Feature | 20 December 2017

Students mine Okinawan memories


History Professor Alan Christy decided to do something unexpected—surrender all control to his students. “As a historian of East Asia my subject matter isn’t necessarily directly related to students’ daily lives,” he says. So he’s flipping the model and experimenting with a class that treats the subject matter as a process. “Instead of telling students what they should learn, I decided to teach them to ask good questions.”

This all started in 2013, when Geri Gail, the daughter of U.S. Army Captain Charles Eugene Gail, donated to UC Santa Cruz a suite of historical photographs that her father took while stationed in Okinawa, Japan in 1953. Looking through these gorgeous photographs, Christy saw the potential for a great project.

“Okinawans have the longest life expectancy in the world,” he thought then. As he looked at these photos, he realized many of these people were still alive and could help tell their stories.
The Gail Project was born—a student-led, international, public history project that uses the Gail photographic archive and other documents to explore, research, and re-frame the founding years of the American military occupation in Okinawa.

The Project is supported by The Humanities Institute as part of its mission to foster public engagement, cross-discipline collaboration, and undergraduate research. Christy credits the Institute for allowing initiatives like his to succeed. “One of the appeals of the Humanities at UCSC is that we’re like a small liberal arts college, but there can be a cost to that,” he explains. “There are centers that have their own directors and staff. We’re much smaller, but we’re also ambitious. The Humanities Institute helps us leverage resources to allow us to do something much bigger, to punch above our weight.”

And they do! This past August, Christy took a group of students to Okinawa. Two months later, Gail’s photographs as well as the companion student photographs, research, texts and oral histories were the center exhibition at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery. “The exhibit is about learning history in a different way, exploring multiple perspectives and building a dialogue,” says Shelby Graham, the gallery’s director.

Not only were there additional dialogues, events and public programming built around the exhibition, it was a jumping off point for a cultural project Christy calls “an opportunity for us to engage in a dialogue with Okinawans in a broader sense about this unique relationship between United States and Okinawa.” The exhibition will also be traveling to areas within the Okinawa diaspora, such as Osaka, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and San Paulo, Brazil.

Christy’s gamble that students would fall in love with the substance of the class through collaboration paid off. “The Gail project allowed me to practice being a storyteller and showed me how to get people involved, says recent alum Robert Potmesil. “I want people to realize that history is really really interesting. They love it they just don’t know it yet.”

Christy’s students don’t see themselves as passive absorbers, but active creators. His undergrads are involved in real world historical research and project planning. They learn how to raise money and create a variety of ways to present their findings.

The result is a project that continues to expand our understanding of American occupation and Japanese culture while being a model for truly innovative ways to engage undergraduates in consequential research and inspired learning.

Visit The Gail Project’s website. Listen to a recent KQED profile of the Gail Project and its recent show at Porter’s Sesnon Gallery.