Histories of Oral Historians

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The Oral History Centre presents a series of three interviews conducted with leading oral historians Ronald Grele, Alessandro Portelli, and Linda Shopes, renowned for their contributions to the field of oral history.   Rather than a professional and polished lecture on oral history, these interviews provide a candid glimpse of each oral historian as they share personal experiences and best practices in oral history, detailing some of their own memorable interviews and the techniques that they employ.  They talk about how they became and remained oral historians, how oral history became their passion and career, and their involvement in and contributions to the field over the course of their careers. 

 

The interviews were conducted by OHC researcher Allison Penner while attending the Columbia Center for Oral History 2012 Summer Institute at Columbia University, New York, New York (4-15 June 2012).  The 2012 Summer Institute, “What Is Remembered: Life Story Approaches in Human Rights Contexts,” saw eighteen fellows from twelve countries (including Afghanistan, Nepal, Columbia, Germany, Turkey, and Iraq, among others) gather to discuss the uses of oral history in conflict zones, prisons, war-affected communities and those impacted by economic, racial, or ecological difficulties, as well as the dissemination of such oral history projects and the role of new and social media on oral history.  Fellows presented on a diverse range of themes with regard to their own personal human rights work and the intersections of such work with oral history.  Renowned oral historians led workshops on a variety of topics according to their areas of expertise.  

 

The interviews Allison Penner conducted with Ron Grele, Alessandro Portelli, and Linda Shopes were not planned in advance; rather, Penner approached the narrators at the Summer Institute and asked if they would be willing to participate in brief interviews about their own work and experiences in the field of oral history.  As such, they represent fairly casual, short, and topical interviews.  Within these interviews with, several references are made to discussions that took place within these workshops.  

 

Links to related materials and interviews with oral historians:

RETHINKING ORAL HISTORY WITH ITS PROTAGONISTS

Oral History Form (Volume 28) 2008

Oral History as the History of Experience (Erfahrungsgeschichte) - An Interview with Alexander von Plato

 
 
Alessandro Portelli

Alessandro Portelli is a professor of Anglo-American literature at the University of Rome La Sapienza, oral historian, and musicologist. In 1972, Portelli founded the Cicolo Gianni Bosio, an activist collective focusing on oral history, folklore, and culture; he chaired the group until 1992. He is also a member of the Board of IRSIFAR (Roman Institute for the History of Italy from Fascism to the Resistance). Portelli served as the Mayor of Rome’s advisor for historical memory from 2002 to 2008 and as a city councillor in Rome from 2006 to 2007. His book The Death of Luigi Trastulli (1991) is widely regarded as a seminal work in oral history, shifting the focus from factual and historical accuracy in memory-based history to the meaning and nature of memories.

 

For more information please see Portelli’s blog

 

Alessandro Portelli, interview by Allison Penner, New York, NY, USA, 14 June 2012, Oral History Centre Online, http://oralhistorycentre.ca/projects/histories-oral-historians

Audio File:

Allison Penner interviews Alessandro Portelli 14/6/2012

Transcript:

TOH PORTELLI Alessandro 20120614

PROJECT TITLE: The Oral Historians
NARRATOR: Alessandro Portelli
INTERVIEWER: Allison Penner
DATE OF RECORDING: 14 June 2012
PLACE OF RECORDING: Columbia University, New York, New York, USA
SESSION: 1 of 1
LENGTH OF SESSION: 58 minutes 38 seconds (website version: 30 minutes 6 seconds)
TOTAL INTERVIEW LENGTH: 58 minutes 38 seconds (website version: 30 minutes 6 seconds)
AUDIO QUALITY: good
FILE NAME: TOH PORTELLI Alessandro 20120614 Transcript – final website version.docx
TRANSCRIBER: Allison Penner
DATE TRANSCRIPTION COMPLETED: 4 August 2013
DATE REVIEWED BY NARRATOR: 24 October 2013

