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Diving into the OHR Archive

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By Andrew Shaffer

One of my favorite tasks as the OHR’s Social Media Coordinator is interviewing people for the blog. I get to talk to authors of recent articles from the OHR, oral historians using the power of conversation to create change, and a whole lot more. As a narcissistic millennial, however, I am now turning the spotlight inward, interviewing myself about the OHR’s latest virtual issue, released this week, on Oral History and Public History.

What can readers expect to find in this virtual issue?

This issue has everything: short articles about the professionalization of oral history; longer articles about memory in Saskatoon and public attention to Mashapaug; representations of the past in museums and public space; and journeys of communal discovery through Spanish-language music and intergenerational housing activism. The introduction is pretty neat, too. The threads that connect these articles together explore the interactions between oral historians, oral histories, and the public – whether that public be the residents of an ethnic enclave, visitors to a museum, or the people whose lives are recorded through a particular project.

Why should people look through a virtual issue, when a brand new issue of the OHR just came out?

In one of the first email interviews I conducted for the OHR blog, Linda Shopes encouraged oral historians to “slow down a bit and consider the urge to collect.” She was making a case about the direction of the field, but her concern about work simply gathering dust on archival shelves has stuck with me. In a world where new scholarship is continually being produced, older work can easily be ignored and fall by the wayside. But these articles are often immensely valuable in prompting questions for current research, and for thinking through the ways the field has changed or shifted. These virtual issues are a chance to slow down a bit, to dive deeply into the journal’s archive, and to see what conversations emerge over time.

You did this all by yourself, right?

Wow, such astute questions! As much as I would like to claim I did this all single-handedly, much of the credit (and none of the blame) goes to the OHR’s Editor in Chief Kathy Nasstrom and Managing Editor Troy Reeves. Troy and I worked through decades of scholarship to select a handful articles that could reflect, as accurately as possible, the major themes and concerns raised in the journal around the interactions between oral history and public history. We both fell in love with articles that didn’t make the final cut, and together we killed each other’s darlings. Kathy’s keen editing eye guided our selection process throughout and turned a rambling introduction into a polished piece of writing that makes it much clearer how each article adds to the issue. Troy and Kathy have graciously allowed me to take credit for the virtual issue (and I agreed, see: narcissism, above), but their fingerprints are all over it. The issue’s copyeditor, Elinor Maze, and our friends at Oxford University Press – especially marketing whiz Alex Fulton – helped to turn this virtual issue into a reality.

Do you have plans to do similar projects in the future?

I don’t, but the OHR does! Virtual issues are a great way to highlight older content, and the journal is eager to hear what other ideas for themes you, the readers, have. If you’d like to pitch a virtual issue, reach out at ohreview[at]gmail[dot]com.

You can explore the virtual issue here, and let us know what you think in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Working class narratives in the twenty first century

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By Virginia Espino

With school getting back in session, today on the blog we are exploring how instructors are using oral history in the classroom. The piece below, from filmmaker and UCLA Lecturer Virginia Espino explores the power of oral history to connect students to their campus community, and to help them collaboratively rethink what working class identity means in the modern era.

What does it mean to be a member of the working class in the twenty first century? I posed this question to my students earlier this year when I taught a class in oral history methods for the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA. I focused the course on the study and collection of working class stories as a way to uplift voices not often heard in an academic setting and to develop an archive of interviews that broadens our understanding of the working class as a diverse and multifaceted cross-section of our society.

Erin Min: An Oral History from Maya Tripathi on Vimeo.

On the first day of class I handed out index cards to each student and asked them to define working class in three words or statements. How we define terms such as “working class,” “middle class” and “upper class” exposes our belief system as well as how successful the media has been in constructing meanings for us. In order to teach working class history, I wanted to understand what the term meant to modern college students in one of the most ethnically and economically diverse cities in the country.

The responses were what I might have predicted because they were views that I shared myself:  Living paycheck-to-paycheck; struggling to survive; exploited. But as I re-read through my student’s definitions, I was reminded of my own oral history interviews with the Chicana activist, Lilia Aceves. She recalled that poverty meant something different to her growing up in 1940s East Los Angeles. She had a roof over her head and food on the table and imagined herself as well to do. “I didn’t know we were poor…I thought we had everything,” she recalled. Only as an adult did she understand that her family lacked the kind of material wealth one saw in popular magazines or on the big screen. “We always had a home, but in terms of the physical aspect of it you could see that we were the working poor.”

After the first session of class my primary teaching goal for the quarter evolved into using oral history methods to document the meaning working class individuals gave to their lives. I directed my students to enter the interviews with an open mind and to expect to have their assumptions challenged. In addition to capturing the life-history narrative I wanted them to focus on questions that explored how members of the working class understood their social and economic position. Did they view themselves as we did: poor, unskilled, and uneducated? What would they tell us about their lives if we took the time to listen? The results of their interviews were stunning, and several narratives stand out for how they help us to amplify our perception of U.S. “workers.”

Three students in the class chose to work together on an interview project that would explore the lives of three janitors in the University of California system. They developed an interview outline that would focus on the following research questions:

  • What is class-consciousness?
  • How is class structured in the United States?
  • What are the intersections between class and ethnic identity, and do these intersections influence narrators’ lived experiences?
  • What are the opportunities for, and barriers to, upward mobility?
  • What role does unionism and labor organizing take among UC janitors?

Each student was required to interview the same person twice in order to gain an authentic experience of the work oral historians do when approaching the life history. Returning to an interviewee for follow-up questions is the crux of a quality interview and often leads to a deeper dig into meaning and personal agency.  And for the student interviewers, it proved essential in providing them with ample time to develop trust as well as time to step back from the process for self-reflection and self-critique. The students identified as members of the working class, but soon realized they were bringing their own biases to the interview process – specifically, the assumptions they had about the people who maintain the infrastructure of UC campuses. As stated in their project evaluation, they began their project with the belief that “janitors are poor and their job has low value…” They ended their project with a new awareness that janitors take pride in their work and want to be seen and appreciated by the students, faculty and staff who work alongside them.

As a class we learned the varied meanings of working class through the projects students executed. In a surprising revelation, the students learned that one of the janitors they interviewed held a college degree: Unable to find a job in her field she was forced to take a position cleaning the UCLA campus to support her young family. Over the course of the quarter we were introduced to an Asian American student struggling to balance work and school. Her narrative forced us to reject the “model minority” stereotype that presumes Asian Americans float easily through school; her identification with the working class stemmed from her need to support herself through school, while many of her classmates receive unlimited parental support. And through an interview with a white male, we learned that the absence of jobs in the humanities has forced white college educated men to seek jobs in restaurants and department stores while struggling to maintain the lifestyle they desire. Taken together, these important narratives help us complicate what it means to be working class in the twenty first century.

