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ORAL HISTORY (RE)MASTERED

Estate Catalog 2008

2016 2012

Celebrating eight cohorts of graduates from the Oral History M.A. program at Columbia University


www.oralhistory.columbia.edu


Meet Our Alumni Since Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program admitted its first cohort in the fall of 2008, we have proudly welcomed eighty oral historians into our alumni family. One of the most powerful aspects of a year in OHMA is the community—potlucks with your cohort, conversations with the faculty, meeting alums at events in New York City, and attending our annual happy hour at the Oral History Association conference. Some would call this networking, but we know that it’s more than that. We’re building a movement. As we grow nearer to our tenth anniversary, we would like to introduce you to a few of our alums. We chose ten former OHMA students who are out in the world making exciting use of their degrees. You will meet a lawyer, an activist, an entrepreneur, a professor, an artist—all oral historians. In a very non-oral history approach, we asked each of them the same questions: what brought them to OHMA, what it was like to be here, and what they are doing now. Their answers show us how many different ways there are to approach oral history, and how much we are learning and developing as a field through the work of our students. We look forward to adding more profiles to this series as our alumni community continues to grow! — Amy Starecheski, Ph.D., OHMA Co-Director


Allison Tracy, 2008 01 How did you become interested in oral history? I became interested in oral history during my time at the University of Nevada Oral History Program (UNOHP), specifically in 2007 when I served as an interviewer for a project on the history of women’s athletics at the University of Nevada. The process of research, preparation, and interviewing hooked me immediately.

02 How did you hear about OHMA? While at the UNOHP, I was developing marketing guidelines and googled “oral history master’s”—up popped a link for OHMA. I must have made the decision to apply pretty quickly because before I knew it, I was knee-deep in GRE prep and writing my application.

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis. Prior to my time in OHMA, I had done community outreach and crisis intervention around sexual assault and domestic violence. I came to Columbia wanting to explore issues around telling untellable stories, but hadn’t thought to integrate my previous work into my thesis. Once I began interviewing women who not only worked with survivors but were survivors themselves, I realized this was exactly the area I needed to be in.

04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable. In the first week of classes, Prof. Ron Grele gave a really wonderful lecture about oral history as a field and a methodology, during which he commented on needing to be genuinely interested in and at ease with


Women Organizers Reclaiming Narrative people to be a successful oral historian. As someone who is not necessarily at ease with people, I carried this little nugget of doubt about my abilities for a long time. Years later, I had the good fortune of sitting in on a conversation with Prof. Amy Starecheski during an OHMA happy hour. She commented on how she found many successful oral historians to actually be kind of

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work?

introverted people. Weight lifted off my shoulders as I realized that oral history provides, in spite of my uneasiness, a pathway to connect with people meaningfully.

history blind me to the other tools available to people, nor to the work already happening within a community.

05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it. I currently work for the Kentucky Historical Society and the Kentucky Oral History Commission (KOHC) as the oral history administrator. The KOHC supports oral history grants, technical assistance, and advocacy, and is the only commision of its kind in the U.S. I also manage its collection of nearly 9000 oral histories.

Prior to OHMA, my passion led me to believe that oral history was the answer to all problems requiring a dialogue. As I’ve gone out into the world, I’ve come to understand that I can’t let my own commitment to oral

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA? After OHMA, I co-edited the book We Were All Athletes: Women’s Athletics and Title IX at the University of Nevada, conducted a project on the cultural history of Reno, Nevada, and interviewed for an ongoing university history project at Stanford University. Currently, I am developing a project on the history of the KOHC.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? The difference in how I understood oral history before and after OHMA cannot be understated. It provided me strong foundations, allowing me to aspire to the positions I’ve held. I treasure being part of a program that offered support through some of the best and most challenging experiences in my life to that point.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? Becoming a seasoned practitioner of oral history is important and ongoing work, but you will not be able to leverage your skills if you are not also developing your capabilities in the digital technologies available.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? Though the link between oral history and social justice is not a recent development, OHMA, the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, and Groundswell have driven a renewed focus on this approach that will only serve to improve oral history over time.