Allison Penner: My name is Allison Penner; I’m at Columbia University in New York, New York with Dr. Alessandro Portelli. The date is June 14th 2012. Alright, I have such a list of questions here; I’m not quite sure where to begin. What got you interested in oral history? How did you become an oral historian?
Alessandro Portelli: Well, I’m not sure I have become one yet, because basically I’m still getting paid to teach American – to teach literature. So I’m sort of an amateur historian. What got me interested was I was working as an activist collecting folk songs, labour movement protest songs in Italy, in the Italian folk revival. And folk music was always perceived as a historical source, as a source for the history of the working class. So it just came natural to also – for the singers – to also tell the stories from which the songs came. And one of – my only training in fieldwork came from my mentor, Gianni Bosio, when he first delivered my first Uher recorder, and he said that to me, he said: “Only thing: never turn it off.” And so I kept it on. I would keep it going even when they weren’t singing.
And after a while I realized two things. One was I am not a musician; I can’t do anything with music except give the songs to musicians or put them on records, whereas I was training myself in literature, in narrative, and I could do more with the stories. And number two, the stories were interesting partly because the big story which is in this book, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, was wrong. And because I came from literature, the way I always say it – we always repeat ourselves – “In literature, you don’t throw away a good story just because it isn’t true.” So the question was “Why are they all making the same kind of errors? What does this story mean?”
And this was the late ‘70s – actually 1970, ’71, ’72, but I didn’t start thinking about it until a few years later. And this was a time when the whole paradigm of oral history was being revised, in terms of retaining all the focus on reliability, fact-checking, and everything. But also looking at the narrative itself, in terms of Luisa Passerini, subjectivity, with all her psychological background. One influence that was very important to me was Dennis Tedlock, in terms of aesthetics. And of course, I was also working on narrative analysis. So I became interested in trying to figure out what went unsaid in the stories, where the subjectivity of the narrator and of the social group was implicit in the stories, and what the meaning of the story was. I didn’t know much about it; maybe that helped. [Allison Penner laughs] I wasn’t in a rut.
Allison Penner: Right. What was the very first oral history interview that you ever conducted and how did it go?
Alessandro Portelli: I think my first oral history interview – I’m still looking for the tape – I didn’t know it was an oral history interview. This must have been 1969. I went to this place. Earlier today I was talking about these towns that vie for the title of Little Moscow. So I went to another Little Moscow looking for songs, and I didn’t find any, so I ended up interviewing the mayor. I didn’t know what I could do with that, so in fact I don’t know what happened to the tape.
But before that I was doing social work out back in the slums in Rome. This was a rite of passage for a number of people in Rome; you developed a social consciousness by going to the slums, helping some kids with their homework, and then graduated into organizing. And as part of what I was doing there, I started interviewing people – this was around the same time; ’69, ’70. And again, I didn’t do anything with the interviews, because the only outlet that I thought of at the time was records. And in fact, I did produce – I paid out of my own pocket – an LP on the homeless movement in Rome, which included a lot of spoken word through a lot of interviews.
But I wasn’t thinking – I began to think in terms of “oral history” much later, after those interviews in the Roman hills, and the question again that was from the very start the form, the orality. One of the things that we did, I and a couple of other comrades, we did with the first interviews in the Roman Hills was to analyze when they spoke dialect, when they didn’t speak dialect, the linguistic shifts, the speed – when they changed the speed of the speech. So we immediately went for the form.
And the earlier interview, still around ’69, I came to New York to find out about the black movement, and I did a couple of interviews with black activists here in New York. And again I didn’t do anything with it. At that time our tool was the LP. And on LP records you can’t use the spoken word for long.
Allison Penner: You’ve made some reference to things that you’ve done where people will actually be able to hear the voices, not just read about them in a book – I’m talking about your recent work on Harlan County. Why do you use audio instead of video now that that’s become more available?
Alessandro Portelli: Number one, because I never learned how to use video. [Allison Penner laughs] And that’s one thing. Number two, I always had this thought – and Doug Boyd made it very clear: if you do video, you have to do good quality video. And a lot of colleagues think that just placing the camera in front of a talking head is – And I still think it’s a little bit more intrusive. Because in order to do good video, you have to have lights, you have to have – you have to have a whole set of preparations. And it detracts I think, in most cases, from the dialogic context. I always say, number one: you should have the interviewer on camera. You should show that it’s a dialogue. And also, a good video project ought to include its own history. And the third reason is: I don’t know what to do with body language. We don’t have a grammar to analyze the visual in an oral history video, whereas I know what to do with words. So I’ll stick to words, which I know how to do. But I’m not opposed or anything – Only thing is, if we’re going to use video it should be good quality. Not just good quality in terms of image resolution, but good quality in terms of video language – actually using the visual. And you don’t see that very often.
Allison Penner: Can you talk a little bit about what you see happening between an interviewer and an interviewee during an oral history interview?
Alessandro Portelli: Well, those situations change; all sorts of things happen. But my favourite metaphor is – I mean, I can’t dance – but it’s like dancing, where your moves and your partner’s moves influence each other. So it becomes sort of a partnership. And it’s actually co-authoring something, working together to produce. And the other thing is, in most cases there’s some kind of social distance and difference, and in order for the interview to be successful you need some kind of equality. And if it doesn’t exist socially – you know, you’re interviewing some marginalized person – you have to create it during the interview. And you do not create it by pretending that there’s no difference, but by making the difference the implicit theme of the conversation. So that a good interview is always, between the lines or below – in the lower frequencies, about the relationship; the social and personal relationship between them. And it’s sort of an experiment in which you talk to each other as if you were equals. So it’s sort of a utopian moment where you think of a world in which a worker and an intellectual, a man and a woman, a black man and a white person can talk to each other. When it happens it’s very creative.
[There is a removed section here in which Penner asked Portelli for some advice about one of her own projects and then apologizes for bringing her own work into the interview; the next paragraph is a response to that.]
Part of a good approach to the interview is your own input; the interviewer’s own input, so that the interviewee knows why you’re asking certain questions or who you are. I mean, you don’t occupy the space of the interview, but you’re part of a conversation. Because I myself – now, I mean, this is a very professional kind of interview, but if this was a life story interview, I don’t expect people to tell their life story to somebody that won’t tell them anything about themselves. But to remind you that this is a conversation, and if you say something about where you come from and where you’re going, the interviewee understands a lot better what this is all about. So I think this was a good interviewing moment. [Allison Penner laughs] I do it all the time.
Allison Penner: Do you?
Alessandro Portelli: Yeah! Like in Kentucky, just a little bit. But for one thing, people want to know what you know, how much you know. Now, for instance, I know you’ve read my book. But you know, people talked about living in coal camps, and I always pointed out that I grew up in a company village myself. Which was very different; it was not a slum or anything but certain things we had in common. I know what it means to have the time of your life marked by the whistle, by the factory whistle. I know what it means. And I know what it means to be – well, to be in an enclosed space, so they could relate to that. Or interviewing people who grew up in the ‘50s and you’d ask them, “What music were you listening to?” And they’d say something; I’d say, “I also listened to that too!” That kind of thing, which is my dancing metaphor. The interviewee brings up topics based on their perception of who you are. In a way, the interview is always about the interviewer. I mean, especially if it’s an in-depth interview; people will say things based on their perception of who you are.
And I’ve always found – with a couple of exceptions – that being very frank about who you are really helps. I’ve often interviewed fascists. I’ve always made it very clear that I was on the other side, and I got very good interviews. One of the things that make the interviews interesting is when people realize your otherness, which means that they have to explain themselves to a total – to somebody who cannot take for granted anything. So it really brings out a level of self-awareness that is necessary if you’re going to explain yourself to a stranger. So my formula is: what you have in common is what makes the interview possible; what makes you different is what makes the interview interesting. And by and large, I think – especially the deeper you go into the interview – the more it’s about your difference and explaining your difference to each other.
Allison Penner: Then what happens after the interview is over?
Alessandro Portelli: That’s the embarrassing part. I mean, I have no institution to back me. So when I talk about being an amateur, I’ve always done this on my own; in most cases, out of my own pocket. So this means that I haven’t done good follow-up work. I don’t have the energy, the time. And I haven’t done it always; I have done it in a number of cases, but certainly not regularly, not systematically.