Virginia Espino is a historian turned filmmaker who currently teaches oral history, Chicanx history, and Labor history at UCLA. She is a co-producer of the film No Más Bebés that examines the history of forced sterilizations at a large public hospital. Her current project is an investigation into the foster care system through the voices of those who encounter it on a daily basis.

Counting down to OHA2017

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By Andrew Shaffer

It’s no secret that we here at the Oral History Review are big fans of the OHA Annual Meeting. It’s our annual dose of sanity, a thoroughly enriching experience, a place to make connections, a great opportunity for young scholars, and the origin of some lively online debates. With nearly two months still to go before #OHA2017, we want to share a couple of reviews recently published in the OHR that we hope can help carry us all through until we are reunited in Minneapolis this October.

First, our very own Troy Reeves wrote an essay in which he reviewed two books about Joe Gould, including one by this year’s OHA Keynote Speaker, Jill Lepore. In it, Reeves traces his process of discovery and disillusionment with Joe Gould and his mythical book, An Oral History of Our Time. He asks how one can love an idea, and the possibilities it opens up, while acknowledging the complicated and problematic history of the man behind the idea.

Reeves’ review is a continuation of a line of thought Daniel Kerr raised in his 2016 article, “Allan Nevins Is Not My Grandfather: The Roots of Radical Oral History Practice in the United States.” Kerr’s piece asked what oral history family trees exist aside from the canonical version that imagines Allan Nevins as the progenitor of our discipline. This article has been a jumping off point for multiple recent posts on the OHR blog, including Allison Corbett’s oral history origin story, and Benji de la Piedra’s suggestion that the architects of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project can provide a scholarly ancestry that prioritized shared authority and meaningful encounters between researchers and the public.

We will bring you an insider’s take on Minneapolis in a few weeks, but for now we’ll point you to a piece that touches on a bit of local history. Barbara W. Sommer reviewed Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines by Jack El-Hai, asking what role oral history played in creating the book. El-Hai traces the rise and fall of the airline, which was headquartered near Minneapolis, and provides a visually interesting introduction to the company and the region.

Both of these reviews are now up on Advance Access for OHR subscribers, as are the rest of the articles that will appear in the print issue. Check them out now, and make sure to keep an eye on the blog in the coming weeks for interviews with OHR 44.2 authors, a sneak peak of #OHA2017, and more!

What do you love about the OHA Annual Meeting? Let us know in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Downtown Minneapolis” by m01229, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

That someone else: finding a new oral history ancestor

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By Benji De La Piedra

In April Allison Corbett shared her reaction to Dan Kerr’s article “Allen Nevins Is Not My Grandfather: The Roots of Radical Oral History Practice in the United States,” explaining the roots of her own radical oral history practice. Today we hear from Benji de la Piedra, as he shares another oral history origin story from his research on the Federal Writers’ Project. Enjoy his insights, and check out our call for submissions here, if you’d like to contribute your own reflections.

“Ever since the Federal Writers’ Project interviews with former slaves in the 1930s, oral history has been about the fact that there’s more to history than presidents and generals.” –Alessandro Portelli

Dan Kerr acknowledges in his article, “Allan Nevins Is Not My Grandfather,” that most historians of oral history tend to dismiss the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) as a mere “prehistory” of the field, because the vast majority of FWP interviews were recorded with pen and paper rather than with machine. However, in the research that I conducted towards my M.A. thesis in oral history, I discovered for myself the untapped potency that the FWP holds for oral historians who seek an origin story more closely aligned with the field’s impulse towards effecting social change.

Started in 1935 as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, the Federal Writers’ Project put thousands of unemployed writers to work on assignments that served the FWP’s ambitious cultural agenda: to foster a badly needed renewal of the United States’ self-image, and to forge a new American unity through celebration of unrecognized American diversity. As Jerrold Hirsch writes, the cohort of public intellectuals directing the Project—Henry Alsberg (national director), Sterling A. Brown (editor of Negro affairs), Morton Royse (social-ethnic studies editor) and Benjamin A. Botkin (folklore editor)—sought to imbue the nation’s public life with “a cosmopolitanism that encouraged Americans to value their own provincial traditions and to show an interest in the traditions of their fellow citizens.”

FWP writers pursued this pluralistic aim through a practice that I think of as proto-oral-history fieldwork. All across the country, the writers spent much of their workdays conducting interviews with people traditionally excluded from the process of history-writing: the working poor, immigrants, women, and people of color (including those who had been born slaves). The Project intended to use the testimony furnished by the interviews as fodder for both an American Guide Series—a set of guidebooks, one for each of the state in the Union—and Composite America, a series of cultural anthologies that would reveal overlooked strands and narratives of American culture to the wider public.

If you are an oral historian seeking a new grandfather—one with greater aesthetic concerns, democratic objectives, and community-based ethics than Allan Nevins—I recommend you check out the leading soul and intellect of the FWP’s interviewing program: B. A. Botkin (1901 – 1975). I first encountered Botkin in the introduction to Ann Banks’ First Person America, a book that curates about eighty extracts from the almost 10,000 interviews produced by FWP fieldworkers, and was the result of Banks’ own pioneering effort to survey and catalogue the entire collection of interviews, which had sat unexamined in a set of file cabinets at the Library of Congress for more than thirty years after the Project was disbanded.

In the introduction to her book, Banks celebrates Botkin’s “unconventional approach to the subject of folklore” as a crucial influence on the Federal Writers’ interview methodology. Botkin “wanted to explore the rough texture of everyday life,” Banks writes, “to collect what he called ‘living lore’…Again and again, he stressed the importance of the process of collecting narratives. The best results, he wrote, were obtained ‘when a good informant and a good interviewer got together and the narrative is the process of the conscious or unconscious collaboration of the two.’”

Banks goes on, “Benjamin Botkin called for an emphasis on ‘history from the bottom up,’ in which the people become their own historians. He believed that ‘history must study the inarticulate many as well as the articulate few.’ The advent of tape recorders in the years following the 1930s has refined the practice of what has come to be called oral history and made it possible for Botkin’s goals to be pursued more easily.”

In other words, Botkin instructed the Federal Writers to approach their interviews dialogically, as intersubjective exchanges built upon a shared authority, decades before these central concepts were so named in the field of oral history. Botkin saw the potential for this interview technique to drive a radically inclusive rehabilitation of American life, decades before the popular education and people’s history movements that Kerr recovers in his article.

 Botkin instructed the Federal Writers to approach their interviews dialogically, as intersubjective exchanges built upon a shared authority, decades before these central concepts were so named in the field of oral history.

