Jamie Kim, an honors history, Latin American and Latino studies, and international and global studies triple major, was extremely excited about her research concerning Cuban oral history but, due to circumstances beyond her control, was unable to complete the project as planned. Fortunately, she learned to keep her options open and was able to find a new project that she finds even more exciting thanks to the Honors Passport program.
This semester has seen a whirlwind of changes in my thesis. I began with an oral history project that involved a woman who was a student during the Cuban Revolution and an economist in the revolutionary government alongside the Castros. I ended the semester with a completely different project about Peru’s liberal land reforms and indigenous land tenure, the impact of which would be to determine how land tenure and land politics was shaped by Creole liberal elites and indigenous peasants in the mid-19th century. During the work I completed for both projects, I learned a lot about myself, history as an academic discipline, the philosophy of history, and my next steps.
It all began in late Spring 2019. My professor Dr. Shawn Austin approached me with an oral history project involving the aforementioned woman in Cuba. I was ecstatic about the project and applied for an Honors College Research Grant. Dr. Austin and I made tentative plans that I would travel to Cuba during the winter break in 2019. Over the next few months, I studied Cuban history, the role of women and students in the revolution, and the history of U.S.-Cuba relations, and I did my best to learn oral history research methods as well as to consider the problems associated with the methodology. For example, how reliable is the information that an oral historian gathers? What is the role of the interviewer in shaping the narrative that the interviewee gives? What about the fallibility of the human memory? There were also technical questions like, how would I transcribe the sounds and gestures of the interviewee? What about dialects? Accents?
During my research period, I came across this quote from Joseph Gould, a Harvard-educated historian, that has undeniably changed the way I look at history as an academic discipline:
“What people say is history. What we used to think was history – kings and queens, treaties, inventions, big battles, beheadings, Caesar, Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Columbus, William Jennings Bryan – is only formal history and largely false. I’ll put down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude – what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows – or I’ll perish in the attempt.”
I was also taking Honors Methods for history at the time, and I was reading almost every night about what history was supposed to be according to E.H. Carr, John Lewis Gaddis, Lynn Hunt, and others. This semester was a formative point in my life as a student of history as I learned more about what kind of history I want to write and what kind of historian I want to be.
In early October, I received bad news regarding my oral history project. To spare details, I would not be going forward with the project for reasons that were out of our control. In the beginning, this news felt almost unreal. I had been so committed to the idea that this project would become my honors thesis, that I would continue to work on it in graduate school, that this project and I would be together for many, many years.
In my disappointment, I decided to accept my spot in the Honors Passport January intersession trip to Peru because I would not be going to Cuba anytime soon. Little did I know that this would become the basis for my new thesis project. As I was learning about the commons in my class about global history, I was also doing a project about the effects of liberal land reforms on indigenous land tenure. Several things clicked in my mind at once, and before I knew it, I was researching the liberal land reforms of Peru and the enclosure of the commons in the mid-19th century. Dr. Austin was able to give me a good reading list to get my research going, and once I was in-country, I was able to see the lasting impact of the land enclosures and to see in motion what happens when a nation favors development over its indigenous people. I gave my in-country presentation on the changing concepts of land and land ownership on top of Pachamama (which means “Mother Earth” in Quechua), a mountain on Amantaní Island in Lake Titicaca, as the sun went down behind me. The beautiful view of the lake and other surrounding islands I hope served as a juxtaposition to the ugly idea of privatizing common resources, that one could ever own a part of Mother Earth, which is a notion that is not only common in the capitalistic world but is also embedded in its institutions. My next steps are to continue my research in this area and to refine any parts of my research question if necessary.
It may seem at this point that more has gone wrong for me than right this semester, but I wouldn’t change a single thing. I am grateful for this opportunity to grow and that it came to me sooner than later. I feel more secure about my project now than I did with my previous one, and I am determined to live this new year with a keener eye for serendipity not only in my academic life, but also in my personal and professional life as well.