Phil Sandick, 2008 01 How did you become interested in oral history? In 2006, I accidentally found myself writing an oral history of a private high school in Gaborone, Botswana. I started the project by sitting down to tea every Tuesday

02 How did you hear about OHMA? I was strolling along College Walk with my grandfather at his 65th Columbia College reunion and saw a sign for the program: “Nation’s first master’s degree in oral history,” it read. I walked straight to Kent Hall to retrieve my undergraduate transcript and then straight to Admis-

with a teacher who had worked at the school almost since it opened in 1972. After a few weeks, I began recording teatime and then transcribing it. A few more weeks passed, and I started speaking with other individuals and recording those conversations.

sions to submit my application.

Eventually, it turned into a full-blown organizational oral history project, including research at the National Archives in Botswana and various archives in South Africa. It was fascinating to elicit and then compile individual perspectives on events and the school. It was also exciting to track down individuals to interview across southern Africa.

My thesis revisited (and problematized) some of my previous photography exhibitions. I focused in particular on two showings of my work at the Botswana National Museum and Art Gallery, and compared the creation and presentation of those photographic works to that of oral histories.

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis.


Intersubjectivity in Photography & Oral History 04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable.

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work?

I remember walking, again, down College Walk with Prof. Luisa Passerini (my thesis advisor) after class one night. She was explaining the pros and cons of

Oral history training reinforced my belief that life is a series of traumas, big and small. My job often requires that I digest different stories to help determine which of them are supported by the evidence or pleadings, and

diving into philosopher Charles Taylor’s newest work. My grandfather came up, and we talked about him for a while. She suggested he might be “home” for me.

whether that series of facts triggers liability. My oral history training has helped me recognize how and why patterns emerge in the telling of stories.

05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it.

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA?

I am presently a law clerk for a United States District Judge in Atlanta, Georgia. Suffice it to say that I use my oral history training in trauma and narrative all day, every day.

A colleague and I started African Lookbook, an online shop of cutting-edge African design that has an accompanying archive containing oral histories of African creatives. I also spent a semester of law school at the International Criminal Court and wrote an academic article about their need for an interviewing guide.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? OHMA expanded my understanding of trauma and storytelling and made me a more compassionate individual, which is crucial to any (good) attorney’s work. Clients will come to me either when they have or might soon have legal issues, and those are often traumatic experiences.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? If you expand your understanding of certain concepts, they can become almost universally applicable. Oral history training can prepare you for work in nearly any field, depending on how you conceive of and apply it.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? Today, the interpersonal and intimate narratives intrinsic to oral history quench the thirst of those who are overwhelmed by our mediated existence—and aren’t we all, at least a little? I am excited to see how the field finds a place in this new cultural context.


Crystal Baik, 2009 01 How did you become interested in oral history? Before arriving at OHMA, I worked as a community activities coordinator and grantwriter for a domestic violence agency. Through these experiences, I became invested in thinking about narratives of intimate violence, and the ways these narratives are shaped by socio-legal and political conditions.

02 How did you hear about OHMA? I first heard about OHMA when I was a MSW student at Columbia. I had attended a series of lectures hosted by OHMA and had the opportunity to hear Prof. Mary Marshall Clark speak as part of a roundtable discussion. After attending these events, I had a strong interest in enrolling in OHMA.

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis. For my thesis, I interviewed a network of women involved with a grassroots organization called Voices of Women, whose primary constituents and organizers were survivors of intimate violence. My thesis focused on women’s experiences of intimate and systemic violence in relationship to the state and criminal justice system, and the ways in which they mobilized community-based models to engage in anti-oppression work.

04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to be trained by and work with Mary Marshall. Her willingness to provide support on different projects, as well as her


Narratives of Intimate Violence deep sense of compassion and care, felt truly grounding. My cohort was also wonderful; we had a very eclectic group and that sense of pluralism generated an energetic space for me.

05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it. After OHMA, I was accepted into a doctoral program in American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Currently, I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work? In my current project—which focuses on Korean transnational feminist artists and the ways they engage

militarization—I interview each artist and incorporate much of their critical commentary into my manuscript. My desire to engage with artists as interlocutors, rather than as “interviewees,” is driven by the notion that knowledge production is always already a shared process. In other words, no one “owns” knowledge or is the sole expert of a particular subject. This strong sense of answerability and accountability was cultivated during my time in OHMA.

