OHMA student Kate Brenner talks to program alumni about how oral history training prepared them for their next step. In this post, Sarah Dziedzic tells us about her position as Project Coordinator for the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality Oral History Project at the Columbia Center for Oral History Research. Stay tuned for the next post in this series!
What brought you to OHMA?
Ten years ago I was working on an environmental education project in rural Pennsylvania with Amish farmers and school teachers, and was spending a lot time just talking with the members of that community about how to preserve more Amish farms in the area. Important information was shared with me about being an Amish farmer and how environmental stewardship was taught within that community––and it hit me immediately that I wanted to listen more and learn how to do it well. I had never heard of oral history, so I looked into folklore programs but nothing seemed viable. A couple years later, I was living in New York and saw a poster for OHMA on Columbia's campus and the words "oral history" really struck me. I went to an open house event in 2009 and knew I had found the program I was looking for.
Tell us about what you do.
I work at the Columbia University Center for Oral History Research on a project about the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality (IRWAGS). I coordinate the completion of the project and also conduct interviews with feminist faculty and students who have been involved in gender studies and feminist activism on Columbia's campus. It's been in interesting project for me since I attended Columbia as an undergraduate--I wasn't involved in the gender studies program but devoted a lot of my time to the women-led student radio station across the street at Barnard College, so it's been interesting to draw upon my own experiences as a student to think about what supported my own feminist practices but prevented my access to scholarly gender analysis. This project is an opportunity to research these questions on an institutional level and to uncover shifts in the way Columbia has acknowledged gender-based scholarship and policies over the last few decades.
What was your thesis about and what did you learn from it?
I was interested in working with themes relating to landscape and land use in my thesis and felt it was important to design a project that was manageable in scope, so I ended up focusing on the General Grant National Memorial (Grant's Tomb) on Riverside Dr. and 122nd St. just a few blocks away from Columbia's campus, which had been an evocative site for me since 2000 when I first moved to New York. I was drawn to its eeriness, its openness, its vacancy, its morbidity, and the meaning it attempts to communicate.
I designed the project around three parts: interviews with other people about their encounters with that site, research into the site's 100+ year history, and my own narrative writing about my experiences with Grant's Tomb. I found that the site had an fascinating administrative history––none of which is visible––and a tumultuous history of public and personal meaning. The lasting value of the thesis project was to analyze the invisibility of certain histories and to collect accounts of utility and meaning that fell outside the official purpose of this memorial site, and I still fantasize about using my written thesis as a basis for a walking tour or other supplemental material that would add or alter to a visitor's experience. It also provided an important methodological lesson in collecting imaginative material from narrators and practicing creative and responsible interpretation.
(Read Sarah's thesis on Academic Commons!)
What was the most valuable thing you learned?
Throughout the course of the OHMA program, each one of us emerged as a unique oral historian with different strengths, motivations, knowledges and struggles. I saw the other students in the program as great resources, and I hope it's fair to say that we were all able to help one another improve as researchers, interviewers, and producers of oral history-based projects. The network of people I met are certainly the most valuable aspect of the OHMA program for me and I consider this network to be lifelong and full of opportunities to continue learning about of oral history throughout my career.
Is there anything you would want to tell current students studying oral history, or people hoping to use oral history in their work?
I was pleased to find an intellectually rigorous program within an environment that was conducive to learning, but becoming an oral historian also taught me how to be a professional and ethical one-woman operation: to design a project, to conduct relevant research, to reach out to narrators and sustain those relationships, to interview, to archive my recordings, to transcribe, to analyze interview content, to choose materials to work with and gain legal permission to do so, and to consult with colleagues for advice when necessary. This is an enormous task and quite far beyond what most graduate programs aim to do.