And just recently, one of the joys in this work is finding out – is being able to return the recordings, not to the narrators themselves, because I’m just now returning the recordings to the people in the Roman hills, forty years later. So it’s their children and grandchildren, and they’re extremely excited about that. Whereas often the interviewees themselves don’t really care. [Laughs] You know? But their children and grandchildren do. And because we have the catalogue – not the tapes, not the files, but the catalogue – online, I’ve been getting requests from people who say, “I found my great-uncle’s name in your catalogue; what is this? Can I have it? Can I see it?” So in some cases, in all my long-term projects, there’s always been at least one person that became very close also personally. But that’s one of the things that I don’t feel good about my own work; I haven’t continued a lot of relationships.
Allison Penner: A lot of people do see, though, your work as being very foundational in the field of oral history. In particular, I know this book, The Death of Luigi Trastulli – everybody knows this books; everybody uses this book. What do you see as your contributions to the field?
Alessandro Portelli: Well, I think, as I was saying earlier, I’m part of a group of people – Ron Grele, Dennis Tedlock, Luisa Passerini and a few others; Al Thomson later – who were instrumental in changing the paradigm from hard facts to subjectivity. Or not changing the paradigm; expanding the paradigm. Because we’re still looking for the hard facts, partly because if we don’t know the hard facts, then how can we make use of the “wrong” narratives? I mean, I have to know that Luigi Trastulli died in 1949 in order to make sense of the fact that they’re talking about 1953. So rather than a change in paradigm, talking about an expansion of paradigm. In my case it came from linguistics, from literature. In the case of Luisa Passerini it came from psychology; and Dennis Tedlock from anthropology. We also, I think, helped make oral history much more – not interdisciplinary: a-disciplinary or all-disciplinary. All-disciplines. You have a toolbox with a number of tools, and you pick the one you need for the specific case. And I think basically what caught people’s interest in the Luigi Trastulli story was the element of the imagination, the fact that we’re also listening to people’s desires, to people’s efforts to make sense of the past. So that we’re no longer just talking about using the oral history to reconstruct the past, but rather to reconstruct the relationship between the present and the past.
Allison Penner: Have you ever had an interview where it just went really wrong; it just didn’t work at all?
Alessandro Portelli: I was talking about it earlier this morning, this interview with this old black lady who wouldn’t tell me anything. But in that case I don’t think it went wrong; the information I got was how complicated and difficult it was for her, at 92, to talk to a white person and to talk about the reality of what it was like to be in Alabama in the 1910s. So again, it was about the relationship.
Other interviews that went really wrong – I can’t think of any. Because in a way, when people refuse to talk to you, that’s something. [Both laugh] You know? It goes back to what Luisa Passerini says about silences: they’re very important and they’re full of meaning. Or perhaps I’m just in denial and I refuse to admit that some interviews went wrong. [Allison Penner laughs] But I can’t think of any interviews where – It’s not that I’m a good interviewer, but it’s that if your attitude in the interview is accepting the other – or suspending your rejection of the other, if you’re interviewing a fascist – for the time of the interview, you listen. If it’s about accepting the other, than whatever the other person does is interesting.
Allison Penner: What do you think has been your most difficult interview to sit and listen to?
Alessandro Portelli: Again, it depends on what you mean by difficult. There have been a couple of interviews where I just sat and listened. And one was with a Shoah survivor, and I have a whole side of a tape, 45 minutes, where I don’t say a word. And one was with one of my students who had been – June 2001, there was three big days of demonstrations in Genoa over the G8 meeting. The police went berserk and a young man was killed, and she was there. And again I sat for 45 minutes listening to her. I don’t know if these were difficult or the easiest ones because I didn’t have to do anything. They were difficult in that I was made speechless. They were easy in that the stories kept pouring.
Allison Penner: What do you see as the unique contribution oral history can make to our understanding of history?
Alessandro Portelli: I think it has to do with telling us what the past means to the present, in addition to all the usual things that we always say, which are correct. Like, “We’re now listening to people who haven’t been listened to before;” “We’re not giving them voice; they’re giving us voice.” If people didn’t sing or speak, I couldn’t do anything. [Laughs] So I’m getting voice from the people that I interview. But I’m giving them a listening. And I loved Doug Boyd’s metaphor of the fallen tree. Because if a tree falls and there’s nobody to hear it – well, we’re there to hear it. So the tree makes a sound. And that is very important, but in addition to that, the information – it’s the relationship between the present and the past; what the past means now. It’s not just the memory of history, but it’s also the history of memory: how things are being remembered at different times. What was important for people to remember in the ‘70s and what is important for people to remember in 2010s? I think this is fairly unique.
Allison Penner: Do you think that the stories you’ve been exposed to as you’ve done oral history interviews have shaped you not only professionally but also on a personal level?
Alessandro Portelli: By all means, absolutely. I couldn’t put my finger on what has changed, because I think it’s shaped the whole thing. I’m the result of all the people that I’ve talked to, basically. Because you’re always at stake in the interview; you’re always at stake. And that’s another one of my little formulas: If you don’t come out of the interview changed from the way you walked in, you have been wasting your time. It’s a learning experience, always.
Allison Penner: Most children don’t grow up thinking, “I’m going to be an oral historian one day,” or even, “I’m going to be a professor of literature.” What did you want to do when you were a child?
Alessandro Portelli: I wanted to be a writer. In fact, I spent a year in high school in Los Angeles and I was very good at writing essays. And I remember this teacher who made a comment on one of my essays: “I wish you would become a professor of literature.” Ten years later, there I was. [Allison Penner laughs] I wanted to be a writer. And number one, I couldn’t think of stories. And number two, you have to write about things you know in depth, and because we middle-class intellectuals only know in-depth the very uninteresting world of middle-class intellectuals: am I going to write another college novel? Number three, all the characters would end up speaking like me. So oral history is a perfect answer to this! I get my stories; I get my characters; I get their different styles of speech. And everybody says I built the books like novels.
I don’t know if you know this Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, writer and film maker. Pier Paolo Pasolini was very controversial. He was communist, homosexual; he was a poet, he was a critic of contemporary society. And his first novels were set in the lumpen-proletariat neighbourhoods in Rome. It was a scandal because he used their language, including the cuss words and things. To read now, it’s so mild. But I remember sitting in my little room as a teenager, reading his books and saying, “I can do that! All I need is a tape recorder to go to” – This was 1957, ’58. [Laughs] And I never gave it a thought until thirty years later and said, “Oh my god, here I am in Pasolini’s neighbourhood with a tape recorder!” [Laughs] Because I was in the same neighbourhood. But I didn’t think that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer. History and oral history are a very good substitute, because they’re also very good training, so that by the time you get to write your own fiction, you have that background.
Allison Penner: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in the field of oral history?
Alessandro Portelli: Do something you like. Do something you’re really interested in; that’s what I would say. Because that will make you a good interviewer. If you just do it as an assignment, it’s flimsy or it’s weaker. I would say find something that you really want to know, that you don’t know about but you know enough about to want to know more. And then go ahead and do it. And if you don’t know how to do an interview, you learn by doing.
I’ll tell you a little story: When he was in the first grade, my son was sent out to do interviews about the neighbourhood. They had this project, in first grade, about their neighbourhood. He came back and he had interviewed this neighbourhood cop. And the interview went like this: “How old are you?” “Thirty-five.” “Very interesting. How long have you been here?” “Ten years.” “Very interesting. Do you like it?” And no question was related to the answer before it. So again, it’s a dancing metaphor. Question one; answer one. You don’t go right into question two; the next question is question A1. You explore that. And when that’s over, maybe the interviewee has gone into question F, or into things that you haven’t even thought about asking. And you keep question B in mind until the right moment to ask it. Which, of course, you may do in the wrong moment anyway, but there’s not guarantee for that. So being – I think it’s the art of being flexible.
When I decided to do the Trastulli book, I wanted to do a project on what happened in Terni between ’49 and ’53. I started interviewing a man who had been fired for political reasons in ’53. And after a while his wife, she grabbed the microphone from him and told me the story of her great-grandfather who, on his wedding day took his bride home. He went out to buy dinner and as he was running out to the store, he ran into Garibaldi and his men who were marching off to liberate Italy, so he went along with them and only came back four years later. And number one: you listen to it, even though it’s not part of your project. Number two: “Do I really want to leave this story out of my book?” So in the end the book was 1831-1985, because you sort of accompany whatever people tell you. Because you have some questions you want to ask, and the other person has some stories they want to tell. And eighty percent, they overlap; but there will be questions that they can’t answer or that you realize are irrelevant, and they will have stories that you didn’t expect and that may be irrelevant, except maybe ten years later you find out, “Oh! That was important” – like the dancing story – or that may be a huge revelation that opened up. So it’s the flexibility which makes it fun. Expect the unexpected. And of course, the difficult part is saying the interview is over.
Allison Penner: I know, right!
Alessandro Portelli: [Laughs]
[Recorder turned off]

