Exploring the Culture of MHC through Oral History
"The Hmong have a phrase, hais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means to speak to all kinds of things. It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point; and that the storyteller is likely to be rather long-winded." (Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, p. 12-13)
In the "Fish Soup" project, Mount Holyoke College students are invited to share stories about their lives and learn about the oral history process and the multiplicity of cultures that each of us carry inside. Participants will attend a preparation session to learn about the process and select the stories that they will be sharing, prior to recording their stories in the Language Resource Center (LRC). Each student will experience both sides of the microphone, acting as interviewer and interviewee. After the recording sessions, students will be invited to reflect upon what they learned from the experience about themselves, their fellow students, and the Mount Holyoke community. Students will receive a copy of their recording and have the option of contributing their recording to the project archive, which will be preserved and made accessible to the community on the college website and through the college archives.
"A program like Fish Soup helps you learn more about people, their cultures and their individual traits. I learnt that we are all more alike than we know." (Fall 2009 Fish Soup Participant)
In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Arthur Kleinman is quoted as stating, “If you can’t see that your own culture has its own set of interests, emotions, and biases, how can you expect to deal successfully with someone else’s culture?” (p. 261). One of the goals of the Fish Soup project is to encourage students to reflect on the meaning of “culture” and then to explore the cultures of the Mount Holyoke College community through recording and sharing stories about their lives at and before MHC. By participating in the project both as interviewers and interviewees, students can grow in their cross-cultural understanding and self-awareness. At the same time, the project seeks to preserve a snapshot of current student culture at MHC, through recording and archiving student perceptions: What do students see as the affinities and disconnects among the culture of MHC and their own cultures that they bring with them? How do they believe they integrate into and influence Mount Holyoke's culture?
"Feeling more removed from the experiences I explained in my interview, I am able to look at the emotions and feelings much more analytically. Also, I am beginning to realize how different or how similar these experiences of mine may be with those of future students, and how they might find it consoling that I had the same experience, or that they feel privileged that their experience was different. I believe I wasn’t really able to let go of my experiences of first two years at Mount Holyoke until this interview." (Fall 2009 Fish Soup Participant)
Students participating in the project will also learn about the oral history process and the value of preserving our stories. Beyond conducting and recording their interviews, participants may optionally choose to be involved in further work with creating and maintaining the project website and the digital archives, developing information technology skills that they will be able to carry with them. Another goal of the project is to create a model that may be expanded for future oral history projects on campus.
"I learned that my story can be interesting for others, but also that sometimes I have trouble saying exactly what I want to in the right way. And that one can tell a story in an infinite number of ways - giving it a different feeling every time!" (Fall 2009 Fish Soup Participant)
The Fish Soup project began with a small-scale pilot during Fall 2009, with work on this website and the project archive during J-Term and Spring 2010. Based on positive evaluations from the Fall 2009 cohort of participants, we hope to continue the project in the future. Fish Soup was originally inspired by the 2009 First Year Common Read selection, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman (link to Common Read site/blog), and is sponsored in collaboration between the Language Resource Center (LRC) and Library, Information, and Technology Services (LITS). In Fall 2009, the Fish Soup project was generously supported by the Mount Holyoke College Inclusiveness Initiatives Fund.