The American Mosaic Semester at Dickinson College
In Collaboration with members of the Steelton Community
In the telling and retelling
of their stories,
They create communities
The American Mosaic-Steelton Project was an experiment in multicultural education. During the spring 1996, some 25 students and 3 faculty from Dickinson College came together with workers, teachers, local business people, and residents of Steelton, Pennsylvania to explore questions of mutual interest: how does one make a living, raise a family, negotiate school, sustain faith, and relate to others in the mid-1990s in a small town in America? Interacting across race, class, gender, generational, age, and religious lines, members of the Dickinson and Steelton communities engaged one another in the union halls and classrooms, in churches and cafes, at the mill and in the cemeteries. As we interviewed and listened to tapes and read transcriptions, we were working out our own understandings of what was going on not only in the community but within ourselves as well. The project became a very personal one as we moved in and out of our roles as outsider-insider, historian-listener, participant-observer, minority -majority, student-teacher, apprentice-mentor.
For those of us who came to the Project as observers looking to be participants, helping the community discover and document its stories helped us to discover and document our own communities and stories as well. As Dickinson students were video-taping interviews with retired steelworkers and Croatian parishioners, they were simultaneously writing their own family histories and personal memoirs. In turn, Dickinson students mentored Steelton-Highspire elementary and high school students who then conducted their own interviews with their families and local business people. In the process, differences were explored and similarities discovered.
We want to share with you what we have learned through the Mosaic experience. After 6 weeks of academic study in Political Economy, Community Studies, and Memoir and Narrative, and another 7 weeks of intensive fieldwork, our understanding of contemporary American life has been enriched and deepened. We have become more aware of both the diversity of life experiences and just how much we all share in common. Some of the voices presented here were familiar ones; others we had not heard or honored before – and some of them are ours.
“Reality is complex and many-sided; and it is a primary merit of oral history that to a much greater extent than most sources it allows a multiplicity of standpoints to be recreated” (Slim and Thompson, Listening for a Change: 1).
It is this multiplicity of perspectives that we want to share with you.
Interdisciplinary Study and Collaborative Learning
Oral history can break down barriers between teachers and students, between generations, between educational institutions and the world outside; and in the writing of history — whether in books, or museums, or radio and film, — it can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words, a central p lace (Paul Thompson, Voices of the Past: 2).
The American Mosaic Semester at Dickinson College emerged as an experimental course option for the Spring semester of 1996. This course was based on the desire for a more interdisciplinary, experiential, and collaborative learning program. Dickinson College supported this program as a liberal arts experience, that complements study-abroad and other off-campus opportunities that the College has to offer, paying particular attention to the value of intracultural experiences.
This experimental three-credit course offered by Professors Charles Barone, Sharon O’Brien, and Susan Rose was an immersion in American cultural diversity. Students earned one credit each in English or American Studies, Economics, and Sociology, and an additional course credit in Community Studies that supported independent or group research projects. The structure and goals of the course have been developed over a three year period in which a group of faculty, students, and administrators have met in order to develop innovative approaches to the study of American diversity.
During the first six weeks of this course, readings, lectures, workshops, and field-trips provided students with theoretical foundations and methodological training for their future fieldwork, and engaged them actively in reading and writing memoirs and narratives. The basic premise is that everyone has a story worth telling, and in order for students to be effective listeners, recorders, and interpreters of others’ stories, they need to be aware of and value their own . In discovering and telling other people’s stories, we may learn what it means to both talk to other people and truly listen, to hear what we are being told and what we are telling ourselves. In the article, “Oral History as Ethnographic Encounter,” Micaela di Leonardo concludes that the major contribution that the new work in ethnographic theory has to “offer oral history are the self-conscious analysis of the intersubjectivity of the interview, and an admission of the innately theoretical work of any interview project.” In confronting issues of methodology and interpretation in such a collaborative project, one cannot escape the complex and often difficult issues that surface as part of the research process. As Paul Thompson reminds us, “All history depends ultimately upon its social purpose,” a fact that we continually had to confront as we went about our work, negotiating w hat questions we should ask; whom we should interview next; which materials we should present, to whom , and in what form.
What has been most empowering has been the engagement in research that genuinely drew upon the resources of all of us, students and teachers alike, and challenged us in ways that led us out of our traditional roles as educators and students and into an exploration of current issues and social understandings that are a part of the history we are documenting.
This kind of engagement forced us to think about ourselves reflectively — and in relation to others.
“As we discover, we remember; and as we remember, we discover; and all the more intensely do we remember when our stories converge” (Eudora Welty).
To learn more about the American Mosaic Semester and the community of Steelton, PA, choose a category from below:
Ethnic Diversity The Midland Cemetery Student Reflections
Thanks to Susan Rose, Chuck Barone and Jamie Metzinger who were responsible for selecting, organizing, and analyzing the data for the Mosaic homepage; to Samantha Eburne, Dana Intern, for all the work she did on the final exhibit; and to Jamie Metzinger, Dana Intern, who took primary responsibility for constructing the homepage.