Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

Youth Historians in Harlem: Exploring the Possibilities in Collaborative History Research Between Local Youth and Scholars (Part 2 of 2)

September 3rd, 2015 by

This is final of a two-part series by Barry M. Goldenberg focusing on methodological questions sparked by the Youth Historians in Harlem project. This Education’s Histories series will continue throughout 2015.


Earlier in the year as I was searching for an accessible text that would push my high school students to think about their relationship with history, I was reminded of Eric Foner’s cogently titled book, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World.1 In his preface, Foner hinted at the idea that history is in fact not the province of scholars alone and that many groups of people have claims of ownership on history.2 Beyond a short exercise for my students, I realized that the Youth Historians project built upon this notion specifically within the context of the Academy: If historians are not the sole “owners” of history, then it becomes troublesome when only some of the many people who “own” history are authorized to produce their historical accounts and others, such as local youth scholars, are seemingly not. To be sure, Foner also understands that there are “commonly accepted professional standards” in the discipline that separate the lay person from the scholar, which remains particularly relevant in today’s era of digital accessibility. I wondered, then, what would happen—and what it would look like in practice—when high school students were trained in historical methodology, “authorizing” them as scholars in a way that recognized them as historians who produce historical knowledge.3 Apropos to the book’s subtitle, centering students as knowledge producers can change the way historians think about—or more accurately, conduct —our study of the past by challenging notions of hierarchy in the history of education. Currently, a hierarchy of who can write the past exists in historical research, and it seeps into our methodologies to create a hardened set of hierarchical norms that are difficult to disentangle. As scholars, how can we conduct historical studies about a community without their input and then later, invite these same subjects to accept this scholarship when they did not have a genuine role in producing it in the first place?4

This is the second essay in a series about the Youth Historians in Harlem (YHH) project. Part 1 outlined the goals of YHH, introducing my collaboration with local high school youth to produce historical research. Relying on the questions put forth in the first installment, Part 2 examines how scholarly norms of hierarchy in methodological processes and authority in narrative-making can be explored and challenged by conducting collaborative oral history interviews with current high school students in a way that promotes shared knowledge-making.

Learning Oral History Methods, Together

Following the walking tour where I hoped students internalized the notion that they could have agency as historians, we moved forward with the project’s agenda: conducting oral history interviews with Harlem Prep alumni. Uncovering the history of Harlem Prep, an independent school that enrolled former high school dropouts and other non-traditional students in New York City from 1967 to 1975, remained my goal that I invited students to partake in.5 To prepare for interviews, students and I first conducted preliminary research by reading primary source newspaper articles from The New York Times and New York Amsterdam News, viewing the only known archival film on Harlem Prep, and studying secondary sources I gathered from prior research.6 Next, we spent approximately four and a half weeks learning oral history methods. With Ansley Erickson’s (Teachers College, Columbia University) guidance, I strategically planned a series of workshops about oral history research in incremental steps. We discussed how and why oral histories differ from journalistic interviews, the great opportunity that students had to document the unrecorded “living histories” of community elders, and the potential perils of relying on memory as a historical source.7

Next, I sought out strategies of teaching oral history methods to the youth in ways that involved a similar level of rigor and scholarliness as my own training. Students listened to and discussed a sample oral history interview that I had conducted a year prior with a former Harlem Prep student (my only prior interview experience); I led a critical reflexive conversation with students where I reflected on my own nervousness at asking questions, which further helped students understand that we were learning these methods together. Then, I taught students how to operate the professional audio recording equipment. For the final step, students read over various tips for asking questions from the Center for Oral History at Columbia University and thematically prepared a list of potential questions to ask interviewees.8 Students devised questions both based on what they had learned from the previous Harlem Prep materials and from their own experiences attending school in Harlem, doing so in pairs around a theme that they were most interested in exploring. Our six themes, created collaboratively by students and I, were: Teachers and Teacher Pedagogy, School Policies, Students and Student Life, School Atmosphere and Environment, Historical Context of Harlem, and School Appearance/Physical Appearance. As an example of how our foci differed with regards to the specific questions we wanted to ask, I was most interested in teacher pedagogy, whereas students were very interested—and asked about—the school’s policies. With only about 60 minutes for each interview, I had not considered a topic such as school policies to be high priority. However, the youth interviewers, who are affected by policies every day and find them essential to their feelings about their own school, were very eager to learn about policies that contributed to Harlem Prep’s seemingly positive school atmosphere.9

Seeking to expose students to a live interview before having them lead their own in small groups, I first scheduled a full-group interview with a former teacher at Harlem Prep with whom I had recently developed a relationship (but whom I had not interviewed). We had a packed conference room at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College: myself and two students, together, served as lead interviewers who would ask the questions; two other students operated the Tascam audio recording equipment; and the other four students acted as “observers” who took notes on our interactions for later group reflection, accompanied by professor Ansley Erickson and another graduate student.

