A five-year oral history project aims to capture alumni’s favorite homecoming memory or favorite thing about State. Before you volunteer — there’s no do-overs or retakes once the camera or recorder is running.
Step right up to “Be a part of ISU history,” as the sign at Cunningham Memorial Library’s booth during Tent City said.
When the sign hasn’t been enough to reel in participants for an oral history project about Indiana State over the last two years, associate librarian and chair of special collections Cinda May has had no qualms about getting people’s attention at the annual Homecoming event.
“I’m like a barker at a carnival,” May said. “Some people still just walk on by, but a majority will at least come over and see what we’re doing.”
That’s when May pitches the concept for the fly-by interviews she’s conducted with diehard Sycamores at the annual homecoming event since 2015, when May and university archivist Katie Sutrina-Haney made their first go at collecting oral histories during the kickoff of Indiana State’s sesquicentennial.
“Tent City is a real celebratory place, and it’s an opportunity to actually capture how people connected to the university really feel about it and what their experiences are in a manner that we have no other way to really reach out and capture,” May said.
The years since the project officially began have been full of lessons, realizations and moments that have reminded May what it means to be a Sycamore.
“We were just out in the open next to the library’s tent the first year, so the ambient noise was interesting,” she said. “What really turned out to be a challenge, though, was that the wind increased during the day and was picked up on the camera’s microphone. We learned that it was not easy to take that kind of noise out of the video, so we applied to the sesquicentennial committee for a small grant to purchase a booth and got it.”
Despite the challenges, nearly 40 people participated the first year, sometimes doing interviews individually or in groups of three or four. While more alumni, faculty and staff stories were captured the first year, more new students and underclassmen stepped in front of the camera last fall.
Interviews with parents of Indiana State students, a member of the board of trustees and a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, so far, have provided memories dating back to the 1960s.
“We even had one couple who decided to do a cheer, so they were jumping up and down and shouting “Go Sycamores!’” May said. “We interviewed two women who became friends as students here. One graduated, the other did not. The one who did not graduate admonished students in the interview not to be like her, but instead, to make it through because not graduating was something she still regretted.”
About 80 percent of people who stop at the tent ended up in front of the camera, something May credits to being at Tent City.
“This is something interactive to do and people want to be online now in a way that past generations haven’t,” she said. “It also helps that it is just three simple questions: name, class and favorite homecoming memory or favorite thing about ISU.”
Before the interviews begin, participants sign slips to permit the interview to be put online and can request an extended interview, which requires more preparation for May, including research, developing a set of questions and sharing the questions with the interviewee prior to the recording.
“If they say they don’t want to talk about something, we don’t, and we give them the opportunity to add or delete topics or questions because they must sign a permission form for us to provide access to the interview on the web,” she said. “You have to plan ahead of time for those and tailor the topics to the experiences of the narrator. You also need to think of historians and researchers down the road, and document all of the details — date, time, place, names of the narrator, the interviewer, the camera person, etc. — so that oral history can be cited.”
With very few exceptions there are, however, no do-overs or retakes once the camera or recorder is running.
“You have to realize that people are liable to say anything and they do, but it’s the record and it will be on the transcript. You aren’t going to edit it out,” May said. “The oral history is what it is. Warts and all. You can’t change it, so you have to make that clear to the interviewees beforehand. But oral history really is a wonderful opportunity for gathering pieces of ISU recent history and commentary about the past.”
May expects to capture between 250 and 300 perspectives during the five-year project and hired history major Morgan Brown, ’14, GR ’17, to process the oral histories after she volunteered to help collect the interviews at Tent City last fall.
“I’ll be trained as an academic historian — reading, writing and research — but public history is more about trying to interpret history for them,” said Brown of Terre Haute. “It’s something I had gotten interested in as an undergraduate, so I’m glad to get real experience in it as a graduate student.”
As a third generation Sycamore, Brown has been attending Tent City since childhood, but the experience shooting video gave her a new perspective of her alma mater.
“When I ask people what their favorite memory is from ISU, so many people say that it was inclusive and felt like home,” she said. “I understand that feeling, but I was surprised that so many people also felt that way, especially international students. We were one tent away from theirs at Tent City, and we had a group of girls from India who did a video together. They all said Indiana State was a really ‘homey’ place.”
Once Brown is finished compiling the videos, the plan is to release the interviews on Wabash Valley Visions & Voices Digital Memory Project through a special project collection established for the sesquicentennial.
“What makes a university great is the people, and this project is a way for people 50, 60 or 70 years from now to look back at what campus life was like,” May said. “While students are here to gain experience and skills that will set them on a path to a career, they also leave a piece of themselves behind when they graduate and that is valuable and important because they made an impact here.”
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