Botkin deeply appreciated the pedagogical and integrative function of the work that we now call oral history. His desire to make the archive produced by FWP fieldworkers accessible to an “ever-widening public,” to “give back to the people what we have taken from them and what rightfully belongs to them in a form that they can understand and use,” led him to declare the FWP’s interview program “the greatest educational as well as social experiment of our time.” While the outcomes of this experiment varied in quality, social justice-oriented oral historians will continue to find Botkin’s impressive body of thought a particularly germane touchstone for their work. Why? Because Botkin’s method and theory of interviewing took relationships seriously. Botkin prized the meaningful encounter—the “mutual sighting,” to use Portelli’s phrase—as the foundation for not only a successful interview, but also a healthy democracy.

Botkin refined this ideology in the years following his tenure with the FWP, when he elaborated a public-facing research practice that he called “applied folklore.” Botkin used this term broadly, “to designate the use of folklore to some end beyond itself…into social or literary history, education, recreation, or the arts.” He identified the basic impulse of applied folklore as “the celebration of our ‘commonness’—the ‘each’ in all of us and the ‘all’ in each of us…an interchange between cultural groups or levels, between the folk and the student of folklore.” And anticipating the highest aims of contemporary historical dialogue work, Botkin writes, “The ultimate aim of applied folklore is the restoration to American life of the sense of community—a sense of thinking, feeling, and acting along similar, though not the same, lines—that is in danger of being lost today. Thus applied folklore goes beyond cultural history to cultural strategy.”

In my recent work as Project Trainer for the DC Oral History Collaborative, I have constantly recalled Botkin as a personal guide. I have encouraged my interviewers to be themselves in the encounter; to relax their impulse to control the dialogue and instead follow, as Botkin instructed his Federal Writers, “the natural association of ideas and memories”; and to practice framing their narrators as valuable witnesses of their neighborhood, school, and migration histories. I have done this in the spirit of fostering what the Federal Writers’ Project aimed for nationally—“an inter-regional synthesis”—within the densely diverse and still too segregated scope of our nation’s capital.

Featured image credit: “Federal Writers’ Project presentation of Who’s who at the zoo” by unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Oral history and the importance of sharing at Pride in Washington D.C.

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By Holland Hall and Robert Baez

Back in March we heard from our friends at the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP)at the University of Florida, who had traveled to the Women’s March on Washington as part of an experiential learning project. Working with their colleagues at the UF Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research, they returned to Washington, D.C., in June to document the city’s Pride Weekend, including the Equality March for Unity and Pride, the QT Night of Healing and Resistance, and more. They have graciously shared some of the fruits of their labor with us below, including some reflections and a podcast put together by Aliya Miranda. Together they provide a taste of the experiences they had and the stories they recorded. Their reflections highlight the importance of sharing stories – how listening to each other can help to humanize “the other” through shared experiences and why thinking about our intersecting identities is critical for both good organizing and good oral history.

Robert Baez:

Why have certain voices been silenced in the LGBTQ+ community? Why have trans folks and people of color not received full credit for the revolutionary ideas they have advanced? How do these messages numb cultural understandings of the LGBTQ+ experience? These are challenging but critical questions to be engaging with at a time when Pride events have become multi-million dollar events spanning multiple days.

Our first night in Washington, D.C. was spent at an event hosted by the Trans Women of Color Collective, organized to create a space of healing and resistance. There we met two best friends who we shadowed for the duration of the weekend: Aurora, a Black trans woman, and Strawberry, a Black gay man who is HIV+. They serve as systems of support not only for each other but the community around them.

After speaking with Aurora and Strawberry for some time, we came to understand the complex world of queer politics in the city. Pride has been divided over multiple weeks, each devoted to a particular identity. According to Aurora, there are Pride weekends devoted to Black communities, Latina/o communities, and so forth, all leading up to Capital Pride, the largest and arguably Whitest Pride event in the city. Aurora shared the problems she saw with this framework, but recognized how designated spaces are also important when pursuing solutions to social problems faced by that community.

These conversations, and this reflection, have posed more questions than answers, but I want to use this space as an opportunity to consider the utility of identity politics. I believe it is possible to acknowledge our varying experiences while also working to demand justice together, but to say we’ve reached that point would be a mistake. Understanding how experiences can be unique, and viewing oppression as inextricably linked, is the first step in working toward a more unified LGBTQ+ community.

Queer in the Capital 2017: Pride, Resistance, and Community from Drea Cornejo on Vimeo.

Holland Hall:

“We met across a crowded dance floor.” While in D.C. for the 2017 Pride weekend, I briefly met the uncles of one of our program volunteers. The couple had met in 1994 at Gainesville’s sole LGBTQ+ nightclub, University Club, while they were both students at the University of Florida. Their meeting over twenty years ago brought special memories of my own life to mind while in the midst of this historic weekend.

My best friend, Mireillee, and her partner gave me a rose quartz necklace as a Christmas present this past year. Believed to attract romantic love, their gift worked its magic in less than two weeks. Mireillee and I regularly encourage each other in our work lives, schoolwork, romantic pursuits, as well as sharing nights of barhopping and dancing—oftentimes leading us to the dance floor of that same University Club. In January, less than a week before I embarked with another research team to document the Women’s March on Washington, I met my first love and current partner across the crowded dance floor at the University Club.

On Thanksgiving 2015, I shared the holiday with Mireillee’s family in her hometown of Orlando because my family was away, and she didn’t want me to spend that time alone. That evening we went gallivanting around Orlando, ending up at Southern Nights, an LGBTQ+ nightclub. Across a crowded dance floor, a woman and I goofily started smiling at each other. We found ourselves within a couple of feet of each other, and spent the rest of the night dancing together. We exchanged numbers, and we spent the next few weeks getting to know each other through broken English and Spanish. We reconnected a few weeks later and spent a weekend together, but eventually fell out of contact, and our lives continued separately. Six months after the horrific massacre in Orlando, I was at Pride with Mireillee in her healing hometown, and reconnected with my old dancing partner, reigniting our friendship.

As I reflect on the LGBTQ+ history we record, I return to these chance encounters, to the spaces where we have found each other, and to the knots turning in my stomach as I looked at the list of victims from Pulse, hoping desperately not to see a familiar name. I am grateful to have coordinated this research trip with Robert Baez, who helped ensure that we approached our fieldwork with an intersectional lens. In an editorial in the Gainesville Sun, Robert asked, “What good are these rich oral histories if they just sit in an archive, stowed away from our consciousness? These stories need to be heard and understood, and people need to become familiar with experiences unlike their own. Only by humanizing the plethora of experiences we face in the United States can ‘the other’ become ‘the neighbor.’”

For more from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP), find them on FacebookTwitter, or their homepage. Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Marchers gather in front of the state capitol in Washington D.C. following the Equality March for Unity and Pride on June 11, 2017.” Photo Credit: Andrea Cornejo and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program.

