“So oral history is interviewing.” I get this a lot from people who are trying to understand what I do for a living. Yes, the interview is the primary way in which we gather our historical data, our stories. When people think of interviews in general, however, they might think of the police interrogation, the oral examination in schools, the journalist’s scoop, even an anthropologist’s study of a community, amongst other examples. Near the end of his life, philosopher Michel Foucault was hoping to do a large research project on the interview and the examination as sites of power relations. He could not have been more astute. In each of the examples above, control rests almost completely with the interviewer. The interviewers extract information from the narrator for their own purposes, often without consideration of the interests of the narrator, and sometimes directly against their interests. Sometimes narrators are allowed to see the resulting work; often they are not consulted.
By contrast, oral history as a disciplinary academic practice and as a social movement begins and ends with the problem of power. It’s not that we can get rid of power; power is interwoven through our relationships. Oral history methods acknowledge power relations as a problem to be managed, helping to ensure that the narrators tell the stories they want to tell. We begin with a process of informed consent, so that narrators know what to expect from beginning to end, and that they have the power to withdraw from the work at any moment, even after the project is finished. We then engage in a period of planning and research. Although a spontaneous, cold interview might seem more authentic, what happens in those cases is that the narrator is often at sea in their memories, their real-time decision-making about how to present themselves, and their anxiety about which stories to tell, in how much detail, and with what words. And then we are right back to the problem of the interviewer controlling the scene. By collaboratively planning in advance, the narrator and interviewer build a bond of trust and a plan around the nature of the storytelling.
And when the interview happens, we can both relax, and that’s where it becomes spontaneous. I call it “planned spontaneity,” with a heavy debt to Miles Davis’ approach to “controlled freedom” in jazz performance. Telling a story is like singing; it is singing. It can be an emotional performance of your deepest truths. I’d be tempted to say that the interviewer is the impresario in this metaphor, arranging things so that the narrator’s story shines. But my ideal role would be to serve as both the room and the audience, to let the narrator hear their own voice reflected from the back of the hall, and to see and sense the audience’s engagement with the performance. Ask any singer, and that’s what they need for a good performance; they need feedback from the audience and to hear their own voices.
That’s why, during the interview, I “read back” what I’m hearing periodically to give real-time feedback. But we also transcribe the interview so that the narrator can review what they have said and decide if that is the final form of the story, making changes as needed. Then we ask them to sign off on the finished product, with some guarantee of access to the narrator and their communities. All of these practices together form a set of protections that maximize the narrator’s power in forming, telling, and preserving stories for the future.
The problem of power might be mitigated by this set of practices, but power is always unfinished business. There is the history of the interview itself, whose reputation for extraction, exploitation, and manipulation is not lost on many communities. There is the university, a site of state, political, and economic power, and the authority to include or exclude that hangs over the interview. Anthropologist Michel Rolph-Trouillot wrote about the ways in which the decision about what gets included in archives is the first and perhaps most important violence done to history. Narrators and interviewers come to the interview within multiple, overlapping sets of power relations, exclusions, and hierarchies that threaten to distort and even block trustful communication.
For the interviewer’s part, there are two basic orientations that help with – but do not solve – these problems. The first is empathy. I have interviewed a lot of powerful people, people who might seem from a distance invulnerable, privileged, at ease. I hate to sound obvious, but everyone has experienced exclusion, denigration, and trauma of some kind in their lives, often of many kinds. Sometimes exclusion is a source of pride; but it is most often a source of pain. I have a lot of power and privilege, but I can tap into experiences of the exercise of arbitrary authority, exclusions, bullying, violence and trauma in order to attempt to connect to those who have experienced far greater violence, who have lived lifetimes inside social structures of exclusion and trauma. But if we amplify voices of the excluded, we have to understand that connecting and collecting can too easily end up as claiming and taking.
Empathy is only one part of it. That assumption of some kind of access to another’s experience is another problem of power and privilege. Interviewers also have to begin with the assumption that vast oceans of human experience elude them. Research can help, but a fundamental orientation of humility and respect is required to establish a bond of trust with a narrator. Is there some core of human experience that we all share? Of course. But history shunts us all into patterns of human experience that are both radically different and arranged in a long list of intersectional hierarchies of arbitrary value – race, class, gender identity and orientation, citizenship, disability, body politics, and surely more structures which we as a society have yet to recognize, never mind address. All of that comes into play in the interview encounter, and it may determine whether the interview happens at all. A humility before this pageant of exclusion is the necessary companion to empathy.