Images:
  • Allison Penner and Alessandro Portelli

Ronald J. Grele

Ronald J. Grele served as the former director of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University, New York, New York, as well as former president of the Oral History Association. Grele authored the landmark book Envelopes of Sound: The Art of Oral History (1991) in addition to numerous other articles on oral history theory and method.

 

Citation Information: Ronald J. Grele, interview by Allison Penner, New York, NY, USA, 15 June 2012, Oral History Centre Online, http://oralhistorycentre.ca/projects/histories-oral-historians

Audio File:

Allison Penner interviews Ronald Grele 15/06/2012

Transcript:

TOH GRELE Ronald 20120615

PROJECT TITLE: The Oral Historians
NARRATOR: Ronald J. Grele
INTERVIEWER: Allison Penner
DATE OF RECORDING: 15 June 2012
PLACE OF RECORDING: Columbia University, New York, New York, USA
SESSION: 1 of 1
LENGTH OF SESSION: 45 minutes 26 seconds (website version: 29 minutes 1 second)
TOTAL INTERVIEW LENGTH: 45 minutes 26 seconds (website version: 29 minutes 1 second)
AUDIO QUALITY: good
FILE NAME: TOH GRELE Ronald 20120615 Transcript – final website version.docx
TRANSCRIBER: Allison Penner
DATE TRANSCRIPTION COMPLETED:
DATE REVIEWED BY NARRATOR: 11 September 2013

