Inspired by a session at the recent Oral History Association annual meeting, which occurred virtually in October, oral historian Troy Reeves reflects on a particular peril of the profession: interviews can be emotional and traumatic, and interviewers may not be as versed in self-care as we are in asking good questions. Troy invites us to participate in a conversation that considers the importance of self-care and oral history.
Since 1999, I have earned a living as an oral historian. In that time I have seen myriad changes in my chosen career, and I would say all of them have bettered the profession, particularly if we continue to push forward with individual and structural changes to overcome four centuries of racism in our country.
While I try daily to listen and learn, to become a better person and to lead a program that becomes more inclusive of our campus story, I struggle. While my struggle—as a person who checks off just about all the privilege boxes possible—pales in comparison with others, I still find it hard, particularly in the last eight months with COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, to be the best oral historian possible.
Two events last month brought all this to a personal boil. First, I attended the 54th Oral History Association Annual Meeting. This virtual event offered scores of sessions, as usual, so many quality ones during each time slot, that I had to make tough decisions. During Friday morning, for example, one could choose from 10 concurrent sessions. I chose number #082: This is How We Grieve: A Self-Reflexive Conversation on Emotionally Charged Interviews and Their Effect on the Oral History Interviewer. As the ancient Grail Knight said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—RIP Sean Connery—I “chose wisely.”
While I won’t try to summarize this session in detail here, I will say it consisted of four women from Oklahoma State University, discussing how their work effects them. I was particularly impressed with the two people on that panel I knew best–Julianna Nykolaiszyn & Tanya Finchum–one formerly and the other currently with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program. Their two presentations struck me in how they laid bare examples of their work and the toil it can take. It reminded me of the power of oral history, and of how I can do it better. I left so impressed with all 4 presenters and their willingness to discuss their work through the lens of emotion & grief.
Second, I conducted an interview for our Documenting COVID-19 Oral History Project with a person who donated material to the University Archives’ Documenting COVID-19 Archives and agreed to sit for an oral history. This narrator never stepped foot on our campus in March and April but enrolled and took an online grief course through our medical school. This New Yorker then told me about his hospital work during those weeks while still taking the UW course, testing cultures for the coronavirus. After we said our good-byes, I sat there silent for at least 15 minutes, unable to really deal with what I just recorded.
So, those two events combined to bring me here: to sit down and write out my thoughts on oral history and self-care and see if others might want to join me.
Truthfully, the two things above are not the only reasons I decided to write this piece. The 2013 book, Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice, also started my thinking on self-reflection and writing about it. When I reviewed it for the Public Historian, I didn’t specifically mention self-care, but I did applaud the editors and contributors for in their words: “embrac[ing] the messiness of human experience and interaction, and treating speaking and listening as profound and imperfect processes” (7). I then followed and ended my review with: “If we do, we will go as a profession and individually as human beings. Both worthy goals.”
Along with that book, a 2017 OHR blog post by Erin Jessee helped inspire this post. Jessee has become one of the most influential oral historians regarding interviewing people on traumatic and/or sensitive topics. Andrew Shaffer, OHR’s then social media coordinator, asked Erin several questions that allowed her to expand on her OHR piece, “Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork.” One question and answer stood out to me. “How can oral historians do a better job of spotting signs of trauma in each other, and responding positively?
This is important, because I get the impression that many oral historians feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit when their physical and mental health has been negatively impacted by their research.”
Along with October’s OHA meeting, Off the Record, and Jessee’s blog post, I need to discuss my own interviewing history. So, I have conducted hundreds of oral history interviews, either life histories or topical interviews on one of the dozens of projects I’ve overseen since 1999. I have avoided, however, interviews and projects on “Emotionally Charged” topics. Why? Well, I never felt I had the training needed.
Let me tell you a story. When I worked in Idaho, I collaborated with a high school teacher. She wanted her students to interview veterans. Actually, she brought me in because she had been doing projects with her classes, and she wanted me to speak to them as an “expert.” For most of my adult life, I have felt about the word, expert, Barkley has said basically that only the only expert is God. (Now, as an uncloseted atheist, I feel no one is.)
I have digressed. One year, the teacher and I came up with a bolder project. We’d work with the state veterans’ agency during an event they hold once a year, to which they invite veterans who had fallen on hard times to come and seek help. Our plan was to see if any of those veterans would consider being interviewed by one of our students. That was the plan.