What I’m presenting here isn’t new. The oral history community has been wrestling with these questions for a long time, especially with its frequently expressed commitment to using oral history to explore those hierarchies of value, to shine a light on and validate the experiences of the excluded and the othered. Although I’m an oral historian, I’m also a historian of science. One of the things I’m interested in is how disciplines define themselves. One of the patterns about knowers in a discipline is that they are sometimes poor interpreters of their own origins and practices. Researchers often have the hardest time seeing the very spot from which they observe. It may be precisely because of their commitment to reflexivity that oral historians may not be able to see, or perhaps hear, these challenges. We check our audio equipment, but sometimes we don’t check how we are listening, or whether we’re able to hear something at all. Our most important listening equipment is between our ears, or maybe inside our chests, and limited by our lived experience and frames of reference. What we need to continually re-examine and affirm is our commitment to empathy, humility, and trust in our work.
by Shanna Farrell
My memories of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 are vivid. I was sitting in my second period senior English class when my teacher, who was known for his sarcasm, delivered the news.
“Hi, everyone,” he said. “I just heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center.” The class began to laugh awkwardly.
“No,” he said. “I’m serious. I don’t have any more information than that.”
A hush fell over us, but we proceeded with class as normal. I’m sure I was distracted but we were discussing books and I love discussing books. Besides, it wasn’t yet real.
When the bell rang, I walked down the hall to my current events class, where our teacher routinely had a TV playing in the back of the room so he could watch the news while he taught. That’s where I first saw the images of the plane crash. Of the burning buildings. Of people falling through the sky. Of endless smoke. Of the clear blue sky. That’s when I realized I needed to call my mother, immediately. The tragedy was now real to me.
Despite the fact that my family’s residence at the time was in upstate New York, in a small mill town built on the banks of the Hudson River that hugged the Vermont border, my mother worked in New York City. She was in educational sales and her territory covered all five boroughs. She often had appointments at Stuyvesant High School, a building that is just blocks away from the World Trade Center. I knew this because even though my birth certificate indicates something different, I was partially raised in the city. My mom would often point out Stuyvesant High School when we would drive down the West Side Highway or walk around TriBeca or buy tickets for Broadway shows in the atrium of the World Trade Center. That morning, she was on her way there.
As soon as I reached the main office of my school, I pleaded with the administrative staff to let me use the phone to call my mother.
“My mom is there. My mom is there,” I repeated. I remember the horror wash over their faces, how one of them picked up the phone and instantly dialed “9” to get me an outside line. Since my mother spent so much time in her car, she had a hard-wired cell phone, cord and all. I punched in her number, but all I got was a busy signal. I did this over and over with the same results. I called my dad and the first thing he said to me was, “I can’t reach her either.” He promised to call me as soon as he heard from my mother. I hung up the phone and turned to see a few others in line behind me waiting their turn to call family or friends who also lived in the city. I didn’t know what else to do but return to class and watch the news on loop.
I’d felt fear watching major events unfold in the past, like six years earlier when a terrorist blew up a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. That had scared me. But this fear, the type I felt while waiting to find out if my mother was alive or dead, was something entirely different. It was panicked and unrelenting. Time seemed to stand still. I could have moved from room to room or stayed in the same seat. (I do, however, remember relocating to the cafeteria at some point where TVs had been wheeled in so we could watch the media coverage.) And then I heard my name over the PA system. I had a phone call and needed to report to the office.
“She’s okay,” my dad said. “She called me from a payphone. She was in Brooklyn.”
In the days that followed I would learn that my mother was headed to Manhattan from Brooklyn that morning, but got stuck on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway while she was en route. Traffic moved slowly, if at all, and she ended up snaking her way to the part of the expressway that is just under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a place known for its iconic view of the lower Manhattan skyline. From there, she watched with hundreds of others as the towers burned and debris floated across the harbor as the wind blew southeast. She was eventually able to make it to Queens, where she pulled over and found a payphone. I would later watch her struggle with what she had seen that day, hear her plead with me not to get on a plane in the coming weeks for a college visit, listen to her talk to colleagues and discover she knew people on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
The trauma of the event was lasting for her, for me, and for us as a family. We visited Ground Zero many times and I have memories of the smoldering ashes fading into piles of debris and later becoming a gaping hole in the ground. I remember the photos of the missing people stapled to the fence surrounding the site. I remember the tone of the city and the feeling of community. I remember being so happy that my mother was alive, and so sad that others hadn’t been as lucky. I remember how filled with grief each anniversary of the attacks were each year.
