Have you ever asked a friend about “what happened!” on his/her latest date? Or listened to an interview with your favourite actor about their upcoming movie? Or asked your mother how on earth she baked her Yorkshire puddings so golden, puffy and gorgeous, while yours simply collapse in on themselves?
Believe it or not – so long as these events occurred in the past – then you’ve just conducted the impressive method of “oral history,” albeit very informally.
Oral history includes both the process of collecting testimony from living, breathing human beings, as well as the product itself, the narrative of past events.
And although oral history, as both method and output, is the latest trend among historians, it can’t actually be confined to the study of history alone. Key witness testimonies in high-profile murder cases rely enormously on oral history. Medical practitioners exploring the effects of new drugs, treatments and therapies rely enormously on oral history. Social workers and psychologists helping survivors of traumatic events often rely on the memories produced through oral history. As oral historian Lynn Abrams argues, “oral history has become a crossover methodology, an octopus with tentacles reaching into a wide range of disciplinary, practise-led and community enterprises” (Oral History Theory, 2010, p.2).
Although oral history is a vastly rewarding and highly deployable tool for nearly any discipline or purpose, it also comes at a cost. Professional scholars must often submit enormous ethics approval applications to their institutions or governments before even approaching a potential human subject for interview. Many aspects of interviewing can be volatile, emotional, and even dangerous (for example, Dr. Erin Jessee’s fieldwork included gathering testimonies from Rwandans convicted of genocide while they were detained in Rwandan prisons!) And what happens to the interviewee if researchers ask unsettling questions – is there post-interview psychological support for the subjects (or even the interviewer) for example? These calculations of risk are absolutely essential to the ethical responsibility of any oral history project. And, of course, the goal is to cause minimal harm, which is often the general outcome (And for Dr. Jessee’s helpful tips about about managing risk, her advice here).
Despite some risks, oral history remains an invaluable tool. Findings can influence new policies and initiatives, while researchers can harness its power as a versatile method to record history in action, bolster an organisation or government’s ethos and contribute to an initiative’s influence. In this sense, oral history can be one of the most dynamic instruments in a researcher’s arsenal, and profoundly utilised by multiple interdisciplinary stakeholders.
Dr. Jane Judge, a postdoctoral researcher in early modern history at the KU Leuven in Belgium, recently experienced the exhilarating power of oral history. Although the majority of Jane’s historical research has permitted her into fabulous dusty old libraries and national archives housing original sources with elaborate 18th Century handwriting, Jane has not been required to conduct interviews with real, living humans – until now!
Jane currently volunteers at the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, which is an independent body that, along with the US Embassies to Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as the Belgian and Luxembourg governments, administers the US State Department’s Fulbright Scholarship Programs for Belgians and Luxembourgers going to the US, as well as Americans coming to these two countries. Since 1948, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels has connected and supported over 4,000 students, researchers, and teachers, while promoting international educational exchange and mutual understanding.
Recently, Jane has been tasked with gathering stories from alumni of the Fulbright Commission in order to record and promote the program’s overall mission for the 70th anniversary celebrations that will take place next year. The idea is to highlight that it is the people that make Fulbright what it is as they engage in immersive experiences abroad and make human connections. This means that she has met over 15 very interesting people–and plans to meet at least 15 or 20 more–who, at some point in their lives, benefited from a Fulbright grant and the program’s international networks, financial support and scholarly community.
In Jane’s quest to gather data from real human beings, various unanticipated surprises allowed her to discover a few crucial things about oral history, interviewing techniques and the value of human input. After musings over some of her most interesting findings, we both thought it would be highly appropriate to share some of these gems in a guest blog! Here are Jane’s discerning observations about this often-tricky but fruitful research method:
Before you began interviewing, what perceptions did you have about oral history in general?
Jane: My perception of oral history generally was that it was messy, fraught with ethics issues and required intensive training to do well. As far as the Fulbright project itself, I didn’t have much choice in doing interviews. Because of the many stakeholders in this Fulbright Commission (there are commissions around the world implementing the Fulbright program in their locations), the office here already knew they wanted to focus on alumni and not the nuts and bolts history of the program. So, I didn’t really chose oral history, it chose me. That being said, the archives here are very rich, containing midterm and final reports from every grantee, as well as commentary from the offices here on American grantees that came to Belgium and Luxembourg until the 1980s. The project could have been done by just going through these and piecing together stories, pulling out interesting anecdotes. Given my background, that was much more in my wheelhouse and so I was a little apprehensive about doing interviews, especially with my rather negative preconceived notions about oral history. But I decided to see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge–an opportunity to learn and enact a new methodology, to travel throughout Belgium, and to meet lots of new people in new fields!”
Can you comment about the interview process – who, where, when, how?
