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Working Remotely, Together: Challenges and Opportunities for Building Student-Faculty Partnerships during COVID

    By Mackenzie Kortes and Jamie L. Wraight

    (Mackenzie’s contribution is formatted in bold and Jamie’s is left unbolded.)

    Established by UM-Dearborn History professor Sid Bolkosky in 1981, The Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive (Voice/Vision) is a fully accessible, digital collection of over 200 oral history interviews conducted with Holocaust survivors from the Detroit metropolitan area. The archive’s website, established in 1998, contains the audio, video, and transcriptions of the majority of the interviews housed in the collection.

    The process of transcribing and digitizing these interviews began in earnest when I, Jamie, was hired as a part-time curator and historian for the archive in 2000. After I began my work, it quickly became evident that this work would take time and attention to detail. Although I made good progress, it wasn’t until the archive was able to partner with the History Internship Office in CASL to hire paid and unpaid student interns to help with the work that the majority of the collection was transcribed and digitized.

    I offer this brief historical sketch of the archive to highlight the importance of partnering with students to make these interviews available. I use the term “partnering” deliberately as it was a true partnership in that although the students were in most cases working for a paycheck, their commitment to the success of the archive’s mission and vision became evident in everything they did; from researching and proofreading interview transcripts, helping plan events, to interacting with the survivors, they approached it all with professionalism, dedication, and maturity.

    The key to developing this partnership was the proximity that we worked in. Since the archive’s holdings took up very little physical space, it was consigned to a small (for an archive) office space in the Mardigian Library that housed a small research collection and three desks. This arrangement allowed for the creation of partnerships. Conversations occurred in real-time, research was collaborative and face-to-face, ideas were brainstormed on paper or whiteboard.

    With the onset of the Covid-19 Pandemic in 2020, the ability to build these face-to-face partnerships ended. This also coincided with the need to make major upgrades to the way that the interviews are indexed and presented on the archive’s website. Being a digital collection, the archive’s website is its public face to the world and that face must get refreshed every so often. The last iteration of the website (implemented in 2007) was built using .php scripts. It can be difficult to search and requires too many “clicks” to get from one place to another. It is also text-heavy, with the transcripts being front and center.

    Fortunately, the need to upgrade the Voice/Vision website came at the same time that new oral history projects on campus were searching for ways to digitize and index their collections. With the help of the Mardigian Library, we chose to use a program called the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS). Developed by the Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, the OHMS system makes it possible to easily timestamp, index, tag, and assign metadata to oral history interviews. It also allows for a more seamless end-user experience. Given its advantages, ease of use, the ability to create and incorporate metadata, end-user experience, and the ability to share this tool among the other oral history projects on campus made it an easy choice to adopt.

    The issue, now compounded by Covid-19, was that this project would require help. Someone a little more tech-savvy than I am, so the choice to work with a student was an obvious one. As I had always had great success in partnering with students who had taken the Aspects of the Holocaust course, I was elated that one of the applicants for the new position, Mackenize Kortes was a history major, had taken that course with me and had a solid background working in ITS as a student assistant. Since I had previous face-to-face contact with Mackenzie, I was confident that he was the perfect student to work on this project and was thrilled when he accepted the offer to come work at Voice/Vision.

    The challenge, however, was going to be that this work would have to be coordinated and completed entirely online and asynchronously. I had to ask myself, would this partnership be as successful as past experiences that occurred face to face and in real time? How would we manage workflow and iron out the process of getting the interviews time-stamped and indexed?

    With these challenges in mind, I asked Mackenzie to write up a few paragraphs about his experiences working online for Voice/Vision. What challenges did he encounter, what opportunities did he think existed, what did he think of working in an online environment? Did he feel engaged with the interviews?

    My position working at the Voice/Vision Archive has been one I’ve come to love, as at no time prior in my life have I had the chance to explore the accounts of those who lived through history so regularly and on such a personal level. Working online, I have found dynamics, challenges, and opportunities unique to the job.

    The process I undertake working for the Archive is simple. Dr. Wraight uploads batches of interviews from the V/V Archive’s website to OHMS, the database we use to index and categorize the recordings, for me to work through. This workflow typically involves me getting an interview and listening through the whole piece to match up the segments with those listed on the aforementioned site, timestamping individual portions, and then tagging the whole interview with relevant topics. For example, if I’m working with an Auschwitz survivor from Poland, I’ll mark the subject with, “Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau, death camp,” and other relevant aspects to the story told. How much I can get done largely depends on the given week, as I have to work around school hours, but Dr. Wraight is more than accommodating to this.

    It’s important to point out that creating this workflow was a process of trial and error and Mackenzie helped shape and create it. It’s certainly worked in this case, though if anyone is guilty of dropping the ball from time to time, it’s me and I often get messages from Mackenzie asking for more interviews to work on. Certainly, the asynchronous nature of the partnership we’ve created allows for a lot of flexibility as far as when and where the work occurs and although we are not in the same physical space, it allows Mackenzie to work around his other obligations outside of Voice/Vision. I will say that I am often surprised when I see that Mackenzie is working well into the early morning hours! Although the workflow and process, as well as the schedule, work rather well, some challenges arise from the asynchronous nature of the work.

    Due to the online work environment, a few distinct challenges present themselves working for the Archive. For one, should an issue arise wherein the footage or audio involved in an interview is interrupted, inaccessible, there is little I can do on my end short of modifying the URL of the linked file to try and circumvent the problem. In addition to this, there have been a few instances wherein the audio and transcript of the interviews don’t match or are missing entire segments. These are comparatively minor and soon resolved, but they nonetheless impede the process.

    These are minor problems and easily fixed but working asynchronously can impede quick resolutions. Communication is not instantaneous. Emails are missed or composed and unsent, files get corrupted or wrong links are shared, but these occurrences are part and parcel of working in an asynchronous online environment. Considering that this method of work will be with us for quite some time, it’s been a good learning experience for both Mackenzie and me and I trust the lessons we learned will be helpful moving forward.

    Perhaps the thing I was most concerned with, the idea that the students take something more than a paycheck away from their time at Voice/Vision, that they come to understand the Holocaust as more than something that happened seventy years ago, isn’t a problem, even working remotely and asynchronously.

    However, to highlight the challenges is not to say that there are no benefits or opportunities from what I do. The mere fact that I can listen to survivors of one of the singular and defining tragedies of the 20th century recount their lives and experiences is treasure enough. That I can do so while getting paid to index and ensure these stories are not lost to time and may be readily accessed by any who have an interest in the subject is only icing on the cake. It has always been my dream to promote historical study and inquiry, and this aligns perfectly with the V/V Archive’s mission to make sure that the words “Never Again” ring true through the years. Every time I sit down to listen to another tape or watch another video from the Archive’s dozens on dozens of files, I have the chance to learn not only how life was for those who endured the long night of the Holocaust, but everything before and after the genocide; how they lived, where they worked, what their daily routines were like, what they did for fun, what their dreams were, and how they eventually came from overseas to settle in the United States. In many ways, it is the ultimate reminder of the horror they went through, that those lost in the fires of the mad ambitions of the Nazis were not numbers, not mere statistics shuffled to and from concentration camps, but everyday people hated for reasons of their faith and tongue. Morbid as it is, this is one of the foremost lessons and boons to be taken from working with the Archive, lest we forget the inhumanity that man is capable of.

    To visit the site for UM-Dearborn’s Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive, click here.