Voices and Different Memories":
How Students at California State University, Monterey Bay, Became
Their Own Historians
David A. Reichard
Working on the Fort Ord Project just reinforced my attitude that
we need to dig a little deeper and listen to those stories not
--Student evaluation, 2001
During the spring 2001 semester, twenty-seven students in "Out
of Many--U.S. Histories" (HCOM 253), a lower-division course
at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB), researched,
designed, and installed a public history exhibition titled "Forgotten
Voices and Different Memories: Fort Ord from Native America to the
Twentieth Century and Beyond." Because CSUMB, with about twenty-seven
hundred undergraduates, many of whom are commuters, was created
in 1994 after the closing of the military base, this topic held
particular interest for members of the class. "Ever since I
have been here on Fort Ord," one student explained, "I
have had many questions about the history. The fact that I was going
to school on a military base was enough to pique my curiosity."1
"Out of Many--U.S. Histories" fulfills two University
Learning Requirements (ULRS) in CSUMB's general education program.
One of those ULRS, U.S. Histories, asks students to develop skills
that will enable them to become their own historians. In past semesters
students had completed independent research papers, collected oral
histories, or written historically informed autobiographies in order
to attain this outcome. During the spring 2001 semester, I wanted
to explore whether public history could make the experience of "becoming
your own historian" a more active and collaborative one. What
happened confirmed my hope that students would deepen their appreciation
of historical practices, enhance their interest in historical content,
and become more engaged in their learning experience.2
We reached back to uncover histories of indigenous people who lived
(and still live) around the Monterey Bay area, learned more about
the Spanish colonial and Mexican histories of Monterey, examined
the origins of the U.S. Army's presence in the area, and speculated
about the future. As a result, our own backyard became larger, and
our understanding of what it means to interpret the past more complex.
One student summed up the process many of us experienced: "We
became historians digging up the untold stories of Fort Ord from
the indigenous times to the present day. . . . I had never thought
much past the fact that I was living on an old army base. I never
thought of the indigenous tribes that lived here even before the
army bought this land. This really makes me think that there is
such rich history engraved everywhere."
Course HCOM 253 encountered numerous challenges. We identified
a topic by exploring a variety of ideas in seemingly chaotic brainstorming
sessions. We painfully reached consensus on most, if not all, issues.
We divided ourselves into working groups to make completion of the
project possible in one semester. We had many difficult class discussions
that highlighted differences in communication style, historical
interpretation, and political positions. Research groups spent hours
researching in libraries and on the Internet and interviewing former
soldiers and other members of the community. We took digital images
of the campus and parts of former Fort Ord. We shopped for materials,
designed and constructed kiosks to display our research, wrote text,
and tried to keep organized! We completed all of this work on a
very tight budget.3
One outcome of the course was especially notable to students: discovering
the politics of historical interpretation. Some students did so
by learning how to evaluate source material. Because HCOM 253 maintains
a multicultural focus as a whole, students expected sources for
our project to provide multiple perspectives as well. When they
discovered that this was not always the case, they frequently expressed
regret, surprise, and sometimes anger. As a result, many students
began to think more carefully about how historians choose and use
source material. For example, one student noticed how difficult
it was to uncover "different memories" of Fort Ord, other
than those provided in official printed U.S. Army sources. Another
student reported, "Doing research, I found a lot of sources
that showed the military in one and only one light--a good one.
I had to decide for myself if these were true portrayals of what
the military experience was really like or if they were watered
down to make them look good. This was something that I struggled
with throughout the course of researching for this project."
Some students wondered why some histories were more visible than
others in our community. As one student expressed it, "Working
on this class project was actually depressing for me. I wanted to
find libraries of stories of the Ohlone people, and detailed accounts
of their lives. But I didn't find them, perhaps because I didn't
know where to look. By all rights, they should be as well known
as John Steinbeck's life, or the history of Cannery Row. They were
the first humans in the Monterey area; their stories count just
as much as the white man's." Such recognition had many repercussions.
One student suggested that having to question the meaning of history
itself was the "greatest challenge faced in the class."
"I began to question [what] I had just assumed was the 'whole
truth' just because I read it in some history book," the student
explained. "It seems na•ve now, but I really never questioned
whether or not someone else might tell a different story. I figured
history was history; how could it be different for any two people?
But how wrong I found I was! There are so many untold stories out
there, many of which I think teach us much more about human nature,
people, and the world around us."
Interpreting historical sources through critical lenses led some
students to become creative researchers. "How do we honor and
do justice to a variety of groups from a particular period,"
pondered one student, "when many of those who recorded the
histories that we are looking at often ignored the perceptions and
experiences of many different people?" From this question,
however, the student found inspiration. "One of the main challenges
of the project was sifting through the standard materials for tidbits
of information that tell a different story." Other students
collected stories themselves as a means to overcome the limitations
of printed sources. As one student explained, "Being able to
research and surface the forgotten voices and different memories
of Fort Ord was very important . . . [as they] are just as valuable
as those written in history books." What made them most valuable
to the student was that "this information was told directly
by the people who lived the experiences." After having difficulty
finding information about soldiers' experiences, one student concluded
"that the only way I [was] going to find out about the soldiers
[was] to interview people who were here and [who knew] what it was
like to be on Fort Ord during its 'hay day.' This is where I found
all the information I needed."