Allison Penner: My name is Allison Penner. I’m at Columbia University in New York, New York with Ron Grele. The date is June 15th 2012, and we are doing an interview on the practices of oral history and Ron’s experience with that. So I guess just to get started here, what attracted you to oral history? How did you become an oral historian?
Ronald Grele: Actually it’s kind of a mundane answer. I was looking for a job. I had finished my residency at Rutgers University for the Ph.D. and I had taken a one-year teaching assignment at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. At that time I was married; I had four children. My daughter, who is the fourth, was born in Easton. I was looking for a job, and at that point in time the job market was very expansive; it was quite easy to get jobs. And I had turned down two jobs. One simply because the place was too ugly for us to live in. [AP laughs] I tell that to students now, they can’t believe the arrogance of it! Incredible! But it was July and I had not secured a job. I had been considered for a couple, but I had not gotten one. And the former head of the History Department at Rutgers, Henry Winkler, had gone to Washington to become the editor of the American Historical Review, and he called one evening and asked me – he knew I was looking for a job. He said, “There’s a job opening at the Kennedy Library in Washington, D.C. at the National Archives doing oral history.” And I said to him, “What’s oral history?” [Laughs] And he said, “Don’t worry; you’ll learn.” [Laughs] So I applied for the job and went down for an interview. And Charles Morrissey, who was one of the founders of oral history in the United States, one of the forefathers – I don’t know who the other three were, but he was one of the forefathers of oral history. And Charlie had just come out [from the Truman Library to become] the director of the oral history program for the Kennedy Library. And he hired me, and I began my career at the Kennedy Library as an interviewer and archivist. It was then located at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. So that’s my first experience in oral history, working for the Kennedy Library.
Allison Penner: Can you tell me about the very first interview that you ever conducted?
Ronald Grele: Yes, I can. Charlie was widely read. There wasn’t that much of a bibliography on oral history, but he had read it. And he was very interested in other fieldwork sciences such as folklore and linguistics and anthropology, et cetera. And there was wide literature on interviewing practices, so working with Charlie was really a training ground for interviewing. And for the actual practice, we went out together; while he was doing interviews, I would sit in and watch him do the interviews, and gradually – I guess the first interview I ever participated in was an interview he had done with a congressman by the name of Torbert McDonald who was a close friend of the Kennedys.
But my first interview was with a woman by the name of Marjorie McKenzie Lawson. She and her husband, Belford Lawson, were John Kennedy’s main entrée into the African American community. And they had been long-time operatives within the Democratic Party, and they were hooked into all of the preachers and the black fraternities and sororities – the black bourgeoisie, which had been mobilized over many years within the Democratic Party, from the Depression on. And they were key figures in all of that, until a man who later became senator from Pennsylvania, [Harris Wofford], who had been in India with Chester Bowles and been very affected by Gandhi, made contact with Martin Luther King. Chester Bowles was a Kennedy person, [and he, Harris Wofford,] told Kennedy that he had to make contact with Martin Luther King. So sometime before the 1960 election, Kennedy moved gradually to make contact with a different kind of African American leadership, leaving Belford and Marjorie Lawson kind of on the sidelines. And they bitterly resented it, bitterly resented it. And she was my first interview. And I had really looked very carefully at all of the civil rights stuff and all the interior of the civil rights movement. But mostly she wanted to talk about being a woman [in the company of] all those Irish Catholic men, and their attitudes towards women. And it quite surprised me; I was not prepared for that. Interesting first lesson: be prepared for whatever surprises come along. I had totally misread her career with the Kennedys. She blamed some of the loss of contact within the Kennedy administration on Robert Kennedy and [Kenneth] O’Donnell and all the Irish mafia, because they couldn’t stand working with an aggressive woman. This was long before feminism. I guess Betty Friedan had been published, but it was long before people talked in that way. But that was my first interview. It was a marvellous interview. She was very, very critical of Robert Kennedy at that time, this is in 1965. Robert Kennedy, of course, later became very, very close to the African American community and [I understand that] she closed the interview. The interview remained closed for many years. [Laughs]
Allison Penner: Is it open now?
Ronald Grele: I don’t know. I don’t know; the latest biography of Kennedy didn’t seem to mention it, so I don’t know.
Allison Penner: That’s fascinating.
Ronald Grele: That’s my first experience – my first interview.
Allison Penner: It’s interesting because so many people, their first interviews are for like school projects or smaller things. That’s, I mean, quite a prestigious interview to begin with. What would you say has been your worst interview?
Ronald Grele: Oh, the worst interview I ever had – Mary Marshall [Clark] mentions this all the time – is with Bella Abzug. And it was – God, it was a terrible experience. Bella Abzug was a leading American feminist, and she was a congresswoman from New York City. And she had been involved in Women Strike for Peace; she was an activist, a long-time activist. [She was a] very, very dynamic person, and a very close friend of Shirley MacLaine’s. And I was then head of the office here at Columbia, and I got a call from Shirley MacLaine. And Shirley MacLaine had been visiting Bella and she was moving – Bella was moving. And there were all these boxes outside her door waiting to be picked up by the garbage man. And they were all her records. And Shirley MacLaine prevented them from being destroyed, and she was shocked by all this. And she called and said Bella has to be interviewed. And I said, “Wonderful.” Shirley MacLaine was going to put up the money; the way in which Columbia operated then – and still to a large extent does – is we have to fund our interviews. And so I contacted Abzug, and she refused to be interviewed. No interest in it whatsoever. She was busy with day-to-day life, and to reflect on the past was nothing she would ever be interested in doing.
And so a number of years passed, and Mary Marshall came on. And important things changed, and Bella Abzug moved on to doing different kinds of things. And she was very friendly with a number of women historians with whom I was very friendly, and so they wanted me to interview Bella so I agreed to do that. And then I contacted Shirley MacLaine. Unfortunately I had never kept any correspondence, [nor had I ever] written to her after the telephone conversation. She had completely forgotten about it. And I got a call from Bella Abzug, just screaming, screaming at me for asking her friend for money for this interview: “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” It was really a terrible, terrible experience.
But anyway, after an hour or so, and then a meeting afterwards with a very close friend of hers, Amy Swerdlow, who’s a very close friend of mine – Amy had been with her in Women Strike for Peace and many, many years – she agreed to be interviewed. And it was a terrible interview, just terrible. I was interested in the way she became a feminist – she had always been a feminist; it was never a question for her. And she was thinking about how she would use this to write her biography. And if she couldn’t find in the session what she could write the next week, she was totally uninterested. And after one or two sessions I had to give up. Amy was telling me I should ask her about this, ask her about that, and every time I did it was awful, off-beat, off-kilter. And eventually Mary Marshall took it over and did three or four interviews, and then Bella became ill and died. And so we never got a full interview, but we got a richer interview with Mary Marshall. But that was my worst interview.
Allison Penner: And you were so tenacious in actually getting it too, after being rebuffed so many times.
Ronald Grele: Well, as I think about it over the years, what I should have done is when she first started screaming at me, I should have just hung up. Really, I should have. [Just] said, “To hell with it.” And then allow my friends to renegotiate that and have a different interviewer, and not even got involved. I just should have – I should have hung up.
Allison Penner: Do you think that there are situations where, even if you are the only person available, you just shouldn’t do the interview anyway?
Ronald Grele: Oh sure. If there’s no chemistry. And in fact we say this to people often, when we interview them here at Columbia – we did – that if they’re unhappy with the interviewer, let us know; we’ll get another interviewer. Sometimes there just is no chemistry. Some people cannot interview other people; some people cannot be interviewed by other people. They deeply resent the style, the manner – whatever it might be, subjective or objective.
Allison Penner: What do you like about doing oral history interviews and what do you not like?
Ronald Grele: You know, it’s an interesting question. I was asked to, as you know, answer these questions for the Croatian students, and when they asked me about the Kennedy project, I said I discovered I liked to interview, but I never thought about why. So I’ve been thinking about why since then. I’m good at it. I really am good at it, and one enjoys what one is good at. I grew up in a small New England town where there was a public green where all these old men used to gather and gossip all the time. And I grew up in a family of gossips. And I always liked gossip; I liked listening to gossip, et cetera. You know? A natural snoop, I guess. And theoretically I’m always interested in the story behind the story. [In a funny sense] I was just waiting for structuralism to discover that it’s really important to understand the deep structure of things.
I can elaborate this in a theoretical way: One listens for what is told and untold. When I read Althusser, Louis Althusser – I’ve talked [elsewhere] about how important Althusser was to me. But it wasn’t the political side of Althusser that was of most importance to me; it was the discussion of symptomatic reading. What is symptomatic reading? How do we read symptomatically? How do we take what is being said to us as a symptom of something larger, a larger condition, a more complex phenomenon if you will. And I’ve always liked that about interviewing, that people tell you things and there are undertones and overtones. And words can never quite capture the total essence of an experience. The only way of getting that is more words. And as a French post-structuralist Luce Irigaray talks about this kind of ineffable reality, that you have to use words but words cover so many complexities of an experience and the only way of getting at it is more words. And that’s intriguing to me.
