Ivy Schamis (standing), a history teacher from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, talks to USC Annenberg students about the mass shooting at her school.
Photo by: Olivia Mowry

New course documents mass shootings using oral history accounts

When Ivy Schamis began describing what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, 2018, she stood up and walked to the door of the classroom on the third floor of the Annenberg School for Communication building.

Schamis, who had been teaching the history of the Holocaust class on that day in 2018, told the USC Annenberg students, “You’re lucky, because you only have a little window,” she said, pointing at the narrow glass in the metal door. “Ours was maybe three times the width, and it went all the way down to the door handle.” When she and her students first heard shots from the hall near their room, they “flew out of their seats and scrambled to the perimeter of the room,” Schamis said. “There wasn't time to even think, because literally seconds after we heard what was going on in the hallway, it was coming through that big glass panel.” The glass was shot out, and Schamis could see the muzzle of the AR-15 as it fired into her classroom.

By the time the shooting stopped, four of her students were injured and two were killed. As Schamis continued her calm, measured recounting of the Parkland shooting and its aftermath, the nine USC Annenberg students sat riveted. As shocking as her narrative was, the students had spent the entire semester immersing themselves in such accounts.

Schamis was one of the many powerful guest speakers in the “Documenting an American Tragedy: The Mass Shooting Oral History” course taught in Fall 2019 by Mark Schoofs, USC Annenberg visiting professor, and Rob Kuznia, then-coordinator of external relations for the USC Shoah Foundation.

The course grew out of a conversation Kuznia, a longtime journalist and a Pulitzer Prize winner, had with his wife one night in 2017. He wondered if the way in which the USC Shoah Foundation recorded videotaped interviews with survivors of mass genocides could be applied to other traumatic events.

“I started thinking about taking oral histories from people who had been affected by terrorist events, and she suggested a broader focus. We agreed it could be powerful to give voice to people who have survived mass shootings,” Kuznia said. He discussed the idea with Stephen Smith, executive director at the USC Shoah Foundation, and while they agreed the project didn’t fit their mission, Smith encouraged Kuznia to find other partners on campus.

Kuznia brought the idea to USC journalism professor Gabe Kahn, who offered crucial guidance and suggested Kuznia craft a syllabus for a class. He then connected with Schoofs, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Guided by their mutual experience as investigative reporters, and the oral history techniques Kuznia had learned working with the Foundation’s researchers, Schoofs and Kuznia launched the course as a directed research class in Spring 2019 with three students. They built on the success of that first effort for the Fall 2019 course.

During the course, the nine graduate and undergraduate students conducted lengthy, in-depth video interviews with survivors of three mass shootings: San Bernardino (2015), Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas (2017), and the Borderline nightclub in Thousand Oaks (2018).

“This course brings you as close as you possibly can be to the reality of a mass shooting,” said Schoofs. “As a student, you sit down for a couple of hours with a person whose life has been shattered by gun violence. And you have to engage deeply with many of the intellectual aspects of mass shootings,” Schoofs said. This included the media’s responsibilities in covering them, balancing coverage of the perpetrators, the victims and survivors, and the inevitable debate about gun policy and gun deaths in the United States. Schoofs and Kuznia also emphasized that this was “more than a class”: The video recordings themselves would serve an important archival purpose, documenting the experiences of the survivors.

The first half of the syllabus focused on pragmatic techniques of reporting and interviewing, Schoofs noted. “Everything from how to reach out to people who have been through something like this, to how to use a camera,” he said.

The "Documenting an American Tragedy: The Mass Shooting Oral History” course taught by Mark Schoofs and Rob Kuznia welcomes guest speaker Ivy Schamis.
Photo by: Olivia Mowry

In addition to Schamis, the professors brought in three other guest speakers. Dawn Megli, a reporter with The Acorn weekly newspaper in Thousand Oaks who wrote extensively about the Borderline shooting, spoke to the class about the importance of taking that first step in reaching out to those affected by shootings. “A lot of times, when you see others who are going through such unspeakable grief, we treat them like they're radioactive,” said Megli, who earned an MA in journalism from USC Annenberg in 2013. “We don’t know what to say, and we don’t know how to approach it. So, I just showed them how I reached out to people.”

Felicia Tapia, a graduate student in the MS in journalism program, said that approaching her interview subject, Shanna Caputo, who survived the Las Vegas shooting, was surprisingly easy. “She was super open and willing to talk about her own experience” Tapia said, adding that her experience was common among her fellow students. “We didn't think it was going to go so simply. But it did. And I think that's a testament to how these conversations need to be happening, and how much people need to be talking about this.”

Tapia added that one of her favorite aspects of the course was the collaboration with her classmates. “We were all watching each other's video interviews — both conducting them and meeting people, she said. “There was a lot of workshopping of questions to make sure we didn't treat people like we wanted to take away something from them, but instead, we were really giving them agency in their interviews.”

The second half of the course, Schoofs said, was less about process and more about issues and ideas. “They’re talking about, what is the value of oral history? How reliable or fallible is memory? What are the motivations of mass shooters? What is the long-term impact? What is the difference between communities that might suffer one mass shooting, versus those that might suffer many individual shootings?”

While Kuznia has left USC to take a reporting position with CNN’s investigative team in Los Angeles, he will likely co-teach the course with Schoofs again in Fall 2021. Schoofs says he envisions an even greater reach for the concept. “We feel like we have a course we can expand and take to other universities,” Schoofs said.