Undergraduate Researcher Profile: Lois Rosson (History & Art)

 Lois Rosson graduated from UCSC in 2013 with degrees in history and art.  “I'm interested in oral history, and the way that sound recordings maintain a dimension that textual accounts flatten. Sound recordings allow you to preserve the audible qualities of first-hand testimony, and the internet allows you to share those recordings instantly. You don't need to transcribe anything, and the account remains faithful to the speakers account. Improvements in recording technology and editing programs make sharing and archiving personal narratives on the internet easy.”   

“My goal is to rethink historical documentation in terms of the ‘Digital Humanities.’  The web-based tools available to contemporary historians are still new and relatively unexplored; I want to test out different ways of presenting historical documentation. Maybe narratives don't have to be linear to be accurate reflections of history. Our reliance on books and textual accounts to convey historical information has existed since the advent of writing, as a result, we conceive of history as a chronological linear progression. I don't think this is wrong, I just think there are other ways to chronicle progression with respect to time. Also, I think our relationship to information is hinged on accessibility, and re-contextualizing academia in digital space is a great way to share it instantly.”

Given her interest in the ability of sound to directly reach people, it is not surprising that she is involved in radio and music.  In addition to her roles as DJ and Program Director at KZSC, Lois has her own radio show.  It "is called Celestial Boob Tube, and it's been on the air for about a year. I play new material that comes into the station from our promoters, and occasionally host live musicians. The premise of the Boob Tube (as it is affectionately known), is to provide a space for up and coming artists who don't get airtime anywhere else. It's a fairly free-form format, and sometimes I incorporate prerecorded spoken word and other miscellaneous noises. It's on Wednesday nights, from 8:30-10:30pm. You can tune in locally at 88.1FM, or online at kzsc.org.”

Lois was surprised that her avocation would affect her academic work.  She would "encourage students interested in doing historical research to vigorously embrace their personal interests. I never thought my recreational affinity for radio would impact my academic research as much as it has, but it provided me with a unique skill set for interpreting historical documentation. If you choose to research a topic you feel is legitimately interesting, chances are good others will find it compelling also."­­

How do you define undergraduate research?

Undergraduate research is like riding a bicycle without training wheels for the first time. Course work is focused on internalizing pre-existing ideas. Research is an exercise in intellectual autonomy.

How did you become interested in history?

I started reading Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry novels when I was in middle school. This was accented by several T.V documentaries on General Custer’s “Last Stand” at the Little Bighorn. American history fascinated me because it was so dramatic, and it continued to interest me throughout high school and into my undergraduate career. I still watch Tombstone on VHS.

What did you do to prepare for college level work in history?

I loved history in high school, and was lucky enough to have several remarkably inspiring instructors. I took all of the A.P history courses offered, and kept myself busy after-school with extracurriculars. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, and the relationships I built with my history teachers proved to be very valuable in helping me get to a four-year university.

What projects did you work with?

In November of 2012 I was invited to go to Japan with Alan Christy, a faculty member in the history department. Alan was putting together a collaborative research project with students at Yokohama National University. He was conducting an experiment in on-site experiential learning, and wanted students interested in media documentation. I’ve worked at the campus radio station since I was a freshman, and I’ve always been interested in audio and the contextual properties of pre-recorded sound. The project I proposed focused on the relationship between sound and oral history in the context of digital accessibility. Oddly enough, I received Alan’s invitation to participate in the project on the morning of my 21st-birthday.

The outcome of my project surprised me. I originally envisioned a conclusion underlining the difference between oral and textual histories, but what I ended up with was much more rich. I ended up asking a lot of questions about the accessibility of information, and the role oral history plays as a viable form of historical documentation. Sound isn’t an object, it’s an event, and the introduction of recording technology in the mid-19th century was a big moment in human development. Suddenly, something that happened in a temporal context, a sound emitted from a person or thing, could be captured and duplicated. Today, we can not only capture sound, but share it with other people just as easily. We live in unique times, and are endowed with an exponentially  expanding tool set. A solid portion of daily social interaction is moving into the digital sphere—everyone is “wired.” Programs like Soundcloud helped me share my sound files, regardless of what country they were in. The internet effectively dissolves geographical borders through access. Its impact on the humanities is already huge, and it’s only going to get more pronounced. 

What is the Humanities Undergraduate Research Award (HUGRA) and how did it help you with your research?

HUGRA supports and encourages undergraduate research in the humanities.  HUGRA provided me with a stipend to defray travel costs. I received a scholarship from Yokohama National University as well, but foreign travel is expensive. The support from HUGRA allowed me to focus on my work, and budget money for expenses like food and transportation. [HUGRA is a fellowship provided by the Institute of Humanities Research.]

What have you learned from this process?

The past year I’ve realized that academia is propelled by curiosity, and you don’t need a Ph.D to ask an interesting question.

Who has been the most important mentor for you, and why?

The faculty at UCSC’s history department is incredibly supportive, but Alan Christy stands out as one of my most influential mentors. He makes history accessible, and has always encouraged me to embrace my role as a contemporary historian and produce creative material. Some of the most valuable skills I’ve learned as an undergraduate I’ve learned from Alan. He is a wonderful storyteller, and inspires genuine curiosity in his students. He also recognizes the value of a good youtube video.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your research?

The most challenging aspect of my research has also been the most rewarding. Re-contextualizing oral history in digital space meant developing a working knowledge of web-based tools. I built a website to curate my work, and discovered it wasn’t as difficult  as I initially thought. It makes sharing my research easy, and helps keep it organized.

What are you doing now? How did undergraduate research help get you where you are?

I just got back from presenting my research project at a symposium in Pennsylvania.   It was my first academic conference, and I was able to speak with faculty members and undergraduates from other universities interested in similar topics. Engaging in those discussions strengthened my ability to speak about my project, and consider it in dialogue with research going on in other parts of the country. I’m currently looking at graduate programs in the Digital Humanities, and want to continue exploring the impact of digital media on academia.

Interview compiled by: Rebecca Anderson
Pictures from Lois Rosson

April, 2013