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Ohio State Students Preserve Voices of the Past and Present for the Future

An Ohio State University student interviews poet Marcus Jackson for the Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus Project.


Consider this: What if we used words spoken about the past to function as artifacts in the same way historic buildings and sites do?

The collection and study of these words using sound and video recordings of interviews with people who experienced past events is called oral history.

The season finale of Columbus Neighborhoods explores the city’s current interaction with the past. At the end of the episode, we see students at Fort Hayes high school using recently discovered historic photos for an oral history project about the Milo-Grogan neighborhood. The discussion focuses on how they can use the photos to start conversations about the past.

Like the students at Fort Hayes, the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives at Ohio State University collects oral histories in and outside of Columbus.

An Introduction to the Initiative

Created by Ohio State faculty Cynthia Selfe and Lewis Ulman, the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives, according to their website, is a “publicly available archive of literacy narratives in a variety of formats (print, video, audio) that together provide a historical record of the literacy practices and values of citizens from all countries, as these practices and values change.”

DALN co-director Ben McCorkle jokingly likes to call it “the messy archives.”

“We have comic books, videos and a few physical art artifacts,” McCorkle says.

The front page of the DALN blog


The DALN primarily seeks two types of stories: oral histories and literacy narratives, gathered at field collection events during conferences and through an OSU undergraduate writing course, English 2367. The course includes a service-learning component that supports a special project under the DALN umbrella called the Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus Project. Students in the class are responsible for collecting, editing and archiving individual literacy stories to preserve on the DALN, similar to the work the Fort Hayes students are doing.

As part of this special project, the DALN features narratives from prominent local black figures like former Mayor Michael Coleman, poet and author Barbara Fant and freedom fighter MarShawn McCarrell, among others.

What’s a Literacy Narrative?

“To me, oral history and literacy narratives are not mutually exclusive,” says graduate teaching assistant Sherita Roundtree.

Roundtree will be teaching the course this upcoming fall semester. She says there is overlap between both but that there are some distinctions.

Oral histories collected by the DALN team, McCorkle and a scrappy group of volunteers and students are less structured. Their style resembles a stream of thought fostered by a two-person interview format. There’s a teller and a listener. With literacy narratives, the teller typically takes the stage, speaking on a subject, theme or idea.


An excerpt from a literacy narrative


For the DALN, both oral histories and literacy narratives look at history and its retelling through a particular lens: literacy, or how individuals across varying cultures have interacted with texts, words and books.

Some starter questions McCorkle advises his team to ask are, “Where did you learn to read?” or “Tell us about your church or neighborhood.” This point of entry sparks conversation about, “how the rules work and how we decode the symbols around us, remembering things and making connections,” McCorkle says. “It’s a powerful tool to put in people’s hands.

“History is being told from the bottom, and traditionally it has been top down,” McCorkle continues. “It’s regular people relaying memorable events about how they learned to read and write.”

Find an example of a local literacy narrative about memories of the black church community here.

Finding Voices

Roundtree has been pounding the pavement, getting the word out and looking for prospective interviewees for her upcoming fall course. The Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus Project focuses on a different topic with each class—Roundtree is featuring black visual artists in Columbus.

“I’ve put up flyers, gone to events and talked to a lot of people,” she says. “My biggest concern is finding the ways to support these folks and figuring out how their needs can be reciprocated through the course.”

A program from last semester’s Community Sharing Night event

The course is structured so students spend part of their time collecting literacy narratives from locals, in addition to analyzing other examples and creating their own. DALN creators Selfe and Ulman established partnerships in different Columbus neighborhoods, including Linden, Franklinton and the Hilltop, to find community members with stories to share. Students work in groups to conduct interviews and recordings of subjects and then present the narratives and their experiences during a Community Sharing Night event near the end of the semester.