What don’t I like about it? I don’t like it sometimes when – on the Kennedy project this was a problem but also it’s happened to me a number of times interviewing “members of the elite,” and we can talk about that in a moment. Sometimes you’re considered as a hired [biographer]; “This is [my oral historian,” one man who I interviewed said when he was called upon to introduce me at a social gathering where we had met]. [Laughs] When I worked on the Kennedy project we had a wonderful, wonderful team. And there was a young kid – we were all young at the time – and he was Irish Catholic; he was so fascinated by the Kennedys. And he believed that by interviewing on the Kennedy project he became part of the Kennedy circle. I tried to tell him, “Joe, you are not part of the Kennedy circle.” On the left hand, a lot of friends of mine [once believed] that by interviewing working class people they become members of the working class, and in my particular group of friends we called that false proletarianization. And the same thing happens with elite interviews. People interview people who are wealthy, this, that, and the other, and they believe that they’re part of that crowd. Well, you’re not; you’re not. And it takes a great deal of self-awareness, I think, to do interviews. You have to be – you have to know who you are. And I resent being, in that sense, treated as the hired help or – [dealing with] people who don’t take the history seriously.
Allison Penner: You said that in an interview you need to know who you are. Have you found that as you do interviews, who you are changes by listening to the stories?
Ronald Grele: Well, first of all it changes over time. I am no longer a young Ph.D. feeling my oats in the field. I am now retired, a senior. So it has changed. But my style of interviewing has always been more or less “professional,” in the sense that I am interested in the history and I consider myself a historian. And that is who I am: [I am] a historian. And I’m concerned with how we turn this document into a history: what have you learned for the practice of history? Moving beyond “feeling good;” moving beyond the ambience of the interview where you like each other, where you get along, where you’re concerned about that, to what is [the interview] as history? And that demands a certain kind of distance. There is a distance in the interview. And I would go more towards a more distant approach. Other people get much closer. They do the same things. Other people, a little further. Some people who are journalists are trained to do interviews in a certain kind of way that is much more staccato in the sense of interrupting – moving it forward on their terms rather than on the terms of the person you’re talking to. And it has to be judged – my feeling is it has to be judged based on what’s produced at the end. Do they get at what is needed for the particular purpose of the project? It’s just a matter of style; knowing what your style is, what are you comfortable with. And you establish that in your presence almost immediately. Now some of my feminist friends critique that as a “masculine” style. And that may be true. But it is a style I’m comfortable with, and it’s my style.
Allison Penner: Yeah. You mentioned this idea of doing interviews to feel good. It’s kind of this new understanding of oral history that’s developed, probably exemplified best by the Story Corps project. Can you speak to your understanding of the differences between oral history and the kind of project that would be exemplified by that type of Story Corps –?
Ronald Grele: I have a long critique of Story Corps, probably too long to get into right now. But I’m interested in conversation. And I had a discussion with a young man who was a student of Habermas, and we got talking about Habermas’s distinction between conversation and discourse. You know, there are many conversations, but what conversations become part of a discourse? And I take that to mean, in my case, which conversations are conversations that are part of an ongoing dialogue about history, about where we have been structurally – or not only structurally, but in some larger sense; how people are in the world. Not just in the moment, but in the world. So how do we move beyond that? And with Story Corps – [Well, first of all], all I know about Story Corps [is what they publish and what they publish about themselves and] what shows up on the web. I am not familiar with the full interviews. Their interviews run, they say, to forty minutes, et cetera, and from that they [publish and broadcast] excerpts. So I’m not familiar with the whole – I don’t know what happens afterwards; whether or not in the questioning (or not), people can put their experiences in a larger context to tell us something about the world in terms of a larger discourse.
I think that’s the way we kind of honour people, by recognizing them as historians; that they are capable of not only telling us stories but also telling us what those stories mean. Mike Frisch years ago wrote a very important article on an experience he had with the New York Times in editing interviews that he and his colleagues at Buffalo had done with unemployed [workers], and this was in the ‘70s. And the Times was interested in the emotional side of those stories but edited out every point where people expressed an opinion or interpretation of those events. You know, “I’m unemployed, this is what happened to me, and I’m unemployed because” – things have moved out of town; the boss has done this; blah blah, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Where they put it in context. They would take the story – “I’m unemployed; this is what it’s done for my family” – and not the interpretation.
And there’s a way in which that’s what’s done in the Story Corps books, “On Mom” or “Listening is an Act of Love” – they take the pith of the emotional moments and get rid of the interpretation. So the people become – They say they’re sharing authority by including their stories, but the people just become objects of emotive attitude. I just read an essay by a guy by the name of Benjamin Filene who’s turned out a volume called Letting Go or something or other. He opens his own essay [in that book] by saying: “Every Friday morning I get prepared to cry,” when NPR broadcasts excerpts from Story Corps, and they’re always moving. And he gets ready to cry. Well, crying’s not enough. We have to understand. The people we interview are perfectly capable of telling us what [they think what they say] means. And it’s our job to allow them – or to help them do that, if you will. “Allow” is probably a bad word, but there’s a way in which we do control that interview. But in the presentation, it should be there in the presentation as well. But there’s a difference between feeling good and doing history.
Allison Penner: When you’re interviewing somebody, are there any tricks or keys that you use to help the interview go well? Any tips maybe?
Ronald Grele: Well, first of all, it’s really important to explain exactly what’s going to happen, where it’s going to go, who is going to look at it, what’s going to happen, or what rights that person has. Are they going to get a transcript back; are they going to get this back; will they be able to look at it? It’s very important that it be a totally transparent project; nothing is hidden. No hidden microphones, no – People can say, “Stop the recording.” It’s important that they know they have control over exactly what’s going to happen. Within the interview itself, I always think it’s important in the first ten or so minutes to reveal that you know something that they don’t know that you know, to let them know that you’ve done your research. “Oh, you know about that? Oh, you’ve talked to somebody about that already? Oh, you’ve read this obscure article?” Or they’ll say, “Where did you find that out?” I’ll say, “Harper’s Magazine, June 1952.” “Oh!” It’s important, I think, at some point in time to let them know that you know, so that they know that you’re going to come back at them. [I think people respect that. I think they think this person cares enough about this project that he or she has prepared.]
It’s also important to set the rhythm of the interview. If you begin the interview asking many short questions, people will assume that that’s the pace you want. If you start with questions that require more elaboration – and then ask for more elaboration [you get a fuller interview]. The example I used with Jamil, with his interview: Very early on when he said “we,” I said, “Who are the ‘we’?” So he knows by that that I want more detail; that I know that there are other people; that he can talk more expansively about it. So you’re setting the pace; you’re setting the rhythm.
Sometimes that’s not enough. I interviewed a congressman at one time. He had been a congressman for 24 years, and a very important congressman, but he was used to being interviewed by the press. He knew exactly what the press wanted. So he would give me an answer which was a short – now they call them sound bites, but it was something that a journalist could peg the story to: “Congressman Celler said today blah blah blah,” and then the story would come. And it was very difficult to convince him that I wanted an answer that was more than two sentences long; very difficult to get that across. But you want to establish the rhythm, the rhythm.
And then I think that most interviews begin to kind of collapse on themselves after about an hour and a half, two hours. People get tired. You get tired as an interviewer; you’re just not as sharp as you were, et cetera. My objection is – People talk in this Institute about not taking [a list of questions with them into an interview], a couple times it was mentioned. Why I don’t want my students to take [a listing of questions] with them, why I don’t ever take [a questionnaire], is there’s some kind of imperative to finish that damn questionnaire. You’re coming to the end of the interview, and you’ve got 40 questions and you’ve only asked 30 – there’s such an imperative to ask every question that you’re not listening; that you’re thinking about the next question. And who cares? You can come back a second time. But to take it slower, to deal with topics rather than questions. You establish the rhythm, end when you have to end.
Allison Penner: So what do you see as your particular contribution your work has made to the field of oral history?
Ronald Grele: I’ve talked about a transformation in oral history. I think my work was important in giving people, at a moment in time, a certain way of looking at an interview rather than the older, social scientific way. And I think for a moment at least, as I understand the bibliography, people used the term “conversational narrative.” And I think that was some kind of a contribution: thinking about it in a different kind of way. In terms of the use of oral history in social history, which was from the bottom up – the whole rhetoric of social history – I think my work is really tangential to that, in that my discussion of an interview is something that could be applied to interviews with the working class. I tried that in one essay, in “Envelopes of Sound,” but I think it was a sensibility that the oral narrative, or the oral history is much more than a repository of facts. That it tells us about culture. And that that is the same kind of impulse that Luisa Passerini has, that Lutz Niethammer, that Alessandro Portelli has, et cetera. And that tells us about the culture; it’s a much larger construct. So I think in that sense there’s a kind of correspondence.
I think in my professional career, I have tried to move oral history into newer kinds of directions, both in the Oral History Association, in some of my writings, my activities in the public history world – I used to be very active in that world – my work at the New Jersey Historical Commission, my work at Columbia was to open up oral history to a lot of disparate community activities, working with people who were politically marginalized, on their projects. Helping redefine those projects. In some cases, helping them secure funding. I think that I brought to projects that would have been considered somewhat marginal, I brought to them a certain kind of respectability because of the work that I had done and the places that I had been.
[Recorder turned off]

