In early August 2020, OHC staff gathered once more for a weeklong event: our annual Advanced Summer Institute, where we teach the methodology, theory, and practice of oral history to other practitioners. In 2020, however, COVID-19 upended our best intentions for an in-person event, and the OHC made the bold decision to turn this weeklong seminar – from lectures to small group discussions to interview exercises – into an all-digital experience. Certainly this was a sharp left turn for our office and required retooling. Nonetheless, we had a record number of applicants and 50 participants from around the world, which proves that the demand for oral history education remains strong even during a global pandemic. Despite changes for this year’s Advanced Summer Institute, I am now better able to appreciate what remains constant about the practice of oral history.
One way in which this all-digital format changed the Advanced Summer Institute was in increasing its international draw. In previous years, we have welcomed a smattering of participants from around the world. Admittedly, however, the additional cost for traveling internationally to Berkeley is something that has kept these numbers relatively low. In 2020, our all-digital format not only eliminated the cost of this travel, it also created a space for participants from several continents and timezones to join us for stimulating discussions – even in the wee hours of the morning – and share a variety of perspectives about interviewing across different cultures. Especially during a time when we are socially distancing from even our closest friends and neighbors, it was a joy to see people from around the world gather together in this way.
What did not change in our 2020 Advanced Summer Institute was the OHC’s emphasis on teaching oral history best practice through both practical experience and shared knowledge. Indeed, we doubled down on connecting participants to one another through an expanded interview exercise, wherein paired individuals planned a pre-interview and then engaged in 30-minute oral histories. They then switched roles so both could experience conducting an oral history and participating in one. From initial feedback, participants found this a valuable activity because it taught them how to ask better questions and to empathize with narrators. We also made sure to continue our small group discussions in the digital format so that participants could present their individual projects and ask for feedback in a smaller setting. This, too, proved important to sustain.
Despite these many successes, it is still important to acknowledge what we lost in this new digital format for the 2020 Advanced Summer Institute: the conversations in between sessions or during lunch that lead to meaningful connections, hands-on help with recording equipment, a distraction-free week of learning, and a sense of place near our offices at UC Berkeley. And yet, participating in this seminar – and indeed working as oral historians in the era of COVID-19 – seems to have encouraged all of us to examine the role of storytelling and documentation in this challenging moment. The resounding chorus I heard at the Advanced Summer Institute was that now more than ever we need oral history to help humanize the past and record the present. Personally, this experience reinforced my desire to connect with people – even over long distances – especially the narrators I interview in my own oral history practice.