Admittedly, the interview was a bit unwieldy at first. Finding a rhythm and proper pacing as co-interviewers working together was initially quite challenging.10 I wanted the youth to start the interview and direct the dialogue as much as possible, with me interjecting only when I felt it was appropriate or needed to ask a particular question. Still, the students and I eventually developed a good cadence as we collectively thought that the interview was successful in both substance and process.11 Pedagogically, in preparation for future small-group interviews, it also served as a needed experience for students to see that, as Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier explain, interviewing takes supreme focus and is “no simple art.”12

Goldenberg_YHH_P2_EH_9_3_15_v2

Together Barry Goldenberg and Youth Historians conduct a collaborative oral history interview with a Harlem Prep teacher. Photograph by Barry M. Goldenberg. Personal collection.

 

Breaking Down the Hierarchy: The Key to Collaborative Oral History Interviews

We conducted four subsequent interviews with Harlem Prep alumni, all whom neither I nor the students had met previously. I co-conducted all but one interview alongside three students: one co-lead interviewer, one audio operator, and one additional questioner/note taker.13 Notably, the co-lead student interviewer always initiated the dialogue, and I encouraged the students to frame the interview as much as possible. Employing this set-up made our goal clear—students were not just present; they were conducting the interviews as young scholars.

Although each interview had a different dynamic, collectively, they all flourished. First, the alumni were unanimously pleased to share their stories, as evidenced by each wanting to know about our future progress. One interviewee even said at the conclusion of her interview that, in response to us asking if she had any final comments: “I’m glad you all asked. I’m glad you came here to ask questions. So thank you for taking me down memory lane a little bit.”14 Of course, the students were excited to participate—their diligent preparation clearly illustrated that. And of course, the students and I learned novel information about Harlem Prep that will aid our future research (and possibly my later dissertation research).

Particularly noteworthy was how the power dynamics shifted from Ansley Erickson and I to the young people during the interviews. Interviewees seemed to recognize that the youth were also co-experts, and consequently, co-opted the purpose of the interview to speak directly to them in ways that transferred the history-making authority from the university scholars to the students and alumni. For example, one interviewee, over the course of almost one and a half hours, made eye contact almost exclusively with the youth. Although I ended up asking the majority of the questions for this particular interview, the Harlem Prep alumnus continually spoke to the students, as if I was absent from the table. The student operating the audio equipment declared to me after: “I didn’t say anything but he looked at me the whole time!” Another alumnus, who had faced traffic difficulties and arrived at the interview unsure of the setting, noticeably became more comfortable when introduced to the youth, softening the tone of her voice and overall disposition. She also commented appreciatively about student preparation and involvement—it mattered to her that the questions came from the youth, as evidenced in the transcript when she asked for the lead student interviewer’s name before starting the conversation.

After all, this was to be expected; Valerie Yow has argued that “interview dynamics,” such as similarities and differences of race and cultural norms between interviewer and narrator can affect the outcome of oral histories, and in our case, it seemed that the young people’s status as Harlem students mattered.15 Each of the youth researchers had unique insights and perspectives about schooling and education that significantly differed from mine, a white researcher—and outsider—who grew up in suburban St. Louis.16 It was important to understand that students’ experiences attending school in Harlem amounted to valuable “cultural capital” that felt synergistic with the experiences of former Harlem Prep students.17

Of course, students’ presence not only affected the interviewees’ demeanor, but also the actual substance of the narratives being shared; students’ agency to ask questions altered the trajectory of the interview in unique—and uncharted—ways. Alessando Portelli poignantly notes that, “each person is at a crossroads of many potential stories,” and students’ genuine involvement elicited stories and interactions from the alumni that may have not been expressed in the same way—or at all—if I conducted the interviews alone.18 For instance, one interviewee spoke intimately about growing up in a “rough” neighborhood in New York City, using language and terminology that described some very intimate experiences that the high school youth could relate to differently than I could. From my vantage point, the resulting exchanges between the student and the Harlem Prep alumnus were rich and vivid, contributing to a transcript that seemed to be more detailed, if not possibly more honest and raw, because of the students’ participation. Taking this into account, I argue that the youth held a key role in producing “new” legitimate knowledge—both by their presence and by their questions—in noteworthy ways that challenged the hierarchical norms of (adult) scholars as sole knowledge producers. Furthermore, the fact that students were operating as researchers within the academy while simultaneously retaining their membership to the Harlem community helped legitimize the interviewees’ personal narratives as scholarship. Although the interviews surely stemmed from my fascination and logistical preparation, the students were the catalysts in this specific instance of oral history knowledge production. In fact, it was because the interviewees recognized students as having at least a co-equal role in the interviews that they seemed to be so open to sharing their stories in the fashion that they did.19

An Intergenerational Context: Exploring Authority in the Transmission of Narratives

A further analysis of the nature of the interactions between local youth and their elders raises additional—albeit more speculative and less understood—queries about the transmission of the created narratives themselves. As Robert Perks and Alistair Thompson suggest, “schools are an important context for intergenerational oral history projects,” particularly for a project such as Youth Historians where the young people are positioned as authorizers of knowledge.20 The students, by virtue of their Harlem membership combined with their status as (novice) scholars part of a university research project, have a unique capacity different than mine to be the “receptors” of these elders’ untold stories.

