Transforming The Research Paper: Using Oral History To Center Students’ Voices And Communities



“I am training my students to identify and respect other ways of knowing, to live a life of learning and teaching that do not engage in ever-inventive forms of intellectual colonization…By writing, we re-create the nation of our deepest hope and finest imagination. And we will not die out.” -Cherrie Moraga, “Indígena as Scribe”

“How do you teach English when you talk like that?” The question, sardonically asked of me by a colleague, was meant to challenge the ideas in a workshop I was co-leading about language justice and narrative writing in composition classes. I remember pausing in my explanation, smiling even, being so familiar with this question and having worked through the imposter syndrome I had long internalized around this assumption about my speech, which is often layered with African American vernacular dialect.

As much as I don’t want to admit it, the questioning remains a visceral experience, an attack on my body, belonging, and voice. It was an experience I had in professional contexts that I knew many of my students also had in their classrooms. White supremacist language always put me off from the idea of formal academic writing and propelled me to think about writing in classroom spaces in a new way, particularly for research writing.

One of the reasons the Puente Project is a core aspect of my English instructor identity is that in Puente I was given the space and the agency to focus on curriculum that highlights students’ experiences, voices, and languages. The Puente Project is a nationally recognized academic and mentorship program with sites in California, Texas, and Washington. Founded with specific attention to increasing the success rates of Latinx students, its mission is to increase the number of educationally underrepresented students who enroll in four-year colleges, earn degrees, and return to the community as mentors and leaders.       

It is critical to the Puente classroom to present the students with texts that reflect their diverse and intersectional identities. Puente colleagues introduced me to the now canonical work of Tara Yasso and her theory of community cultural wealth, which, “identifies various indicators of capital that have rarely been acknowledged as cultural and social assets in Communities of Color (i.e., aspirational, social, navigational, linguistic, resistant and familial capital). These forms of capital draw on the knowledges Students of Color bring with them from their homes and communities into the classroom” (Yasso, 82).

As I developed as a teacher, my challenge was understanding how to integrate this theory beyond affective domain activities like student check-ins and journal writing. When I thought about the research paper, I remembered trudging through outdated academic articles that often objectified communities I felt belonging and responsibility towards. My concept of reputable sources — even when I became the person in charge of the assignment instead of the one writing it — was stuck in academia’s gatekeeping and publishing processes, leaving little room for the voices I felt mattered to deeply investigate social issues.

I carried the traditional research framework on my back, hiking up this seemingly insurmountable hill with my students behind me, stopping for rests to do the community stuff, to remind us that we were worthy in doing this work, and that our reflections should sit side by side with the “academic” stuff. It was tiring and wrong.  Everything changed when I dropped the old framework and opened up my own perceptions of teaching research. It was time to Puentify the research paper.       

Who Are We Writing For?

When I first started teaching in Puente, I was teaching for the student that I was, looking to unpack the trauma that I had around the language and the idea that I had to give up my ways of knowing to be accepted not only in general academia, but particularly in “academic” writing. Throughout my tenure as an English instructor in Puente, I’ve tried to reconcile the idea of putting students’ voices first and asking them to fit those voices into a formalized academic structure.       

My first attempt to do this was teaching them code switching. This included long conversations about the different ways that we communicate with each other in different spaces, and how we switch our speech between these spaces. I talked about code-switching as if it were some sort of admirable skill until Vershawn Ashanti Young schooled me with his article,  “The Problem with Linguistic Double Consciousness.” He writes, “While many advocates of code switching also claim to be anti-racists who would never seek to reinstitute racial subordination, they nonetheless translate the racist logic of early 20th century legal segregation into a linguistic logic that undergirds 21st-century language instruction.”        

I learned from Young’s work that code-switching only reinforced the notion that my dialect and my students’ dialects and languages did not belong in “academic” English or the classroom. To undo this and work towards a truer anti-racist practice, I needed to support and model the intentional inclusion of our various Englishes in our assigned readings and the models of academic writing I shared with them. This work shifted my perspective on the full integration of linguistic variety in academic writing and the reconsideration of how we approached research, moving beyond the peer reviewed academic journal article.        

