The RASRL papers, moving beyond the walls
These two maps are from “My Neighborhood Back Home,” a paper written by an undergraduate enrolled in an introductory sociology course at the University of Hawai’i and now part of the Romanzo Adams Social Research Laboratory (RASRL) collection housed at Hamilton Library archives. This Maui resident’s response to a course assignment to describe and illustrate her neighborhood is one of the more than 400 student papers from the introductory course in Spring 1947 and one of the estimated 10,000 student papers in the RASRL collection. This collection spans from the inception of UH’s Sociology Department in the 1920s through the early 1970s.
For more than a year, I’ve been part of a team annotating and creating an enriched database for the RASRL student papers, a project funded by a grant from the Hawai’i Council for the Humanities (HCH). In addition to myself, team members include Charise Michelsen, Hamilton staff member, and Lynn Davis, Hamilton’s Head of Preservation. In the process of reviewing papers, we have focused on adding metadata that will aid researchers and enhance access. When this HCH project is completed, the database will be available on the Hamilton Library website, accessible by the public, and, our research team hopes, widely used by faculty, student, and independent researchers.
The Spring 1947 collection of papers is well organized and provides both an excellent overview of the range of assignments in sociology courses (examples are listed below) as well as a reflection of what students experienced during their childhoods in the 1930s into young adulthood after World War II.
Here are the Spring 1947 topics that will be included as metadata:
- buddahhead-kotonk relations
- communities and neighborhoods
- courtship and dating
- dorm and campus life
- ethnic groups in Hawaii, families (Chinese, Haole, Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, Mixed, Portuguese)
- human relations in job situations
- Issei-Nisei relations
- juvenile delinquency
- labor unions
- Negro-White relations
- Okinawan-Naichi relations
- parent and child relations
- race relations
- military service experiences
- serviceman-civilian tensions
RASRL’s student papers offer a unique perspective. The RASRL writers were completing formal written assignments that in turn were evaluated by faculty, retained for use in faculty and other students’ research, occasionally published in Social Process in Hawaii and sometimes used in formal faculty and departmental reports to the University and Territorial government. Students were both informants and researchers, ethnographic insiders who had gathered at the University from all parts of Hawai’i to study and earn degrees. Students provided intimate access otherwise unavailable to the overwhelmingly non-local male faculty during the University of Hawaii’s first decades.
The students of Spring 1947 had experienced radical and dramatic changes. In 1947, a traditional-age freshman would have been born in 1929 or 1930. They may have felt directly the effect of the Depression or at least heard about its impact on their families. Especially, if they lived on plantations, they knew about and had been affected by the rise of labor unions and strikes. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the fear of future attacks were vivid. They endured wartime rationing, witnessed settlement of the military in their neighborhoods, and had new groups to deal with — Haoles who were not kama’ainas and large numbers of Blacks. They had watched their older siblings go off to war or work in defense jobs, perhaps date people not of their ethnic group, get pregnant out of wedlock, marry and sometimes divorce. If they were children of Issei, they saw their parents quickly attempt to become more American or at least seem less Japanese. Some students had neighbors and family who were interned; a few had been interned themselves.
The majority of the student body was Japanese Americans with Issei parents or grandparents so they knew the stories of immigration and, if not children of immigrants, had heard about the “times before.” Many Japanese-American students were shocked by the swift change in their status in their communities. On December 6 they had been part of a harmonious mixed race neighborhood gang, on December 8 they became “dirty Japs.” Mostly, they became stronger, more resilient, and developed a consciousness about their being American and what that identity would mean for them after the War.
Veterans were a visible force on campus, and many seemed to easily step into student leadership positions. Veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill especially during the years of the post-war economic downturn, when well-paying jobs were scarce. College, even then, was a place to be, something to do for a year or two or four, a transitional space to inhabit until one could leave the War behind and begin one’s civilian life.
In addition to veterans a somewhat older group added to the student population. Many were re-enrolled or enrolled for the first time in 1946-47. During the war, they had stopped out or postponed matriculation to take advantage of well-paying defense and other war-related jobs. Some simply had been uncertain about the future and questioned the value of a college education. For neighbor islanders, some feared relocating to Honolulu, which had been a military target and continued to be on alert for subsequent attacks.
What also makes the Spring 1947 subset remarkable is the volume of papers. UH President Gregg Sinclair noted in the Report of the President, 1946-47 that this year was truly the first post-war year and showed a 60% enrollment increase. For the anthropology and sociology departments, the increase in course enrollment was 100% (p. 12).
Dr. Adams, for whom the RASRL collection is named, encouraged students to consider Hawai’i as a laboratory with a primary focus on race relations, a factor that was part of all facets of their study of their society: population, cultural conflict, the impact of the war on Territorial Hawai’i society, industrial relations, the changing family, and social disorganization. Faculty who worked with and then followed Adams – Andrew Lind, Clarence Glick, and Bernhard Hormann – contributed to, continued this work, and expanded the scope of student research to reflect an interest in social history. A small fraction of the student work was published in Social Process in Hawaii, but much more remains filed in boxes, unseen.
Beyond the database
The RASRL database will provide an important tool for researchers to examine the collection. But it is a first step. The next phase will need digital support to create a website – or more specifically re-tool an older one, Local Sightings/Citings – to showcase RASRL materials, to share demonstration papers, and to offer suggestions on how this immensely valuable collection can be of service to faculty in their teaching, graduates and undergraduates in their exploration of Hawai’i history, and to the community from which it came and to which it belongs.