Andrea Weddle with Hayley Hasik and Jackson Dailey 2014-02-12 14:22:57
Some archivists might balk at the idea of allowing undergraduates to conduct oral history interviews on behalf of their archives. Graduate students, after all, have more practice in the craft and have honed their specialties. But at the Special Collections Department at Texas A&M University–Commerce, we’ve found that undergraduates bring a lot to the table: they are enthusiastic, eager to learn and advance scholastically, technologically adept, and willing to take instruction. Texas A&M University–Commerce undergraduates are currently conducting oral histories with veterans as part of the East Texas War and Memory Project (ETWMP). The students developed the idea for the project and, with the guidance of faculty, have revitalized our oral history program. One year later, with 18 interns, 120 interviews, and a lecture series under our belts, we’re all overwhelmed by the project’s success. War and Memory Project The project began taking shape two years ago when Digital Collections Librarian Adam Northam and I worked with Dr. Eric Gruver, assistant dean of the Honors College, to incorporate primary sources into his history courses. Given Gruver’s interest in war and memory, we selected a batch of unprocessed World War II interviews and tasked the students with writing contextualized summaries. The students flourished with this assignment, and a group of six students came up with the idea to begin conducting interviews themselves. Those six students enrolled in an internship in the archives, and the ETWMP was launched. With no guidebook for this type of course, we initially took things slowly. It was clear the students were eager to interview veterans, but they lacked confidence. We spent several weeks discussing oral history best practices, etiquette, consent forms, technological requirements, the types of questions to ask and avoid, and how to handle uncomfortable situations. Students reviewed preexisting interviews to find examples of both positive and negative interactions with interviewees and discussed what they would have done differently as the interviewer. Conducting Interviews Intern Hayley Hasik volunteered to conduct the project’s first interview while her classmates observed. The interview was conducted on campus with the grandmother of one of their classmates. The interviewee had vivid recollections of growing up in Hungary during World War II, including hiding from German soldiers in hay bales outside her home. Despite the initial nerves, the interview went off without a hitch. Over the next several weeks, the remaining interns each conducted their first interviews. We continued at a steady pace for the remainder of the semester. As finals approached, the students made it clear they had no intention of stopping and wanted to continue the project indefinitely. With twelve new students joining the project the following semester, the senior interns became mentors to the new students. To distribute tasks, each intern was given a specific assignment based on their area of interest. The journalism majors, for instance, wrote press releases for all major events, the organizationally inclined interns scheduled time with veterans and assigned the appropriate students to conduct the interviews based on their expertise and availability, and one student interested in event planning was responsible for coordinating all events associated with the project, such as the monthly lecture series. Students Lead the Way The response to this project has been overwhelming. While Gruver now serves as the director of the ETWMP and the Special Collections faculty serves supporting roles, this project has been led by the students. They make the contacts, schedule and conduct the interviews, follow up with the interviewees, plan events, and coordinate marketing and press efforts. For the faculty members involved, it has been extremely rewarding. Undergraduate research is being promoted and supported, interviewees have supplied monetary and collection donations, and our oral history program is flourishing. Although we are thrilled with those outcomes, the real benefit of this project is in how it has affected the lives of the students. This affect can best be described in their own words. Hayley Hasik Senior, ETWMP Coordinator I started this process as a fairly cavalier student. I did well in my classes and had an interest in history, but I had yet to find my passion. I enjoyed certain aspects of history—mostly twentiethcentury United States history—but i had not yet found my niche. My introduction to the oral history interviews held within the Special Collections Department completely changed my perspective and attitude toward history. I enjoyed learning about history, but it was nothing compared to the joy and excitement I felt “doing” history. I had no idea that our small group of six undergraduate interns had embarked on a journey that would affect our academic careers. We had the support of several faculty members, and that was all we needed to create this project: a little guidance and a lot of trust. Many people were shocked to hear that we wanted to take on a project of this caliber and could not believe we were not only working with archival materials, but collecting archival materials. Many of the professionals we met and even the veterans we interviewed were surprised by the passion and drive exhibited by this group of young students. Just as we expanded the oral history collection, we expanded as students and professionals. Participating in this project brought history to life. Being able to see, touch, and do history completely changed my attitude as a student. All the artifacts that I once saw as little more than pieces of paper collecting dust were suddenly pieces of people’s lives. People welcomed me into their homes and were amazed that young people cared about them and the lives they led. My outlook on history as a whole completely changed because I better understood that everything I read about and studied was the result of real people. History is the result of ordinary people who did extraordinary things, a fact we often forget or overlook. Jackson Dailey Junior, ETWMP Intern History is the last thing I would have thought to major in when I first came to college. My advisor, Dr. Eric Gruver, predicted that I wanted to be a history major in my initial meeting, but I told him with confidence that I wanted to be a computer science major. Once I began college, precalculus stood in the way of that goal. By the time I realized I needed a new academic direction, I was already learning the real ways of history through my involvement in this project. I learned that history is not something you read in textbooks, you have to look into the minds of the people who were there to grasp the real weight of the events that occurred in the past. With the ETWMP internship, five interns and I founded something that changed our lives. I got to sit in front of someone who has seen the darkest parts of American history and lived to tell the tale. There is no greater honor. My work on this project has advanced me scholastically and personally, so I ask myself, why not continue this journey forever? History and archival work is now what I want to do for a living. I’m not reading history; I’m hearing it for myself and documenting it for others. It’s an honor to be able to participate in real history. Not only are our interns expanding in their respective fields of interest, they are developing research and interpersonal communication skills leaps and bounds beyond their fellow students. Their confidence has grown exponentially; they went from nervously pacing the archives before each cold call to a veteran to making contacts without batting an eye. Scholastically they are presenting at conferences, publishing with faculty, and maintaining a high GPA, as per the Honors College requirements. With the right motivation, support, and trust, working with undergraduates can be a rewarding experience for everyone involved. Texas A&M University–Commerce now has proof! To learn more about the East Texas War and Memory Project, visit us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/WarAndMemory.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.