Hearing to heal

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By Angela Zusman

At the 2014 OHA Annual Meeting, the African American Oral History Program at Story For Allreceived the prestigious Vox Populi Award, one of the highest honors in the oral history world. Today on the blog we hear from Angela Zusman, the project’s Founder and Executive Director, about the inspiration for her work, as well as successes and lessons learned. Story For All has achieved important victories, building coalitions with local partners and officials that promote shared understanding and meaningful change.

Can you describe what a typical Story For All project or workshop looks like? What is it about your approach that makes it unique?

At Story For All, our goal is to expose disenfranchised communities to the power of oral history for the purpose of healing, building skills, elevating an authentic narrative, and ultimately transforming communities and systems through policy reform. We do this by training community members in oral history methodology, then supporting them in recording, archiving, and reflecting on their own communities’ stories and wisdom through art, dialogue, policy recommendations, and public presentations. Our process was designed with the understanding that the sharing of stories through oral history has multiple beneficial impacts, especially for historically marginalized communities whose stories, values, and cultures have been subsumed by the often-negative narratives promoted by the dominant culture. As stories have been weaponized to use against such communities, our narrative change approach is literally a method for individuals and communities to take back their story, as well as their culture. Additionally, by supporting communities in documenting their own stories, we create a culture of storytellers, like the griots of West Africa. Instead of the stories and wisdom being extracted from the community, they reside within the hearts and minds of present and future community leaders.

Using storytelling to heal is a key part of your work. Can you talk about what that looks like in practice? How does your curriculum enable healing, and what kind of results have you seen?

We all know how powerful it can be when we are listened to. Think about it. Think about a time when you were really listened to. How did that make you feel? Empowered, important, relevant, cared about. For many of the people we work with, especially youth of color and immigrants, this respectful attention is revolutionary in and of itself. Too many young people tell us that this is the first time they have ever been asked what they think about anything. So, our storytelling programs, whether they last an hour or a year, always incorporate multiple levels of acknowledgement so people feel heard. Then there is the listening component. Oral historians are great listeners, and a lot of our projects’ skill building revolves around listening, asking questions, and reflecting on what was said. The healing power of listening might best be summed up by this experience of one our youth participants, who said, “It helped me so much to hear that other people have gone through similar things as me, or even worse. I don’t feel so alone.” On a community level, when we are able to share the oral histories and associated data through exhibits, videos, books and reports, the impact on the community can be equally healing. For example, we created a survey for people who visited our R.O.O.T.S. exhibit last month in the Mississippi Delta. 94% of people reported that the R.O.O.T.S. exhibit made them feel hopeful about the future of youth of color in their community. Especially in communities mired in multi-generational poverty, hope may be the most powerful healer and motivator of all.

Griots Story Circle at an Oakland middle school. Photo credit: Angela Zusman

The SHINE program takes your work into local communities, empowering young men of color to make their voices heard. How did the program begin, and what was especially attractive about the cities you’re currently working in?

In 2012, we were blessed to design and facilitate a Listening Campaign for African American young men in Oakland. This was a life-changing experience for me personally. When I started the project, I thought I had an idea about what life was like for these young men, many of whom lived within a few blocks of me. After listening to their stories, the bubble of white privilege that I had unconsciously existed within was officially burst. These brave young men, and their stories, forced me to see the world in a new way. I also watched them blossom as they were nudged to share their stories and get out there in the community to listen to, and then represent, their peers. Over the following months, the project data helped to inform a new Public Safety plan for the City of Oakland. We began getting calls and emails from young men, mothers, educators and others around the country, asking us to bring the project to their town so the voices of their young men could also be heard. This type of project was the reason I founded Story For All, so we have focused most of our resources on answering the call.

One of your goals in Sunflower County is to put young African-American men in contact with teachers, police officers, and those with legislative powers to involve everyone in on the conversation. How do you introduce these conversations and what kind of results have you seen from the program so far?

We have been blessed to partner with the ACLU of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice, and others in a coalition created to disrupt the school to prison pipeline in the Mississippi Delta. Our partners had done an excellent job of building and unifying this coalition of stakeholders around the common goal of supporting young men of color by instigating school discipline reform. All of the project partners had deep ties in the community, giving our oral history project credibility and community buy-in. So when our interview team showed up at the courthouse with their iPads and microphones, when we called the Police Chief to come over for an interview, when we stopped community members in the streets to ask if they would share their stories, they were generally amenable. Many of them already knew about the project, and those who didn’t were often genuinely happy to see the youth out in the community asking good questions. This in fact is a key component to the narrative change – it’s not just about telling a new story, it’s about these young men being seen in a new way.

Now, as the project moves from data collection to policy reform, the oral histories have lifted up so many community voices that it’s hard for the data to be ignored. One of my favorite impact stories involves a leader of the participating school district. She came to one of the community meetings and was given a copy of our R.O.O.T.S. data report. As my colleague described it, the leader took that report into the back corner and buried her face in it for over an hour. When she emerged, she was clearly very moved. She offered her full support for the reforms being recommended, some of which were quite controversial, because, as she said, “I really see the whole community being represented here.” Her experience encapsulates what we are trying to achieve – lifting up community voices in ways that are authentic and emotionally compelling to motivate and inform policy change.

Griots interviewee with parents at Griots exhibit opening. Photo credit: Mi Zhou

In additional to policy change, we are also very interested in contributing to scholarly study and the collection of affirmative-based data around young men of color. The Griots of Oakland oral histories are archived at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, and the R.O.O.T.S. oral histories are being archived at Jackson State University’s prestigious Margaret Walker Center so that scholars and others around the world can learn from these communities.

And finally – the youth! I am inspired by the 19 young men who walked this R.O.O.T.S. journey, and came up with the name R.O.O.T.S., which stands for “Reclaiming Our Origins Through Story.” I watched them grow, literally and figuratively, as they formed friendships with each other, learned their history, branched out into the community, and became the spokespeople for the project, school discipline reform, and the greatness of our youth of color. They have emerged from this project more grounded, more confident, and more visionary than before. They have learned whose shoulders they stand upon, and how they can contribute to make this world a better place. This is what our work is all about.

Do you think recent political and social events have changed the project or its reception? 