In September 2011, I was starting a master’s program in oral history at Columbia University. The Columbia Center for Oral History Research had started a massive interviewing project ten years earlier, the same day the towers fell. Interviewers–staff, student, and volunteers alike– recorded hundreds of life histories with a wide range of people who were affected by the attacks. They interviewed anyone who wanted to participate and returned to many months later to interview them again. I still consider this to be an innovative model for an oral history project, especially in a field that is constantly asking itself “how soon is too soon?” (For more on this, check out Amanda Tewes’s piece on interviewing around collective trauma.)
This project served as much of the foundation of the Columbia program and the interviews became the basis for a book, After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 11, 2001 and the Years that Followed, which was published as I began the Master’s program. As graduate students, we read through transcripts, listened to interviews, engaged with theory related to memory and trauma-informed narratives, learned methodology for approaching sensitive interviews, and expanded our studies into other topics, like genocide and mass-incarceration. We even watched a professor interview a paramedic who had been at Ground Zero that day, live in class, offering us the opportunity to practice our question-asking skills.
It was intense. But it made me into an interviewer who isn’t afraid to shy away from difficult topics. My training also gave me space to process my own grief around the 9/11 attacks. I found myself asking my parents more about that day and how they felt in the years that followed. It gave me a concrete example around which to center my work as an oral historian and how I should approach trauma in my own interviews. How would I want to be asked about these things? How would I feel if I cried in an interview? How would my tone, pace, and velocity of speech change when a difficult subject came up? What were my boundaries and how would I express them to an interviewer? Which of my memories were solid and which were porous?
In the conversations that I had with my parents after the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, I realized that many of my memories, no matter how vividly I remember that day, were not quite accurate. My mother explained that she hasn’t actually been heading to Stuyvesant High School. Instead, she was trying to get to a school on W 33rd Street through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which enters Manhattan just south of the World Trade Center. This had been part of my narrative for years. My memory wasn’t perfect.
Now, twenty years later, I’m still using these experiences as the basis for how I approach trauma-centered narratives, and, for that matter, any interview where a sensitive subject comes up. It’s remarkable how much I use the same techniques that I learned in grad school, honing them over the past ten years. My pace, my tone, my body language, my ability to pause and give someone space, my interest in putting my feelings aside to privilege a narrator’s story all matters. As oral historians, we often take the life history approach, which can dredge up painful memories from the past, no matter how much we prepare in the pre-interview and planning process. I have to be ready to handle a narrator’s emotions about a troubled relationship with a parent, a divorce that proved formative to a career, a bad review in a newspaper, and yes, a terror attack.
It’s also made me mindful of people’s memories, especially around trauma. Though the historical facts of how I remember 9/11 remain static for me, the details of my mother’s experience were fuzzy. But it’s relevant to how we memorialize events, how we talk about them with our own communities, and what gets documented in the historical record. It’s also made me consider what gets left out of the left out of the story, perhaps because it happened too long ago, was repressed, or doesn’t feel as significant. For example, in talking to my mother about this very article that you’re reading, she told me that I was interviewed by the local newspaper shortly after September 11, 2001 about my experiences that day. I had my picture taken. I said that 9/11 had “changed my life.” Yet, I have no memory of being interviewed until or having my picture taken. And I have no idea why. I only vaguely remember hearing my parents talk about the article. In many of the oral history interviews that I’ve conducted over the last ten years, narrators often say to me, “I can’t remember the last time I thought about this.” That’s exactly how I felt when my mom told me about that newspaper article.
9/11 shaped me in countless ways. That cloudless Tuesday and its aftermath continue to be present in my life, following me from high school to graduate school to my work at the OHC. It’s informed the way I think about life pre-9/11 and over the past twenty years. I’m not sure my memories will ever be less vivid or more pliable, but the impact, personally and professionally, will persist.
Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice Symposium
Call for Proposals, EXTENDED DEADLINE of November 1, 2021.
Convened by the Ad Hoc Group for Transformative Oral History Practice in collaboration with the Oral History Association and the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley
It has been just over one year since a White police officer murdered George Floyd, sparking the largest call for racial justice in this country in a generation. Support for Black Lives Matter reached an all-time high in June 2020, with nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults holding a favorable opinion of the movement, and support spilling over to all corners of the globe. White Americans also helped take down Confederate monuments and bought books on antiracism in record numbers while corporations pledged millions of dollars to social justice organizations and causes. One year later, however, commemorations of Floyd’s life and legacy asked: “What’s changed since?”
