Rina Benmayor * Cal State University—Monterey Bay
Thursday, August 25, 2005
*STUDENT GUIDE 2005* Life's Lessons
Rina Benmayor teaches her students how to tell a story. Not just any story. Their own stories. Their family histories. And to tell these stories, she incorporates the very oldest medium—and the very newest.
Benmayor’s wildly popular classes at CSU Monterey Bay use the ancient art of oral history and cutting-edge computer technology to create vivid, touching, unforgettable portraits of students and their families.
Widely considered an early innovator of academic digital storytelling, Benmayor was one of the first oral historians to grasp the potential of digital technology.
“My digital stories class emerged from a course I taught in the ’90s called Latina Life Stories,” Benmayor says. Using the autobiographical work of Latina writers like Sandra Cisneros and Judith Ortiz Cofer as an example, Benmayor encouraged her students to write their own life stories. “Inspired by stories they read, they learned to tell their own,” she says.
But in 1994, struck by the dramatic vision statement of a new university being built on the grounds of a defunct military base, Benmayor decided to bid New York and City University adieu and bring her expertise to CSUMB, where she has taught her Life Stories class every year for the last decade.
In 2000, inspired by the work being done at the Digital Story Center, an independent, nonprofit organization in Berkeley, Benmayor incorporated three- to four-minute digital movies.
“The students write scripts of a page-and-a-half,” Benmayor says. “They record their own scripts in their own voices then use photos and video and stills to illustrate the narration, then they can add music and sound effects. They mix it all in iMovie and they have these fabulous mini-movies that we convert to QuickTime.
“It’s a lot of work, particularly the instruction in the [computer] lab,” she says. “But people say it’s the best class they’ve ever taken because it’s about them. At the end we have a digital story festival. Every year it’s a sellout, standing room only. Last year we screened 25 stories. It’s a very moving experience for everybody—especially me.”
The topic of the class shifts from year to year. Last year the course was focused on CSUMB’s 10th anniversary. Her students interviewed faculty, students, administration, and staff who had been at CSUMB awhile.
“Before that, I spent about five years teaching with a focus on students who were the first in their families to go to college,” she says.
Those students amassed about 150 oral histories of first-generation college students at CSUMB, a majority of whom were of Latino descent.
After each semester, her students’ oral and digital histories are stored a public repository at CSUMB which houses more than 200 hours of oral interviews on Monterey Bay history, in audio and digital formats.
In 2004, she began a two-year term as the president of the International Oral History Association.
“It’s a course that, through the sharing of stories, the students establish a very safe space and they bond,” Benmayor says. “When they see the stories on the screen, they have a much stronger sense of community. They get to know something about the person sitting next to them. It’s a class that never has any conflicts on power, race. It’s a beautiful thing.” *