Under Obama, there was an explicit, collective effort to improve health, academic and career outcomes for boys and young men of color. Importantly, there was increased recognition of the impact of systemic racism, as enacted through school discipline policies, mass incarceration, lack of educational opportunity, pervasive negative narratives, and other attributes of modern day slavery. The Black Lives Mattermovement and mass protests around police brutality brought national awareness to racial inequities and the impact on our society. People were getting woke! And then came…the next administration. Immigrants, the environment, Muslims, women, etc., all came under attack. Resources disappeared or got scattered.  Racism exposed itself brutally and unapologetically. The hope I hold onto is that this administration is exposing the festering wounds of this nation. Only when a problem is exposed can it be solved. Racism and inequity are issues each of us must address, personally and in community, in order for our nation to live up to its promise and potential. As the late, great Viola Liuzzo said, “It’s everybody’s fight.” Are we up for it? Time will tell.

Youth interview a community elder for the R.O.O.T.S. project in the Mississippi Delta, June 2016. Photo credit: Andre Lambertson.

Have you had any particularly memorable successes or frustrations with the project?

We have had our share of successes and frustrations. When I see the light go on in a child’s eyes, I see success. When a shy young man evolves into a dynamic leader, I see success. When a group of teenagers crowds around an elder to hear his stories, I see success. When the stories and wisdom of historically oppressed peoples are celebrated and promoted, I see success. When policies are created that represent a community’s needs, I see success. All this success I have seen as a result of our work at Story For All, and it keeps us going. On the other hand, the greatest frustration comes not from those whom we oppose, but from our supposed partners. The non-profit business model is unsustainably competitive, funders change their priorities, and an unfortunate number of partners seem to be more invested in their own PR than in real change. Good people get bogged down. Innovation is underfunded. I could go on. Suffice it to say: when we talk about systemic issues, they really are systemic, and it’s going to take long-term collective action locally, regionally and nationally for there to be real change. I am incredibly humbled by the great people who have come before me and those I get to interact with every day. I believe that together we can make this change, and I will do my part.

For more about their work, check out Story For All on Facebook, Twitter, or on their website.  Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Griots of Oakland interview team, Oakland, 2013” by Mi Zhou

Listening for change

VIew Post on OUP Blog 

By Ariel Beaujot

In OHR 44.1 Susan McLeod reviewed Hear, Here a project of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse that utilizes innovative techniques to connect the public with oral history. We were excited to read about it and invited the project’s founder, Ariel Beaujot, to join us on the blog to discuss making oral history accessible, and the possibility for using the past to intervene in the present.

How might we, as oral historians, make the voices of those who have lived and live in our communities available to all? For the past 10 years oral history programs all over the country have been digitizing their collections and putting them online. This has allowed researchers easier access to their subjects, and family members and friends to hear the voices and stories of their loved ones. But what about making the work that we do as oral historians more accessible to the average person who lives in a town with strong oral history collections but may not have any immediate or obvious connection to the narrators?

This is the work that Hear, Here seeks to do. Hear, Here is a location-based project that allows anyone to access short oral histories on the street through a toll-free number. Throughout downtown La Crosse we put orange street signs with phone numbers so that people can call to hear a story about the exact location in which they stand! If visitors or townspeople want to leave their own stories they can stay on the line and leave a message. If their story fits our objectives, it is re-recorded and added to the larger project and to the Oral History Program. In this way the Hear, Here becomes user-generated.

We planned this project in conjunction with the longstanding Oral History Program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Two researchers, Terry Holford-Talpe and Sue Hessel, went through the collection and choose those that tell a concise story about a specific location in the downtown area of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Some of our original stories are up to 6 minutes long, but we have found that people standing on the street listen to stories for an average of 2 minutes and 10 seconds, so as we add to the project we edit the stories to fit into the timeframe that people prefer. As well as stories from the Oral History Program, my team and I recorded stories specifically for this project. The combination of the two–original oral histories and new ones–has allowed for a long-term understanding of the downtown area in a new way. There are stories that help us understand issues such as homelessness, racial prejudice, built environment, gentrification, red-light districts, and experiences of foreign nationals and LGBTQ*. Hear, Here maps the city in a new way, allowing us to see the experiences of everyone, not just the privileged few. Beyond knowing and hearing these stories we have found that the project can help to create a more ideal city by generating social and policy changes.

In our modern times, oral history/public history projects like this one can not only generate knowledge but create real and lasting changes. Some of the stories in the project indicate that our city, like all cities in our complicated and nuanced world, has its racial prejudices and injustices. The pushback that the project had from some local politicians and business people led our team to research the longer history of racial prejudice in the town. Through this research we found that La Crosse qualifies as a sundown town, or a town that has purposely kept itself White. We can see this from the 1980 census that indicates that La Crosse was 99% White – the fifth Whitest city in the entire country. With this knowledge we worked with the Office of Multicultural Student Services at UW-La Crosse and the city’s Human Rights Commission to bring in James Loewen, author of Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, who spoke at an open meeting at city hall confirming La Crosse as a sundown town. This resulted in the Mayor writing a public apology for historical and current injustices, and has given the Human Rights Commission more power within city government.

The idea of helping to create a more ideal city through our work is a compelling one. I think it’s time for us in the oral history world to not only think about documenting the voices of the underprivileged but to think about how these stories can generate understanding in more privileged community members leading to real change. In these neoliberalist times we need to remember that the systems of oppression cannot be fixed by telling peoples’ stories, having speakers come in, or apologizing. We must recognize the long-term historical factors that create inequity and work to develop policy with teeth that actively works against racist tendencies that have made La Crosse, and many other cities in the Midwest, into sundown towns. One step towards this goal is sharing all stories, but it is only a step in what will be a marathon.

For more information about Hear, Here you can like us on Facebook or visit our website.

Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Hear, Here street sign in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.” Photo courtesy of Ariel Beaujot.


Getting in on the joke

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By Julian Simpson 

Last month we brought you a short interview with Katie Holmes, about her article, Does It Matter If She Cried? Recording Emotion and the Australian Generations Oral History Project, asking how to read and make sense of emotion in oral history. Today we continue this conversation in an interview with Julian Simpson, one of the authors of another piece in OHR 44.1, Why We Should Try to Get the Joke: Humor, Laughter, and the History of Healthcare. Along with his co-author, Stephanie Snow, Simpson argued that making sense of humor is critical for understanding the history of healthcare and that oral historians need to do a better job of listening for and analyzing humor. In our conversation, we discussed the importance of paying to jokes, what they can reveal, and some of the particularities of humor in British culture.

How did this project begin? Did you go into it with the expectation of studying the use of humor, or did that emerge as you conducted your research?

The initial aim of the study was not at all to explore the role of humor in healthcare. My colleague at the University of Manchester, Stephanie Snow, was commissioned by a group of people connected to Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals to research the recent past of the hospitals and their associated institutions (medical schools, staff organizations etc.). We are both interested in the recent history of British healthcare and in how it can inform the present. The initial idea, both for us and those who initiated the project, was to look at the impact of recent change in British healthcare on those institutions, with a view to producing a history that would also speak to the present. The research was funded by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, and we are currently working on a book which is to published by Bloomsbury with the title At the frontline of British Healthcare: Guy’s, St Thomas’ and NHS reform since the 1970s.