We acknowledge that “Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice” is taking place amid revitalized demands for understanding – and changing – the systemic racism that enabled a White police officer to murder a Black citizen in daylight without seeming fear of repercussions. But it is also taking place at a time of fierce backlash to any understanding of the oppressive forces that enabled Floyd’s murder. At the time of this writing, some state legislatures have passed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory, even as a majority of states seek to suppress the Black vote and overturn our elections. Recent events such as these are causing many to evaluate the role of structural racism and White supremacy in the arts and humanities, including the practice of oral history.
Building on an enthusiastically received panel that asked “Is Oral History White?” at the 2020 Oral History Association annual meeting, participants in that session (calling ourselves the Ad Hoc Group for Transformative Oral History Practice), in collaboration with the Oral History Association and the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, are convening a symposium that will define, identify, analyze, assess, and imagine alternatives to conventional practices, prevailing ideologies, and institutional structures of oral history in the United States and Canada, as they pertain to historic and current forms of systemic racial discrimination. In essence, the symposium is moving beyond the question the 2020 panel asked – “Is Oral History White?” – to interrogate broader structures and dynamics of race and racialized thinking in oral history.
We are inviting proposals from oral historians and others involved in fieldwork-related interviewing practices, as well as critical race and Whiteness theorists, to submit proposals for symposium papers that pose major questions and offer precise assessments of racial constructs as a factor in all phases of oral history work: project design, research processes, financial and budgetary matters, fieldwork and community relations, interviewing, archival practices, and public presentation and interpretation of narrative materials.
The “Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice” symposium will take place via Zoom Webinar over a three-day period in June 2022. We expect to convene approximately thirty-five presenters, spread over six to eight sessions of two hours each. With the assistance of a moderator and/or one or more discussants, session presenters will summarize and discuss pre-circulated papers posted on a conference website, which will have also been made available to registered attendees in advance of the symposium. Symposium sessions will allow time for audience questions and comments, vetted and synthesized via the Zoom Webinar “Q&A” function by the session moderator. This format will allow for especially robust and probing discussion during sessions.
This symposium should present a significant opportunity for audience members to reflect personally upon the charged subject of race in oral history in a pedagogically constructive way. Discussions of racialized experience and representations in our field will raise not only important insights but also strong emotions. We expect our audience to have a vast range of racial identities and relationships – including but not limited to Whiteness and Blackness – and varying degrees of experience reflecting upon that. We therefore plan to set shared expectations for constructive conversation rooted in mindful awareness, good faith engagement, and emotional maturity at the very beginning of the symposium and to create opportunities for small-group discussion and individually tailored self-reflection over the duration of the symposium. We hope that the symposium’s virtual nature, with participants in the relative privacy and comfort of their own homes, will contribute to this aspect of the symposium experience. Above all, we plan to keep discussion focused on practical applications of whatever theoretical and conceptual insights into race in oral history our symposium may furnish.
Intended outcomes include publication of revised versions of selected conference papers in an edited volume and a white paper assessing OHA’s racialized history, practices, and programs, to be developed by symposium organizers. Organizers, in cooperation with OHA’s Equity Task Force and Diversity Committee, will also create and promulgate guidelines for racial equity in oral history.
Pending receipt of grant monies, we hope to provide honoraria for symposium presenters.
Each proposal should include a title, an abstract of no more than 500 words, and a short biographical statement of no more than 300 words. Include your name, institutional affiliation if relevant, mailing address, email address, and phone number. The abstract must outline the research that you either have conducted or intend to conduct in support of your proposed presentation, the sources that you have consulted or will consult, and the collections in which you have conducted or will conduct research. While we anticipate that most proposals will be for a single paper, we welcome proposals for full sessions, also – to include 3-5 papers, moderator and discussant/s. We also welcome inquiries from individuals interested in serving as a session moderator or discussant to include a brief statement of interest and a short summary of work in oral history. Proposals are due October 1, 2021. (See below for more information.)
Some questions and themes we expect symposium participants may address include:
(Please note that we are open to other related questions and explorations.)
Whiteness and White Supremacy
- How should Whiteness be defined, and how do the deep structures and conventions of our practice reflect Whiteness, structural racism, and White supremacy?
- How might an interrogation of unexamined Whiteness be brought to bear on work in oral history? This might be done by assessing a past project or the curation of an existing collection or by considering the planning and implementation of a project currently under development. (Note: While we welcome case studies that audit specific projects, we would also like to see papers go beyond that.)
- How has work that has drawn upon existing collections reproduced racialized assumptions?
- What are some examples of projects that handled or represented racial dynamics, including Whiteness, in a creative, antiracist, or otherwise generative way?
Non-Western perspectives and approaches
- What has oral history learned from Indigenous, African American and other perspectives and approaches that fall outside the dominant Western paradigm?
