When I arrived in Amherst two years ago, I was struck by how culturally homogeneous the town felt, at least relative to everywhere else I had lived. Then I learned that Holyoke, a town only 30 minutes away, is more than half Puerto Rican, and as a Puerto Rican myself I decided to learn more about the town’s history and people.
At around the same time, Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein invited faculty to submit proposals to integrate travel into our courses, and I took this as an opportunity to combine my newfound interest in Holyoke with my longstanding commitment to creative pedagogical practices.
The pedagogy aspect turned out to be as fulfilling as anything else about the course, because it centered on oral histories and the creation of a documentary, two things I had never done with a class before. I found a great not-for-profit that trains teachers on how to incorporate projects like these into humanities and social science courses, and this led me to include workshops on skills such as how to do effective interviews and how to work a camera and microphone.
We started early and fast with the workshops, so that students would be ready to go to Holyoke and nearby communities to do their first round of interviews before spring break, when we were scheduled to travel to the island to interview relatives of those first interviewees.
I could not have pulled it off without the help and support of many people: Peter Marvin in the College’s IT department; Megan Lyster in the Center for Community Engagement; Janna Behrens in the Office of Global Education; Eileen Crosby at the Holyoke Public Library; and Spanish Studies Abroad, a provider of academic programs in Spain and Latin America whose academic director, Michelle Duran ’93, is also Puerto Rican.
This course was a true team effort, not least for the students, who worked in small groups to do the interviews and who, in the process, bonded in ways that I believe they will cherish for the rest of their lives.