Jane: Sure. The who should be fairly obvious at this point—Fulbright alumni! (Haha.) The first thing I did was go through the archive of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 alumni that past interns have digitized and picked out people who had dynamic profiles, represented diverse backgrounds, fields of study, and programs (undergraduates, graduates, research scholars, teachers, visiting professors, and newer summer programs). To the list that I compiled, we also added some notable alumni and some who had volunteered or been quite active as alums in the past. These included people from walks of life as diverse as being Deputy Prime Minister for Belgium or a Spanish Linguistics teacher. We have been in touch with alumni from every decade of Fulbright’s 70 years so far, so that’s quite exciting.
As for the interviewing itself, I started with in-person interviews with people here in Belgium. Funnily enough, the first interview was actually an American alumna and her husband who happened to be here on holiday, but the others have all been Belgians that had Fulbrights to the States at one time or another. I go to them, meeting them either at their homes, offices, or a quiet comfortable cafe they know, at a time that’s mutually convenient. I record the audio of our conversations with my phone, so that part’s pretty straightforward, easy, and compact! We set the interviews up by first having either the Executive Director or the Program Director for Students get in touch via email, explaining the anniversary and the project, and then I follow up with an email about logistics. If they are up for being interviewed, I take it from there as far as setting up a time and place. For the Americans and Luxembourgers (and one very busy Belgian), I will and have done the interviews by phone or internet call. The interviews themselves are pretty organic. We want to cover their personal experience, how Fulbright has impacted their lives, and what they think the program can continue to offer. So I start by just asking them to introduce themselves and explain their relationship to the program (how are they “a Fulbrighter”?) and then I really let them go, guiding them if there’s dips or when we need to get back on track.
Were there any challenges in the interview itself that you had not predicted? If yes, how did you overcome them?
Jane: I wouldn’t say there were challenges in the interview, as such. Everyone’s pretty enthusiastic and already very willing to talk about their experiences. The only things I could think of would be technical. One of the interviews took place over lunch, for example, so I worried that it wouldn’t record clearly in the cafe–this didn’t end up being a problem though, and the recording is crystal clear. I have had some trouble with the recordings of Skype interviews, but that’s, again, technical. With those interviews it’s also harder to have an official start and end of the recorded interview, since people feel like they’re chatting with me and so sometimes they start asking me questions about my experiences!
In your opinion, what was the best thing about interviewing your subjects?
Jane: Oh, by far hearing first-hand stories. I love the narrative that comes out of it. In much of my past work, I’ve had to piece together the story from snippets I’ve found in the archives. Here, I get to ask a question and then sit back and listen to a whole answer.
What would your top tips be to anyone about to conduct an interview?
Jane: Definitely get in touch with a modern historian (if you’re not one yourself), preferably someone who is already a trained oral historian. Check out the wonderful (credible!) resources available online, especially the Oral History Association and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill. You were my first port of call, Chelsea, as a trained historian who was a member of the OHA, and you came through with aplomb. Definitely the best decision I made before embarking on this research adventure.
Would you ever volunteer to do it again?
Jane: Absolutely. I’ve had a complete blast doing these interviews. Even the transcriptions, though sometimes tedious and always time consuming, are fun. Since these people have fascinating stories to tell about travel, research, and all kinds of different experiences, it’s a pleasure to interview them and even to then relive that through transcription.
Finally, as a historian, what do you think that oral history achieves that archival research cannot?
Jane: Follow up questions! This is by far my favorite part of oral history to this point. When you’re working in an archive, you can pose pointed questions, go searching through piles of papers people might never have wanted to see the light of day, and uncover secrets unabashedly. However, you cannot ask a single follow-up question or check with your subjects/sources that you are interpreting them correctly. In my own research into 18th-century revolutionaries, this means that there’s never any certainty that the way I interpret how some reacted to a given decree, for example, is the way they actually felt about it. With oral history, I can follow up when someone says or writes something that’s not entirely clear. I can ask them to connect dots and even answer an explicit question, rather than trying to figure out what they were implying later when I’m trying to write my analysis.
Jane touches on a great many qualities of oral history research that traditional archival research does not possess: listening to the “whole answer” rather than piecing together small fragments of history from a dusty archive, or understanding some of the emotional reactions behind certain people’s experiences, or verifying your own analyses of history by asking follow up questions, or even anticipating and minimising risks when interviewing in a café – these diverse observations demonstrate what we can gain from oral history and the multiple opportunities oral history presents to those wanting to learn from people who experienced the past.
How about a round of applause for Dr. Jane Judge’s perceptive analysis of her oral history experience? Many thanks, Jane!
(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the authors, and does not reflect any official opinion of Fulbright, EdUSA, or the US State Department or other groups or individuals).