"I'm all about storytelling," says HCOM professor Rina Benmayor. Indeed, she has made a career out of unlocking peoples' stories and teaching her students to do the same.
Before coming to CSUMB, she was assistant professor of Spanish at Stanford, and then became research director of Culture and Oral History at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. There she headed a longterm research project, interviewing Puerto Rican women who had emigrated to the U.S. and recording their oral histories.
After 13 years at Hunter, Rina was ready for a change: "I wanted to go back into fulltime teaching, but I didn't want to go back into a traditional Spanish department. I am very committed to the Latino population and I saw CSUMB as a really nice bridge back into teaching. It was exactly what I wanted to do: multidisciplinary and committed to vision students."
When she arrived at CSUMB as part of the second wave of founding faculty, she immediately jumped into planning a full curriculum for the 600 students who would be arriving two weeks later.
"I started out teaching a class I had designed in New York and really wanted to bring out here-Latina Life Stories. It was scheduled in an arms vault with a big, heavy metal door. The students start out by reading autobiographical writings by Latinas and then they write their own life stories so they become authors as well."
Another element of the course involves theorizing the work and connecting the stories to the larger world. "I spent five years researching different ways to have students do that. It became part of my scholarly work and I've written a couple essays about it," says Rina.
Latina Life Stories became one of Rina's signature classes, evolving over the years to incorporate new media such as video and the internet. The result: three minute videos called digital stories, presented online.
Now the class has taken on a life of its own. Several CSUMB alumni have enrolled in graduate programs at the University of Utah's School of Education, and they recently invited Rina out to teach a workshop on creating digital stories. "They are going to propose the class for their curriculum. It's the first time something I've created has found a new generation and it's tremendously satisfying to contribute something that has a longer shelf life than just me," says Rina.
Another of Rina's courses, Oral History, has also grown into a scholarly resource. "I decided to teach my oral history class around a single topic." Rina chose first generation college students because support for these students is a big issue in California and her class could contribute to the body of knowledge on the topic. "Most of my students in those early classes were first generation. They were the experts; they had the lived experience, and they got to share that expertise with the classroom."
The class partnered with campus support and outreach efforts like Educational Talent Search and began interviewing area high school students as well as CSUMB students. At the end of the semester, the classes presented their findings to the campus community. "We wanted to give the university a report card on how it was doing in the support of the first generation students," says Rina.
With the interview subjects' permission, all the student work went into an archive and the classes have produced two websites that draw on the student interviews and their interpretations of those educational stories.
That repository came in handy a few years later when CSUMB alum Julio Cardona was finishing his master's thesis at Stanford. "It was very satisfying to me that somebody used the archive for their master's. It was important to build a public repository for anybody in the area and to see it being used-I think the greatest accomplishment is when you see something you put into place take off and have a life of its own and go forward."
The oral history class continues to move ahead, exploring new topics and more advanced technologies. But despite the changing subjects and mediums, the heart of what Rina does stays the same-it's stories she's after.
~ Liz MacDonald, Senior Writer, Web Editor