It gradually became apparent however in the course of our research that the importance of humor as a part of medical culture had been underexplored by historians and that we had a wealth of evidence that it would make sense to share. Possibly because the interviews we were conducting touched upon issues that affected participants quite profoundly (for instance, the merger of Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals or neoliberal reform of the British healthcare system) and could be difficult to discuss, humor and laughter ended up featuring quite regularly in interviews. Humor seemed to be a key dimension of the materials we had gathered in archives as well. It was therefore more a case of humor suggesting itself to us as an important dimension of this research, both as a part of the history we were researching and as a key to understanding other aspects of it.

You argue that humor is an understudied aspect of both oral history and the medical field. What pointers can you give to people interested in addressing this lack of serious consideration?

When it comes to oral history interviews, reflecting on the use of humor has taught me that when people laugh in interviews or resort to humor it is often worthwhile spending some time reflecting on why they chose to do so. It can be enjoyable in itself to hear someone tell an amusing story but in the context of understanding the past through oral history, it is also important to go beyond our initial emotional response to what we have been told and reflect on what else is being communicated. Basically, we came to a slow realization that when a participant laughed or used humor in an interview, they were frequently signaling that the issue under discussion was a sensitive one or one that could be difficult to broach. Once you start thinking about humor in this way, it opens up new ways of analyzing materials. This applies as well to documents found in archives. So it is firstly a question of how we think about humor and laughter and the significance we attach to them.

In terms of exploring humor as a dimension of medical culture, I suspect that the fact we did joint interviews as part of the project contributed to bringing this to the fore. Humor in healthcare environments can involve transgressing some of our most fundamental taboos (in the article we quote a participant who spoke of laughing when dissecting corpses as a medical student) so it’s important to give participants the sense that they are ‘safe’ when sharing their memories. Being able to do this in the presence of others with an insider’s understanding of healthcare work can only help. If I were to focus exclusively on the subject of humor in medicine I’d be tempted to systematically make all interviews anonymous so that participants would not be concerned about how their anecdotes may be perceived. Transgressions that are understood in a particular profession may appear shocking to the general public – but then most members of the general public don’t have to deal with dying patients and dead bodies on a regular basis. It’s important as well to gain trust as in any oral history project. Especially with younger participants, there was at times the sense that they felt the need to be on their guard, in an age when any throwaway remark can be posted on the internet, resulting in the end of a medical career before it has properly started.

The article wonders how medical professionals might cope with stress if humor is becoming less tolerated in the medical field. Did your interviews give any indication of what medical professionals might be using in its place?

I think it would take a project exclusively focused on humor in medicine and its evolution to really get to the bottom of that question. The interviews that we did with medical students and some of the other materials we located lead me to believe that it still plays its part although people have become a lot more careful than they used to be about what they say and in what context they say it. That’s just an impression though. As I said, we didn’t set out to study humor specifically and therefore, our aim in this paper was more to point to the significance of a number of questions rather than necessarily seek to answer them. It would certainly be very interesting to explore the role of peer support and counselling to see if they are indeed in some ways substitutes for the sort of humor that would most probably result in staff being dismissed these days. One participant told me a story (interestingly in light of what I’ve just said about people being concerned about how anecdotes may be perceived, after we finished our interview) involving a serial male prankster who (successfully) impersonated a female member of staff on a ward and on another occasion caused a security incident when he gained access to the roof of the hospital. I’m not persuaded this sort of behavior would just be laughed off as a bit eccentric today. It is also possible though that humor like this has gone ‘underground’ and is simply less visible to the eyes of prying researchers…

In the second half of the article you connect particular humorous events (like the pantomime) to changes in UK healthcare happening simultaneously. Based on your findings, does it appear satire is more situation and distinct from the general coping usage of humor?

It’s hard to generalize in this respect – medical students also seemed to have a lot of fun satirizing their teachers and humanities students for instance. So, it can also be seen as a way of coping and dealing with pressure. It is maybe tempting to see medical students who for instance laugh at those studying other academic subjects as simply over-privileged and narrow-minded but maybe they are in fact looking for a way of justifying to themselves the sacrifices they are making as trainee professionals who take on a lot of responsibility at a young age? Whilst the satire that we describe that was directed at new management techniques in healthcare is clearly historically connected to the neoliberal reform of the NHS that gathered pace in the 1980s, it is also a coping mechanism. As we describe in the article, Betsy Morley, who initiated the Guys and St Thomas’ pantomime connected the satire it contained to the fact that she and her colleagues had been talking about how low staff morale was at the time. The thought of doing a pantomime and laughing at those shaping their professional experiences was described as cheering her and her colleagues up. Doctors who talked about the ‘mushroom’ technique of management (see our article for an explanation of what this involves!) were satirizing management culture but in so doing they probably also made themselves feel a bit better about the pressures they were under.

Is there anything you couldn’t address in the article that you’d like to share here?

Yes, on reflection, although we recognized that the importance of humor and laughter in our project may have been connected to the nature of the work that many of our participants were engaged in, we might have added that it is possibly also to do with the particular cultural place of humor in British life. It is telling for instance that the Chief Executive of Guy’s and St Thomas’ took on a leading role as a figure of fun in the pantomime that was set up after the institutions merged. And there are probably not too many countries in the world where a request from a conservative politician for the national broadcaster to play the country’s national anthem more often would lead to a major news program signing off with the Sex Pistols’ punk rock version of ‘God Save the Queen’ as BBC 2’s Newsnight did last year. Again, this points to the extent to which the global history of humor is in its infancy. The UK is certainly not unique in this respect but it would be interesting to know more about how the social role of humor has evolved across time and space. Oral historians can be at the heart of this project of writing the social history of humor– and we can enjoy the jokes while we work on it!

We hope you enjoyed this interview–and that you got a chuckle or two out of it. For more about oral history and emotion, check out the article in OHR 44.1, or our interview with Katie Holmes from May. Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Laugh” by Thom Chandler, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Remembering veterans

Remembering veterans | OUPblog

By Alex Dracobly, Brent C Bankus, and Ellen Brooks 

With Memorial Day in the U.S. right around the corner, we’re bringing you a glimpse into a handful of oral history projects focused on collecting and preserving the memories of military veterans. Check them out, and mention your favorite projects in the comments below.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum Oral History Program

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum (WVM)’s mission is to affirm, commemorate, and acknowledge the achievements and sacrifices of Wisconsin veterans in America’s military past. The WVM Oral History Program, which I have had the privilege of coordinating for over three years, honors those who served by recording and preserving their stories and experiences. Since 1994 our staff members and volunteers have conducted and collected over 2,100 interviews with veterans from around the state. Our collection represents all branches and all conflicts and eras since World War I to the present day. The Oral History Program focuses not only on creating a record of our veteran-narrators’ stories, but also on the preservation and accessibility of these narratives for future generations. The interviews are housed in WVM’s Research Center, where they are easily available to teachers, students, researchers, the media, and veterans groups. In addition, great strides are being made to make the interviews, both the recordings and associated transcripts, more discoverable and accessible through WVM’s website. We also strive to promote these primary sources by using them for public programming, exhibits, and educational activities.

