“Listening for a Change”: Students Blog about Texas After Violence Project Oral Histories

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This week in “English 10-714: Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” several students posted on our class blog about the experience of listening to a Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) oral history interview.  The TAVP collects oral history interviews from people across Texas who have been affected by the death penalty in our state.  The audiovisual interviews are archived at the Human Rights Documentation Initiative.  The motto of the TAVP–“Listening For A Change”–indicates the TAVP’s goal of influencing public discourse about capital punishment in Texas by providing a forum for individuals to share their stories.

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Students selected one oral history to listen to this week, and completed this Close Listening Worksheet as they listened. Using the results of these worksheets to compose blog posts, students reflected on the interviews, raised important questions, and made insightful observations about how the interviews connect with course readings.  Since the TAVP interviews represent a range of positions on the death penalty, one student remarked,

“Dismissing people based on their stance on capital punishment is not objective. Although anyone can agree or disagree with her it is important to listen to anyone and everyone’s story in a way that allows for judgement to take the backseat.”

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Screenshot from TAVP interview with Iliana Lopez, archived at the HRDI

Another student, who listened to an interview with Iliana López (see screenshot above), noted that this interview reinforces the importance of oral history at large.

“I found Illiana’s lived experiences accurately mapped out why restorative justice can be a powerful alternative to the responses of traditional law enforcement and courts… Her experience demonstrates the need to listen and share oral narratives; the stories of people we may not otherwise listen to, or who we may only hear through the filter of a criminal justice system that is more set on dehumanizing punishment rather than restorative conversation.”

Yet another student concluded, “It is difficult to learn to bear witness to injustice without either finding justice in it or turning yourself off. But witnessing is without question important.”

This is a significant point to which I would like to return over the course of our class discussions this semester.  Why is it important that we bear witness to injustice by engaging with oral histories?  What do we do with our emotions when listening to troubling narratives?  What are some productive ways in which we can process and respond to the stories of injustice we’re encountering?

*All student bloggers in the class, including those cited above, completed this Social Media Privacy Agreement at the beginning of the semester.*

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New Year, New Opportunities to Teach with Archives!

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I’m looking forward to an exciting semester working with Southwestern University undergrads on projects involving a host of digital archives initiatives: the Digital Public Library of America, the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, and the Rule of Law Oral History Project, to name just a few.  The beginning of the semester is a good time to evaluate teaching resources that have worked well in the past and think about incorporating new ones.  Inspired by my colleague and fellow Council on Library and Information Resources Postdoc Monica Mercado’s (@monicalmercado) Twitter appeal this morning on behalf of her independent study undergrads–“does anyone have an article they like on *doing* archival research?”–I’ve collected here my go-to resources for facilitating undergraduate engagement with archives.  I developed these resources with the support of the Bridging Disciplines Programs at UT-Austin in 2013, when I was still a wee graduate student.  I’m happy to report that I still find them useful for getting everyone (students and faculty) on the same page about what archives are and how undergrads can orient themselves to the archival research task.

Without further ado:

Archival Research Glossary and Exercise. This glossary pulls from the Society of American Archivists Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology.  The accompanying exercise enables students to familiarize themselves with common concepts and terms they’ll encounter in physical and digital archives.

Archival Artifact Analysis Worksheet. This basic worksheet challenges students to make analytical observations about a selected archival object.  It also asks students to think about next steps for researching context, thus initiating the process of identifying secondary sources to contextualize primary sources.

Undergraduate Archival Research Considerations. This hand-out offers strategies and considerations for undergraduates new to the archival research task.

Archives and Interdisciplinary Education. This hand-out for faculty offers strategies and considerations for involving students in archives-based coursework.