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA? I conducted oral histories for my doctoral dissertation at USC and am integrating interviews into my first book project. As a faculty member at UC Riverside, I am involved with the Korean American Oral History Archive, which seeks to collect oral histories and narratives from a broad swath of Korean Americans across the United States.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? My year in OHMA taught me about the complexities of life history narratives: their contradictions, tensions, and messiness. I also learned to approach oral history as a meaningful encounter shaped by uneven power dynamics. As a scholar located in critical ethnic studies, this training has been so insightful.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? I do want to highlight that you can make a living from your training in oral history. If anything, it has taught me that you can be creative, flexible, and improvisational in the ways you think about and approach your work.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? Recently, it’s been meaningful to witness how people are harnessing digital technologies to make oral history accessible to a broader public. It’s also been great to see oral history being used to trace the complex histories of war, immigration, and unsettlement.


Sarah Loose, 2010 01 How did you become interested in oral history? I conducted my first oral history with a U.S. Catholic bishop, who had been active in the Salvadoran solidarity movement in the 1980s, for an undergraduate history paper. But I really fell in love with the power and practice of the field when I moved to El Salvador in 2001 to coordinate a multi-year, participatory oral history project exploring one rural community’s experiences in popular education during the country’s civil war.

02 How did you hear about OHMA? After a long stint working as a community organizer and popular educator in the Pacific Northwest, I was eager to more fully integrate oral history into my organizing practice and further develop my skills as an interviewer. I found OHMA through an internet search!

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis. For my thesis, I organized a two-day gathering of some fifteen activist oral historians to share our experiences and explore the possibilities of oral history as a method for movement building and social change. Eventually, that gathering grew into Groundswell, now a national network of over 600 oral historians, activists, cultural workers, organizers, and documentary artists who work at the intersections of oral history and social justice.

04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable. I relished the quiet, early mornings sitting in a rocking chair in my Washington Heights apartment, listening to interviews and doing course readings—and then rushing off from a thought-provoking class discussion


Oral History for Social Justice on interviewing ethics to catch a bus to the suburbs of D.C. to convivir and do another round of interviews with Salvadoran immigrants, who had come from the community I had worked with there a decade earlier.

05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it. Currently, I co-direct Amamantar y Migrar, an oral history/organizing project exploring the connections between motherhood and migration and, more specifically, the impacts of immigration policy and enforcement on breastfeeding practices among immigrant women.

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work? In our project, oral history interviews with immigrant parents serve as the basis for collective analysis to

surface barriers that immigrant mothers face in exercising their autonomy in infant-feeding decisions and their potential solutions. From there, we are engaging project narrators in the creation of oral history-based media to share their stories and analyses via forums designed to support grassroots organizing, shift policy, and enact systems change.

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA? Rural Organizing Voices is the other major oral history initiative I’ve directed since graduating from OHMA. The project documents and shares the stories, organizing tools, and wisdom amassed through the Rural Organizing Project’s (ROP) history of grassroots, progressive organizing in rural and small town Oregon. Over the course of four years, I worked with a small group of volunteers to record nearly fifty oral history interviews with former and current ROP affiliates.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? OHMA provided me with an important theoretical foundation and the opportunity to refine my skills as an interviewer. It also established connections to a broader community of oral history practitioners that has helped ground and propel me forward as I map out a new path for myself and my work as a movement oral historian.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? In this emerging field of applied oral history, risk-taking and innovation are central. OHMA is a great place to experiment with new ideas with some solid institutional support and resources behind you.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? My hope is that the field will build on its radical foundations to create even more dynamic opportunities for individuals and communities to preserve, share, and interpret their own histories in ways that actively further the collective liberation of all peoples.


Nicki Pombier Berger, 2010 01 How did you become interested in oral history? Oral history drew a line around many things I had long loved but didn’t know were collected together in any single field: language, voice and vocality, attention to the unsaid, a real concern with meta-analysis, curiosity and self-awareness, intellectual and political rigor, social engagement, and the activation of a searching quality to the space between two people in a room— giving (given) time and space.

02 How did you hear about OHMA? I was pursuing an MFA in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and took an elective that sounded interesting to me: Oral History and Literature, taught by OHMA Prof. Gerry Albarelli. I was immediately hooked.

