In spring 2016, I taught an English class at Southwestern University titled “Digital Frontiers in American Literature.” (Check out the Digital Frontiers in American Literature Syllabus here.)
When we think about incorporating an oral history component in teaching, we’re often thinking about oral history projects in which students plan and conduct interviews. This is an invaluable avenue for student engagement, as evidenced by so many of the course materials, teacher and student reflections, and Library readings on this True Stories blog. When it comes to identifying the advantages of oral history for interdisciplinary undergraduate education, it’s also important to think about analyzing oral histories that are already up on the internet. Fantastic oral history projects and collections proliferate across the Web. How can we harness their power in classroom teaching?
During a unit on Helena Maria Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus, I assigned students to put the novel in conversation with oral histories available at the Chicana Por Mi Raza Digital Memory Collective. The novel centers on the experience of a family of Mexican and Mexican-American farm laborers in the fields of California; the Digital Memory Collective centers on Chicana feminism, which has roots in migrant worker rights movements. Therefore, the novel and the oral histories valuably contextualize each other.
In response to these Chicana Por Mi Raza Blog Post Guidelines, students wrote blog posts on our course blog to analyze oral history testimony and practice putting it in conversation with course literary texts and themes. The guidelines walk students through the process of “close-listening” to an oral history, applying critical close-reading skills we prize in the literature classroom to oral history as a unique category of narrative. Students noted a host of meaningful connections between the novel and the oral histories, ranging from framing of family dynamics to the interweaving of Spanish with English narration. You can read through the students’ blog posts here.