WVM recently opened a new temporary exhibit entitled “WWI Beyond the Trenches: Stories From The Front.” Throughout the next two years we will be offering programming and events that feature Wisconsin’s contribution to the Great War – in which 122,000 people from Wisconsin served. As part of these efforts, we have been working on ways to showcase our small but exciting collection of World War I oral history interviews:

  • Eleven of our World War I interviews are accessible online via our website’s Featured Interviews page. We recently started using OHMS as an access tool and this is the third collection that we’ve featured through OHMS.
  • Excerpts from several of the interviews are available to listen to in the new exhibit through an audio device that visitors can pick up before going into the gallery.
  • We have partnered with the producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life to feature stories and audio from our collections on the show. We will be these airing stories through next November.

We are always looking for new ways to use and feature all of our interviews and to inspire others to do so as well. These narratives put a human, individual face on war and military service, so that visitors and researchers get an opportunity to meet these veterans and perhaps put themselves in their shoes.

Learn more about the WVM Oral History Program, and search the Collection.

–Ellen Brooks, Oral Historian, Wisconsin Veterans Museum

U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center’s Oral History Programs

In 1970 General William Westmoreland started the Senior Officer Oral History Program (SOOHP) to provide insights into the command and management techniques utilized by senior Army officers in key positions and to further scholarly research on the history of the U.S. Army. Today that program is spearheaded by the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and has since inspired the creation of three additional oral history programs, all of which capture the history of U.S. Army Soldiers in their own words.

The USAHEC is the Army’s preeminent archive, academic library, and research complex with expansive historical resources for Soldiers, researchers, and visitors. The organization, originally founded in 1969 as the U.S. Army Military History Institute (USAMHI), now includes that original organization as a subordinate division and is an important part of the U.S. Army War College (USAWC), which educates and develops leaders for service at the strategic level while advancing knowledge in the global application of Landpower. As the USAHEC aims to preserve the stories of all Soldiers, it makes sense that these oral history programs are an important focus of the institution. Once completed, all interview transcripts are placed in the archives of the USAMHI for use by USAWC students and faculty, researchers, headquarters, agencies, and the general public in accordance with interview access agreements and the USAHEC’s mission of making contemporary and historical materials available.

The purpose of the original oral history program, SOOHP, is three fold. First, to record the management and leadership techniques of senior Army officers and Department of the Army Civilians and their recollections and opinions on key persons, events, and decisions. Second, to provide a comprehensive biography of senior leaders for the historical record, or to record information about significant events, ideas, and decisions as seen from the perspectives of key participants. Lastly, to supplement written records, clarify obscure aspects of significant events and decisions, and provide material where manuscript or printed sources are inadequate or unavailable.

Learn more about the project, and how to get involved, through the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center’s website.

–LTC (R) Brent C. Bankus, Chief, Oral History Branch, U.S. Army Military History Institute

University of Oregon Veterans Oral History Project

The University of Oregon Veterans Oral History Project began about a decade ago when I realized that our university archive had virtually nothing documenting the experience of our students who had served in the military. This was at a time when the numbers of veterans at the university was increasing quite substantially. Because most of my teaching is in the field of military history, I have always had significant numbers of veterans in my classes. My thinking was quite simple: why not try to document the experiences of an important part of our student body?

I had read somewhere (probably Donald Ritchie’s handbook) that oral histories that are not transcribed almost always go unused. I knew that I could not pay for transcriptions, so I decided that I would offer a class that would serve as a platform for the project. Students would do the work of both interviewing our veterans and, equally important, transcribing those interviews. What started in my mind primarily as a documentary project thus developed both documentary and pedagogical aims. Over the last six years we have interviewed about one hundred twenty-five servicemen and women; as of this writing about fifty of those interviews are available via the university library’s website.

Probably the biggest practical difficulty I have faced with the project is the recruitment of veterans, either to participate in the class or to be interviewed. When I talk to people about interviewing, one of objections I often get is, “You don’t want to interview me; I didn’t do anything interesting.” What they usually mean by “not interesting” is “I didn’t see combat.” Even soldiers who served in combat zones but whose job was in a support capacity will sometimes tell me that.

The entire point of the project, however, is to document the full range of experience in the services. Our motto is “anytime, anyplace, anywhere, any job.” Many veterans appreciate the fact that the project offers public recognition of military service, not just the service of those who happened to serve in places of danger, but of anyone who served: any rank, anytime, anyplace. The rank, I think, is especially important. Most of those we interview were enlisted. They are used to what we might think of as generic recognition of their service – in the way that, say, we “honor” those who served and sometimes give them special benefits and recognition. What I think those who participate especially like about this project is the way it personalizes the service of those whose service might otherwise fade into anonymity.

As a result, how I view the project has changed. I originally saw it primarily as a documentary project; today I also regard it as a kind of online memorial that allows veterans to present their service as they want it presented to and recognized by the wider public.

Read more about the project, and explore the archive.

–Alex Dracobly, Senior Instructor II, Department of History, University of Oregon

Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Remember” by Ian Sane CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Learning to read emotions in oral history

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By Katie Holmes 

The most recent issue of the OHR featured two stories on understanding emotion in oral history interviews. In one piece, Julian Simpson and Stephanie Snow asked what role humor plays in healthcare, and how to locate it in oral history. In another piece, Katie Holmes asks how to locate historical emotion during an interview and how to interpret these feelings. Today on the blog we bring you a short interview with Holmes where we ask about her interest in studying emotions, explore the experience of listening for emotion, and hear more about how she uses this investigation in her historical analysis. Enjoy the interview below, and check out the full piece in the OHR 44.1.

What prompted your interest in reading emotion in oral histories?

Many of us have had the experience of interviewing someone who can become quite unexpectedly distressed or “emotional” during an interview and it’s not always clear what is going on for them. I’d conducted a number of interviews for the Australian Generations project where this had happened, or where the interview had dealt with some highly emotional memories, including one where the participant seemed to spend much of the time in tears but seemed quite happy to keep recording. I was struck in my interviews by the different ways in which different generations responded to their emotional distress. Older interviewees usually wanted to turn the recorder off whereas younger ones seemed happy to emote all over the place! This in itself suggested different ways in which emotions had been “managed” historically. So I started to read more of the history of emotions literature, very little of which dealt with oral history or memory and emotions. That which did seemed very inadequate, and dismissive of the idea that the expression of emotion in an interview–and I guess I’m talking here about painful emotions rather than joyful ones–could really tell us anything about past emotion. This seemed quite contrary to the albeit limited psychoanalytic understanding that I had, and so I wanted to explore it further.

