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3 alumni transform their undergrad research into a peer-reviewed oral history journal article

Concordia prof Steven High’s former students describe the value of sustained listening with Rwandan genocide survivors
November 7, 2022

A group of people sitting in folding chairs and paired off, talking animatedly to one another. “What do we remember, and why? How do we gather knowledge about memory?”

An interest in memory drew Felipe Lalinde Lopera, BA 20, to Telling Stories — the public history course taught by Steven High, professor of history in Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science.

The undergraduate class is dedicated to engaging critically with the stories from the Living Archives of Rwandan Exiles and Genocide.

“What do we remember, and why? How do we gather knowledge about memory?” Lopera recalls asking himself. “Oral history is an interesting way to approach these questions.”

And what began as a class assignment eventually led to publication in the longest-standing journal for oral historians globally — Oral History.

With guidance from High, Lopera and his two peers — Hussain Almahr, BA 20, and Elizabeth Tasong, BA 20 — wrote the article “The pedagogy and practice of listening to Rwandan exiles and genocide survivors” during their undergraduate studies and successfully pursued publication in the journal’s spring 2022 edition.

In the piece, they discuss the value of what they learned in the course — sustained listening related to interviews conducted about history, culture, forced displacement and integration.

For the article’s young authors, being published was an exciting and humbling process.

‘An opportunity to search inward, gain awareness and better understand myself’

High’s Telling Stories class focuses on class participation and qualitative research that favours raw material over academic books. Its non-traditional format yielded unique insights into the lives of the interviewed, but also of the listeners.

Starting out, Lopera was apprehensive about hearing violent stories, he reveals. “In retrospect, it can be beautiful to be confronted with the visions of others. We learned how to ethically apply our perspectives to these stories.”

Lopera’s article contributions describe how his family history and lived experiences impacted the way he absorbed the interviews. “Listening to the Living Archives was an opportunity to search inward, gain awareness and better understand myself,” he says.

Lopera’s parents are Colombian refugees who faced serious threats that forced them to flee to Canada.

“Positionality influences what we listen to, what we hear and which stories resonate with us,” he explains. “The diversity of thought in our discussions — all based on one set of materials — demonstrated how differently we can see things and apply them.”

Seeing his name as a co-author for the published article was thrilling, he adds. “In the social science disciplines, most class materials are based on these kinds of papers. I’ll be reading more like this now that I appreciate the whole process.”

‘We have to resist a top-down approach to understanding history’

Similarly, Almahr’s article contribution discusses using several perspectives to get a broader understanding of history. “A community-centred approach, which is focused on people’s experiences rather than an official narrative, broadens our understanding in the most beneficial ways,” he says.

By using this approach, the stories’ subjects become primary research collaborators. This is particularly relevant when working with stories of marginalized people outside of mainstream history, Almahr notes.

Co-authoring the article and working with the stories of genocide survivors was a humbling experience for them. They were nervous when Rwandan community members came to listen to the class discussions and share their experiences in person, Almahr says.

“I was relieved to see how excited they were that we were engaging with the archive content in meaningful ways.”

Attempting to understand history’s events and people’s stories is complex. Almahr says it’s important to acknowledge that academia has not always used the best approaches to recount history.

“Going through the research and writing process for this article reminded me that we have to sit with complexity and not take comfort in a top-down approach to understanding history that simplifies the world.”

‘Undergraduate students are capable of doing excellent peer-reviewed research’

Undergraduate students with unique ideas shouldn’t wait to pursue publication opportunities, High contends. “They are certainly capable of doing excellent peer-reviewed research and we sometimes don’t give them enough credit or the space to do that.”

High is an acclaimed oral and public historian who has dedicated much of his career to working with accounts of mass violence. As one of the founding members of Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, he played a major role in launching the Living Archives.

“Listening to stories like these is a difficult yet enriching and multi-faceted experience,” High says.

“In the world we live in, people often talk past each other or at each other. We have to stop, listen and acknowledge that our individual perspectives are likely different from the way others see it.”

Find out more about Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.



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