COOL CLASSES: “Oral History and Activism”

This Peace, Justice, and Human Rights course explores the ethics, politics, and practice of oral history as an activist research methodology, and is focused on the theory, practice, and ethics of documenting oral histories.

Class name: “Oral History and Activism”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Gender & Sexuality Studies Anne Balay


Here’s what Balay had to say about the class:

This course weaves together methodological and ethical conversations about oral history, guest speakers, and activist fieldwork. After doing short personal oral histories, the class moved onto a collaborative final project. Since oral history can bring unheard voices and perspectives into the archive, we decided to work as locally as possible, learning about invisible workers that make our own college experience possible. We tossed around various plans about how to accomplish this goal, but since students attended all three Colleges in the Tri-Co, we floundered. Then a student noticed that the bus system is what unites us, and wondered if we could do oral histories of the Blue Bus drivers. And an exhibit was born.

Students did extensive research on health, history, gender, training, work, and other topics. We also rode busses extensively collecting field notes. All this, prepared students to ask well-informed, meaningful questions. We drafted and revised a consent document. Then each student interviewed two bus drivers. An expert taught us about audio editing. Archivists taught us about research and presentation. But we still didn’t know what to do with our new knowledge.

The point of the project had been to see unseen workers, and learn about their lives. We wanted to bring this awareness to the entire Tri-Co community. We decided on an end-of-semester party, with a big, attention-grabbing band. We had photographs and listening stations. We had food. Our goal was revolutionary: people boarding a Blue Bus should see the driver and should, if only for a second, be aware that every student’s education depends on that driver doing their job. To convey that message, our plan was to disrupt campus life right before finals week. Whether students are studying or getting much-needed relaxation, we want them to hear a noise, see a crowd, and have to stop and ask: what’s that? For once, the busses and their drivers were at the center, rather than on the sidelines, of making the campuses function. That is the power of oral history.

See what other courses Peace, Justice, and Human Rights is offering this semester.

Photos from the opening of the class’ exhibit, Bus(t) the Bubble, by Alexandra Iglesia ’21.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.