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis. The centerpiece of my thesis, “Nothing About Us Without Us,” is a digital storytelling collection featuring self-advocates with Down syndrome. By serving as a conduit, curator, and collaborative narrator, I hoped to present their voices in such a way that combated stigma with dignity. I also challenged the myth of dependence with stories of agency and showcased the diversity of perspectives of people with Down syndrome.

04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable. One of my most memorable and transformational experiences in OHMA was in Prof. Mary Marshall Clark’s Method & Theory course. During one interview, I had failed to account for the ways in which my projections


Stories from Self-Advocates with Down Syndrome onto the narrator were impeding my ability to hear with a critical ear. When the interview was shared with my peers, these particular silences rang painfully loud. I did a deep self-critique and have ever since worked much harder to be aware of those situations in which I might identify with my narrators in ways that could impede an interview.

05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it. I am currently working as a freelance oral historian, after working at StoryCorps in a range of roles. My first contract gig was for an initiative funded by Toward Independent Living and Learning. The next oral history project I joined—A Fierce Kind of Love—grew out of a conversation with Lisa Sonneborn, who produced the project at Temple University. Last year, I also joined the New School for Drama as a part-time member of the faculty.

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work? Recently, I have been trying to deepen my understanding around what it means to work “oral historically.” It’s a subject of conversation I’m actively engaging in with the other OHMA alums I collaborate with to produce In Context Journal (a new oral history publication), and with my fellow classmate and colleague, Liza Zapol.

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA? Currently, I am a fellow on the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project, led by OHMA alum Sara Sinclair at the Columbia Center for Oral History Research. I also worked on Here. Stories from Selinsgrove Center and KenCrest Services, an oral history-based civic engagement project. Recently, I co-taught an alumni short course on “Performing the Interview” with Liza Zapol.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? Immeasurably.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? Remember that oral history is long form: be patient, keep working, follow through, acknowledge your limits, embrace uncertainty, resist fixity, and have fun.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? I hope that oral history will be challenged to consider what it would mean to grow in a way that is truly inclusive and ever-more participatory: where are our limits and how can we expand them to include self-expression that comes by way of non-traditional/non-verbal/nonoral sources? On the flip side: what do the ethics of oral history have to contribute to a cultural landscape flooded with “story”? How can we participate—actively, ethically—in the creation and critique of culture?


Haitao Fan, 2011 01 How did you become interested in oral history? In 2009, I was a journalist for the Beijing Youth Daily and had the opportunity to write an interview-based autobiography for the Vice President of Google China, Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, called Making a World of Difference —which became a bestseller! After that experience, I began to think about how to record personal histories in order to pass them along to the next generation.

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis. I wanted to explore the lives of Chinese Americans, so I wrote profiles on five people from different backgrounds. When I interviewed them, most of my narrators told vivid stories about how they came to the U.S. without any money, struggled between two cultures, and became used to their new environments. And they always told me how America changed their mindset.

02 How did you hear about OHMA?

04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable.

My husband read Stud Terkel’s American Dreams when he was young. When I finished my book and wanted to apply to an American university, he strongly recommended Columbia. He knew that OHMA was the best and only place to study oral history, and I felt that going there would fulfill not only my dream but his, too.

My most memorable experience was when Prof. Gerry Albarelli took us to the Fortune Society to interview formerly incarcerated people. I spoke with a man who had been a drug dealer, which initially made me nervous


A Life In Between Two Cultures because I was not sure if there were any safety concerns or whether he was willing to discuss his difficult experiences in prison. It turned out that these worries were unnecessary because he was talkative and happy, and told his tragic stories with honesty.

05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it. After graduation, I set up my own studio that produces biographical writing and oral history projects. My new book, Life Begins at Thirty, launched this spring in mainland China. Before I even finished the book, seven publishers approached me and fought for the copyright. In Life Begins at Thirty, I describe my life at Columbia and spend three chapters telling readers what happened in our oral history classes. Now, I am working on another celebrity’s autobiography.

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work? I apply a lot of what I learned at Columbia when I draft biographies, especially the writing skills from Gerry’s Literary Narratives course. I also work closely with the oral history community in China, where many people have not yet heard about the different uses for interviews, like creating theatre monologues. My wish is to import what I have learned from OHMA to China, so that I can bridge the gap between the two countries and create opportunities for academic exchange.

