By: Assistant Professor Dahpon Ho
We killed each other; we buried bodies; we planted flowers; we fought vampires; and we laughed so hard that we cried together. We brought 18-year-olds in touch with 85-year-olds. And they loved it. HIS 247: The Korean War, in Spring 2016, was a highly participatory and community-engaged class. The class drew together 33 students from at least 20 different majors, including: history, international relations, geology, microbiology, applied mathematics, economics, computer science, biochemistry, neuroscience, business, African-American studies, Japanese, psychology, classics, and optical engineering. This diverse student body was thrust into a project of participatory (or “living”) history and given creative control over research and classroom role-play projects.
Along with the class, we were trying to make a documentary film about the class and the questions of public history and community memory: how does Rochester remember the Korean War? The documentary film team and I captured interviews on camera, and students produced their own recordings as hands-on practice in digital history. The course was based on student leadership and teamwork, and midway through I split the class in half between North and South Korea and required that the students research and live out the consequences of that sundering in a final role-play project: The DMZ Project. The ironically-named Korean “demilitarized zone” (DMZ), is in reality the most heavily guarded military buffer in the world. On this border, just 151 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, a million troops armed to the teeth stand ready to kill or be killed.
Our classroom experiment was naturally a simulation in miniature (no real tanks involved). The students’ leadership and resourcefulness were tested as they historically role-played the aftermath of the Korean War and the shocks of a Korea bitterly divided into two nations, North and South. This meant propaganda, military posturing, and team commitment to competing ideologies and ways of life. They elected their own leaders/officers and practiced hands-on team building (e.g., posters, videos, propaganda songs, parades, and speeches) based on rigorous research.
I have watched my students grow as young leaders. We have laughed together, cried together, sighed together. We linked the classroom with city memory. The highlight of this past Spring 2016 semester came when one of my students built a coffin with his own hands and staged his own state funeral inside the classroom as the Great Leader of North Korea (with weeping bystanders). Did we mention that a tiger was present? Surely the Health Code was trampled. We have embraced the Korean War veterans as grandfathers, and these community members as aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters. We have become footsoldiers in a war against Time, a war that no one can win, but we have won one vital victory: Remembrance. Their story has become our story. Together, we are living history.