From the Archives to the Classroom: Oral History in Steel City

My name is Jess Batychenko and I’m a 4th year PhD student in the English department on the Composition and Rhetoric track. My research is concerned with the possibilities for place-based learning and the way oral histories offer a richer and more nuanced representation of communities than public discourse. My work combines history, archival studies, rhetorical placemaking, and literacy studies to explore the pedagogical possibilities of archives in classrooms and communities. Working primarily from the confines of my home over the last couple years during COVID made it increasingly clear how integral participatory experience is to my academic work. As a result, this spring, I’m venturing out of the university and into community spaces to begin thinking about the possibilities for oral history in schools and communities.

For my Humanities Engage Pitch Your Own Immersive Fellowship, I am working with Rivers of Steel, a non-profit organization in Pittsburgh that aims to preserve and share the heritage and culture of Pittsburgh’s industrial history, to learn to collect and teach oral history. I connected initially with River of Steel’s Director of Historic Resources and Facilities, after reaching out in summer of 2021 to do an informational interview. I learned that they had an ongoing oral history project and that they were enthusiastic about having someone assist with that project. Following this informational interview, I also connected with River of Steel’s education coordinator, who is already invested in bringing steelworker oral history into K-12 schools.

With the support of Rivers of Steel, I am working on two separate but intersecting projects surrounding oral history. The first project supports ongoing steelworker oral history collection. For this project, I will assist in collecting and archiving oral histories from the Mon Valley community. Collecting and archiving oral histories will provide hand-on experience that will inform both my approach to archival research and my classroom teaching by introducing me to oral history methods. Though I have not previously collected oral histories, my work experience in libraries involving classification and metadata responsibilities will prove helpful with the more technical aspects of oral history archiving and preservation. The second part of this fellowship involves collaborating with K-12 history teachers to teach oral history in high school classrooms.  My experience working with oral history archives as a researcher, combined with previous participation in youth-centered programming through Pitt and CMU, will also inform the creation of the lesson plans and my work with students. The teaching component of this fellowship will allow me to teach oral history in practice and work in collaboration with other educators invested in similar work, potentially leading to longer term connections and helping me imagine ways to bring oral history and archival resources into my own university classrooms.

These two projects together will help me develop multidimensional expertise ranging from collecting and archiving oral history to teaching and disseminating archival resources for K-12 education. In my own research and teaching, I am interested in thinking more in-depth about how oral history can be used as a pedagogical tool in classrooms and in communities. This work with Rivers of Steel will inform the methods and approaches to my own research as well as help me discover ways to integrate archival resources into my university classroom teaching. Beyond graduate school, I am committed to cultivating connections with community organizations, either in partnership with a university or as part of a nonprofit. I am excited to expand my experience in the world of non-profits and gain valuable experience building community partners and collaborating with fellow teachers and researchers during my time working with Rivers of Steel.

Jess Batychenko
Department of English
March 2022

Learn about all the Pitch Your Own Immersive Fellowships and their experiences with their host organizations.