Our traditional Puente methodology — intentional integration of diverse and multicultural texts — led me to front-load more articles by bilingual scholars who modeled research methods that aligned more with indigenous and/or culturally specific ways of knowing. This included canonical texts like Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and Cherrie Moraga’s “Indígena as Scribe.” We expanded our understanding of academic writing, but something was still missing from truly finding the research method fit for my Central Valley Puentistas.        

In one exercise, we reflected on who our audience was for our writing. My default was to say that each of their papers was meant to reach their peers, or an average college-level audience. But our example scholars challenged us to think bigger — how could we research issues important to us and intentionally include community voices?        

During this conversation, my Puentistas did something amazing: they critiqued Anzaldúa. As they worked their way around her concept of desconocimiento, they pointed out that the way she wrote showed she was writing for an academic audience. They understood that while the scholars were calling for revolutionary research, their work still felt out of reach. As we turned to oral history to supplement our research, our class recognized that to reach the community and to be co-creators of knowledges with those we cared about, we had to engage our people in the process of research. To honor our ways of knowing and to create accessible research, we could directly incorporate these voices into our writing.    

Oral History As Method And Project Based Learning

Chasing the Harvest

Two books from the Voices of Witness series started this new approach to the research process: Underground America, which chronicled the narratives undocumented immigrants and their challenges to survive in the United States, and Chasing the Harvest, which follows the narratives of migrant farm workers in the Central Valley, an identity shared by many of the families of my students.        

These anthologies present a series of interviews as first-person narratives that are meant to be accessible across reader levels. They serve as excellent entry points for my students to get a grasp on a basic representation of oral history, particularly in a way that centered the voice of the person interviewed, rather than the researcher themselves (often the case in academic ethnography). The series also includes a guide to oral history, which we used to frame oral history as a methodology.        

We started by collaborating as a class to document the history of our Puente Project at College of the Sequoias, which at the time was a year away from its twenty-fifth anniversary. We invited our extended Puente familia to our classroom, which included former Puente students, instructors and counselors, administrators, and Puente mentors. Students asked questions, some recording answers, others attentively listening to provide follow-up questions.        

Puente has a legacy of community involvement at our college, so we also had the privilege of having an activist from the 1960s Farmworker’s Union marches in the Central Valley present to our class.  From these sessions, the students pitched topics in small groups to focus on for mini essays, each that would incorporate some of this history and direct interview material. These topics included the history of Puente at College of the Sequoias, activism work by our mentors, and the legacy of the farmworkers movement, among others This became a zine we were able to share with our mentors and the first evidence of a research process we could share with our community.        

With the practice from our zine and the support of their student groups, the Puentistas embarked on their eight-page research papers. They came up with topics that affect our local community, identified leaders and/or stakeholders they could interview about the issue, developed interview questions, and workshopped the questions with their peers. They also used the college’s academic databases to locate articles with additional context and information on their topics. While I was worried that the shift to virtual learning would impede the research process, it actually opened up the opportunity for students to reach more folks in the larger Central Valley area using digital tools they were now familiar with, such as Zoom. 

Joining A Larger Conversation

The Undocumented Americans

As our Voice of Witness texts centered on immigration that reflected the Central Valley migrant experience, I wanted to build in more examples of accessible scholarship that examined topics such as the health needs of migrant workers, the struggle for migrant worker rights, and the difficulty of achieving citizenship status. I also looked for a text that modeled a community-engaged process.        

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans gave us that, along with a clear annotation and reference process that students could mirror as well.  I asked students to look up her references and describe how she uses them in her chapters. Students noted the way she described the community folks she interviewed and that even though she asked different questions, she did not push too hard. She acknowledged the trauma and difficulty of each person living through hardship and the fatigue of fighting to end it.    

Villavicencio does something else in this text that is central to my teaching of the research paper and the Puente classroom. She uses narrative purposefully to talk about her own and her family’s legal status as undocumented people and how that affects daily decision making. This fuels her investment in undocumented cases beyond those already deemed worthy of empathy by mainstream news, like DACA students.        

