to find out about each other, and to build connections. Teaching is exhausting, and grueling, and occasionally monotonous, and so damn worth it because it has allowed me to connect with some incredible people and to continue preaching the good word of oral history.
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Featured image: “Classroom.” by MIKI Yoshihito, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.