One expected reason for this is that the narratives conveyed by the Harlem Prep alumni were highly personal, in part because, as the interviewees expressed with frustration, the story of Harlem Prep is relatively unknown.21 Thus, today’s current Harlem youth researchers can become the heirs of these alumni’s stories on Harlem Prep. They are the group of people who have the greatest “authority” and metaphorical claim on these stories; the interview exchanges between elders and youth were ultimately powerful because they represented something deeper and more ethereal like the passing of intergenerational knowledge in ways that that go beyond instances of sentimentality alone.22 Put another way, Michael Frisch suggests the term “sharing authority” to explain this rather intrinsically defined commodity; there was certainly something noteworthy and fascinating “about the nature of authority enacted and manifest, shared or sharable or not, within the actual oral histories” of the Harlem Prep alumni.23

I sensed this most during one of the interviews that occurred outside Teachers College, Columbia University at an interviewee’s office building in Central Harlem, in which the Harlem Prep alumnus took an obvious interest in the students’ lives in Harlem. As she shared her story, I felt that she did so in a tone and vocal direction that hinted at the need for students to know these stories—her story of Harlem Prep—as a part of a greater narrative that would help put students’ current understanding of education and the greater Harlem community in perspective. From her depictions of racism in schools as a child to her current work in the community at an African-American-owned company, from my perspective, it was as if she was saying to students: “this is what you are a part of, now go out and use this knowledge for the better.”24

Although most apparent in the aforementioned interview, each of the alumni were eager to share their educational stories in Harlem because of the unique youth-adult interviewer-to-interviewee dynamic.25 For an influential school like Harlem Prep that no longer physically exists but remains a substantial part of its alumni’s lives, current students in Harlem possess a particularly unique authority—or what social scientists might define as “positionality”—to partake in the sharing of this knowledge linked by community and educational genealogy.26 Ultimately, what this sharing means in the context of oral history methodology remains to be determined, and I hope that future projects explore this idea through similar undertakings with youth.

Rethinking the Role of Young People in Uncovering the Past

Overall, students and I both contributed in different ways to each of these interviews with the Harlem Prep alumni; outside of organizing the interviews, I asked many questions relevant to my research, concluded each interview segment, and provided assistance for the co-lead student interviewer when needed. Still, despite my presence, the youth also acted as primary participants in each interview, contributing in both very tangible and less understood ways as described in this essay.

The students’ and interviewees participation in the process described above illustrate that scholars must re-think how to conduct inquiries of the past. We would be wise then to include students in our research methods. Just as there are many owners of history, there should be many producers of it, too, particularly when knowledge is being created about one’s own community such as in the Youth Historians project. In these specific oral histories, students, trained in partnership with scholars, acted as the linchpin in the production of knowledge. If hierarchical norms of the discipline suggest that students cannot—or should not—lead in the process of knowledge production, these youth-led interviews challenge that. They also of course open new questions about who is “authorized” to produce knowledge and about the intricate nature of authority itself: how does the meaning of these historical stories change when received by local youth scholars, both in the context of historical scholarship and to the community at large? As the students and I begin to create digital exhibits in subsequent months, we must continue to unravel the many complications—and opportunities—latent in sharing these youth-scholar-community generated stories that shift from questions that the young people want to ask (i.e., the interviews) to the stories that the young people want to tell.


Barry M. Goldenberg is a Ph.D. candidate in the History and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME). Outside of exploring youth-scholar collaborations through his Youth Historians program, Barry’s historical research examines educational activism in Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s. He can be reached at goldenberg@tc.columbia.edu. The author would like to thank Professor Ansley Erickson for not only graciously helping to construct and then revise, this manuscript, but for all her support and guidance on a day-to-day basis with the Youth Historians project. Without her help and her co-direction, the Youth Historians project, and this manuscript, would not be possible. In addition, thank you to the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), particularly Professor Ernest Morrell and Veronica Holly, for providing the resources, encouragement, and initial spark for this project. Finally, thank you to each of the high school student participants for making this collaboration come to fruition.

Jack Dougherty of Trinity College and Michael Bowman of Iowa State University served as peer reviewers for this essay. Education’s Histories is grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this essay.


 

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