We Also Built Stockton: Reflection

“We Also Built Stockton: Experiences of Immigrant Women in Stockton, California,” makes available to students of women’s history a collection of over fifty interviews that former University of the Pacific Professor Sally Miller and her students completed in 1980.  Most of the immigrants interviewed came to the United States between 1920 and 1960, during the period of strict immigration restriction framed by the 1920s quota bills. A fraction also immigrated following the reforms of the 1965 Immigration Act. Although the interviews are transcribed and available through my university library, I wanted to create a curated, educational experience that would help students engage with the interviews, develop skills related to analysis of primary sources in oral history, and deepen their understanding of US immigration history in the mid to late 20th century. 

My primary audience is the undergraduate students in my US women’s history class (general education/undergraduate), but the website will also be useful for instructors who teach US women’s history, California history, or immigration history.

Historical Thinking

The activities at “We Also Built Stockton” are designed to “uncover history.” Lendol Calder describes “uncoverage” as the “classroom environments that expose the very things hidden away by traditional survey instruction.” Although survey courses may touch on extensive content, they also conceal the historical processes used to arrive at conclusions that are presented to students. “The inquiries, arguments, assumptions, and points of view that make knowledge what it is for practitioners of our discipline” can be uncovered by actively exploring primary sources.[1]

“We Also Built Stockton” features an archive gallery of over fifty oral histories with metadata that will enable students to search for primary sources related to projects they are working on. But the main interface includes three activities where students encounter curated oral histories. Excerpts from the interviews are included alongside questions that help students probe meaningful questions about how gender shaped the experiences of 20th-century immigrants.  Students can compare the transcribed interviews to audio files presenting the women’s voices.  Exercises ask students to think beyond images and textbooks by using the interviews to add or revise the knowledge presented. The activities are designed both to help students use and evaluate oral history and to give them content knowledge of women’s immigration history in the 20th century.  I attempt to weave three key questions through the project: 1) What kinds of work did women do? 2) What factors went into their job or career choices? In what ways did gender frame women’s immigration experiences? 3) How did immigrant experiences differ over the 20th century?

Lastly, the website includes supplements (a guide to critically reading oral history based on Linda Shope’s work and tips on creating your own oral history based on Wilma Baum’s guidelines).[2]  These are intended for students who wish to explore the interviews in the gallery in more detail or to interview family and friends.

To guide my choices for what to include, I aligned my project with the core competencies and learning outcomes (LO’s) outlined by the American Historical Association’s (AHA) Tuning Project (2016) and with those specific to my US women’s history class.[3]

US Women’s History LO’s include: Describe women’s experiences in U.S. history; Think analytically about how the concept of gender structures women’s experience in U.S. history; and Explain women’s diverse experiences (taking into consideration factors such as age, ethnicity, race, religion, class, region, sexuality, gender fluidity, and dis/ability).

The Tuning Project LO’s that “We Also Built Stockton” teaches are as follows:

1) Build historical knowledge about women immigrants to the United States in the mid-20th century.

Specifically, students gather and contextualize information to convey both the particularity of past lives and the scale of human experience.

Students are asked to interact with several of the interviews.  They will put the interviews in conversation with each other and research women’s history and immigration history to describe the context of the women’s experiences. 

2) Evaluate oral history as evidence and describe how various factors shape the presentation of the self in interviews.

This builds on the Tuning Project’s outcome that students “Develop historical methods.” Students learn to recognize that history is an interpretive account of the human past by both reflecting on the historical interpretations provided by historians and comparing those to the insights offered by the women themselves.

As Lévesque notes, “to think historically is thus to understand how knowledge has been constructed and what it means.”[4] Oral history is especially useful in aiding history students to see how various accounts (primary and secondary) differ. Students will be asked to consider the pros and cons of using oral history as evidence.  What questions are asked? Who asked the questions? Did the interviewer follow up on difficult subjects? How well did the person remember? Who is available to ask?

3) Characterize immigrant women’s choices and why they made them.

Another aspect of “Develop Historical Methods” is to “Develop empathy toward people in the context of their distinctive historical moments.” The questions that accompany the interview excerpts ask students to describe and reflect upon immigrant women’s choices and why they made them.

4) Revise commonplace narratives when new evidence is presented.

Two of the website activities include includes “Beyond the Textbook” exercises. I have selected passages from two texts by renowned historians that make generalizations about 20th-century immigration. The students then use the oral histories that they have just read to add or revise the text. These activities are inspired by the work of Sam Wineburg and Stéphane Lévesque. Wineburg explains that textbooks present material through an omniscient third-person narrator that speaks as if the interpretations about the past are settled. Moreover, as Lévesque argues, procedural knowledge (concepts like evidence, continuity and change, and historical empathy) is hidden in texts and documentaries, so students do not learn how historical thinking happens.  Students end up thinking of history as a line of unconnected events.[5] Thus, the exercise encourages students to realize that even books by great historians have gaps, that they can and should think about what those might be, and they can “remedy” the omissions by accessing other sources. The lesson is active, asking students to rewrite a passage to improve the text. Prompting questions focus on the key women’s history questions outlined on the landing page. Lévesque explains that instructors who “make students inquire, interrogate, and go into depth, so as to find defensible answers to meaningful questions” can help students to study and uncover answers using textbooks as well as primary sources.[6]

Revisions during the Process

I had originally considered using Bepress for my project because my university library uses it to provide digital access to the interviews.  I believed it would facilitate access to the interviews. However, I used Omeka because part of the project is an archive of interviews, which is something that Omeka is especially useful for. My inspiration for the project was the Bracero Archive, which also uses Omeka.  Moreover, Bepress is a subscription software that allows only a limited number of exhibits to be built at different price levels.  In addition, Library staff do not want to turn over passwords to students, and since I plan to allow students to help build other activities, this made Bepress unrealistic.

