The Art of Oral History

It’s not an art I can claim to have mastered by any stretch of the imagination. (Let’s just be honest here, right?) However, I can say with certainty that it’s an art I”ve become increasingly fond of in the past year. One year ago, one of my committee members – who does oral histories routinely as an African historian – recommended that I incorporate oral history into my dissertation project.

I wasn’t convinced. As an American historian, my advisor and I pointed out it’s not necessarily expected in our field, even though I’m studying a fairly recent time period (1945-1978). Also, I knew of existing oral history resources that I could tap into to get that “personal approach”.

But I try to keep an open mind. This led me to apply for the Ohio Humanities Council’s 2009 Catching Stories Oral History Workshop, which I attended last June. Although it’s sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council, you don’t have to be an Ohioan at all: they took me and many others from across the country to attend the 3-day workshop at Kenyon College in early June. And of course, I had a fabulous time. I got to practice interviewing and conducting a small-scale oral history project. I met interesting people. I learned good ideas and techniques.

And I promptly returned home and filed an IRB to get permission to conduct oral histories for my dissertation project – “just in case,” I told my advisor. Of course, then things began to happen. Another grad student’s mom worked with someone who I should interview….so I conducted the interview via telephone (recorded with a nifty device) last September. And another grad student happened to marry a guy whose mom was a veteran in my time period. And another grad student in a different department had two parents who met when they served in the Navy in the 1970s.

…before I knew it, I”d done three interviews. I kept using existing sources, but I wanted to get a few more interviews under my belt to get more experience and more perspectives. A little more than  a month ago, I made a wonderful connection with a local women veterans group, and since then, things have really changed. I spoke with four women the week of spring break alone, and this afternoon I have just returned from another interview. (If you’re keeping track at home, I’ve now interviewed eight veterans since last September.)

I love it. I love meeting the people, hearing their stories, and learning from their experiences. Listening to these women helps keep me and my project grounded: it’s not just some abstract history about some people who existed at some time and some place, but real individuals. Sure, I always knew they were real, but talking to them and hearing their memories somehow gives it all more life.

I also believe this process is helping me grow and develop as a historian. While I envision doing research throughout my career that will encompass the whole of American women’s history, I think a lot of my work and teaching will often deal with still-living people. I like to think, then, that the experiences I’m having now will help me in my future work and also give me the ability to train students to do work in oral history, as well.

I think I may be addicted. And I’m totally okay with that.

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