You invite oral historians to try to locate “historical emotion” by paying attention both to the content and the context of the interview–the bodily movements, setting, and even your own emotional state. Can you talk more about what this looks like in practice?

It means being very attentive to the non-verbal clues that your interviewee gives. So you need to listen beyond the words and pick up on what else is happening. It’s like operating on a number of different channels. There’s the information that the interviewee is sharing with you, then there’s the non-verbal communication that is going on–how they are sitting, how does that change, the pace and volume of their voice, what they are not talking about–and then there’s what you as an interviewer are feeling. This last one can be tricky but sometimes we can have quite strong reactions to our interviewees, or to the information they are sharing. What I suggest in the article is that we need to be attentive to our own responses because they can give us clues about what is happening for the interviewee. Maybe you are reminded of something or someone in your own life. Maybe you suddenly start to feel very uncomfortable or sad or want to move the narrator along when they want to linger on a topic–all these responses can be helpful in trying to work out what is going on for the interviewee and then gently asking further questions about it. So one of the channels we have to tune into is our own, and while not letting our own responses get in the way of the narrator’s recollection, use them as a possible insight into what might be happening for our interviewee. Our role is not to play therapist, but to learn as much as our interviewees are willing to share about their past life in all its complexities.

Our role is not to play therapist, but to learn as much as our interviewees are willing to share about their past life in all its complexities.

You note that you “re-experienced” some of your narrator’s trauma alongside her, as she shared her personal history. What is that experience like as an interviewer?

It can be pretty intense! And the challenge is to maintain the professional boundaries at the same time as attending to what is going on for the narrator. In the interview I discuss, I really could sense her fear and distress as she recalled a very difficult and confusing time in her childhood. Her projection of those emotions was palpable. And that’s when the listening on all channels comes in because I was suddenly struck by how young she would have been–the same age as my daughter during a very difficult time in my family–and I could see the way my daughter watched me so closely during that time. I write in the article about being pulled out of being an interviewer into being a person and a mother and, drawing on that experience, I asked a question about watching her mother. It seems like a really odd question to ask, and I asked it a bit too quickly, but at that moment I was responding from my own subjectivity.

When our interviewees are disclosing difficult or painful emotions that affect us, it’s really important that we can sit with that discomfort and not try and steer the interview away because of our need. That does mean being both aware of how we are responding and being able to manage our own emotional response. It requires a level of self-awareness and good intuition. As I said, it can be both intense and exhausting, but it can also be very satisfying and rewarding as an interviewer to feel that you’ve facilitated a rich and complex life narration.

Part of your ability to read the emotions your narrator is expressing comes from being physically in the room during the interview. How can you do similar work when listening to an interview recorded by someone else, or when there is only a transcript available?

This can be very difficult. I have listened to a number of the Australian Generations interviews where the interviewer has noted that the narrator became distressed or emotional at times, and have found it really hard to hear it. Sometimes the recorder has just suddenly been switched off, at other times you have to assume that the narrator is still talking while tears are falling, but you can’t hear those silent drops. At other times the distress is really evident–it can depend on how much the narrator is trying to control their emotional responses. Joyful emotions can be easier to hear in the tone of voice and pace of narration. For more painful emotions, you can listen for the faltering voice, the long pauses, the sniffles, but even then they can be hard to pick up and you have to listen really carefully. Visual clues tell us so much! A transcript can be even harder, unless someone has usefully annotated it to indicate changes in volume and pace, or long pauses etc. A transcript has other benefits of course and they are much easier to work with, and help you pick up the silences and the repetitions more readily. With the Australian Generations project we decided that listening to an interview and having a transcript was the best way to work with an interview. Of course you still don’t get the visual clues but if you are working with oral rather than video interview, that is the trade off.

What role does emotion play in your current projects?

Once you start getting interested in the history of emotions, you start to see them everywhere! I’m currently working on an environmental history of an area known in Victoria and South Australia as the “Mallee.” It’s pretty marginal farming country which has been a wheat and sheep growing area since Europeans first began settling it in the late 19th century. I’ve been really struck by the emotional cycles that have driven first the settlement of the area, and then the periods of drought and extreme hardship that periodically afflict it. These emotional cycles can be affected by national developments or by the invention of a new strain of wheat or a new method of sowing and harvesting, and climate plays an important role as well – periods of extended drought are remembered as times of great strain and hardship. So there are historical periods that are marked by particular emotions. Then depending on the season when you might be visiting and interviewing a farmer from the area, the emotional tone of the interview will be very different. If you are visiting in autumn and the start to the sowing season has been good, the mood will be positive and hopes high. Return in spring after the rains have failed to deliver, and it’s a completely different scenario. And then there are the emotional connections that people have for their land or the area itself, or maybe a particular paddock or place on their property. For me what is fascinating about all this is not so much that these emotional responses are there, but that they drive the decisions people make. With farmers who are farming land that has been in their family for generations, the emotional legacy of that land and history is huge and it can often shape the ways people farm, sometimes preventing them from making decisions that might be in the best economic interests of the farm. And it’s really interesting to explore the connections between personal and community emotional fluctuations. In times of optimism people behave differently and make different decisions–maybe they will buy that land next door after all because the future is looking brighter. Climate change is now influencing emotional responses as well–uncertainty about the future is now apparent in conversations, and fear about what that will mean for the Mallee area. In my next project I am planning to bring together my interests in oral history and environmental history even more directly, interviewing people about living with environmental change. I am looking forward to exploring the issues around emotion and memory more fully in that work.

Is there anything you couldn’t address in the article that you’d like to share here?

I think if anything I could have made my argument about the possibility of accessing historical emotions through oral history even more strongly, but I was being cautious. I chose not to include links to the audio of the interview in order to protect the anonymity of my narrator, but some of what I try to describe in the article in terms of the sound of her voice, its cadences and pauses etc, is even more evident when you can hear it.

I’d also reinforce my point that this kind of interviewing is hard work! It’s emotionally demanding, it requires self-reflection and knowledge, and honesty. And not every interview, or even every interview where there is a lot of emotion expressed, is going to generate the kind of transference and counter-transference that I think happened between myself and Jana. But being quietly alert to the possibility is important.

How did you feel reading this interview, or the article in the OHR? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Headphones” by Nickolai Kashirin, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.


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