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA? Life Begins at Thirty has been my main project. While it is more like an autobiography, it has oral historical elements and discusses my time learning about oral history in OHMA.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? As the first Chinese student in OHMA, I feel that I have the sweet burden of responsibility to express and teach, practice and promote. By doing so, I hope that I can popularize oral history in my home country and lead young people to record the sprit of China.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? I suggest that current students cherish their time in school and reach out to the guest lecturers as much as possible. These oral historians will not only inspire you while you’re taking classes, they can give you helpful advice when you complete your studies in OHMA.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? With more and more students graduating from this program, I believe that oral history will gain further exposure. The oral history community in China is growing quickly and I feel that it will integrate with the international oral history scene very soon.


Ellen Brooks, 2012 01 How did you become interested in oral history? My introduction to oral history heavily centered on Studs Terkel. Around the same time I was accepted into OHMA, I attended a celebration in Chicago marking what would have been his 100th birthday. As someone who believes strongly in the power of recording and studying history, oral history seemed like a perfect fit.

02 How did you hear about OHMA? I was searching for a graduate program that incorporated my academic love of history and my personal passion for storytelling. Initially, I was looking into public history and folklore-based graduate programs. I was simultaneously learning more and more about oral history as a field, and eventually all of my research led me to OHMA.

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis. My thesis focused on women’s tattoos and scars. The objective was to gain insight into how women narrate the stories of their bodies. Skin, scars, and tattoos were the elements I used to draw out these stories.

04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable. I remember our cohort’s visit to the Tamiment Library at NYU particularly well because it was my first real exposure to how archives function. One of the reasons this visit stuck with me is because I have become what I consider to be an “accidental archivist” for my current job and have grown to feel that it is vital for oral historians to understand the importance of archiving their work.


Women Narrativizing the Body 05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it.

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA?

I am the oral historian at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum (WVM), where I am responsible for growing our interview collection. We conduct oral histories with veterans from all over the state, every conflict/era, and

Aside from my full-time job at WVM, I have been hired for a few family history-based oral history projects. This has been a great way to make sure that my skillset stays well-rounded, and to gain additional experience outside

each branch of service. It is my role to determine how best to store, preserve, and arrange the interviews, and to find ways to make the collection more accessible.

of the museum and archives world.

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work? One of the most significant components of my job is educating people—whether it is fellow staff members, researchers, or potential narrators—about what oral history is (and is not). Having such a strong foundation from OHMA has given me the knowledge and confidence to share the craft with others.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? OHMA gave me the foundation I needed to take on my position at WVM. Through our readings, discussions, and fieldwork experiences, I became deeply immersed in the field. After a year, I emerged as an oral history professional. I have done a lot of learning on the job, but OHMA gave me the confidence to pursue oral history as a career.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? There is definitely a place for oral history in the realm of public history. Our museum is dedicated to not only growing our interview collection, but also figuring out how to utilize these amazing primary sources in education, programming, and exhibits. I would recommend keeping in mind that anyone interested in pursuing oral history in a museum or public history space should be ready to face technological challenges, and be able to contribute creative and innovative ideas.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? Although I am, of course, interested in all areas of the field, I am particularly conscious of how oral history integrates into or works alongside other types of archival collections. I hope that we continue to see development in how oral history is preserved, arranged, and described so that it can be discovered and used by educators, researchers, and the general public. It’s amazing to have oral history interviews, but if they are just collecting dust, we are letting an extremely valuable resource go to waste.


Sewon Chung Barrera, 2012 01 How did you become interested in oral history? As a Sociology student at the College of William and Mary, I filmed a documentary at the border of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. Visibility and visual representation became complicated, as some of my interviewees were undocumented migrants. To include these essential voices, I realized that I had to explore alternative ways to represent them on the screen.

02 How did you hear about OHMA? I came across OHMA while working in China on an audiovisual blog series for MIT’s CoLab Radio called “Bike Lanes of Kunming.” I was looking for a graduate program that offered academic rigor, hands-on training with digital media tools, and a nuanced approach to representation, voice, and power.

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis. My thesis focused on Central Park North, a street essential to Manhattan’s cultural geography, yet often placed in the periphery of its history. To convey the visuality of memories captured in the audio interviews, I combined traditional oral history methods with new media technology to produce an interactive web-exhibit and audiovisual installation piece.

