Summer school for oral historians

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By Shanna Farrell

Both in the archives and out in the field, we’re pleased to highlight some of the important work that oral historians undertake. Last month Sarah Gould shared some of her experiences and questions about using oral history in a museum exhibit. Earlier this year, we talked to audio transcriptionist Teresa Bergen, who helped us see another side of the oral history process. This week, we hear from Shanna Farrell about UC Berkeley’s Advanced Oral History Summer Institute, and how former students are building on their experiences in the program. Summer training programs now exist in multiple places, and we’re excited about the possibilities they have for bringing even more people into the world of oral history.

When I joined UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center (OHC) in late 2013, I quickly began work designing, planning, and running the Advanced Oral History Summer Institute (SI), which is organized around the life cycle of the interview. Because leading the SI is one of my most important roles at the OHC, it’s hard for me to be objective about its value (I think our week is a robust resource and provides excellent formal training). While it’s easy for me to discuss the importance of seminars and workshops I took in graduate school, this is a tricky task now that I’m on the other side of educational programming. So, I decided to turn to two SI alums for their perspectives on our week-long institute. I spoke with Dan Royles, an Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, and Antonella Vitale, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the City University of New York in Manhattan.

Dan Royles was a PhD candidate at Temple University when he attended the SI in 2011. He was studying African-American AIDS activism and wanted oral history to play a big role in his research. He had completed a few informal interviews and a day-long workshop on oral history at Temple, but was hoping to learn more about the OHC’s methodology and process so that he could take a more considered approach to archiving. “The highlight of the Summer Institute was learning how to analyze and integrate oral sources into my work, and exploring critical issues of narrative and orality,” he says. He also cites interview practice, panels on the multiple aspects of interviews, and discussion sections as helpful in becoming more comfortable in interview settings. After the SI, he completed interviews with about thirty-five people and defended his dissertation in October 2015.

Antonella Vitale came to the SI in 2014 hoping to learn similar aspects of oral history. “At the time, I was planning on doing oral histories for my dissertation project,” she says. “I had never had any oral history training. I had read practical techniques, some books on oral history, and oral history theory, but I was really excited when I saw that [the OHC] was doing a Summer Institute so that I could learn more and become more comfortable.”

Vitale’s work explores the practice of fuitina in Sicily, Italy, which is a type of rape marriage. “A man can kidnap a women and raping her, with the purpose of marrying her. It’s also a practice in which young couples escape to marry and force their families to accept them being together. Often, families are against partnerships for various reasons. It’s got an ugly, but romantic side. This practice has never been explored in historical scholarship and my work seeks to define it and understand how it manifests in society and juxtapose it with meta-narratives that exist about it popular culture,” Vitale explains.

She says that the week allowed her to formulate better questions and hone the scope of her interviews. “The SI helped to reinforce the way in which people present themselves and tell their stories. It also gave me the confidence to push people a little harder and not back down when they were trying to brush off a question,” she says. She conducted twenty-eight interviews in Italy during the summer of 2015 and is now writing several chapters of her dissertation, which she hopes to defend next year.

Royles and Vitale had something else in common: they both now use oral history in their classroom. Royles teaches a graduate course dedicated to its practice and theory, and Vitale uses oral history in a semester-long interview project for her undergraduates. “The last few semesters I had the students pick a person to interview as their culminating project,” she says. “Throughout the semester I have various workshops on picking a subject, thinking of topics to explore, and how to do the pre-interview. A lot of the things that you taught us I’m teaching my students. We do a workshop on developing interview questions, bring in photos and do practice interviews, and work on outlines. They go off and do the interviews, transcribe them, and then we develop a narrative based on the transcript. They do peer reviews and a five-minute presentation. That’s been really fun and the students really love it as a project, as opposed to writing a research paper.”

Moreover, Royles said that having formal training in oral history gave him a competitive advantage when he was on the job market last year. It gave him traction, and his emphasis on this work, coupled with the passion that he developed for interviewing, helped him get three teaching offers when the market was the toughest it has been in years. He ultimately landed a tenure track faculty position.

It’s encouraging to hear that not only are scholars seeing the value in incorporating oral history into their work, but both they and their home institutions understand the importance of formal training.

For more, check out Dan Royles’ work on African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project, the project’s Omeka site, his work indexing interviews for the Staring Out to Sea oral history project, and his forthcoming article on teaching with OHMS in the Oral History Review. The Oral History Summer Institute is a one-week seminar on the methodology, theory, and practice of oral history. It will take place on the UC Berkeley campus from 15-19 August 2016. For more information about the institute, or to submit an application, visit them online. Chime into the discussion in the comments below, or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image: UC Berkeley. Photo by Charlie Nguyen. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.