Contando Cuentos–Using Oral Histories in An Upper Level Spanish Class

Upon graduation for Southwestern, many of the Spanish Program’s majors will place “proficiency” in Spanish on their resumes. A few of them will be interviewed in Spanish to demonstrate their language and cultural fluency. When I was awarded a grant in the Digital Humanities, and the Latin American and Border Studies organized an on campus symposium for our alumni, I thought this would be a great opportunity for my students to practice interviewing skills and gain experience in speaking Spanish (even for the heritage speakers) in a formal (and stressful) situation.

Since Southwestern has recently converted a study room into a sound booth in the library, and many of my students didn’t know we even had this booth (myself included), the cards seemed to fall into place. The student learning objectives of the assignment were to be that my students would acquire skills in the Digital Humanities and practice interview skills and techniques. Another student learning objective was for my students to hear voices from an historically underrepresented student population at Southwestern, and give current students to chance to offer our alumni a chance to make their voices heard, and compare those experiences with the experiences of our current student body. Southwestern’s largest underrepresented group on campus, those who identify as Hispanic, will soon reach 25% of the student body. We need to pay attention to the concerns of the group of students and offer opportunities for their voices to be heard.

The requirements for the assignment were drawn up on the fly–something that I now have experience with and have developed better instructions and rubrics for future projects of this nature. The most important requirement for the assignment was for the students to contact alumni that spoke (and would be willing to be interviewed in) Spanish and who would be attending the symposium. Given that this was the symposium’s first year, there were few people that fit the requirement.

The students were placed into groups based on their preference of the alumni. Each member of the group was required to read an article regarding oral histories, take notes, and share these notes with the rest of the group. Then, the group needed to divide the tasks: who would contact the interviewee and set up a time for the interview to take place; who would write the formal letter of invitation and the donation form; who would conduct research on the alumnus and write up the interview questions; who would be in charge of the technological portion of the interview (all received training in the sound booth during one class period, and on a separate occasion practiced with the equipment); who would conduct the interview. Samples of an article and the letters appear here.

By far, the most difficult process in the assignment was contacting the alumni only in the sense that the students demonstrated resistance to calling (on the phone) rather than waiting for a response via e-mail. These alumni are busy, and emails from students certainly wouldn’t pop up as urgent emails to read. Although I coached them to make the call, I attempted to be as hands off as possible.

Another bump in the road appeared when one of the scheduled alumna backed out of the symposium at the last minute. The students were clearly disappointed and flustered. I suggested reaching out to other alumni not in attendance (we had an excel spreadsheet already prepared). Nevertheless, the students weren’t able to make this work (for a variety of reasons not shared with me), and opted instead to interview an Ecuadorian musician visiting the campus for a two day period. In this regard, realizing the time constraint now upon us to realize this assignment, I agreed to open up to new interviewees as long as the responsibilities of members of the group were achieved and the interview took place in Spanish. I realized that I needed to be flexible for several reasons: nearing the end of the semester; competing with schedules that made conducting the interviews outside of classroom nearly impossible, and disappointment when the first plan failed. However, the students demonstrated critical thinking skills and made the interview happen, and although it doesn’t “match” the content of the other interviews, it is a wonderful interview in that it engages the students with a different community, offers the chance to practice their digital and interviewing skills.

The last bump in the road proved to be the most disastrous. All the preliminary assignments were accomplished in a timely fashion, but the equipment was not utilized correctly and absolutely nothing was recording during the 30 minute interview. Despite the training and practice, technology failed. User error was to blame. I should have instructed the students to have a back-up: record the interview on their cellphones. In the students’ defense, only 3 members of the group showed up to the interview. Perhaps if all members had gone, someone would have caught the error. The students panicked. I panicked. I am absolutely mortified to let this alumnus know–a man who generously gave his time to my students–did not have the end result desired. I need to let him know. Soon. I have been avoiding this conversation. Perhaps my students aren’t the only ones scared of making phone calls.

In the end, the students found another local alumna that fit the bill, the interview was a success and the students were able to finish the assignments. I now have 4 interviews that will be transcribed. The transcription will be sent to them for their final approval, and we will post these interviews here.

Despite the rocky road, this assignment clearly had its benefits and I will continue to incorporate the assignment in all of my upper-level Spanish classes.  But for now, I need to make a phone call.