04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable. As a culmination of my work in OHMA, I collaborated with two classmates on a pop-up oral history exhibit in Brooklyn. We found resources at Columbia to fund the exhibit and local support to host the one-day event. It was memorable to see the worlds of our narrators,


Listening to the Streets of New York classmates, and communities meld together.

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA?

05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it.

A majority of my work since graduation has been informed by oral history. Right after completing my thesis, I had a three-month residency at a meditation center and organic mountain farm outside of Seoul,

I was recently hired as a Senior Marketing Specialist at Samsung and am the co-founder and CEO of Village Ko, a California-based online store and community for artisanal Korean goods. I also serve as the Creative Arts Practice Fellow at Impact Hub Oakland, joining a global community of professionals taking action to drive positive social and environmental change.

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work? I presently collaborate with three other OHMA alums as a co-founder of In Context Journal, an independent quarterly publication for oral historical work.

Korea, where I worked on a photography series, exhibit, and book. After moving to Oakland, California, I worked as a full-time digital content strategy consultant at a marketing agency for two years.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? OHMA was a positive, grounding experience in my continued journey and opened many doors for me. It has enabled me to delve into a marketing strategy career and inspired me to become an entrepreneur.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? No matter what sector you desire to work in, oral history can provide a helpful perspective. For those interested in the fields of communications, marketing, consulting, or user experience, a formal training in oral history can mark you as a unique candidate during the interview process and on the job. The topic becomes a wonderful conversation starter about the art of listening, empathy, and human connections.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? I foresee oral history continuing to evolve, bolstered by technologies that are being developed to streamline transcription and annotation processes, along with new ways to archive and exhibit works. On the other side: digital storytelling has already become an ubiquitous term used by academics, marketers, and designers alike. The lens of oral history can inform the ways people approach these stories, from concept to finish.


Benji de la Piedra, 2014 01 How did you become interested in oral history? I came to oral history by way of American studies. At Columbia College, I discovered a tradition of American cosmopolitanism, which encourages the exploration of a fluid personal and national identity within civic interaction. I learned to think about “history” as a set of experiences that real people live through and reimagine in varying ways. Oral history interviewing seemed like a rich and distinctive method for realizing these ideas in the work that I hope to do as a civic-minded writer and educator.

02 How did you hear about OHMA? As a junior in college, I studied abroad in Paris as a member of Columbia’s Global Scholars Program. On Wednesday afternoons, we would have skillbuilding

workshops, the penultimate one being “How to Conduct Oral Research.” Prof. Mary Marshall Clark appeared on our projector screen via Skype and discussed oral history methodology and ethics, linking each of our projects to oral history in ways that were generative and surprising. I was enamored within minutes.

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis. My thesis relates Ralph Ellison’s writings and biography to the overlapping theories of democratic pluralism and the dialogical encounter that are found in the work of B.A. Botkin and oral historian Alessandro Portelli. I begin by positioning the Folklore Unit of the Federal Writers’ Project as a foundational moment in the development of American oral history, work through Portelli’s crucial understanding of intersubjective dialogue, and end by examining Book I of Ellison’s posthumously published novel, Three Days Before the Shooting.


Democratic Pluralism & the Dialogical Encounter 04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable. More than one single experience, I remember the little moments of being in class with a group of people who were all working towards being professionally good listeners.

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work? Without my oral history training, I would not know how to go about interviewing people, much less how to put their individual stories in conversation with larger historical forces. So oral historical approaches really are everything to my work.

05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it.

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA?

This fall—in partnership with my classmate and close friend, Mario Alvarez—I’ll be initiating a project to gather life history narratives from students in Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The project will aim to engender a restorative campus-wide conversation about diversity, belonging, and feelings of institutional disavowal in higher education.

