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The multifaceted Frisch

Professor Michael Frisch has infused his love of history into all aspects of life

Staff Writer

Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 19:03


Nyeri Moulterie /// The Spectrum

Thirty-three years ago, Dr. Michael Frisch was arrested during his first year of teaching.

On March 15, 1970, the 26-year-old history professor was part of the “Faculty 45” – a non-violent sit-in of 45 faculty members protesting UB’s use of Buffalo police officers on campus.

The faculty members sought to discuss a more peaceful approach to student conflicts that were occurring at UB. Four hundred Buffalo police officers carrying guns marched across campus in squads of 20. The faculty stated they would remain on the premises until all Buffalo police were removed from campus.

“There was enormous fear,” Frisch said. “You could see the situation unraveling; [the police] were there 24/7. This was before Kent State [the massacre of students protesting the Vietnam War by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970] but you could feel it – somebody was going to get killed.” 

Charged with criminal trespass, the faculty members made no attempts to resist police who began directing them out the back doors of the administration building and into police vehicles.

“We marched into this building and they hauled us off and [we] suddenly found ourselves facing a whole slew of charges that … could have led to 20 years in jail,” Frisch said.

While charges were eventually dropped, Frisch’s involvement demonstrated his passion for history, which continued to shine through in his academic work. He then taught mainly urban history, which at the time was considered an emerging field.

Now, 33 years later, Frisch continues to be a history and American Studies professor at UB and works in his own business to document oral histories for the public.

A culturally diverse outlook

Frisch thought of it as a way to get out teaching strictly American history and “teaching the presidents.” He used his Fulbright experiences abroad in Asian countries, Korea and Italy to develop specialty courses in cross-cultural urbanization and participated in service teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

The Fulbright program is a prestigious, highly competitive, merit-based grant program for international educational exchange.

Eventually, Frisch found himself in the American Studies department, which he helped establish. He believes his transition from 19th-century history to American Studies, which was “much edgier and more political,” gave him a different identity and is one of his main stories at UB.

“I came to realize that [19th-century history and American Studies] were really the same thing, the same story, just with different facets,” Frisch said.

As a national figure in his field, Frisch edited the Oral History Review at UB for 10 years and was elected president of the Oral History Association. He has written several books and has collaborated on several recognized projects. His book, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, is often cited by other historians.

His most recent book is called Portraits in Steel – a collaboration with Buffalo documentary photographer Milton Rogovin, who recently passed away. He used Rogovin's photographs of steel mill workers and combined them with the oral histories of the subjects. He wanted them to be remembered after they lost their jobs when the mills closed. He received several prizes for his work.

Frisch was also instrumental in forming the American Studies department at UB, which is now housed under the Transnational Studies department. He was the chair of the department for many years and helped build the Ph.D. program. He argued for the need to have a culturally diverse history program that involved a Latino program, a women’s studies program and a Native American program. When Frisch was elected president of the American Studies Association, he was known as an instrumental part of the extensive program at UB.

“In a way, the UB program was one of the leaders nationally and internationally in what has now become the dominant trend for a long time in American Studies and even more broadly,” Frisch said. “We were doing multicultural work before it was fashionable.”

A rockstar professor

Frisch carries his passion for history into his love of music.

He is a member of The 198 String Band. The three members are part of the musicians, historians and researchers from Buffalo, N.Y., who play “a unique repertoire of music from the Great Depression and the New Deal.”

In doing photo research, they came up with the idea of combining the live performance of music with the presentation of photographs, excerpts from oral histories, poems and narratives.

“It ends up being this really interesting performance mode where it’s kind of a concert but it’s got a real multi-media dimension and we’re able to do history without having to preach about it,” Frisch said.  “We can [present this material] without turning it into an academic exercise and people respond very powerfully.”

Frisch has performed at several universities and conferences, including the Oral History Association, the national meeting of the Federation of State Humanities Council and Oklahoma State University. His band is scheduled to perform in Arizona next week as part of a weeklong “short course” on oral history, which he is teaching at Arizona State University.

Mixing business and pleasure

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