Recording oral history

By Veronique Bergeron

The newest generation of Macalester students rarely has the opportunity to become acquainted with the college’s heavy weights of days gone by. Recently retired faculty and staff witnessed an era of change, a period in which Macalester became the college it is today. Their stories are interwoven with influential scholarship, social changes that rattled the academy, and institutional changes that still impact the way Macalester operates. The stories of these influential professors, trustees, and alumni will soon be available to students through the Oral History project, a program piloted this January.
Among the subjects interviewed through the project are Economics Professor Karl Egge, who retired in Spring of 2006 and is currently honored with an endowed professorship in the department; French Professor Virginia Schubert, who chaired the department for 12 years; and Alexander G. Hill, who graduated from Macalester in 1957 and has worked at the college since the 1970s.
According to Ellen Holt-Werle, who works part-time as the college’s archivist, Provost Diane Michelfelder was among the first to express an interest in collecting oral histories for the college’s archive.
Holt-Werle said that this type of archiving on the part of the college was a long time coming.
“A lot of other colleges have these types of programs,” she said. “Carleton has an extensive collection of audio available through their archives, not just from professors, but from alumni as well.”
Influenced especially by Carleton’s program, Holt-Werle worked with Library Director Terri Fishel, Media Resources Specialist Denise Tyburski, and Media Services Director Brian Longley to research potential interviewees and consider what kind of materials they wanted the interviews to produce.
From a potential list of 20-30 candidates, the group narrowed the field to nine potential subjects based on proximity and current campus involvement. One retired professor declined to participate, and as of press-time, seven had been interviewed.
Sara Nelson ’07, a student employee hired by the library for J-term, conducted all of the interviews.
“It was interesting to speak with people who had been at Macalester for so long,” Nelson said. “The issues that have defined the college for me, issues like need-blind, are mere blips on the radar for most [of the interviewees].”
Nelson cited two recurrent themes in the interviews. Several interviewees mentioned the significance of the on-campus protests surrounding the Vietnam War, noting that the political climate of the college reflected a move towards an increasingly socially-conscious generation of students.
According to Nelson, the Expanded Educational Opportunity (EEO) program was also a significant feature in the interviews. EEO was a policy enacted in the 1970s that allowed disadvantaged high school students to attend Macalester free of tuition. According to Nelson, several professors reported that the program caused financial and social tensions on campus.
Nelson described her interviewing method as attempting to capture each person’s own history, within the institution.
“I researched events on-campus to prepare and read old issues of the Mac Weekly and the Mac Today. The interviews were more about what changed as a result of an event: what changed in the individual’s life and in the life of the college.”
“Most of them spoke very generally about their experiences here,” Nelson said. “I expected people to speak more anecdotely.”
Holt-Werle said that she has not listened to the interviews yet.
“I’m so jealous of [Nelson],” she said. “It’s going to be very exciting when we get all the interviews done.”
As far as the program’s future, Holt-Werle said that the group will reconvene after all the pilot interviews have been completed to judge the results and consider ways to secure funding for the program’s future.
“Participants are enthusiastic, as are the responses I’ve received from campus,” Holt-Werle said. “Clearly, we want this to continue.”