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Journal of American History

2002 Syllabi
Teaching outside the Box

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

U.S. Women Activists
Catherine Badura
Syallbus: 1998, 2000 | Article

The Black Athlete
Amy Bass
Syllabus | Article

Recovering Detroit's Past for History & Theater
Charles Bright

American History Since 1865
A. Glenn Crothers
Syllabus | Article

Intro to American History
John J. Grabowski
Syllabus | Article

American History
Cecilia Aros Hunter & Leslie Gene Hunter
Syllabus | Article

In Search of America's Civil Rights Movement
Alyssa Picard & Joseph J. Gonzalez
Syllabus | Article

Out of Many: Histories of the U.S.
David A. Reichard
Syllabus | Article

Women & Social Movements
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Syllabus | Article

Law & Society in American History
John Wertheimer
Syllabus | Article

Colonial & Revolutionary History of the Southern Tidewater
James P. Whittenburg
Syllabus | Article

American National Character
Michael Zuckerman
Syllabus | Article

"Forgotten 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 quite heard.

--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 isn't over!!"

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 outcome!

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!

Readers may contact Reichard at <>.

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).

2 For the text of the U.S. Histories ULR, see <> (Dec. 7, 2001).

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 work.