The OHR is saying goodbye to Elinor Mazé, our Copy and Production Editor, so naturally we had to interview her before she left. Thank you, Elinor, for all your service!
How did you begin working in the field of oral history? Can you give us an overview of your career?
It was all happenstance! I arrived in Waco, Texas, at the turn of the century (twentieth to twenty-first!), and looked for work. I had degrees and experience in teaching English as a foreign language and library science, and Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History was looking for a part-time editor—not an exact match, on the face of it, between applicant resumé and job description, but Rebecca Sharpless and Lois Myers, director and associate director, respectively, of the Institute at the time, took a chance on me. I’m not really sure why—I remember confessing in the interview that I read with a pencil in hand, correcting what I thought was a shocking and growing number of errors in published texts, and maybe that sounded promising. Anyway, that was the beginning of my stint with oral history editing and curating. I retired from the Baylor faculty in 2014, and the current issue of the Oral History Review—Winter/Spring 2019—is my last as copy-editor.
How have the processes and techniques of copyediting for the journal evolved over your tenure?
Very little. Copy-editing remains the crucial last step of publishing, and there is no substitute for checking—and rechecking and rechecking. I say this after years in digital curating and working with increasingly sophisticated auto-correction tools and such, and I say it with the slight trepidation of all of us (just about every human alive now, I reckon) who’ve seen technology cure and prevent so many ills (creating quite a few, too, along the way). But in the end, editing—and even the lower form, copy-editing—is about shaping a text (printed and “printed”—the online version) to our will, and that seems to me to be an irreducibly human task.
But in the end, editing—and even the lower form, copy-editing—is about shaping a text (printed and “printed”—the online version) to our will, and that seems to me to be an irreducibly human task.
What issues do you foresee emerging in the future of copy-editing?
Written language is much more conservative than spoken, and there have always been, will always be, tensions between how authors talk about their work and how they write about it (or how editors insist they write for publication). Oral history is all about the spoken word, of course, and these tensions are especially strong in scholarly writing about research that uses oral history methods. A small example with big import for many is gender neutrality—English (like many languages) lacks gender-neutral third-person pronouns appropriate for referring to humans. A couple of widely used North American style guides now “permit” the substitution of a third-person pronoun (they, them, their) for a singular one (she, he, her, him, his, her) to avoid seeming to impose a conventional binary gender identification. It has long been common to speak this way, at least in some constructions, but in formal writing, it is still preferable to avoid it. But why? Is it appropriate to impose standards on writing about oral history that we do not impose—would not dream of imposing—on the spoken words on which the writing depends for its life? All of this will continue to make the copy-editor’s work interesting.
What are some of the most memorable articles you have worked on?
An article from 2016 stays with me as one of the best; it demonstrates the unique power of oral history to move, to seek understanding of tragedy on many levels, and to inspire political action. Laura Hodgman’s piece, “No Cinderella Story: Friends Remember Ben Scott ‘Benderella’ Rae” tells the heartbreaking story of a developmentally disabled transgender woman who was murdered in Tacoma, Washington, in 1977, more than likely by a veteran who picked her up at the bar she almost called home; the veteran was charged but not convicted. The oral history interviews on which the article is based were clearly done with exquisite sensitivity and skill, and Hodgman’s writing presents them in simple, straightforward text that lets the people in Benderella’s world tell her story. It is a story with many versions—all complicated, confusing, and uncertain—but the whole truth of the danger and injustice of transgender lives is there. Hodgman wrote the article “to extend the efforts of Transgender Day of Remembrance by filling out—and thereby increasing possibilities for empathy with—the complex lives of transgender individuals.” She succeeded admirably. And the work was all hers—her copy-editor had to contribute almost nothing.
What challenges and opportunities do you see in the future in the fields of oral history and/or academic publishing?
The sky has always been falling, of course, but it does seem that things are looking very bad for the humanities. The data we create or dig up, the analyses and implications we draw from it, and the education and training required to do all that creating, digging, analyzing, and implication-drawing, are all increasingly undervalued and underfunded. This bodes ill for the fields that use oral history methods and publish their work. That is the biggest and most worrying challenge. As far as academic publishing goes, we are almost certainly looking at the end of the printed journal, and editors of humanities texts are—or should be—busy considering how digital publishing will change how they establish and maintain style standards. What’s appropriate or necessary for a printed page can’t be assumed to be so for online reading and navigating. How will standards change, and who will administer and arbitrate them? What difference will all of this make to the prestige hierarchy of peer-reviewed publications, upon which scholarly careers have so long depended? With global and endlessly diverse readership, are standards relevant, feasible, desirable? These are a few of the things my successors will have to deal with, I expect.