I made revisions throughout based on what I learned in the interviews.  Specifically, I narrowed the learning outcomes from the list of over twelve suggested in the Tuning Project to the four that resonated most closely with what the interviews reveal.

I also revised my handout on reading oral histories. My initial iteration emphasized skeptical readings of oral history. The current draft emphasizes how oral history reveals elements of history beyond the textbook and new perspectives as part of students’ critical inquiry.

My final set of revisions was based on the feedback of classmates. Two urged me to clarify my particular audience and clarify the interviews’ significance.  Therefore, I added to the “Background” information about my specific purpose in creating a website for my US women’s history class and clarified the importance of oral history for women’s history:

They center women and immigrants, groups celebrated in theory but whose specific stories appear only in brief outlines in most history books. These oral histories and the lessons included here support what the National Women’s History Alliance calls for: “a truly balanced and inclusive history [that] recognizes how important women have always been in American society.” They also help us empathize with the current conditions that immigrants and women face.[7]

Another revision that several classmates suggested was moving the “What is Oral History?” supplement above the activities.  I had first included it at the end as a supplement, but I agree with my classmates, who thought it would help students understand what they were encountering.  Following Professor Nate Sleeter’s advice, I also revised the questions to focus on what we can learn from oral history. That is, I changed “Does the narrator have a personal stake in presenting a particular version of events?” to “Does the narrator have a unique perspective or reason for presenting a particular version of events?” The questions were critical, almost skeptical, and while critical thinking is still encouraged, the questions are framed for students to appreciate the new perspectives provided.

Finally, I added a supplement for students who wish to do their own oral histories that provides tips and steps to move forward.

Future Use of “We Also Built Stockton”

My main plan for using “We Also Built Stockton” is that students in my US women’s history (general education/undergraduate) class will complete the activities as part of a unit on women and immigration.  The students will do the activities as homework, and we will discuss their answers and discoveries in class to follow up.  The students will be encouraged to write research papers that utilize the interviews.

I plan to include additional activities over time. I may have students help with this in the upcoming school year as well.  I’m working on identifying a process for building more activities. In particular, some themes deserve more attention in the interviews: arranged marriages, religious and cultural maintenance, raising children in America, expectations versus the reality of America, and the feminist movement.  In addition, I’d like to broaden the regional representation, especially to include some of the interviews from Central and South America. (No interviews of women from Africa exist in the collection.)

An outline of the process that will help facilitate the creation of more projects follows:

1. identify a theme of interest

2. use the metadata to find an oral history that deals with the theme

3. read the oral history and take notes on the themes

4. curate the oral history with thought questions

  • select 2-3 excerpts that are less than 5 minutes in length
  • clip the audio and input the transcribed excerpt
  • develop questions and other activities that uncover the themes based on the LO’s (that reflect both women’s history questions and the nature of oral history
  • provide background on the woman interviewee and the context of her immigration

6. If desired, select a textbook passage that is relevant to the topic but incomplete to include as a tool to ask others to think further

7. Provide recommended readings if applicable

What Went Well

The project’s simplicity is one of its strong suits.  As an instructor who tends to deliver too much background and detail, I strove to keep the background information to a minimum, providing just enough context to allow one to understand the oral history interviews and engage with them immediately.

I also like how the learning activities came out, each one focusing on a different woman, type of experience (or theme), and type of source (one covers visual images while the others focus on oral history).  This allows students to work with different kinds of primary sources. Questions at the bottom for each activity connect the activities.

Challenges and Changes

I built “We Also Built Stockton” in an existing Omeka site created for my Digital Narratives class.  Creating a separate Omeka site for “We Also Built Stockton” is a change I would like to make in the future. One classmate noted that the flow of the project is disrupted due to its being set alongside another exhibit named “Monuments & Memorials.” Originally, I wanted to build “We Also Built Stockton” on the same interface that students would use in the class that will work on the Monuments and Memorials so that one set of passwords would grant students access.  Unfortunately, Omeka exhibits do not have a way, that I have found, to hide the background on the Omeka archive in which they are nested.

In addition, I plan to continue to build the site (as discussed above), adding lessons that address other important themes and regions for immigrant women’s history.

[1] Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History (March 2006): 1363.

[2] Linda Shopes, “Making Sense of Oral History,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/, February 2002; and Willa Baum, “Interviewing Tips,” in Oral History for the Local Historical Society (1971) https://lib.berkeley.edu/visit/bancroft/oral-history-center/educational-programs?section=interviewing-tips-

[3] The Tuning Project brings historians together “to spell out the distinctive skills, methods, and substantive range” of the field and to “harmonize or “tune” the core goals of their discipline and the curricula that support those goals on each participating campus.” (Anne Hyde, AHA History Tuning Project: 2016 History Discipline Core, American Historical Association [2016].)

[4] Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the 21st Century (University of Toronto Press, 2009), 27.

[5] Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” The Phi Delta Kappan 80, no. 7 (1999): 493; and Stéphane Levesque, “What Does It Mean to Understand History?” (2022), at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myc_VN7VzMA.

[6] Lévesque, Thinking Historically, 36.

[7] National Women’s History Alliance, “Why Women’s History?” 2023, https://nationalwomenshistoryalliance.org/why-womens-history/.

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