- What patterns do we see in our own work that can be traced to BIPOC origins and models? What do these BIPOC origins and models have to teach us about the pitfalls of Whiteness and White Supremacy?
- How might specific insights, both theoretical and methodological, generated by the field of Critical Race Studies, help guide practical approaches to oral history?
- How and in what circumstances has oral history operated against the grain of prevailing racial assumptions?
- What can oral historians learn about power dynamics and reflexivity from research in the field of trauma studies?
- How have the institutional and organizational structures underlying work in oral history been racialized? How has the way oral history has been funded and otherwise supported contributed to unintentional racial bias? How has the “history from below” approach perpetuated these biases? And how do White interviewers themselves perpetuate bias?
- Over its fifty-plus year history, how has the work of the Oral History Association been racialized or reflective of broader patterns of White supremacy? In what ways and to what effect has the association functioned as a gatekeeper for oral history and oral historians, including some practitioners, practices, and work, excluding others, through its various products and programs such as the Principles and Best Practices, annual meeting, and publication of the Oral History Review? How has the association addressed racial issues over time, to what effect?
- When and where is it appropriate for oral historians to think beyond our individual projects and consider the role of the institutions we work for in order to tackle structural racism?
Oral history and current events
- How are oral historians and the institutions and organizations with which we are affiliated responding to the current political moment? How might we respond more effectively?
- Oral history is by its nature a civic enterprise and a medium for public engagement. How can oral history mobilize anti-racist constituencies, create dialogue around difficult issues, and/or influence public opinion or policy?
- What are the limits of oral history in combating structural racism?
The deadline for proposal submissions is October 1, 2021.
Notification of acceptance: On or about November 15.
Submit proposals to:
In the subject line of your email, please write, “Last Name Symposium Proposal Submission” and send to: TRANSFORMATIVEORALHISTORY@GMAIL.COM. Proposals should be sent as an attachment in Word or PDF formats and not in the body of the email. Please include a cover page with your name, contact information, and brief bio.
Questions may be directed to:
Final papers should be submitted no later than April 15, 2022 in order to post them on the conference website for distribution to conference attendants by May 1, 2022.
Final papers should be between 5,000 and 7,000 words and include a bibliography.
Submit final papers to:
In the subject line of your email, please write, “Last Name Symposium Paper Submission” and send to: TRANSFORMATIVEORALHISTORY@GMAIL.COM. Proposals should be sent as an attachment in Word or PDF formats and not in the body of the email. Please include a cover page with your name, contact information, and brief bio.
*The Ad Hoc Group for Transformative Oral History is composed to date of the five panelists who contributed to the OHA’s 2020 conference session, “Is Oral History White?” – Benji de la Piedra, Jessica Douglas, Kelly E. Navies, Linda Shopes and Holly Werner-Thomas.
Good news for all of you book club fans out there! The Oral History Center is pleased to announce the pick for our Summer 2021 Book Club: Let’s Talk About Hard Things by Death, Sex & Money podcast host, Anna Sale. Anna is also a podcast and audio instructor with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s Advanced Media Institute.
And there’s more! Anna Sale will be joining us for our virtual book club discussion!
We’ll be welcoming Anna as our special guest on Tuesday, August 10, 2021 from 2-3pm PST via Zoom.
If you’d like to join, please send an RSVP to Shanna Farrell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once you’ve RSVP’d, Shanna will send you the Zoom information.
You can find Let’s Talk About Hard Things online, at your local bookstore, and at your local library. We look forward to seeing you in August!
Looking to the Future of Oral History Work
by Amanda Tewes, May 2021 Guest Contributor
At this point, it is almost a cliche to point out that COVID-19 has indelibly reshaped our lives and work. But for many oral history operations, last year was for coping with the upheaval; this year is for rebuilding the practice. For us at the Oral History Center and for oral history practitioners around the world, this has also meant a fundamental change in how we conduct interviews—namely, going remote.
Even as we see bright spots in COVID-19 case reductions, oral history practitioners are starting to game out what interviewing best practices may be in the future, especially in regards to recording technologies. Many, like myself, are calling to embrace this moment, when so many individuals of all generations have become more familiar with remote interview platforms like Zoom; the potential seems great to record even more interviews that could not be completed before. Still others are champing at the bit to return to in-person interviews and yearn to leave remote ones behind.
