Feb. 26: Stories of Environmental Danger: A Collective Approach

Thursday, February 26, 2015

6-8 PM

Knox Hall, 606 W 122nd St., Room 509

Watch the full lecture and read Nicole JeanBaptiste's reflection

Oral historians have long aimed to recover memories shared by many in a community, yet in practice most of us work one-on-one, with a single interlocutor. What happens if we invite in multiple interviewees, even a representative slice of the community whose history is at stake? That’s the idea, at least, behind the “witness seminar,” as pioneered by oral historians especially in the United Kingdom. I’ve sought to apply this method to ongoing historical study of industrial communities in Texas and Mexico. For decades people in these places have confronted myriad environmental dangers, either from lead smelters or from petrochemical complexes, but their memories of these differ profoundly, in ways that have undergirded a host of local conflicts. My talk will survey what I’ve gleaned from this effort to bring these contrasting memories into dialogue, through a process of recollection that is itself more collective. I’ll review the greatest hurdles it faced, some more surprising and revealing moments along the way, and the significant differences in community history to which the proceedings of the witness seminars point.

Christopher Sellers is a Professor of History at Stony Brook University, who writes and teaches about the histories of industrial hazards, as well as cities, suburbs and environmentalism. For the past decade and a half, oral history interviews, conducted individually or with couples, have provided a vital underpinning for his work. He is author of Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science (1997), Crabgrass Crucible; Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th Century America (2012), Green in Black and White: Race, Religion and Environmental Politics around Suburbanizing Atlanta (forthcoming from University of Georgia Press), and co-editor with Joseph Melling of Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World (2011). He is currently working on a transnational history of lead and petrochemical hazards in Texas and Mexico, his first to employ the more collective technique of the “witness seminar.”

SPONSORS: This talk is part of the “Paul F. Lazarsfeld Lecture Series,” co-sponsored by the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) and the Oral History Master of Arts Program (OHMA). Support from the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE) is provided for programming that embodies late Professor Paul Lazarsfeld’s commitment to improving methodological approaches that address concerns of vital cultural and social significance.

INFORMATION: For more information, please email Amy Starecheski at aas39(at)columbia.edu