Guest Blogger Tu-Uyen Nguyen Reflects on Oral History Archiving Internship

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Tu-Uyen Nguyen, TAVP intern extraordinaire, will graduate this spring with majors in Asian American Studies and Classics

Ten days after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Aryan Brotherhood member Mark Stroman attempted to kill three men he believed were terrorists: Vasudev Patel, Waqar Hasan, and Rais Bhuiyan. Only Bhuiyan survived to become a spokesperson against Islamophobia and the racial ignorance it represents. Ten years later when Stroman was issued the death penalty, Bhuiyan sued Texas Governor Rick Perry to stop Stroman’s execution. When Rais Bhuiyan survived Mark Stroman’s bullets, I was in in the fifth grade and without a clue that a decade later, I would be transcribing his interview with the Texas After Violence Project. When Stroman was executed, I was a junior at UT starting my Asian American Studies coursework as my third major. While I have only finished transcribing two of the eight hours of Bhuiyan’s interview, it has already taught me meaningful historical, educational, and personal lessons.

From Bhuiyan’s oral history interview, we learn a lot about Bhuiyan’s middle-class family experience in Bangladesh: his childhood memories of shaking mango trees during the rainy season to gather their fruit, and his coming of age in the nation’s top military school. Military school was foundational to Bhuiyan’s aspirations as a young man deciding his life path, just like the thousands of students at UT Austin are deciding their own future. Bhuiyan’s first dream to be a pilot in the Bangladeshi Air Force changed to a “dream to come to U.S. for higher education and to experience the American Dream and see the world.” Bhuiyan talks about what the American Dream is to him and how racial representation emblematizes the progress the U.S. has made:

“This is a free country where whatever you want to be, you can be… If you dream for it, you go for it, and you work hard, and you know, you achieve your goal. And you will lead a free life, you have the freedom of speech, you have the freedom of – expressing yourself. Whatever you want to be, you can be that. And our presence is an example of that. Who thought that within sixty years of segregation that there would be a black man in the White House, right?”

Bhuiyan’s remarks resonate with many of the narratives, images, and concepts of the American Dream I have encountered in my Asian American Studies coursework, pertaining to war, diaspora, labor migrations, and immigration exclusions and reform. Rais Bhuiyan is one individual whose perspective demonstrates how both Americans and people abroad understand the American Dream.

For me, as a student and future teacher, the implications of working with the Bhuiyan interview are both academic and personal. My Asian American Studies major provides me with a critical framework for exploring our shared experiences as Americans encountering race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, and other identity features that influence our individual and collective agency. As I continue to transcribe Bhuiyan’s interview with the Texas After Violence Project, I will be reflecting on the shooting incident that brought Bhuiyan as a Muslim American in contact with a white supremacist. I will be learning how Stroman learned about peace and acceptance from Bhuiyan’s advocacy against his execution. I will learn more about Bhuiyan’s personal philosophy against the death penalty and his perspective on our community as human individuals rather than simply criminals and victims. By learning about Bhuiyan’s experience and knowledge as it is represented in the TAVP archive, I am gaining a deeper understanding of the American dream, ways of remembering 9/11, and how to negotiate the death penalty as a Texan and an American.

Amplify Archives Event Showcases Community-Archives-Based Teaching and Learning

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Last Friday, the Texas After Violence Project hosted a panel discussion about how the TAVP oral history archive, made digitally available through UT-Austin’s Human Rights Documentation Initiative, features in undergraduate teaching and learning at UT.  The event took place as part of Amplify Austin, an exciting annual fundraising event supporting non-profits across the city.  Participants convened at the Benson Latin America Collection, which is the physical home of the HRDI.

Rebecca Lorins, Acting Director of the TAVP and organizer of the Amplify Archives event, kicked off the discussion by welcoming the audience and providing some background on the purpose and operations of the TAVP, which aims to collect and archive oral histories that reflect how the death penalty affects communities throughout Texas.  Kathryn Darnall, Graduate Research Assistant, followed up Rebecca’s remarks with an explanation of the HRDI’s mission to digitally preserve the archives of social justice movements.  

 

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Kathryn Darnall, Graduate Research Assistant at the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, addresses the Amplify Archives audience

Next, Naomi Paik, Professor of American Studies and Asian American Studies at UT, reflected on her experiences teaching “American Studies 370: Race, Memory, Violence” during Spring of 2012.