However, oral history as a practice has always been adaptable, especially when it comes to technology. Early, heavy equipment like reel-to-reel machines gave way to cassette recorders, and later to light-weight digital cameras and recorders. And of course, today oral historians have embraced phone calls and Zoom as a way to continue interviewing narrators while social distancing—not to mention simply reaching narrators who live far away. And like today, adoption of these various technologies in oral histories has always mirrored cultural moments and the needs of the interview.
And yet, some still lament that the current technological expansion of oral history into remote interviews due to COVID-19 has forced us to lose important elements of rapport with our narrators, as well as the opportunity to physically and emotionally connect to particular places that have resonance in the interviews themselves. (For instance, I interviewed several individuals about their experiences with certain theme parks in the parks themselves, and the location of these interviews undoubtedly had an impact on their content.)
Indeed, there are tradeoffs to this new remote approach: do narrators have access to a computer and reliable Internet? How will Zoom fatigue impact interviews? And how does the inability to hug for joy or comfort influence rapport between interviewers and narrators? But I’m not so sure that in this switch to remote interviews we have lost more than we have gained.
Since shelter-in-place began for us in the San Francisco Bay Area in March of 2020, my interview schedule has been busier than ever—sometimes with multiple interviews on the same day. Thanks to Zoom, I have been able to interview narrators living across the country, all from the comfort of their own homes. And frankly, like other interviewers, I have still been able to build rapport with narrators by centering discussions of our mutual pandemic experiences. I have found that exaggerating my facial expressions during interviews translates well over the computer screen, and communicates to narrators not only that I am listening, but that I am still responding to the content of their words, despite our distance. In my experience, remote interviewing has not eliminated the emphasis on the human interaction between interviewer and narrator.
Moving forward, oral history practitioners may find themselves retaining at least a partial reliance on remote interviewing possibilities such as Zoom in order to allow for flexible schedules not reliant on cross-country interviewer travel, to keep project costs low that otherwise might have required extensive travel or expensive equipment, to ensure safety of narrators and interviewers in a world in which the spread of COVID variants remain uncertain, to maintain accessibility for individuals with mobility challenges, and the list goes on.
And while I do mourn the (hopefully momentary) loss of in-person interviews, I continue to see possibilities in remote oral history work. No matter the changing health landscapes, I believe remote interviewing will remain an important component of oral historians’ toolkits moving forward.
The Importance of Rapport
by Shanna Farrell, March 2021 Guest Contributor
A smile. A nod. A set of shoulders relaxing. A story seldom told. A handwritten note expressing gratitude. These are all examples of rapport, the genuine human connection forged between an interviewer and a narrator.
Sometimes, when you’re lucky, it happens naturally. There’s an ease between you and your narrator, a kind of simpatico that makes you feel like you’ve known each other for a long time. But in most cases, rapport needs to be earned, built slowly over time in a myriad of ways. Perhaps you have a shared experience, like growing up around horses. Perhaps you share interests, like a favorite author or movie or hike. Perhaps you went to the same college. Perhaps you have nothing in common, but you listen to each other talk without interrupting. Perhaps you look at each other in the eye, and are always on time, and after a while, you become sympathetic to one another, despite your differences.
Whenever we talk about oral history interviewing, we talk about rapport. It can come in many shapes and sizes. We discuss how to cultivate it during our Introductory Workshop and Advanced Summer Institute, trying to impress upon those who are there to learn from us how it can impact an oral history. Though there are no magic tricks for creating it with someone―aside from treating them as you’d like to be treated―it’s one of the most important elements of an interview. It affects so many things: the stories told; language used to describe something; the openness a narrator feels; how comfortable an interviewer is asking tough questions; the willingness to shed performative layers; the ability to bear witness to a person’s experiences.
I’ve been in situations where I have good rapport with a narrator. It’s something I’ve felt innately, through all of those nonverbal cues. It showed up in the interview, too, evident in the honesty of an answer and inclination to dig a little deeper, reflect a bit further. You can hear it in the recording, read it in the transcript, see in the tears that are shed on camera. These are the moments that I love―the ones filled with a common humanity―and keep me engaged in the oral history process.
And then there are times that I don’t have rapport with a narrator. The times I’ve used a word―like “strategy”―that I think is innocuous, but is loaded for them. Times that I’ve expressed that I, too, lived in Brooklyn, but it’s not enough to bridge our gap. The times that no matter how much I smile or make eye contact or nod that I can’t get them to open up, to lower the walls they’ve built to protect themselves. But I never stop trying. These are the moments that make me want to keep going, keep working.