Images:
  • Allison Penner and Ronald J. Grele

Linda Shopes

Linda Shopes has been working in the field of oral history for more than three decades and has written extensively on the topic. Shopes is currently co-general editor of Palgrave Macmillan’s Studies in Oral History series; she also works as a consultant in oral and public history as well as a freelance editor. In the past, Shopes served as president of the U.S. Oral History Association.

 

Linda Shopes, interview by Allison Penner, New York, NY, USA, 11 June 2012, Oral History Centre Online,  http://oralhistorycentre.ca/projects/histories-oral-historians

Audio File:

Allison Penner interviews Linda Shopes 11/06/2012

Transcript:

TOH SHOPES Linda 20120611

PROJECT TITLE: The Oral Historians
NARRATOR: Linda Shopes
INTERVIEWER: Allison Penner
DATE OF RECORDING: 11 June 2012
PLACE OF RECORDING: Butler Library, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA
SESSION: 1 of 1
LENGTH OF SESSION: 23 minutes 46 seconds (website version: 17 minutes 40 seconds)
TOTAL INTERVIEW LENGTH: 23 minutes 46 seconds (website version: 17 minutes 40 seconds)
AUDIO QUALITY: good
FILE NAME: TOH SHOPES Linda 20120611 Transcript – final website version.docx
TRANSCRIBER: Allison Penner
DATE TRANSCRIPTION COMPLETED: 1 August 2013
DATE REVIEWED BY NARRATOR: 11 September 2013