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Dr. Paik reflects on her course “AMS 370: Race, Memory, and Violence”

Dr. Paik’s  course description reads as follows: “This interdisciplinary course examines how processes of racial formation and histories of racial violence shape knowledge production about the past in both historical narratives and in collective and individual memory.  We will consider how narratives of the past are produced—from the selection of facts, their assemblage into archives, and creation of historical stories from the archives, as well as in the living and recorded memories of witnesses to the past. ”

Dr. Paik described how the TAVP archives anchored a course unit on race and U.S. imprisonment regimes.  In consultation with Rebecca Lorins, she selected several TAVP oral history interviews representing multiple divergent perspectives on and experiences with the death penalty.  Working in small groups, students analyzed the archives in terms of how they interacted with prevailing histories and assumptions about capital punishment in the U.S.  Dr. Paik emphasized how powerful it is for UT students to engage with archives that are so closely tied to Texas state and regional history.

Following Dr. Paik’s remarks, I said a few words about my role as an intermediary between UT and the TAVP as an Austin community organization.

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Charlotte Nunes discusses her role facilitating the BDP-TAVP internship experience

I have a long-standing relationship with Rebecca Lorins and the TAVP since I worked as a Graduate Assistant for the Bridging Disciplines Program (BDP), an interdisciplinary certificate program at UT.  Over the years, the TAVP has hosted several undergraduate interns from the BDP, and Rebecca was a fantastic resource and collaborator as I pursued a project to support BDP interns by creating workshops and other resources on effective internship practices and responsible community engagement.  When I took on co-Chairing responsibilities for the Human Rights and Archives Working Group in Fall 2013, Rebecca and I agreed that the time was right to mobilize a project that would offer BDP interns meaningful skill-building opportunities while substantively advancing the digital archiving mission of the TAVP.  We circulated this call for interns, and I personally recruited several BDP students I thought might appreciate the opportunity.

Our recruitment efforts yielded a team of five stellar interns, all of whom have demonstrated exemplary commitment to our semester-long digital archiving project.  Rebecca does the vast majority of the supervising work; however, we agree that my role serving as an intermediary between the TAVP and the BDP, and offering supervisory support to Rebecca (for example, I respond to blog posts, edit interns’ written work, and facilitate reading discussions on archival theory and practice), is part of what makes this such a functional university-community engagement project.   This intermediary-consultant model is very effective at facilitating undergraduate engagement with archival materials.  Looking to the future, I think that creating these types of consultant positions for graduate students could offer great professionalization opportunities.  (Hmm… possible category of grant funding??)

The panel concluded with inspiring contributions from the TAVP intern team.

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TAVP interns share their experiences participating in the digital archiving process

Jordan Weber, Tu-Uyen Nguyen, Lillie Leone, Sharla Biefeld, and Jessica Rubio discussed how the internship is connecting with their undergraduate education.  Tu-Uyen shared how transcribing and archiving an interview with Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi-American who survived a murder attempt, is enriching her Asian American Studies minor.  Lillie discussed how the hands-on, skill-building aspect of the internship complements and enhances what she’s learning in UT classrooms.  Several of the students talked about how the internship has illuminated the definition and potential of oral history as a category of knowledge production and transmission.  

A big thank you to all the panel participants and audience members for a fascinating discussion!

 

 

Texas After Violence Project Interns Learn Digital Archiving Software

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Today, the Texas After Violence Project intern team had the opportunity to participate in a GLIFOS workshop with T-Kay Sangwand, Human Rights Archivist, and Kathryn Darnall, Graduate Research Assistant, both of the UT Libraries Human Rights Documentation Initiative.

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From left to right: Tu-Uyen Nguyen, Charlotte Nunes, Jessica Rubio, T-Kay Sangwand, Sharla Biefeld, Jordan Weber, and Lillie Leone. Image credit: Kathryn Darnall

Since 2009, the Human Rights Documentation Initiative has partnered with the Texas After Violence Project to digitally archive the audiovisual oral history interviews collected by the TAVP.  The interviews, which document how the death penalty has influenced Texas communities, are freely available as a resource for public dialogue and scholarly research.  GLIFOS is the software used by the HRDI to sync interview transcripts with interview recordings.  This makes the interviews more accessible as research tools; they are searchable by content, so researchers can quickly find the themes and topics that most interest them within the oral history interviews.

