Dr. Suzanne Seriff wins Experiential Learning Course-Developer Award

Sun, March 31, 2019
Dr. Suzanne Seriff wins Experiential Learning Course-Developer Award
Dr. Suzanne Seriff

Dr. Suzanne Seriff, Sr. Lecturer in Anthropology, Faculty Associate and Director of the Schusterman Center’s Internship Program in Jewish Studies, has won a coveted Experiential Learning Initiative course-developer award of $10,000 over two years, based on a plan to implement experiential-learning components in a new undergraduate class currently in development for the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies. According to Hillary Hart, director of Experiential Learning Initiatives, Seriff’s plan, among several other two year initiatives across UT’s campus, was selected as “exciting, innovative, and doable.” 

The proposed experiential learning component builds upon a small pilot digital storytelling project Seriff developed for students in conjunction with a fall 2018 course,  "UT Jews in the Civil Rights Era." That course, developed for the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, explored the role of Jewish students, faculty and staff in campus activism during the Civil Rights era with an emphasis on our own campus at UT Austin. Complementing classroom lectures and analyses of theoretical texts on the topic of Jewish involvement in campus activism nationally, students conducted original oral history interviews with six former students, faculty and activists at UT, as well as primary document archival research. These materials were subsequently developed into radio-ready digital audio and video stories that were featured at a public symposium sponsored by the Schusterman Center in December of 2018, archived at the Dolph Briscoe Center, and premiered on Austin's community-led radio station, KOOP FM.

Student comments from this project attest to the value of this type of experiential learning in the classroom:

"I think seeing history and talking to it face to face is an experience that will stick with me through the rest of my college career, if not my life."

"This class was the way I thought college classes would be. Instead of a big lecture hall with a person lecturing at you, I felt that in this class, we all collectively helped to make a fuller story of the material we were studying."

"Truthfully, this has been one of my favorite courses so far because it allowed me to apply a different way of thinking than I am used to in my business course."

The new proposed course, slated for Fall 2020, will extend student research and academic focus on the civil rights era from the college campus to the downtown Austin corridor where much of the civil rights activism took place in the 60s and early 70s—activism that would effect not only the face of local politics and practice, but movements, activist techniques and initiatives throughout the country. The course will also extend the focus from the Jewish community to an intersectional look at minority activism as a whole—including African American, LatinX, Chinese, Lebanese and Jewish community leaders engaged in civil rights actions in public theaters, places of worship, politics, business, educational institutions and entertainment centers throughout the central Austin corridor. Students will have a rare opportunity to put a human face to complicated issues related to this extraordinary moment in our nation’s history through one-on-one dialogues, interviews, and field trips with important civil rights era people and places throughout Austin.

Rather than passively studying this period in history through secondary sources and lectures, students will be able to directly experience the heightened emotions, energy, and impact of the era in the lives of those who lived and were changed by it. They will also have an extremely unique opportunity to contribute to significant initiatives across UT’s campus—and the country—which commemorate  the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement by adding to the original oral historical research and public dialogues taking place both on campuses and in the wider communities. Austin offers a particularly rich locale for this work because of its largely unexplored position as an epicenter of free speech activism, the underground newspaper movement, revolutionary de-segregation techniques such as the theatre "stand ins," anti-war mobilizations, and cosmic cowboy counter culture in the American South/Southwest. The proposed class will partner with the Austin History Center to develop this collaborative gown/town initiative which will culminate in a public “pop up” temporary exhibition, an accompanying symposium, and a series of oral history-based digital stories which will be archived at the Center and featured on local radio and/or tv stations.

Experiential learning in this course will begin with an Austin Civil Rights geography walking —or scooter—tour. Beginning on the UT campus itself, students will visit sites of de-segregation, free speech and anti-war protests, as well as Guadalupe street establishments housing the underground newspaper, the Rag, the women’s and abortion counseling center, and gay activism center. Students will retrace the route of the  nationally documented  post Kent State, anti-war protest march down Guadalupe to the State Capital, and continue down Congress where some of the famous de-segregation theatre “stand ins” took place, as well as a number of restaurants, gas stations, and clothing businesses on east sixth street that were involved in de-segregation activities. The tour will culminate at the former Armadillo World Headquarters, birthplace of the famed Austin cosmic cowboy scene.

The tour will set the stage for a series of original oral history interviews students will conduct with downtown Austin merchants, musicians, underground newspaper writers, school teachers, lawyers, restaurant, owners, photographers, and protesters featured at each local destination. After transcribing and logging the oral history interviews, students will conduct archival photographic and primary document research at both the Briscoe Center and the Austin History Center in preparation for their creation of a series of short, 8-10 minute digital stories (both audio and video) for public consumption. Each week of the course will focus on one or more issue related to the civil rights era in general, and Austin activism in particular, with student-led discussions based on their oral historical and archival contributions.

Moving between analyses of archival collections, oral historical data, and multi-media commemorations, students will explore activist approaches to knowledge production, exhibition development, archival work, and community engagement. These experiential learning components will work in concert with scholarly textual analysis and study to deepen and expand student’s understanding of the Civil Rights Era in American history both locally and nationally, focusing on comparative explorations of issues of race, class, gender, religion, and national identity as they impact activist policy and practice in our nation’s history. Students will acquire basic research and information evaluation skills of a number of interdisciplinary media—from academic texts to primary documents to oral histories to visual arts and material culture—and become proficient in conducting original research using techniques of visual documentation, oral historical audio interviewing, primary document analysis, archival research, and media-based storyboarding. Past experience with these kinds of immersive hands-on learning techniques attests to their value in improving student’s critical thinking, reading, analyzing and writing skills, as well as developing professional competencies in a range of oral communication and media literacy skills.

Photo Credits (from top to bottom):

Dr. Suzanne Seriff with students at the UT Jews in the Civil Rights Era Symposium, December 2018
In the office of the underground newspaper The Rag at UT Austin, 1974 (photographed by Alan Pogue)





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