From the Oral History Center Director – OHC and Education

For an office that does not offer catalog-listed courses, the Oral History Center is still deeply invested in — and engaged with — the teaching mission of the university.

For over 15 years, our signature educational program has been our annual Advanced Oral History Summer Institute. Started by OHC interviewer emeritus Lisa Rubens in 2002 and now headed up by staff historian Shanna Farrell, this week-long seminar attracts about 40 scholars every year. Past attendees have come from most states in the union and internationally too — from Ireland and South Korea, Argentina and Japan, Australia and Finland. The Summer Institute, applications for which are now being accepted, follows the life cycle of the interview, with individual days devoted to topics such as “Project Planning” and “Analysis and Interpretation.”

In 2015 we launched the Introduction to Oral History Workshop, which was created with the novice oral historian in mind, or individuals who simply wanted to learn a bit more about the methodology but didn’t necessarily have a big project to undertake. Since then, a diverse group of undergraduate students, attorneys, authors, psychologists, genealogists, park rangers, and more have attended the annual workshop. This year’s workshop will be held on Saturday February 3rd and registration is now open.

In addition to these formal, regularly scheduled events, OHC historians and staff often speak to community organizations, local historical societies, student groups, and undergraduate and graduate research seminars. If you’d like to learn more about what we do at the Center and about oral history in general, please drop us a note! 

OHC student employees Hailie O'Bryan and Pilar Montenegro
OHC student employees Hailie O’Bryan and Pilar Montenegro in front of our “blue wall of transcripts”

In recent years we have had the opportunity to work closely with a small group of Berkeley undergrads: our student employees. Although the Center has employed students for many decades, only in the past few years have they come to play such an integral role in and make such important contributions to our core activities. Students assist with the production of transcripts, including entering narrator corrections and writing tables of contents; they work alongside David Dunham, our lead technologist, in creating metadata for interviews and editing oral history audio and video; and they partner with interviewers to conduct background research into our narrators and the topics we interview them about. With these contributions, students have helped the Center in very real, measurable ways, most importantly by enabling an increase in productivity: the past few years have been some of the most productive in terms of hours of interviews conducted in the Center’s history. We also like to think that by providing students with intellectually challenging, real-world assignments, we are contributing to their overall educational experience too.

As 2017 draws to a close, I join my Oral History Center colleagues Paul Burnett, David Dunham, Shanna Farrell, and Todd Holmes in thanking our amazing student employees: Aamna Haq, Carla Palassian, Hailie O’Bryan, Maggie Deng (who wrote her first contribution to our newsletter this issue), Nidah Khalid, Pilar Montenegro, Vincent Tran, and Marisa Uribe!

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center

From the Oral History Center Director: Martin Meeker, our New Director, Recalls His First Interview

Recently I was asked, “What was the first interview you conducted?” After a moment mentally scanning through college and grad school research projects, I realized that I undertook my first proper interview years earlier, when I was a junior at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California. Entirely out of step with my Catholic school education, I choose to write my junior year research paper on that recently departed rock ‘n roll alien David Bowie.

The teacher insisted that we conduct an interview “with a real expert” as part of the research process. Not being the most ambitious student, I was at a loss: who did I know that might qualify as an expert? A friend of a friend was a die-hard fan, but even then I knew that choice wouldn’t win me any rave reviews. I had been reading a recently published biography of Bowie and resolved to try to locate the author, Jerry Hopkins. I sent a note and then called his New York publisher a few times. Finally I got someone on the line and asked, “Can I have Jerry Hopkins’s contact info? I want to interview him.” The voice on the line hesitated and said something like, “Oh, Mr. Hopkins. He lives in Hawaii. But we cannot give out contact information for our authors. Please send us a note and we’ll forward it to him.”

In hindsight I suspect that deadlines were looming and I certainly knew mail was slow. Armed with that one vague piece of information, I called information in Hawaii and, sure enough, there was a Jerry Hopkins of Honolulu listed. I called and left a message, explaining my project (and hoping that this was the correct Mr. Hopkins). A few days later, Hopkins kindly returned my call. At the beginning of what I remember to be a long and substantial conversation, I admitted that I was incredibly nervous. Hopkins was kind, telling me that he “still gets anxious” when doing interviews. With those reassuring words, I immediately found my footing and I began my first interview.

Yes, I enjoyed the experience of discussing Bowie with a bona-fide expert, but never did I imagine that interviewing would become my career — my vocation. I arrived at the Oral History Center (then known as the Regional Oral History Office) as a postdoctoral fellow in July 2003 and then a year later began as a historian/interviewer. Since that time I’ve had the opportunity to work of many, varied projects — from Kaiser Permanente to federal fiscal policy — and interviewed well over 100 individuals (many for long, life-history interviews of a dozen hours or more). The experience of conducting these interviews has taught me much about scores of different topics. Perhaps what has become clearest to me through the years is simply how much I enjoy the interview process, hearing different stories, and doing my best to get people to think about their own lives and contributions in sometimes new and unique ways. So, now I get the opportunity to lead the place that has given me so much.

In the months ahead I will begin to lay out my agenda for the coming years (in this newsletter and on our blog), but for now I just want to thank those who have supported me — and the Oral History Center — up to this point and invite you to join me in looking ahead to the next chapter. My office is always open to people who want to engage with us, learn more about interviewing, or just talk history.

And in closing I want to offer my sincere and profound gratitude to Neil Henry, the outgoing director of the Oral History Center. Neil came aboard at a particularly challenging time for the office and provided sage leadership, always with good humor and a gentle touch. I learned a lot from him over the past few years and wish him the best in his well-earned retirement. Thanks, Neil!

Martin Meeker
Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center