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A TAVP oral history interview with Donna Hogan, digitally archived at the Human Rights Documentation Initiative; note the synced transcript next to the video of the interview.

Each student intern is responsible for bringing one entire TAVP interview to completion, from transcription to HRDI archive and TAVP narrator page.  This way, Rebecca Lorins (TAVP Acting Director) and I hope that the students feel a stronger stake in the project, and we also like the idea that they’ll have a shareable “deliverable” to showcase on their resumes at the end of the semester.  Now that the interns have made such impressive progress transcribing, formatting, drafting abstracts, and creating tables of contents for the series of TAVP interviews they’re working on, they’re ready to begin the digital archiving process.  T-Kay assigned them usernames and passwords so that they can log in to the HRDI website and edit metadata in the TAVP portion of the site.

T-Kay and Kathryn offered a useful GLIFOS manual that has been in development since the beginning of the TAVP-HRDI collaboration in 2009.  After orienting the group to GLIFOS Social Media (GSM), T-Kay and Kathryn invited the students to begin the process of archiving their respective interviews.  Thus the “work” part of the workshop began!

Here’s a look behind the metadata scenes on the TAVP HRDI site:

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The metadata page for a TAVP oral history interview with Ireland Beazley

Descriptive metadata fields include interview creators and contributors, languages, geographic foci, and intellectual property rights.  Once the interns filled out the metadata fields, they began the time-intensive process of syncing transcripts with video.  The interns did a great job engaging with the technical aspects of the workshop.  A big thank-you to T-Kay and Kathryn for sharing their expertise and providing the TAVP intern team with such a useful, hands-on digital skill-building opportunity!

Striking Oral History “Gold” at the Texas After Violence Project

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Today I met with four members of the TAVP digital archiving internship team for a transcription workshop and work session.

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Making reference to the Baylor Institute for Oral History Style Guide, we discussed the challenges and responsibilities that come with transcribing spoken testimony.  Lillie, who has done some important work formatting TAVP transcriptions, brought up the challenge of determining when to edit out false starts and hanging phrases.  In accordance with the Style Guide, she doesn’t want to include every false start, but at the same time she doesn’t want to compromise the integrity of the narrator’s voice.  We agreed that while transcribing and formatting interviews might initially seem like straightforward tasks, in practice they involve a lot of careful judgement calls.

Despite the challenges, we agreed that there are many benefits of adhering to a standardized formatting system.  It gives the oral history archive a professional edge, which conveys respect for narrators’ contributions.  Standardizing transcriptions also makes them more useful as research tools, since researchers know where to look for certain information and what to expect in terms of layout.

After the transcription workshop, the interns jumped in to the transcribing task!

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Jordan: “This is gold!” From left: Jordan Weber, Sharla Biefeld, Lillie Leone, and Tu-Uyen Nguyen.

Jordan, Sharla, Lillie, and Tu-Uyen are pictured here showcasing the discs that hold the video-recorded interviews they’re transcribing.  After I snapped this picture, they popped the discs into the laptops, put in their headphones, and commenced “listening for a change.”

Jordan is transcribing an interview with Keith Brooks, son of Charlie Brooks, Jr., who in 1982 was the first person in the U.S. to be executed by lethal injection.  Jordan, like the Brooks family, is from the Fort Worth area.  He shared his thoughts on the deep community value of Keith Brooks’ personal story.

“This is gold!  I have a personal connection to this story because I grew up nearby where Keith Brooks grew up.  He mentions my high school!  He talks a lot about the social conditions that impacted his life and his father’s life and related to his execution.  Listening to his story has allowed me to go back and analyze my own community.  I think that’s really important in this project.  We’re documenting really important and vital stories that can affect national debates about the death penalty, but they’re coming from our communities.  Keith Brooks’ story is really, truly a Texas story, and I feel that as citizens of Texas we need to listen to these stories and evaluate our legal institutions by considering them from this personal level.”