The emphasis on the black or African-American population of Columbus is a “much-needed enterprise,” McCorkle says, for the DALN and Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus Project. The efforts of the students, volunteers and directing team build a “durable record of the personal accounts of historically marginalized groups’ experiences with education and literacy,” he says, “as it helps give voice to the unique challenges and successes that help shape a particular community of people.”

Roundtree agrees emphatically: “The Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus Project is preservation.”

She says she hopes her students, who are traditionally not accustomed to speaking with people of color representing the “expert voice” on a subject, can learn different ways to think about what emerges from the narratives they collect.

“It’s about them becoming ethical researchers and learning to really listen to others unlike themselves,” she says.

How to be a Great Listener

In addition to the stories from the Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus Project, the DALN has collected 6,000 literacy narratives from more than 42 countries and six continents—and that hasn’t been without some best practices and guidelines. Work is done by being “respectful,” McCorkle says. “We want to be mindful of subjects’ vulnerabilities.”

Similarly Roundtree notes it’s best to approach a subject with careful consideration of context and knowledge of their interests and passion. The process is ultimately beneficial and fun for all involved.

“People think it’s a lot more formal than it actually is,” Roundtree says.

The DALN website offers resources, including prompts for interviews and instructional kits for teachers.

The first step of the DALN process


From a Student’s Point of View

In spring 2015, I enrolled in the English 2367 course. The focus was black poets in Columbus. I had no real expectations when I started, but I was excited to see the university making efforts to connect with surrounding communities and the city.

We began with conversations about how to be better writers and listeners. Assignments included reading exercises of poems and academic essays about considering new perspectives. It was always a reminder that we would be working with black community members whose work deals with the topic of race and race relations. We were able to break ground on those discussions with class conversations guided by readings from Citizen by Claudia Rankine and poetry from Danez Smith, as well as video interviews from local art legends Aminah Robinson and Elijah Pierce.

We practiced and discussed interview methods, whether it was understanding the differences between open-ended and close-ended questions or preparing sample text scripts. Then it was time to talk with the poets!

We took off with small video cameras to record our interviews. I was lucky to know the person I was set to interview and her work, but it was still a nerve-wracking process. At times during my conversation with poet Calla Thomas, I felt like I could just sit back and listen, but I had to remember that my role was to help draw out the story she was telling. I scrapped some of the questions I had prepared moments before asking them, in favor of follow-up questions inspired by the dazzling conversation.

Time flew by during the interview, and once it was over my note sheet was strewn with comments written in the margins of memorable gems exchanged in the interview about art, writing and Columbus. I was so desperate to remember the things I heard that I almost forgot I had video record of them!

Courtney Gilbert (left), author of this post, with poet Calla Thomas at their interview


Expanding Definitions of Literacy

Moving forward the DALN is looking into ways to make itself more of a community space, or more accessible, Roundtree says. McCorkle mentions streaming content as a future possibility, as well as a partnership with Rare Manuscripts at OSU. These additions would fit into the DALN team’s goal of “expanding definitions of literacy.”

The poster for the English 2367 course this fall

“We’re looking at the ideas about it and what counts as literacy,” McCorkle says.

Other oral history projects and groups around the country use similar approaches. The NYC Trans Oral History Project, for example, features a walking tour of queer Greenwich Village with stops at bars, Washington Square Park and other neighborhood hangouts that are sites of historical significance in the LGBTQ Liberation Movement.

Describing her personal relationship with literacy narratives, Roundtree says, “I understand literacy narratives as a network of composing and process-based memories that linger and inform our social engagement.”

This network is what creates the narratives and stories and, as McCorkle puts it, “stories create the meaning.”

Watching the students at Fort Hayes high school pour over historic pictures and maps of the Milo-Grogan neighborhood, local historian Doreen Uhas Sauer says, “They won’t do us any good if they stay locked away.”

The same can be said for the stories of our neighbors, elders and community members.

“Everybody has a story, and to be the teller is a powerful experience,” McCorkle says. “And to hear it, capture it and collect it is just as powerful.”

Courtney Gilbert

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