"Interpreting the Texas Past: Putting Ideas to Work"
Martha Jenks, Middle Eastern Studies and Information Science
My class with Dr. Martha Norkunas introduced me to the theory and methodology of oral history. Our project as a class was to document the African American history of the city of Austin by conducting in-depth interviews with members of the African American community. I worked with Dorothy Banks, a writer, photographer, and poet who has worked for many years at The Villager, a newspaper that serves the African American community. Dorothy generously shared with me how racism and segregation have affected her educational and career paths and her political views. My interviews with Dorothy not only allowed me to get to know someone I might never have met otherwise, but also enabled Dorothy to share her life experiences with people who are unfamiliar with the African American experience in East Austin.
In addition to teaching us how to conduct and edit interviews, Dr. Norkunas also trained us to think systematically about the uses of oral history, and to compare oral history with traditional written history. As a result of this class, I now feel that I could conduct an oral history project on my own.
Anne Glickman, Radio-Television-Film
Often times in academia especially within the minds and hearts of graduate students interested in progressive social change there comes a point when the age-old debate between the value of theory versus practice comes to the fore. As a Radio-Television-Film student, I can safely say it has become the leitmotif of my graduate experience. Self-doubting academics try to wrap their heads around what exactly they are "doing" in school. Who exactly benefits from our work? How does intellectually understanding structural inequalities translate to changing the material conditions of real people? In short, the question becomes what exactly is the point of studying social systems if the language and form of our work is largely inaccessible to almost everybody outside of our seminar doors?
My experience with Martha Norkunas' "Interpreting the Texas Past" project (specifically, the seminar in Oral History) was the first in which I was expected and encouraged to translate intellectual inquiry into social action. In conjunction with Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW), Professor Norkunas designed a course in which graduate students studied the discipline of oral history and then applied what they learned to enhance an actual living history site; last semester's seminar centered around creating an alternative interpretive strategy for Cedar Hill's Penn Farm, an agricultural site outside of Dallas.
Although the class read a significant amount of oral histories as well as theoretical work about the history and craft of oral testimony, we were required to venture out into Cedar Hill itself and interact with the people and culture that we were investigating. We talked, lunched with, and shared in the experience of living in a small Texas farming community. As a group we decided to create a short documentary of the town for the TPW site. Our role as academics was channeled into organizing ourselves as a research team that was held responsible to TPW, who was funding the project. No longer were our individual efforts separated. We were accountable to each other, TPW, the residents of Cedar Hill and of course Prof. Norkunas who acted as our most valuable aid. What a gift it was to be able to contribute my intellectual interests in a concrete, creative and inclusive way. From this seminar I began to develop a greater sense of urgency to find ways to use my academic work in service of something larger than the intellectual community in which it was created. Through this particular seminar I came to personally experience, not just think through, the tensions of balancing theory and practice and learned like so many other things to err on the side of action.
Eleanor Lisney, School of Information
I came to UT-Austin after a spell of being a full time expatriate mother in Strasbourg, France. The Graduate School of Library and Information Science (now re-named the School of Information) is the place I chose to brush up information skills for getting back into the workforce. I registered for Dr. Norkunas' Intellectual Entrepreneurship class, "Interpreting the Texas Past" ("Cultural Representations of the Past") not knowing entirely what to expect but intrigued by the reading list and the idea of a practical application of the course with Texas Parks and Wildlife. As a non-American, this course gave me a deeper insight into understanding Texan history and Antebellum American history, a way of seeing beyond the usual academic understanding or the formal museum environment.
It is under the guidance of Dr. Norkunas at the Penn Farm Historical Center, Cedar Hill State Park that I learned the value of having an alternative interpretation of history that is inclusive of women, children and tenant farmers and slaves. It is a perspective that I will keep with me for perpetuity. In addition, I appreciated the fact that we were an interdisciplinary group: our exchange was enriched by the mingling of disciplines as varied as that of American Studies, Architecture, Archeology, English and Library Science. The coursework also deepened my conviction of the importance of a pro-active approach to archives as a member of the under represented minorities, and confirmed my advocacy for a voice for the marginalized.
Pedro Reynosos, School of Information
When reflecting about my experiences in Dr. Norkunas' graduate courses and the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE)/Interpreting the Texas Past Project (ITP), I think of research in action, an undertaking that required the marriage between academic training and sensitivity to cultural contexts. ITP, and the Intellectual Entrepreneurship philosophy and initiative of which it is a part, involves research activities in and outside the classroom, a public pedagogy, which according to critical theorist, Henry A. Giroux, transforms us into "border crossers." As a "border crosser" acting beyond the traditionally perceived boundaries of my research program, culture, and social location, I learned to be an "intellectual entrepreneur" in harmony with both theory and practice; classroom and community; and rigorous academic methods and commonsense.
For example, the oral history project I conducted, as a class project and as part of ITP, documents the life history of Mr. Clifton Griffin, whose 25 years as a public librarian in East Austin, Texas, contributed to the City's cultural past. The project's extensive narrative analysis, reflexivity, and collaboration with Mr. Griffin rendered a life story characterized by the successful union between public librarianship and community activism. The interpretive materials and programs (e.g., transcripts, audio-recordings, and conference presentations) produced by this oral history project seek to improve the public's understanding of Texas past, but most importantly, the often untold stories of African-Americans like Mr. Griffin's. His life story adds to a larger public librarianship narrative of socio-cultural and political agency, which is part of American library historiography. Moreover, the documentation, interpretation, and presentation of Mr. Griffin's core competencies provide a benchmark for current and future public librarians who are interested in combining public librarianship and community activism as part of their professional skills set.
Recently, Mr. Griffin and I had the opportunity to present the project at the first ever Joint Conference of Librarians of Color held in Dallas, Texas (October 11-15, 2006). The paper provided my analysis of Mr. Griffin's narrative, particularly in terms of how it informs library practices as well as curriculum. After presenting the paper, Mr. Griffin joined me for the Q&A session, and I can honestly say that it was probably the most enlightening part of the session. We had an engaged audience asking follow-up questions, and sharing their own personal stories from practice. It was stimulating and rewarding to know that our work had struck a cord among practitioners and future librarians. After the presentation, two current library students came up to me and said they were inspired by Mr. Griffin's life story, and thanked me for offering a theoretical framework and language to conduct similar projects. A few practicing librarians of color were very appreciative for articulating their professional struggles and triumphs through the voice of Mr. Griffin. This experience reminded me of the power of praxis-interaction between theory and practice-and the need to support more projects that are both community-based and interdisciplinary in nature like IE/ITP.