Because the class constructed a public exhibition of our research,
we became even more conscious of our own political positions in
representing the histories of Fort Ord. For many students, being
able to tell "forgotten stories" gave them enormous satisfaction,
even pride, in making a contribution to the local community. Noted
one student, "We gave [the soldiers] the opportunity to speak,
better late than never." Students from the local community
were especially conscious of the impact of the project. "I
believe that everyone had a piece of themselves displayed in this
project. I feel that there was a large piece of myself [in the exhibition]
. . . I gave a little back to the men and women who once lived on
the land that is now our college campus." Other students drew
linkages between the historical research and contemporary political
issues, as the representation of the history of the Esselen nation
in our exhibit illustrates. "The indigenous struggle for basic
rights and recognition continues in the year 2001, and many of the
stories I heard [in researching] sound very reminiscent of the issues
that Native Americans have been dealing with for the past several
hundred years," concluded one student. "This particular
portion of the project is helping me to make connections between
historical and contemporary issues, and helping me to de-compartmentalize
my thinking in terms of historical times, i.e., the indigenous period
Students also discovered the politics of historical interpretation
in efforts to reconcile the content of the research with the design
of the public exhibition. Having to collaborate with twenty-seven
other people required resolving real differences of interpretation.
After we had decided on the project topic, themes, and the time
periods we would focus on, we spent one long class discussing the
merits of using a timeline, which some students saw as a perfect
format to display the research. Other students disagreed, arguing
that using a timeline would reinforce the idea that we were presenting
one linear history. After much discussion, we decided that multiple-sided
kiosks would better reflect the nonlinear and multicultural approach
we were pursuing in our research. Rather than present one history
displayed as a single narrative line along the wall, we reasoned,
kiosks would allow visitors to consider that what became Fort Ord
had multiple and complex histories. As one student concluded, "We
decided that the presentation and design of the project should reflect
the importance of the information. The design needed to have depth,
have color, have shapes, layers . . . it needed to reflect the history
we were portraying."
At the end of the semester, we installed the final product in
the University Center on campus. We arranged three four-sided kiosks
around the space, using two walls in the corner for additional displays.
Each kiosk highlighted select themes we had identified from our
research--"Environment," "Faces," and "Stories
& Memories." The theme of "Environment" explored
the intersections of humans with other living beings and how those
intersections had shaped the landscape. "Faces" gave visitors
a glimpse of the people from different cultural backgrounds who
had inhabited this land. "Stories & Memories" highlighted
written and oral histories of life at what became Fort Ord. We examined
each theme over four main periods of time--"Indigenous Histories,"
"Spanish Colonial and Mexican Periods," "Fort Ord--Heyday,"
and "Fort Ord--The Future." "Indigenous Histories"
explored the histories of Native Americans who lived and continue
to live in the region. The "Spanish Colonial and Mexican Period"
examined the period between Spanish colonization along the Monterey
Bay through Monterey's brief role as the Mexican capital of California.
"Fort Ord--Heyday" included text and images about life
at Fort Ord and in the surrounding communities during its heyday
as an active military installation. Finally, "Fort Ord--The
Future" explored what was planned for the former Fort Ord in
the years ahead. Thus, each thematic panel gave the visitor perspectives
on that theme over four different periods of time. On one wall,
we displayed images and text describing "Fort Ord--The Soldiers'
Experience," drawn mostly from official U.S. Army sources.
On an opposing wall, we displayed examples of underground newspapers
created by soldiers on Fort Ord during the war in Vietnam. Headlines
such as "Ft. Ord Organizes!," "GI Shot in Escape
Attempt," and "Bring the Troops Home Now!" provided
a contrast with the official materials on the opposite wall.
As I observed the students meandering through the exhibit after
we had completed set-up, I could tell they were proud of what they
had accomplished. Most students agreed that the project had allowed
them to "become their own historians." Learning that interpreting
history is political, collaboration is difficult, and such a project
is possible were invaluable lessons for all of us. Moreover, student
enthusiasm for what they created was apparent. "The entire
process was tedious, fun, exciting, time-consuming, educational,
and definitely a learning experience all rolled into one project,"
noted one student, "along the way I wondered if we would ever
get it done. However, the final result was gorgeous! When I came
into the University Center to view the whole project during our
reception, I was amazed at what we, as a class, and what I, myself,
had accomplished. What a wonderful way to share with our school
and the community what we learned about the different stories about
this piece of land called Fort Ord." As another student concluded
in a reflection paper, "I am thankful for the opportunity to
have taken this class and to have gone through this learning process
with the group. My interest in group work, as well as social history,
has been rekindled, and I plan to spend a part of the rest of my
life learning from these kind of experiences." Now that's an
David A. Reichard is assistant professor of American social history
in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University.
This article is based on a course I offered while I was a lecturer
at California State University, Monterey Bay. I would like to recognize
the students of HCOM 253 for their untiring efforts on this project.
The Institute for Human Communication provided essential funding
for the exhibit. An action research grant from the Center for Teaching,
Learning, and Assessment at CSUMB and the CSU chancellor's office
supported research for this article. An interdisciplinary teaching
cooperative of CSUMB faculty that met during the spring 2001 semester
nourished the experience--many thanks!
1 Student self-assessment, spring 2001 (in David A.
Reichard's possession). With students' permission, I use examples
from student reflection papers and other documentation that students
produced during the semester. On the conversion from military base
to university campus, see California Postsecondary Education Commission,
Creating a Campus for the Twenty-First Century: The California
State University and Fort Ord (Sacramento, 1993).
3 Working groups included an administrative group (to
find a venue, create a budget, advertise the event, assist in managing
the project), two research groups (Indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican
periods group and a Fort Ord group), and a design group (to devise
how we would present the project to the public, provide technical
assistance to the research groups, scan images for presentation,
and construct the final product). Collaboration and consensus
building were key elements of what made this project ultimately