Five years ago, in 2008, Columbia University’s Center for Oral History (CCOH), in collaboration with the university’s Institute for Social and Economic Research Policy (ISERP), launched the Oral History Master of Arts degree program (OHMA), housed at Columbia’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE). To date, forty-five students have graduated from the year-long program, and fourteen will enter in the fall. While many public history graduate programs incorporate the study of oral history, the OHMA remains the only graduate level program in the United States focusing exclusively on oral history.
Origins of the Program
That CCOH (formerly the Oral History Research Office) would initiate such a program is a logical next step for what is generally accepted as one of the premier oral history programs in the world. Founded in 1948, it holds more than eight thousand archived interviews, and successive directors have been instrumental in advancing the method and theory of oral history internationally. When Mary Marshall Clark became director in early 2001 after more than a decade of affiliation with the Center, she and the previous director, Ronald J. Grele, were already envisioning an advanced program of study in oral history: enrollments in the single oral history course offered through Columbia’s history department evidenced widespread interest in the methodology throughout the university, and the Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellows hosted by the Center from 1998 to 2000 similarly demonstrated engagement with oral history across many scholarly disciplines and professional fields. As Clark puts in: “An MA program would enable oral history to enter into the broader intellectual life of the university and also support colloquy among diverse practitioners.”
But it took the events of 9/11 in New York City – or more properly their aftermath – to set in motion the process that would ultimately result in the founding of the OHMA program. Shortly after the attack on the twin towers, Clark and Columbia sociology professor Peter Bearman, currently director of INCITE and at the time director of ISERP, worked together to develop the September 11, 2001, Oral History Narrative and Memory Project, a longitudinal study designed to gather diverse perspectives on the impact of September 11th and to allow individuals to speak about their experiences outside the frameworks rapidly developing in official media and government accounts. Their collaboration was fortuitous: whereas the CCOH was located administratively within Columbia’s Butler Library and was reliant largely upon external funds, ISERP, an interdepartmental and intercollegiate research institute grounded in the social sciences, was well situated within Columbia’s academic structure and had resources at its disposal – both of which proved essential to the development of the OHMA. Additionally, according to Clark, “Working with numerous interviewers from a range of fields over a four-year period demonstrated the value of working across the disciplines to address the problematics of memory, politics, and history in the public sphere. I could see how oral history does have a stake in the ways public, social, and collective memory is formed. The 9/11 project also taught me that training can really improve the quality of oral history narratives and that the analysis of those narratives can and should be taught. ” Or as they wrote, quoting Proust, in the introduction to their After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years That Followed (coedited with Catherine Ellis and Stephen Drury Smith): “One learns more ‘from traveling through a single land with a thousand pairs of eyes than traveling through a thousand lands with a single pair of eyes.’ ” Building upon the intellectual foundations established by the September 11th project, they began discussing a master’s program in oral history as early as 2003. Five years later, Clark and Bearman, serving as program codirectors, welcomed the OHMA’s first students.
Contours of the OHMA
The program is characterized by both interdisciplinarity and an emphasis on putting oral history to work in the world. To earn the degree, students take a minimum of thirty-one and a maximum of thirty-six credits, including a thesis, in courses that cut across the disciplines of history, sociology, literature, anthropology, psychology, and public health. Classes emphasize both the methods of oral history – conducting, archiving, and presenting interviews and planning oral history projects – and underlying theories for interpreting the meaning that inheres in interviews. Encouraging the circulation of ideas, core faculty, as well as an annual visiting scholar, who is typically an internationally recognized oral historian, are situated in diverse fields; required courses are supplemented by rotating electives, often experimental in their approach to oral history. Examples include The Voice of the Witness: History, Literature, Law, cotaught by Columbia professor of comparative literature Marianne Hirsch and historian Leo Spitzer; and Memory, Visuality, and the Body, to be taught in 2014 by visiting professor Luisa Passerini, a historian at the European University Institute. According to Clark: “The curriculum is a rich mix of social scientific and humanities-based approaches to creating knowledge. At its center is an examination of the relationship of history, memory, and culture in specific times and places through individual lives – oral history is the connective tissue that allows us to do that.”
It is in the classes themselves where interdisciplinarity comes alive. While many students enter the program with some familiarity with oral history broadly defined, they – like the faculty – come at it from many directions – ethnography, performance, human rights work, family history, and social work to cite only a few examples. They bring these diverse backgrounds and interests into the classroom, enlivening discussions enormously. Students speak of the “companionship and curiosity” of other students, their “creativity and passion,” coupled with “the general atmosphere of creative encouragement” as highlights of the program.
