Pablo Baeza is a current OHMA student. In this post, he discusses education and intersubjectivity in Judith Sloan's multimedia oral history work.
I got excited about oral history while teaching kids. Specifically, I got excited about oral history teaching immigrant Bay Area elementary and middle schoolers how to write. For a year and a half, I led a creative writing workshop inside an after-school tutoring program in San Francisco’s Mission District, asking students everything from “if you had to pick something other than water to come out of your shower, what would it be, and why?” to “what would you do if you had the power of flight?” Though some of the answers reflected day-to-day favorite topics (one student wanted to shower in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos), many expressed longings for family or homes left behind. One student in particular insisted on adding “Mexican” to all of his characters, and would often set the story in Mexico, even if his setting sounded oddly like San Francisco. I began to wonder about the power of memory, and of oral history, to shape the identities and consciousnesses of young people.
So when I came across Judith Sloan’s work with youth in her multimedia projects Crossing the BLVD and YO MISS, I was thrilled. Sloan, a sound artist who recontextualizes oral histories of Queens immigrants into multimedia sound collages, also teaches in two different worlds – she is a professor at NYU, and also a theatre teacher at an international high school in Queens, where she teaches recently arrived, English learning students from all over the world, creating space for dialogue about identity through self-expression and personal narrative.
Her work is particularly interesting to me because of the challenges that arise from her often autobiographical, subjective take on her teaching as it relates to her art. As a teacher, Sloan is very interested in creating dialogue between the experiences of her students and her own experiences, incorporating the home languages of students to create a richer, more comfortable environment for self-expression in multiple languages. For example, in one exercise, she realizes that all of her students are interpreting her English idioms literally, and decides to have students speak in their native language using tongue twisters. They become full of ease, confidence, energy.
One of the things that resonated the most with me in Sloan’s education work was the way immigrant kids from a wide variety of countries negotiated relating to one another and often simply learning how to get along! Most of the students that I taught were from Latin America, so at least language was a commonality, but even then, I was always interested in how, for example, the Chinese siblings in my program were fascinated by the Chinese-Peruvian siblings who had been there for longer. Often, however, as Sloan understands, students bring prejudices and conflicts they learned from their home countries to the United States – and find themselves living in the same neighborhoods as communities they shared uneasy relationships with hundreds of thousands of miles away – Chinese families and Tibetan families, Indian communities and Pakistani communities, Arabs and Jews. For one Queens high school facing particular tensions, Sloan invokes a character modeled after her Jewish grandmother to communicate a narrative about coming to terms with being invited to eat in a Palestinian home.
It perhaps seems naïve to believe that large questions of assimilation, interethnic conflict, and learning from difference could be resolved simply through high school theater. However, Sloan’s work and practice as a teacher invokes the need for communities, especially those transformed by immigration in the way of Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse communities on the planet, to face the global as inherently local. For the high school kids that Sloan works with, theater is a way to learn English, to explore becoming American, without leaving the homeland behind.
At OHMA, we have been talking often about the term “intersubjectivity.” Intersubjectivity is an idea that examines interpersonal relationships as transformative due to exchanges of worldviews and ideas from person to person. In our work, we have been thinking much about how interviewers and interviewees relate to each other during interviews – yet Sloan’s multifaceted approach to teaching oral history and narrative through theater demonstrates the power of intersubjectivity in art and education alike. Ultimately, Sloan’s work, as much as her teaching, is about dialogue. Her approach to oral history seeks to create bridges between nations, between languages, even between what it means to learn to carry multiple selves in a nation of immigrants – whether young or old.