[Workshop Reflection] At school with Sewon

By Jacob Horton

Perhaps, dear reader, you are a prospective OHMA student, researching the field or oral history, considering that next great leap of faith called graduate school.  Or perhaps you have taken that leap, you are an OHMA student, buried in reading, writing, and research with only a vague sense that one day you will be dumped out onto the cold, hard streets of New York with nothing but a shake of the hand and a stroll across the stage.  Or perhaps you are an OHMA alum, sitting on your butt in the street, squinting into the future through the bright afterglow of post-graduate bliss.  All of you –all of us – know that any gainful employment related to the field of oral history will require more than “MA in Oral History” added to our resumes.  Learning about what might come next is part of what makes the OHMA Workshops so great.

ewon Chung is an OHMA graduate who has worked on an exciting variety of story-oriented projects both professional and personal.  Just before her presentation on February 6, 2014, she shared with the OHMA cohort her experiences with a variety of commercial industries (including marketing, consulting, and tech) that are eager to connect with the type of communication that oral history evokes.  Many of us are interested in the “voice for the voiceless” ideal but Ms. Chung’s stories encouraged me to think about how I might extract and distill some of the skills that an oral historian is trained to develop and to apply them in marketable ways.


Sewon Chung on the Story-telling job market:


Oral history, as a purely audio format, can seem dated in the context of a multi-media, smart-phone world.  But Ms Chung demonstrates how oral history excites despite its retro look.  Her work exemplifies how the skills of the oral historian can be translated into a variety of mediums.  The presentation touched on two projects that interwove space, story, and history.  Ms Chung’s primary work during her time in OHMA drew her into contact with Mabel O Wilson, Associate Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.  Both Ms Wilson and Ms Chung’s work have dealt with ways in which the space around us houses a variety of histories.  The favoring of some spaces over others can shape how we think about the past.

One of the products of Sewon’s time in the OHMA program demonstrates this connection between place, history, and story.  Her Central Park North Project consisted of a set of short narratives tied to related locations on a map of the region.  When the user clicked on each location the screen faded to a set of photographs and an audio track telling a story about the area.  This style of presentation is a very contemporary medium with a growing variety of web-based platforms to facilitate such work.  Between Ms Chung’s presentation and the OHMA faculty we in the cohort have now been exposed to have a variety of such sites, some of which I’ve assembled here.  All of these sites are up and running at the time of my blogging.

StoryMaps.                            Zeega.                      Soundslides.                         Storywheel.  


Now hold on, luddites! Fear not. While it helps to understand web technology, Sewon’s personal story reminds us that successful realization of our oral history-related projects is not tied solely to our technical skills. Collaboration with others is essential to oral historians be it for archival purposes, production purposes, or even the interview itself. Even though Ms Chung came equipped with some tech skills she did not have the full set. Few do. Her emphasis on collaboration should encourage us to seek out friendly colleagues with complimentary skills. Be willing to learn. And of course, believe in your work.

Sewon Chung on confidence and collaboration: 

So fear not, brave oral historians – past present and future.  The work that you do in history work, in memory work, in space, time, and location – it is important.  And it has application in a variety of fields throughout our economy.  The OHMA workshop series is just one of the many resources available through INCITE and Columbia University.  Heads up, hearts strong, and ears open!  Thanks very much to Amy Starecheski for her perpetual attention to work related to oral history students and grads as well as for hosting these workshop events.  And thanks to Ms Wilson and Ms Chung for an evening full of great ideas and inspirational examples.