Another highlight is the required field work course, which includes hands-on work on a specific project, often undertaken in partnership with a local institution or organization. For example, student Erica Fugger teamed up with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center, which is developing materials documenting the Yard’s history, to interview people who worked there during the Cold War. Another student, Sam Robson, worked with Make the Road New York, a Latino and working class advocacy group, to interview young people from Latin America who are potential beneficiaries of the Dream Act about both their immigrant experiences and future plans. A feature of many students’ work is the creative use of new media, in essence restoring the oral to oral history. Of particular interest to Cross Ties readers may be the audio essay “Hydraulic Fracturing: An Oral History,” produced by program graduates Shanna Farrell, Sophie Cooper, Anna Levy, and Kristen La Follette, focusing on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Pennsylvania and New York. As Robson’s project and the fracking essay suggest, student work frequently uses oral history to address contemporary social issues.
Student theses are the capstone of their work in the OHMA program, bringing together method and theory and often, production and collaboration. For her thesis, 2011 graduate Liza Zapol, working with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan, researched the history of Jewish businesses on the Lower East Side, conducted several oral history interviews with current business owners, and produced an audio tour that explores the powerful memories these businesses stir up among contemporary Jews long removed from the Lower East Side. Her interviews served as background for the permanent Shop Life exhibit at the museum (reported on in the January/February 2013 issue of Cross Ties) and inform its tours of the Lower East Side. Presented in a more conventional written format, Sara Wolcott’s 2013 thesis, “Weight of Words: A Co-Constructed Narrative of Love and/in Trauma,” creatively interweaves excerpts from interviews she conducted with survivors of the Armenian genocide, scholarly reflections on the value and meanings of trauma narratives, and a reflexive account of her own experiences in the field. Reflecting the approach of the OHMA, It is less an oral history “of” something and more “about” oral history as a deeply human form of inquiry.
Impact of the OHMA Program
For students in the program, the OHMA has both consolidated existing interests and led to the next step in their education and career even as it has, for some, led to shifts in this trajectory. Crystal Baik, who graduated in 2010, calls her participation in the M.A. program a “life changing experience.” Interested in community-based interventions into intimate violence, she had been enrolled in the Master of Science in Social Work program at Columbia when she learned of the OHMA. Her previous work had attuned her to the value of personal narratives of violence outside of the social work context, and oral history’s open ended, flexible approach appealed to her. She subsequently left the social work program and enrolled in the OHMA, writing an M.A. thesis based on interviews she conducted with survivors of intimate violence, as part of the Voices of Women Organizing Project, a New York based advocacy group committed to ensuring that survivors’ voices are incorporated in public and policy discussions. Baik subsequently enrolled in the Ph.D. program in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, where she is pursuing work on the intergenerational transmission of memories of the Korean War among the Korean diaspora. She hopes to combine post-secondary teaching with community-based oral history work. Similarly, Liza Zapol, with a background in performance, entered the program as a teaching artist and actor. Drawing upon knowledge gained and skills learned in the OHMA, she now works as a documentary producer and oral historian primarily within museums and cultural institutions in New York City.
The program also holds potential for a broader impact both within Columbia and on the field of oral history. Institutionally, the OHMA is an essential part of Clark’s vision to combine the Center for Oral History’s traditional archival functions with an active program of research support and set of educational programs. Building on a popular interest in oral history within educational and cultural institutions, the OHMA can also provide – indeed is providing – these institutions with well trained, professional oral historians. In doing so, it raises standards of oral history, a practice still too often understood simply as putting a recorder in front of someone and asking them to talk about their life. Finally, it is Clark’s intention that Columbia’s Oral History M.A. will serve as a model for the development of additional oral history programs. “My dearest hope,” she says, “is that other M.A. programs will be developed and that oral history will take its place in the academy on the undergraduate and graduate levels; that it will be seen as the best method for understanding historical change in human terms; that it can address complex human rights problems; and that it will be instantiated in the social sciences.” She continues: “I also hope it remains as a mix of disciplines that can help overcome the hard divisions between the social sciences and the humanities, a field in its own right.”
For more information on Columbia’s Oral History Master of Arts Program, go to http://oralhistory.columbia.edu/.
Linda Shopes is a contributing editor to Cross Ties. In addition to the people cited in this article who gave generously of their time to recount their experience with Columbia’s OHMA, she would like to thank Amy Starecheski, associate director of the program, for providing essential background information.