In the time before COVID-19, it was much easier to read these situations. When I was in the same room as the person whom I was interviewing, I could usually tell if something was or wasn’t working, our interactions not flattened by a screen. But now that we’re a year into the pandemic, cultivating rapport is more difficult. When we’re so physically distant from our narrators. We might meet them first over email or the phone, maybe even through a letter. Our first opportunity to smile at them may come right before the interview begins as we’re double checking the settings on our computers. Or we may never have that chance, particularly when the interview is done over the phone. Silences may be misinterpreted, nods go unnoticed, cues from our bodies unheeded.
To be clear, I think it’s important to keep interviewing during this time. We need to document our experiences and keep reflecting on our lives. It’s also necessary that the minutiae of the current moment be mirrored in the archives, as our relationship with technology and distance change, and that we carry on with this work using the tools we have to get through these difficult times in the best way we know how. To illustrate how oral history and interview dynamics has evolved and adapted, what’s been lost and gained.
I’ve learned to lean more heavily on my pre-interviews, the conversations that I have with narrators in advance of the oral history sessions. These are generally meant to go over logistics, inform someone of their rights, go over topics and themes to address in the interview, and schedule sessions. While all of these usual rules still apply, I have become more sensitive to how this initial contact with them can build rapport from afar. I try to laugh more if I find something funny because they might not be able to see me smile. I’m more forthcoming about myself and the things we have in common because they might not be able to see me nod. I give them space to talk, still careful not to interrupt or cut them off, because they might not understand why I’m silent for a few beats during the interview. Above all, I don’t rush these calls. I talk my time getting to know them, answering their questions, and looking for ways to connect. I mail paperwork or email interview outlines when I say I will, using the little things I can control to build trust.
Remote interviewing may never be the same as sitting down face to face with someone, but rapport remains equally important. It’s in the relationships we build with our narrators that allow us to best honor their lives, making sure their legacy lives on long after they do, in their own words. Human connection means more now than ever before.
Shanna Farrell will be teaching about rapport and interviewing during our Advanced Oral History Institute, August 9–13. As last year, this year’s interactive institute is remote and draws attendees from all over the world.
By Eleanor Naiman
In 2020 Eleanor Naiman was a Biden-Harris campaign field organizer for the Nebraska Second Congressional District, working remotely to gain an electoral vote for Democrats. She is a recent graduate of Swarthmore College and completed an internship for the Bay Area Women in Politics Project with the Oral History Center in summer 2019.
Each of the 4,150 phone calls I made as a field organizer with the Biden-Harris campaign had a clear and stated purpose: to establish a voter’s support of Democratic candidates and to convince them to volunteer at a virtual phone bank. A detailed script drafted by the Biden HQ provided the framework for each conversation. Designed to maximize efficiency and recruitment shifts, the script encouraged organizers to get to a “hard ask” as quickly as possible: “We have phone banks at 4:30pm Central every day this week,” I’d explain. “Can I put you down for Monday and Wednesday?”
The direct nature of our recruitment script initially threw me off. My summer as an intern for the Oral History Center’s Bay Area Women in Politics Project taught me to take a subtler approach to questioning. I learned to ask open-ended questions that allowed narrators to tell their stories with authenticity and autonomy. I knew to prioritize the needs of my narrator over my own research objectives, working collaboratively to construct a life story that felt true to both history and memory.
In those early days of campaign work, I longed for the opportunity to sit down with each voter, as I had at the OHC, equipped with pages of notes of background research and confident in the strength of the relationship we’d built over pre-interviews and email correspondence. I missed the warmth and familiarity of in-person conversation; due to the nature of field organizing in a pandemic, the entirety of my conversations with voters took place over the phone or on Zoom. My conversations with voters seemed unpredictable and somewhat chaotic. Parents answered as they shuttled their kids to school, retirees picked up with the afternoon news blaring on a nearby TV, wives declined on behalf of husbands on the farm and in the field. I never knew where a conversation with a voter would take me. Would they hang up abruptly, perhaps after a quick jab at my candidates or an angry request that I take them off the list? Or would they linger on the phone, desperate for some form of human connection after months of pandemic-imposed isolation?
