Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Oral History in Real Life

I'd never been aware of or had a real interest in oral history before being assigned to this project, but within the first couple weeks I came to realize that the Oral History Project is one of the most important projects we could be doing at the Starr Center. History is empty without the individual human perspective, and the Oral History project is the best way I can think of to really capture that perspective in a medium that can be archived and shared. To me, oral history isn't just a job. Aside from the value of preserving these stories, the skills that I've learned in interviews have made me a better conversationalist in my daily life. If you're used to beginning and guiding conversations with strangers twice a week, it's easy to start chatting with somebody waiting in front of you in line!

My experiences collecting oral histories  have also influenced my work as a short story writer. A recent piece, about the vanishing islands of the Chesapeake Bay, was told from the point of view of an elderly woman being interviewed by an oral history team (fictional, but in some ways quite familiar to some oral historians I know...). Having done about 15 interviews by the time I wrote this story, I was able to make the characters act like real interviewers: one character waited for a natural pause in the conversation to move his grip on the microphone so the grating noise could later be edited out without losing any of the interviewee's speech, a lesson we had to learn the hard way!

I'll also be able to use my oral history background this summer when I travel to the American Southwest as part of Washington College's Southwest Seminar program. As part of an independent research project based off of this program, I'll be interviewing members of the Navajo nation about how their use of the Navajo language relates to their sense of cultural identity, especially in the context of creative expression like poetry or literature. Honestly, these interviews will probably be pretty challenging for me! Not only am I trying to squeeze them into the program's already jam-packed itinerary, but I'll be working by myself for the first time, without my co-workers there to jump in with questions I might have missed, or an interjection to break the silence and keep things moving. I'll also be interviewing mostly college students--people my age, who generally behave very differently from the demographic I'm used to interviewing! 

So all this is as much to say, oral history isn't dead or dry or boring; far from it! It's a way to preserve knowledge and bring people together--and you never know when it might be useful!


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