Villavicencio discusses her struggles with depression and intrusive thoughts, which affect her emotional connection and positionality as a researcher. She models the use of “I” in a way that my students deeply connected to — the connection they felt missing from our canonical scholars. “Karla is writing to everyone and so can I.” They had a model for a way they could integrate their personal experience into the research narrative. They realized that voices from their community could be amplified through their own scholarship. 

Impact On Student Research Papers

The most immediate change I noticed is that students started submitting their work again. It is a simple point, but I believe many folks teaching through the pandemic have also faced the reality of disappearing students when major assignments arise. I noticed the engagement increase and students were very detailed in pitching their potential interview subjects and questions to me and their peers. This curiosity and interest became proposals that sought answers to really big questions of identity, health care access, citizenship laws, and other issues grounded in the voices of their families, co-workers, and community leaders.

In the drafts, students more directly addressed their motivation for choosing their topics, often influenced by their own previous experience or knowledge. In many introductions, students explained the intersections of their identity that led them to question certain aspects of society and how their experiences of oppression revealed flaws in the social services available in our area to support them, particularly in the areas of undocumented rights, homelessness, physical health, and mental health.

One of my students decided to focus on the lack of culturally competent mental health resources in Tulare county and how that exacerbates the stigma in Latinx communities around seeking support. She chose to interview fellow students who also identified as Latinx and represented a variety of ages and experiences with the cultural stigma of seeking therapy. In the excerpt below, the student integrates a quote from an interview as meaningfully as one from an academic journal, and she analyzes the connection to her larger topic in a way that is accessible to her classmates and community readers:

It was such a horrible feeling knowing that my parents didn’t seem to care about my mental state of being when I was going through the hardest, most horrifying time of my life. I was about 15 years old, living in Mexico. It was super rare for people to even attend the doctor. I would read books about doctors and illness to help my train of thought wander somewhere else so I wouldn’t be thinking about negative and disturbing things. I was 15 years old trying to cure myself, knowing I was so messed up. I was afraid to be categorized as a ‘drogadicta’ (drug addict) or ‘loca’ (crazy).” 

It was such a horrible feeling knowing that my parents didn’t seem to care about my mental state of being when I was going through the hardest, most horrifying time of my life. I was about 15 years old, living in Mexico. It was super rare for people to even attend the doctor. I would read books about doctors and illness to help my train of thought wander somewhere else so I wouldn’t be thinking about negative and disturbing things. I was 15 years old trying to cure myself, knowing I was so messed up. I was afraid to be categorized as a ‘drogadicta’ (drug addict) or ‘loca’ (crazy).”

My Puente students immersed themselves in their writing process in a way that allowed them to powerfully claim their identities as academic researchers. Students reflected that they not only found the oral history interview process to be a way to rethink how to begin their research, but in a social moment of isolation, an opportunity to connect with family, friends, mentors, and leaders allowed for the research process to serve as a method of community care.

Closing Reflection

As I think back on the experience of co-leading the language workshop and the way I felt triggered by a colleague’s comments, I realized I wanted to prepare my students to face their academic critics in a specific way. I wanted them to find light in the research process by using the traditions of interdependence, community knowledge, and connectedness as the framing for their scholarly practice. These values, which are at the heart of the Puente Project and many of our shared cultural backgrounds, allow educationally underserved students to see the value and worth of their knowledges in the classroom space.        

What I see in my students is the ability to defend their writing choices, from methodologies that honor and include our communities to language usage that is accessible and multilingual. I see them able to locate themselves in the larger academic discourses with the models of new scholars like Villavicencio and the legacy of those like Anzaldúa. I envision them not being as affected by the questioning of their “place” in academia by the white establishment, but rather, feeling firmly rooted in a lineage of academic achievement through Puente and our extended communities.

Jamie Moore

Jamie Moore is an English Professor at College of the Sequoias and a doctoral student at University of California, Merced studying pedagogy and faculty development. She has presented at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, the Strengthening Student Sucess Conference and the Puente Project statewide trainings.

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