The conversations that fell somewhere between those two poles posed the greatest challenge. Somehow, in the five minutes allotted for each conversation, I needed to transform a weary voter into an eager volunteer. I found myself increasingly relying on oral history methodology to quell my anxiety about cold calls and hard asks. After all, I reminded myself, despite their obvious differences in form and purpose, an oral history interview and a voter outreach call posed the same basic problem: how to build trust through dialogue. I found myself listening as diligently as I had at the Oral History Center, noting and adopting the tone and lilt of a voter’s voice, sometimes even subconsciously, in an attempt to build rapport before my voter’s interest waned and I lost a potential volunteer. This meant performing in a matter of seconds the careful assessment of intersubjectivity I’d studied as an OHC intern. How did the voter perceive me? How did I see them? I knew that each conversation would require a balance of give and take, leaving both of us changed by its end. To a grandmother, alone in an assisted living facility, I became a granddaughter, or perhaps a memory of the political organizing and idealism of her youth. To a young voter, I became a friend and peer, commiserating about classwork and college stress. I reminded myself to that even on this small scale, the quality of my listening mattered just as much as the efficiency of my hard ask. Returning over and over to the tools and practices of oral history, I built relationships with voters whose dedication to change and hope for the future fueled my long nights and countless hours on Zoom. Together, we formed a community that ultimately flipped Nebraska’s second congressional district.
I came to appreciate the constant thrill of this sort of speed-interview. By November, I had learned to love catching a voter in motion, getting a peek into homes far from my own, and hearing anecdotes of daily struggle, loss, and hope that consistently reinforced the importance of this work. As I sat at my desk in my pandemic office, cut off from the world yet never closer to it, I felt an immense gratitude for the thousands of people who had let me into their lives. It was the same sense of awe and of appreciation that made me fall in love with oral history in the first place.
by Shanna Farrell
Trauma comes in many forms. So does the way we process this trauma, and the way we express it. For me, as an oral historian, this translates to how I conduct interviews and how I prepare for them. For the next couple of months, I’ll be reflecting on this for the OHC’s Field Notes section of our blog. I began this discussion in September, talking about a project that I’m working on with the Presidio Trust, a former U.S. Army base-turned National Park on the northern edge of San Francisco near the Golden Gate Bridge. We’re interviewing people who were involved in, or related to, the Presidio 27 mutiny that occured on October 14, 1968. Events in honor of the 50th anniversary will take place the weekend of October 13th and 14th at the Presidio.
Special care needs to be given to interviews that focus on trauma, as do the pre-interviews. The same rules do not apply for trauma-centric pre-interviews and the process must be flexible. Even just the idea of sitting down for an interview to recount these memories can be anxiety producing. It’s important for the interviewer to keep this in mind and be willing to adapt, or even abandon, their normal practices.
I was confronted with this recently for an upcoming interview. The narrator, who has been interviewed before for a book, agreed to participate in our project. During our first pre-interview, which I conducted with Presidio Historian, Barbara Berglund Sokolov, he expressed uncertainty about his memory and his ability to recall certain events. He was upfront about an illness that he lives with and the impact it has had on his life. He was specific about areas that he did not want discuss, which we noted and will respect.
He viewed this pre-interview, which lasted for about two hours, as the first of several. He requested that we put the interview outline together and mail it to him. Once he reviewed it, we would meet again to talk about the content. This is not normally how I operate. I usually have one meeting with a narrator wherein I schedule the interview. But, I needed to be flexible here, especially if I wanted to build rapport, create trust, and help cultivate a setting where he feels comfortable sharing his story. So we agreed to his request for multiple meetings before the actual interview.
Barbara and I put together interview outlines shortly after the first pre-interview meeting and mailed it off to the narrator. A couple of months passed until we met again. This time around, he seemed much more relaxed and comfortable. Though it was clear he hadn’t read the outline, we took no offense. We understood that he needed to read it in the company of others to discuss these memories and become more comfortable with doing the interview. This meeting lasted for another couple of hours, at the end of which he expressed his desire for more time. We agreed, because we wanted to ensure that he felt agency in the process.
Before the oral history interview, the three of us will have met at least three times. There will be more time spent doing pre-interviews than the actual interview. And this is okay. It may not be what I’m used to, but it feels right to allow the narrator his space to share his story on his terms. This is another form of shared authority, one of the many reasons that I feel so compelled by oral history. Our flexibility in the process will not only strengthen the interview, but hopefully it will allow the narrator the most support.
This Tuesday—August 16, 2016—please join us along with Voice of Witness for an evening of oral history and human rights. OHC interviewer, Shanna Farrell, will moderate a lively discussion between Voice of Witness editors, Peter Orner (Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives) and Robin Levi (Inside this Place, Not of it: Narratives from Women’s Prisons) on the intersections of oral history methods, access, and social justice.
The event will begin at 6pm in the MLK Student Union’s Tilden Room (5th Floor). Light refreshments will be served and Voice of Witness books will be available for purchase.
This event is sponsored by OHC’s Advanced Oral History Summer Institute, which brings together students, faculty and scholars from across the United States for an intensive week of study and discussion. For more details, see the Oral History Center website.