Education Committee Blog

Linking Research and Teaching: International OH in the US Classroom

Dr. Amber Abbas
Assistant Professor of History
St. Joseph’s University
July 2016

One of the wonderful things about oral history research is that you can do it anywhere in the world. With a well-conceived project, some portable recording equipment and a lot of patience, your research depends on people, not institutions. The bulk of my oral history interviews have taken place in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and I have been lucky to be able to travel throughout South Asia as I collected them and explored the histories my narrators recounted.

When I began teaching, though, I faced a conundrum. How was I supposed to teach oral history in South Asia to American undergraduates in the United States? As a historian, my interests and expertise are distinctly rooted in South Asian experience, but I clearly could not take my students to South Asia (at least not right away). Lucky for me, from 2000-2010 South Asians were the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States, increasing in population at a rate of 81% over the decade. I shifted my focus to South Asians in the United States and designed an oral history project that focused on South Asian Migration.

At about the same time, a new digital resource came online that has been indispensable to my work: The South Asian American Digital Archive. The archive did not contain any oral histories, but their mission was to collect artifacts of many kinds that preserve the history of South Asians in the United States since their arrival over one hundred years ago. I contacted SAADA to ask if they might be interested in oral histories created by my students? The answer was yes, and thus began an ongoing partnership. My students must locate a migrant from South Asia who came to this country under their own power (not brought as a child by an adult) from a South Asian country. After students design, conduct, record and transcribe their interviews SAADA considers them for inclusion in the archive. This gives the students’ work a life beyond the classroom and helps to build the archive of South Asian experience that SAADA sustains.

The first time I taught the class, as a graduate student in 2012, I established the model I have used since. The course has focused on the history of South Asian migration, and students also learn oral history methodology through reading key OH texts like Paul Thompson’s The Voice of the Past. They read sources that incorporate oral histories, they listen to existing oral histories. About halfway through the class they begin to design their questionnaire. We refine it together, with the goal of engaging the we have learned about in the history of migration and the best practices of oral history so that students might listen carefully to the stories their narrators tell. After transcribing the interviews, the class has created a small oral history collection that becomes the source material for interpretive final papers.

I have found, as have many others who have worked with college students and oral histories, that the students find the experience transformative. It “humanizes” history for them, makes it more tangible. But I have also struggled with students’ interpretive abilities. It is a challenge to get them to listen for the story behind the story, to do the sophisticated work of listening for meaning drawn from the past into the present. The majority of South Asian migrants that they have located are upwardly mobile, highly educated, upper class. Their stories are not, on the surface, stories of struggle. Though these voices are underrepresented in American spaces, they tell familiar stories of the American Dream. The students have been dazzled by the success stories of a group often seen as a “model minority” and have not always heard the stories of discrimination, loss and grief that often lurk within.

To address these challenges, as I prepare to teach the class again in spring 2017, the focus will shift. Students will continue to interview South Asian migrants to the US, but I will coordinate with a local refugee community in Philadelphia. This will lift the pressure on the students to locate their own narrators, provide some shared characteristics among narrators, and hopefully present stories that challenge the prevailing stereotypes of the South Asian “model minority.” Above all, it will help to give these underrepresented communities a voice as SAADA continues to partner with me to bring these stories to the public.

In the past, the balance of content in the class was on the history of South Asians, now it will be on oral history. I am putting together a reading list on designing projects, giving back to the community, listening. I welcome your suggestions in the comments section below!

As an educator, it is always a challenge to link research and teaching, and the challenge is especially acute when as an oral historian working outside the United States, it is not easy to take students into the field. However, with a slight shift in focus, a great community partner, and a supportive department (that, among other things, has allowed me to purchase high quality recording equipment) it is possible to bring the field to students. As an oral historian, I can work anywhere. In 21st century America, the world is often right on our doorstep if we can step out of our comfort zones to find it.

Check out Amber’s blog post from 2012 for the South Asian American Digital Archive after teaching the oral history class for the first time, as a graduate student.
Find a lesson plan describing her oral history and South Asian Migration class including bibliographies.

SAALT. “A Demographic Snapshot of South Asians in the United States.” news release, July 2012.

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