I have begun researching the biography of a Washington Post journalist named Herbert Denton, Jr. (19451989). My work is based primarily on interviews with people who knew Denton well, including the folks he grew up with in Little Rock, Arkansas. This project will produce a book that uses Denton’s life story as a window onto the various historical events and zeitgeists that he lived through, and in some cases, even shaped.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? OHMA solidified my career path as a budding writer, educator, and cultural historian. It also attuned me to the fine art of conversation and broadened my selfunderstanding as a human being in this great, big, marvelous world of ours.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? Oral history is defined, in many ways, by its evasion of fixed definitions—which can be either liberating or paralyzing. Try to have a sense of your own goals before conducting interviews, but stay flexible and responsive.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? I’m interested in developing a literary understanding of oral history. I think oral historians have tremendous potential to fire up the imagination and to put into words “that something else” I refer to in the title of my thesis, deepening our understanding of the infinitely possible variations on the human condition.


Mario Alvarez, 2015 01 How did you become interested in oral history?

03 Tell us a little about your master’s thesis.

As an American history major, I always found “history” to be an interesting term, but felt that the field was a bit dry and rigid in its long tradition. Oral history excited me

My thesis is about Columbia College student activists of color and their experiences in navigating this enormous institution that is Columbia University, while working towards social justice. I’ve been interviewing

because of how flexible and dynamic the discipline is. It seemed like a great fusion of my intellectual interests.

the students about how they define activism and what they hope for from spaces like this university.

02 How did you hear about OHMA?

04 Please share one experience from OHMA you find to be particularly memorable.

OHMA alum Benji de la Piedra, a close friend from Columbia College, told me about the program while he was applying in our senior year. When Benji started his year in OHMA, he couldn’t stop talking about it. He brought me over to an oral history workshop during the fall of 2014 and introduced me to Prof. Mary Marshall Clark for the first time that day.

I’ll always remember our Fieldwork class trip to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center BLDG 92. It was really great to see how oral history interviews could be integrated in an interactive, multimedia museum.


Voices of Student Activists of Color 05 Describe your current job and tell us how you came to it.

07 What oral history projects have you worked on since graduating OHMA?

I learned unexpected skills as a fellow at the Digital Humanities Center this spring. I’ve always been technologically-inclined, but never had a formal opportunity to hone my skillset. Collaborating on the design of the

This fall, I am going to be working with Benji de la Piedra on a project about what it means to be a graduate student at Columbia University. The idea arose from concerns about the intellectual climate at Columbia, and

OHMA thesis website with the Center for Teaching and Learning was an exciting learning experience that complemented my studies in the program.

the cultural tension that has pervaded many universities across the country. We hope our project will inspire a more race-conscious dialogue on campus.

06 How are you applying oral history approaches to your work? What I’ve appreciated the most is the life history approach that is emphasized in OHMA. In the interviews for my thesis, I spend more time than you’d think asking about childhood and early formative experiences. It is a rigorous approach that often yields interesting points later on in each interview.

Our intended narrators will be incredibly diverse, with respect to religion, geographic origin, departmental affilation, et cetera. We also don’t want to assume that students of color or those who “embody” diversity are alienated or disavowed. So we’re using oral history to come in with an open mind. By the project’s conclusion, we hope to have produced a model for other research institutions that would like to support this kind of work.

08 How do you think your year in OHMA has influenced your life and contributed to your career path? I’ve grown to enjoy working on a variety of projects and having a dynamic professional life, so I rarely find myself bored or stuck in a numbing routine. I also never anticipated a way of bringing my interests in digital tools and the humanities together in one place.

09 What is one thing you think would be helpful for current or prospective students to hear from someone working in your field? Don’t think that your schedule and syllabus have to define your time in OHMA! I personally appreciated the unique experience of forming close relationships with the faculty, approaching our professors not only as mentors and leaders but also as colleagues and friends.

10 How do you think the field of oral history will continue to develop? I do feel that part of oral history is still stuck in a recordand-archive mentality. The more oral historians learning to implement interactive, digital tools in their projects, the better. It would be great for OHMA to be at the forefront of making this further innovation happen.


THE DREAM CONTINUES... “OHMA is everything we hoped it would become when we created the program in 2008. Our students—intellectuals, advocates, and digital experts— are leading a new generation of oral historians.”

— Mary Marshall Clark, OHMA Co-Founder & Co-Director


Estate Catalog 2012 Oral History Master of Arts Program INCITE & CCOHR | Columbia University www.oralhistory.columbia.edu ohma@columbia.edu

ORAL HISTORY (RE)MASTERED  

Since Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program admitted its first cohort in the fall of 2008, we have proudly welcomed eigh...

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