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Learning from disaster

As part of our 50th anniversary issue of the OHR, Abigail Perkiss explored the impact of oral history in the aftermath of a Hurricane Sandy in her article Staring Out to Sea and the Transformative Power of Oral History for Undergraduate Interviewers. The article is a timely look at how doing and presenting oral history changes the way practitioners interact with both their interviewees and the broader world. Below, we hear more about how the project moved from recording to presenting in only a few months and how Perkiss helped to foster commitment and transformation. 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.

The article shows how the Staring Out To Sea project transformed the students involved. Have you seen similar effects with other projects or do you think this was unique to the traumatic beginnings or the intimate connections the students shared to the events?

I’ve used oral history in my teaching before, but the semester during which we developed Staring out to Sea was the first time I’d ever taught a seminar specifically focused around oral history, and specifically centered on the development of one collaborative project. So, it’s hard to know what made the difference – was it spending the entire term concentrating on oral history? Was it the nature of the work and the immediacy of the experience for the students? Was it the project-based approach that allowed the students to feel some ownership over the work they were doing, some agency in the process?

My hunch at the time was that it was a combination of all of those things, and in subsequence semesters, I got to see that transformative power translate to other classroom experiences, where students had the same level of creative agency and responsibility for the direction of the work.

For example, in my spring 2016 black history survey, my students and I spent the entire semester examining the history and memory of black life at Kean University, where I teach. Using the school’s special collections as well as primary sources from other local archives, and conducting select oral history interviews themselves, students in this class worked to build an institutional history of race relations at Kean, telling the story of the dynamics of race and power at the school and on its grounds over the past 250 years. The course culminated with the development of The BlacKeaning: Illuminating Black Lives at Kean University, a campus tour highlighting this racial history of the school. I would say that that experience was similarly transformative for the students involved, and it made a comparable impact on me as well.

The project developed incredibly quickly, from conceiving of the idea to presenting the findings in only a few months. What lessons did you learn that helped move it along so swiftly?

Yes, “incredibly quickly” is a good way to put it. It was an unbelievably packed semester. I’ve never experienced a class so energizing and enervating at the same time. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the generous guidance and support of so many seasoned oral historians (Don Ritchie, Stephen Sloan, Linda Shopes, among others), and of the regional oral history association – Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region – and Kean University. Knowing that these various institutions and individuals had our backs gave me the confidence to undertake such a project, and showed my students that people were taking them and their work seriously.

 I’ve never experienced a class so energizing and enervating at the same time.

I think the biggest takeaways from that spring, for me, were about preparedness, communication, and vision. I won’t rehash the things that went well in our development of the project – they’re in the OHR essay – but there are two critical things that I wish I’d approached differently.

First, equipment and technology – our mics and recorders arrived just hours before the first student was to conduct her first interview. I had used the equipment before and knew it well enough that I assumed it was relatively intuitive, and so – because of the time crunch – I forewent the proper training with the students in the limited amount of time we had for it. They all figured it out, but not without a few blips and a fair amount of anxiety for them. If I could do it over, I would have built in a technology workshop so that we could have gone through it more deliberately and collaboratively, and they could have tested everything ahead of time.

Second, the nature of the project was such that once the students graduated at the end of the semester, there was no built-in mechanism for completing the work. Such is the nature of the academic rhythms. While the project continued, through independent study and internship credit and collaborations with a neighboring institution, Stockton University, if I were to do it again, I would have thought more proactively about the longitudinal nature of the project and set up an infrastructure to develop that.

You noted that the project facilitated “a level of agency, autonomy, and affirmation that undergraduates…rarely get to experience.” Do you have any advice for educators that hope to foster similar kinds of transformation and camaraderie in the classroom?

I think developing a rapport among students is incredibly important. Before they can begin a meaningful collaboration, they need to understand where everyone is coming from, what their relationship is to the subject matter, what their work styles are, even what kind of music they like to listen to. They need to know each other, in order to trust each other, to be able to rely on each other.

From my experience, I’ve also found that it’s a careful balance for the instructor, wanting to encourage and affirm the work, but also providing critical feedback and – as I said in the OHR essay – “tough love.” Because sometimes the students need to step up, and the instructor needs to be able to tell them that in a way that they can hear and respond to, without feeling marginalized or silenced. I don’t think I did this perfectly, and at times I think I leaned too much toward the encouragement side, at the expense of the quality of the interviews. It was a learning process for me, too, in that way.

What is the future of the project? Are you still gathering interviews?

We collected the last of the interviews in the summer of 2015, and I’m currently at work on a book based on the stories of the narrators, which is due out with Cornell University Press in 2018. As I’m working on the book, I’ve had conversations with a number of the narrators, specifically about their social media representation of the storm as it was happening. That’s created for me a powerful parallel narrative about their experiences of Hurricane Sandy and an interesting way to contextualize and make sense of some of their recollections in the oral history interviews.

At the same time, I’m in the early stages of working with an oral history repository, transferring the interviews over to them so that people around the world can access and use them.

How has the project changed your approach to teaching, or doing oral history?

I think the biggest impact of the project for me has been in seeing the power of a project-based approach. I knew that in the abstract, prior to Staring out to Sea, but seeing the impact of this work on my students had a profound effect on how I approach the classroom more broadly, as I discussed above in working with students on The BlacKeaning.

I haven’t had the opportunity since Staring out to Sea to conduct oral history interviews myself or work with students on an oral history project, but I very much look forward to that opportunity. I’m so proud of the work that my students did over those two years, and feel tremendously indebted to them for their willingness to take on such high-stakes work. At the same time, as I’ve noted, there are certainly things that I would do differently, and so I look forward to having the chance to apply the lessons I learned from that project, to do it better next time.

Is there anything you couldn’t address in the article that you’d like to share here?

I’d just like to take this opportunity to highlight the Pedagogy Section of the Oral History Review and to encourage your readers – those in both secondary and higher ed institutions – to consider how their work might contribute to our broader understanding of how to teach oral history. When Glenn Whitman first conceived of the section in 2009, he envisioned it as a space to highlight the growing scholarship on educational methodology, specifically as it relates to oral history. For Glenn and the rest of the OHR editorial board, one of the central missions of our field is to train the next generation of oral historians. The Pedagogy Section of the journal affords us the opportunity to think collectively about how to do that.

Where have you seen the transformative potential of oral history? Add your voice to the conversation in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image: “Hurricane Sandy . The Aftermath” by Hypnotica Studios Infinite, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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