Institute News

USC professor receives new USC Shoah Foundation grant for use of 1937 Nanjing Massacre testimonies

EDITOR’S NOTE: USC Shoah Foundation last year launched an initiative to give out small grants to USC professors of any discipline who incorporate the Institute’s archive of genocide-survivor testimony into their coursework in a way that emphasizes diversity and inclusion. This is the second story in a series of five about the inaugural recipients.

In her courses on East Asia, USC Professor Sonya Lee often teaches students about  the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, when up to 300,000 Chinese civilians were murdered by the Japanese military over a period of six weeks.

But this year, for the first time, the art history professor assigned students testimonies from USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive Nanjing collection to learn firsthand from people who survived or witnessed the atrocities.

Lee was among the recipients of USC Shoah Foundation’s inaugural Diversity and Inclusion (DITT) Grant for incorporating the Institute’s Visual History Archive and IWitness into their curriculum.

In its first year, the Institute awarded grants to four USC faculty, as well as the Department of Social Change and Innovation at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. The grant is part of the Stronger Than Hate initiative, which fosters support for instructors by enhancing their teaching experiences with resources that effectively engage students.

Lee, an Associate Professor of Chinese Art and Visual Cultures, proposed incorporating testimony in her new course, “Art and Cultural Heritage of East Asia.” This spring, she complemented her suite of photographic materials and text-based resources with audiovisual testimony of Nanjing Massacre survivors and witnesses housed in the Archive.

“I did not expect the inclusion of testimonies to be so engrossing,” Lee said. “As soon as the students started watching the testimonies, they got into the narrative, especially with the questions asked by the interviewer and the narrative from the interviewee and the immediacy of seeing someone’s face and someone who has actually been there.”

With the DITT Grant and access to nearly 55,000 testimonies on the VHA, Lee was able to harness the power of testimony to educate and impact her students. 

As part of the DITT Grant, faculty were provided an orientation to the VHA and IWitness, collaborated with Education Department staff, and met with instructional designers from the Center for Excellence in Teaching.

While Lee previously used a number of written accounts by eyewitnesses with powerful effects, she noted that, “this is very different from a text. With texts or documentary films, you don’t have the long exposure to one person. The students paid more attention to the unique nature of the medium.”

Now, her students watch entire testimonies, whose length in the Nanjing collection ranges from 30 minutes to two hours. There are currently thirty subtitled testimonies in the VHA.

“Seeing the testimony in its entirety is very different than seeing it in clips,” she said. “What is unusual about testimonies is that you watch them from beginning to end. Because of the nature of the narratives, you react very emotionally. The testimonies are not a transcript, not a film and are not for entertainment.”

Students wrote papers that conveyed their takeaways from the survivors’ stories.

Before the students interacted with curated clips from the Visual History Archive that are available on IWitness, they visited USC Shoah Foundation offices and received an orientation from staff.

Lee plans to use the testimonies in future courses.

The 2018-19 Diversity and Inclusion Through Testimony Grant Call for Proposals will be published in August. Please check back here for more information.