It ended up turning out okay, in spite of me. Fortunately, a couple of social workers took it upon themselves to monitor, along with me, the room where the students and veterans met. They helped mitigate issues almost before they arose. But some issues did arise, mainly when students trained in oral history but not in sensitive topics struggled to deal with what they heard. I did not give them the tools to help them process and deal with them, because I didn’t have those tools myself.
So, that ill-conceived and implemented project made me hesitant here in Wisconsin to pursue similar topics. And while I feel I’ve grown in my 13 years here, specifically learning about meditation and trying to implement it into my daily life, I still hesitate when students come to me and want to embark on oral history projects that seem from the onset to be fraught with possible stories and anecdotes difficult for anyone to hear, let alone teenagers and young adults.
So, this anecdote stands as another reason I hope this post ends up having a life beyond itself: our students. I shouldn’t speak for my fellow campus oral history leaders, but I will. Many, maybe all, of us end up working with classes or hiring students who then conduct oral history interviews for themselves, for us, or both. Many of those students, at least in my experience, want to interview people involved in emotionally-deep topics. While we can hope that during their time on our campus they have learned the skills necessary to properly process the difficult stories they hear from their narrators, we shouldn’t leave it to chance.
I grew up in rural Idaho, and in a world where boys shouldn’t cry. While never called a “cry baby”—and I would have remembered if it happened, I certainly rarely contained my emotions. Still can’t. When my father passed away in the summer of 2016, I volunteered to be one of the speakers at his Celebration of Life. My father and I had grown apart over my years in Wisconsin, but yet l made it only eight words into my talk before breaking down.
Also, I only participated in traditional therapy once in college. For me, and my tightest OHA colleagues can attest, I refill my bucket by meeting with and talking to them. So, if anyone who did anything to make OHA’s recent virtual conference happen reads this, you all offered up a great event. The world gave you lemons, and you made some swell-tasting lemonade.
So, why lay all this bare? After leaving the OHA Annual Meeting session referenced above, I wanted to see if anyone would consider discussing and enacting ways I which we oral historians might learn from others and build our practices of self-care. Maybe, it becomes like-minded folks meeting virtually to talk through their work and how they handle or don’t handle it. Others might want to write about their work and its related challenges of self-care, as I am doing here. Perhaps what starts with meetings & blog posts could end up being more.
Listen, I agree 100% that we should make sure we support our narrators first and foremost, particularly those who we ask to discuss highly charged topics or events. When I co-led the 2018 update to the OHA’s Principles and Best Practices, our group created the “For Participants …” document as one way to focus on their needs. But, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we don’t give our narrators the time and focus they deserve.
I started writing this essay on November 1st, two days before Election Day. Between that, a global pandemic, and my mother’s and a good friend’s passing, it’s been a year. But, as of now, I haven’t lost anyone to COVID-19. And, let me be honest here: I’m a white male. When my world seems rough, I still have layers and layers of privilege–including a good job with health care–that make my bad days pale in comparison to many others.
Now, I’m working on a piece on self-care as I watch the news, on the days after the election, and I finalized it on Veterans’ Day, which brought back into focus the veterans I’ve interviewed and the projects, including the aforementioned one, that included interviewing them. It all propounded my thoughts about how vital it is to be a well-rounded oral historian. To me, that means not only doing the things I and others talk about in workshops: researching your topic or person, crafting good, open-ended questions, listening well, etc, but also figuring out how to take care of ourselves before, during, and after our interviews and projects. And I’d like it to be a collective thing. I’ve directly quoted or paraphrased the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” a few times during my career to make a point. It applies here too. We do things better when we do them together.
Since June 2007 Troy Reeves has led the oral history program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives. From 1999-2006 he directed the Idaho Oral History Center in Boise. In both of those positions, Reeves has overseen the key components of managing an oral history program—collecting and curating oral history recordings, as well as communicating and collaborating with interested individuals about the art and science of oral history.
Along with these program leadership tasks, he has managed or facilitated dozens and dozens of oral history projects in Wisconsin and Idaho on cultural, political, and environmental history. Along with these projects, Reeves has held leadership roles in the Oral History Association, including six years as the Oral History Review’s managing editor and co-chairing two taskforces during the 2010s—including one that updated the Principles & Best Practices.