Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Student Experience
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 9,
Number 2

Download our print issue (PDF)
Campus-Community Connections
Intercultural Learning for Inclusive Excellence
Why Allen and Joan Bildner and the Bildner Family Foundation Funded a Statewide Diversity Initiative
Learning to Listen as We Lead
Institutional Models That Cultivate Comprehensive Change
Curricular Transformation
Where Worlds Converge
Curricular Transformation through Collaborative Teaching
Intercultural Learning in First-Year Seminars
Designing Intercultural and Cross-cultural Spaces
Enhancing Collaborative Leadership of Faculty and Staff
Faculty-Driven Curricular Change
Diversity as Shared Practice
Dialogue Groups at Princeton University Library
Faculty Involvement
Epistles, Posters, and Pizza
Forging Campus-Community Connections
"Beyond Food"
Cross-cultural by Design
Student Experience
Something to Declare
Putting Student Voices in Public Spaces
Café Bergen
Institutional Leadership and Committment
Assessing Diversity Attitudes in First-Year Students
Infusing Cultural Competency into Health Professions Education

Something to Declare: Performing Oral History

By Tim Raphael, assistant professor, Department of Visual and Performing Arts, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Newark

Allen and Joan Bildner


In the spring of 2004, I taught a course on conducting oral histories and adapting them for performance. The class was designed to engage students in historical research and critical inquiry as embodied practices rooted in lived experience, and to introduce students to the possibilities of performance as an alternative means of “publishing” their research. The class culminated with a multimedia performance derived from the oral histories collected by the students and adapted by them for the stage. Combining video, music, dance, poetry, and live performance, Something to Declare: Tales of Immigration was performed on the Rutgers–Newark campus FIVE times.

Several factors influenced my choice of immigration as the focal point of the course and of oral history as the initial mode of inquiry. Looking out the windows of the buildings on Rutgers’s campus, which is perched atop a hill in the University Heights section of Newark, one sees a region transformed by immigration. Immigrant communities today comprise the fastest growing segment of the population in the Newark metropolitan region. The remarkable heterogeneity of the student population at Rutgers–Newark—as measured by such criteria as ethnicity, religious affiliation, languages spoken, and countries of origin—is reflected in the university’s designation by U.S. News and World Report as “the most diverse campus in America.”

By dramatizing the oral histories of people who are—like many of my students—recent immigrants, I hoped to make students aware of how cultural reproduction and transmission occur. Engaging oral history and performance widens the historical archive to include performances of individual and collective memory.

As the day for the first round of performances drew near, the students’ anxiety began to spike. My office hours were filled with a constant litany of anguished questions: “How do I convey all the information from an hour-long interview in five-minutes?” “How can I possibly represent someone else’s experience without reducing it to clichés?” “How do I capture their mannerisms, gestures, accent?” “Do you know where can I find a jellaba before class?”

The immediate pressure of publicly enacting friends and family had more impact on students than a thousand essays on the politics of representation. Listening to the recording of an interview introduces the dynamics of speech, accent, diction, tone, and rhythm, but only when faced with the task of embodying the spoken word, of representing the teller as well as the tale, were students fully confronted with the enormity of their ethical and mimetic responsibility. Clothing, hair, posture, and gesture flesh out the musicality of speech and the ideology of language in ways not readily apparent without the visceral engagement of embodiment.

I would be lying if I suggested these initial performances were all aesthetic gems. Only about a third of the students had substantial acting training, and none of these students had ever done this kind of performing. Still, something remarkable occurred during these initial forays into performing oral history: these students began to take their education personally. The ideal of disinterested scholarship—often a synonym with students for uninterested scholarship—was replaced by an ethos of engaged inquiry, empathy, and advocacy. The classroom became an animated, even dangerous space of intercultural encounter.

Questions, comments, and suggested resources should be directed to campbell@aacu.org.
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