PAC professor brings history to life
Each semester, Palo Alto College history professor Peter Myers offers a unique class project to engage students in learning about history. Myers assigns oral history projects in which students interview older individuals – such as grandparents or neighbors – to help personalize events from the past.
“It got the students to be interested in history because it’s not a part of history [in general], it’s a part of their history,” said Myers.
Dating back to 2001, Myers began tasking students with interviewing an individual over age 60 about one of a number of topics, ranging from “Growing up in San Antonio
” to “the Great Depression
” to “Vanishing Occupations
.” At the end of each semester, the projects are added to an online collection
, which has become a broad assortment of stories about the average 20th century American, many of whom lived here in San Antonio. In Fall 2016, Myers’ catalog of oral history projects was selected to be featured in the 2018 Tricentennial celebration when San Antonio will celebrate its 300th birthday.
“Nothing has been more rewarding in my many years of teaching than having students do oral history. All the history omitted from the traditional textbook is alive and well when students go beyond the large sweep of the past,” said Myers.
The project empowers students to identify the stories they want to learn about, which is a different approach from solely relying on the textbook. By the end of the project, Myers said that many students change their attitudes toward history.
“Their perspective is that history is on a more local level. It’s about individuals they can relate to,” said Myers. “I know I’ve done my job when they talk to me later on and they say, ‘I see a person, and I wonder what their story is.’”
For former students like Cindy Morgan, the oral history project opened her eyes to the struggles her father faced growing up poor on a farm in Mississippi during the Great Depression. She was surprised to learn that her father never saw a doctor until he joined the U.S. Air Force at age 18.
“I was one of those kids growing up who was like ‘Why do I have to learn about the past? I don’t want to know about the past.’ But there’s reasons,” said Morgan. “[The oral history project] pulls you in to understand that history is important. Having something documented also helped me realize why we have to learn about history.”
Morgan’s father passed away several years later, and she said she is grateful that she documented the stories and details of his childhood. She said the project helps students “appreciate that person and what they contributed in the past. When you grow up, and you’re a kid – you’re focused on yourself. You listen to your parents talk, but when I had to do this project, I realized how all those stories he told me in the past tied together. It made him the person who he was.”