There are a lot of interesting ‘Topics’ seminars on offer at Draper next semester, so we’ll be highlighting these over the next few weeks. First on our list is “Topics in the City: Topics in The City: Oral History, Labors of Waste, and Values of Knowledge” which will be taught by Draper’s director, Robin Nagle. The course description is below; if you’re interested in enrolling, please contact Robin directly at robin[dot]nagle[at]nyu[dot]edu.
Oral History, Labors of Waste, and the Value of Knowledge
This class uses oral history to consider the role of unappreciated labor and invisible knowledge in an urban setting. Working in collaboration with current and former members of New York City’s Department of Sanitation to, we will explore the dynamics of a historically significant work force to consider some overlooked elements of the city’s past and to become acquainted with the complexities of a vital but largely hidden infrastructure.
Oral history, both as a discipline and as a practice, serves many functions. It can be an investigatory and documentary technique, a fact-finding strategy, a professional tool, a casual practice, or a personal reflection. Methods of oral history are useful to historians, anthropologists, museum curators, educators, journalists, playwrights, and novelists, among others. Some who use oral history are quite self-conscious about the larger intellectual conversations in which it fits, while others simply find it a helpful way to learn details about particular events, individuals, or moments in time.
Within the academy, these many understandings and uses of oral history are considered through a variety of theoretical frameworks that ask questions about truth (who claims it, and who contests it), perspective (whose voice is heard, whose is ignored, by whom, in what contexts), relevance (who cares? why or why not?), bias (of everyone involved), access (to the stories, to the people telling the stories) and power (woven through the entire enterprise, but not always easy to measure). We will delve into these and related concerns throughout the semester.
At the same time, we will give equal attention to practicalities, including interview skills, research techniques, equipment choices, and transcription software and protocols.
Students will complete two life-history interviews, including transcriptions finished to deposit standards. Assignments will include journal articles, book excerpts, and examples of oral histories. Students will also be responsible for a series of reflective and analytical writing assignments as well as research outside class that will be necessary preparation for the interviews themselves.
By the end of the semester, students will have learned basic oral history methods and theories, and will be able to “read” the city with more nuance and insight. The interviews that the class gathers will become permanent records within the Sanitation Oral History Archive, a joint NYU/DSNY venture.