Historian's work draws student: To tell untold stories, students cover race, class at conference

Matt Stephens
Daily Texan Staff
Published: Friday, October 24, 2008

Volunteering at Obama headquarters, UT anthropology lecturer Martha Norkunas saw a familiar face.

She recognized Eleanor Thompson, African-American outreach coordinator for the Travis County Democratic Party, from one of the many transcripts that she had read over the years as an oral historian.

Norkunas approached Thompson, curious to speak with a woman about whom she knew so much but had never met.

"People treasure what you're doing," Thompson told Norkunas after their conversation. For almost 25 years as an oral historian, Norkunas has interviewed individuals to study cultures and tell untold stories not found in history books.

Norkunas and some of her students attended the Oral History Association annual conference in Pittsburgh from Oct. 15-19. According to the association's Web site, oral historians from across the world joined to discuss social and racial issues in a series of talks, panels and workshops.

Eight of Norkunas' students, including six graduate and two undergraduates, performed excerpts from previous interviews in front of a panel. Norkunas said it was unusual for students to be afforded a professional panel at a national conference.

"They were discussing some very sophisticated issues," Norkunas said. "The audience told me the students were dealing with these issues in as thoughtful a way as any professional in the field today."

The students are a component of separate projects Norkunas is currently working on: the African American Texans Oral History Project and the Oral History, Identity and Diversity Project. The diversity project contains 55 one-hour interviews with UT students on their racial and ethnic identities. But Norkunas said the interviews reach beyond questions of ethnicity.

"Sometimes it's about social class or it's about sexuality," she said. "Many young students have mixed moral identities, and they're just trying to find out who they are."

Norkunas' project on African-Americans has logged more than 75 interviews and 350 hours of digital audio and video dealing with racial history and current issues regarding race.

Erica Lies, a social science graduate student and one of the panelists at the conference, said she has worked on 15 different interviews for the project. Lies said she interviewed a wide array of people from around Austin, from friends or acquaintances to influential figures in the community, like Tommy Wyatt, editor of "The Villager," an East Austin publication geared toward blacks.

Lies said she decided to take Norkunas' class to develop her interviewing skills. "It went far beyond my initial interests," Lies said. "I'm learning about the world around us and getting to see it through other people's eyes."

Like many of Norkunas' students, Lies did not come from a background in oral history. She graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in theater and said she hopes to do freelance writing for magazines. Katherine Andrews, another student of Norkunas', hopes to work in museum-exhibit design.

"These oral history projects are bringing together people from a variety of disciplines," said Rick Cherwitz, Norkunas' colleague and director of Intellectual Entrepreneurship.

According to the organization's Web site, Cherwitz and Intellectual Entrepreneurship work to promote diversity in education and created collaborations between academia and society. The organization works in conjunction with Norkunas and her projects.

"Martha teaches her students to not only do class work but to go into the community as well," Cherwitz said. "And it's not just pure research. The interviews are products and important artifacts to the community. They contribute to what we understand about people in the area."