Allison Penner: My name is Allison Penner and I’m here with Linda Shopes at Columbia University in New York, New York, and we are going to be talking about oral history. My first question is: How did you get involved in the field of oral history?
Linda Shopes: A couple of things came together in about 1968, 1969. One was – First of all, I got married, right out of college. And it was a marriage that was definitely a move up the social ladder. If you had aspirations to improve your situation as a woman back in 1967, the strategy often was to marry up, and I married up. So my “class position,” to use terms that I didn’t use then, changed. And I had a real kind of identity crisis: who was I becoming as I moved into a more privileged kind of world than the world that I grew up in? And that led me to a kind of interest in my own family history. My grandparents were all immigrants from Eastern Europe. And growing up in the ‘50s, the great American decade when everybody was a true-blooded American, we didn’t talk about – I mean, grandma and grandpa were there and we knew they didn’t speak English too well; we knew where they came from; we knew my mother and father were both bilingual. But how they got here, what their stories were, what their struggles were – were erased. We were all becoming American. I look back at my high school yearbook, everybody had an Italian or a Polish or a Lithuanian last name. Do you think we ever studied the local ethnic history that was part of the great migration of Eastern Europeans to the United States to work in these factories in New Britain, Connecticut? Never. It was not mentioned. So it was that kind of change in my class position that got me interested in my family history. That kind of sat there.
I got involved in the women’s movement. And I particularly got involved with a journal called Women: A Journal of Liberation. And I came on to the collective staff at the time they were beginning to plan an issue on the history of women. Well, I didn’t know women had history! And that again, you know – a world opened up to me of a history of women that I’d never conceived of, and I was a History minor in college. Both of those kind of laid the groundwork for an interest in what I would call social history.
I then, just by happenstance, was in a social situation with a fellow who taught American history at a local community college, and this was all in Baltimore. And I liked him; we were chatting. And he alerted me to this project called the Anonymous Americans History Project, which was a project started by Tamara Hareven and Richard [Brown] – I can’t think of his last name; he was at UConn [University of Connecticut] – to document the history of “anonymous” Americans, ordinary people, largely using this method of oral history. Well that just – a light bulb went off in my head. I mean, I was at the time teaching high school, and I was teaching high school English, I wasn’t teaching history. A light bulb went off. From there I very quickly decided I wanted to go to graduate school [at the University of Maryland], to pursue a graduate degree because I had been teaching high school. And I saw this course in the history department, Oral History, and I said, “I have to take this course. I have to take this course. It’s exactly the tool I need.” I had initially planned to do a history of my own family, and that quickly evaporated, but the point is that this tool seemed absolutely appropriate to the interests I was developing. And Martha Ross, whose name is familiar to many people, was teaching this course at the University of Maryland. I called her up beforehand, before I even registered, and I said, “Mrs. Ross, I have to take this course.” And she said, “Enrollment’s still open; you can register.” So I did, and she was very gracious in opening the world of oral history to her students. The Oral History Association was just getting off the ground; it was a very collegial group. You know, one thing led to another led to another, but that’s how it started.
Allison Penner: Over the time since you started practicing oral history, what changes have you noted in either the practice or the theory?
Linda Shopes: Well, I’d say in terms of theory, oral history was very much oriented, when I started, towards adding new facts to the record, filling in the blanks of the historical record. And still much of the work that oral history is involved in does exactly that. It was very much interested in kind of demonstrating its credibility, in these rather traditional terms, and why oral history was a reliable and verifiable research method. Over time I think that question has really turned on its head, and we’ve become much more interested not in the facts of the story, but the narrative, the operations of memory in an oral history. It’s not so much whether people remember correctly or falsely, it’s that what they remember has significance – oral history as a narrative construct, not as a replication of the true facts. Some people put it as the transformation from oral history as a document, which we use to create a story about the past, to oral history as a text, which we interpret and is itself an interpretive document. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in terms of theory.
In terms of method, certainly the digital realm has opened up not only how we record and preserve, but restoring the oral to oral history, restoring the emotional subtext of a lot of oral history to the record. I think it’s also changing oral history from an archival mode, which it was in the beginning – and, I mean, still is – to a presentational mode, as people immediately think: “I’m going to put this on a website. I’m going to create a product out of this material.” And I think digital tools have made that so much more attractive, appealing, interesting, and possible for people to do.
Allison Penner: As far as the future direction of the field of oral history, where do you see it going that it’s not at right now?
Linda Shopes: Well, what do historians always say? “I’m a historian; I don’t predict the future.” [Laughs]
Allison Penner: [Laughs] Fair enough.
Linda Shopes: I just think the digital world is changing everything, in ways that we can’t really predict. We were talking today about some of the surveillance and ethical issues, or protection of people’s privacy when everything is up on the web. I am concerned that the ubiquity of digital tools means we’re going to record everything; everybody becomes a documentarian of their own life. There’s this surfeit of material; how do you work your way through it and find what’s meaningful? I mean, it’s fine if people want to document their personal history for themselves and their circle, but what then makes it more valuable as a historical record? Do we need everybody’s version of their life story on the historical record for permanent preservation?
I think the digital world is making people more circumspect in what they’re saying, because they know it can be broadcast to the world almost immediately. So I think it might have the tendency of changing the nature of the record we’re creating and making it more circumspect and perhaps less probing. People can still put restrictions on material for many, many years, and my concern may not be relevant, but I have seen a lot of oral history projects conceived very specifically for a mode of presentation, and people speak less frankly than they would for a record that would be put in an archive for a period of time, and to which access would be limited to “legitimate” users.
Allison Penner: What do you see as the greatest contribution of oral history, or perhaps its unique features that you wouldn’t get from a different form of doing history?
Linda Shopes: I hesitate to say you can’t get it from a different form of history. Certainly oral history puts on the record the experiences and the perspectives of those who are represented in the existing historical record often in narrow and very limiting ways. We all exist on the historical record in the United States: we have birth certificates, we have marriage certificates, we have divorce papers, we have death certificates, we have census records. We have public records. But they represent only a very small piece of a person, or are only meaningful in a collective sense. Or we have records of the state, which are often records of people who are in some sort of opposition to the state: court records, prison records; those kinds of records. So it does give people who don’t have the time, don’t have the capacity, don’t have the inclination to write their memoirs an opportunity to get their voices and experiences on the record. So I think that’s one thing.
I think as we are moving towards the oral, as the web is allowing more orality to be intrinsic to the oral history enterprise, it contributes very powerfully to the actual voice of the past. And as they say in the museum world, “What brings people in is the real thing.” I think what brings people in is the real voice. I mean, so does the real story and writing, but I think the real voice has a particular kind of appeal, and I think it touches our emotions in a way that often the written word doesn’t. We’re more captivated by the sonic qualities than we are just by reading something which is a bit more removed from our emotions I think. So I think it restores a kind of emotional response to history. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I think it kind of cuts both ways. It certainly can help create deeper empathy for someone unlike ourselves, whose experiences we may have dismissed in the past or not been aware of. To hear them talk about their lives can, I think, deepen our sense of empathy. But I think again it can be very manipulative, and emotions can override rational thought. And we can have an emotional reaction without thinking: “Well, what does this story mean and what does it all add up to?” So I think both are true.
I think oral history can democratize not just the content of the historical record but the practice of history. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in oral history to do oral history well. Having a Ph.D. in History doesn’t ensure that you will do oral history well. So it enables communities, interest groups, public citizens to engage in historical work. That’s not to say you put a tape recorder in everybody’s hands and they’re just going to do it well. Obviously there’s a need for training and education, but this can happen in a variety of formats; it doesn’t have to require formal training at a high level. And I think oral history, because it is stories and because stories have an appeal, it can democratize the audience for history. It’s no secret that most academic scholars write in pretty dry prose. It’s an exceptional historian who can write a book that people want to read outside of a specialized field, and I think the stories of oral history, particularly if they are given some context and if they are rendered well, can help people come to an appreciation of what history is. It’s beyond visiting this historic site, or this battle that’s being commemorated in a bicentennial or tricentennial, or even their own families’ stories. It can help them have kind of a broader view of what I was going to say is the American experience, but let’s just say a broader social experience, beyond their own personal story.
That goes back to your question of what I found so appealing about oral history. It very quickly, as I was pursuing an interest in my own family history, it helped – People say, “Why do you like history; why do you study history?” and on a very personal level [my response is,] “It breaks down alienation. It breaks down my sense of ‘I’m just this person in the world, and where do I fit?’ It helps me see my relationship to the rest of the world.” And that’s pretty solipsistic, you know: me me me. But I think a public history can do that, and oral history does that quite effectively if done well, to help people see that a personal experience, a deeply personal experience, is part of something bigger. And it can do it in a way that is not abstract; it can do it in a way that’s very concrete. So you hear someone’s story of their grandmother and her life, having seven or eight or ten children, and working in a pretty impoverished situation, having a difficult marriage, and [that becomes an opening for] you [to] realize that this is not just my grandmother’s story; this is a story of gender. This is a story of men and women in a particular social circumstance.
Allison Penner: I was just thinking as you were speaking, earlier today we had talked a lot about the rise in popularity of projects like StoryCorps, and different forms of oral history, and that debate around what constitutes oral history. So in your understanding of it, how do you see oral history as being defined?
Linda Shopes: Well, there’s a vernacular sense of the term. We who identify as let us say “professional oral historians,” we don’t claim the term; we don’t own the term. It’s used widely to mean a lot of different things. And I think our job as professional oral historians is to do our best to educate people who care to listen [about] what constitutes good practice in oral history and how oral history is a historical practice; it’s not just simply gathering stories.
I’ve written about this, both the vernacular use of the term “oral history” and the more professional use of the term “oral history,” and I’ve outlined characteristics of oral history based on a pretty wide survey of the literature. Now, can I remember these characteristics? [Laughs] I’m not sure. One is that it is an interview. It’s not a memoir or a person just talking their story into a tape; it’s based on a dialogue. It’s for the record; the intention is to create a document that is [able to be] used in some way [and] that’s at least semi-permanent. And it is archived and so is on the record. It’s intrinsically subjective; you don’t get the one true version [of the past in oral history]. It’s oral, which is sort of self-evident but until new media, we’ve sort of all thought the transcript is really [the] oral history. It’s in-depth; it’s not just little snippets. There’s work involved to make it in-depth, which is somewhat obvious at this point, but we all [tend to] forget that. [And it’s historical in intent – it seeks a deeper understanding of what happened in the past as experienced by an individual. It’s not simply anecdotes about “my experience.”]
Allison Penner: I think we’re probably close to the time frame that we’re looking at.
Linda Shopes: Okay.
Allison Penner: So is there anything that you want to add; anything you think I should have asked you about?
Linda Shopes: Not really.
Allison Penner: Alright.
Linda Shopes: I mean, we could go on for two hours, but that’s not the point here. I’ll say the context of this interview, which is the Columbia University Oral History [Institute], does remind me first of all how vibrant a field it is; how diverse a field it is; how interdisciplinary a field it is. And I think also another change, to go back to your question about change: how deeply international it is. Again, I think new media are really propelling this awareness of our international relationships, not just in oral history but in everything. Partly because it makes dissemination so much easier; it makes us more aware of what people are doing around the world.
[Recorder turned off]