Conducting an Oral History Interview
A range of practitioners and theorizers have noted that the oral history interview is a dialogue. From Studs Terkel, the elder statesman of oral history, to Alessandro Portelli, the Italian historian who interrogates the very nature of the dialogue, oral historians acknowledge the impact of this dialogue. The interactive character of the process affects the content, chronology and style of stories told. In the interview itself, the interviewer draws from her outlined questions, background research, and knowledge of the historical period; and practices the art of listening. The interviewer must listen hard to the stories told, expected and unexpected, to the pauses and silences, and find ways to ask difficult questions and follow the narrators’ lead down surprising paths.
The interview with Marjorie Brockman is a case in point. Early on, before even getting to the intended focus, her involvement with the Farm Labor Project, the interviewers pursued Brockman’s reference to her “left-wing friends.” This led to a description of her experiences living in the South after college, and being involved in radical politics, labor organizing and civil rights in the late 1940s. Brockman reaches her stride in the process of remembering when she tells the story of sitting in the black-side of the Durham, North Carolina bus station with an African-American woman with whom she has traveled to a political conference in New York City. This story, told with detail and emotion, demonstrates the benefits of allowing an oral history interview to veer from its course. The interview question guide illustrates the thinking and research that went into preparing for the interview. (See question guides in the “Teaching” section.) The transcript, however, demonstrates the extent to which an interview deviates from the guide and underscores that the interview is truly a dialogue.
Reflecting on his interviews with intellectual Isaiah Berlin, Michael Ignatieff wrote, “He told me everything, but only when I learned to ask the right questions.” Implicit in Igantieff’s comment is the contingent quality of the interviewer-interviewee relationship. Who the interviewer is and the context in which the interview is conducted will affect the narrators’ remembrances, what she chooses to tell, and how she relays the story. As this project was integrated into an undergraduate course on “Oral History: Theory and Methodology” (see course syllabus in the “Teaching” section), the interviewers included both historians skilled in oral history methodology and students of history learning oral history interviewing for the first time. The interviewers trained and in-training encompassed diverse identities: women and men, working class and middle class, immigrants from the Caribbean, African-American and ethnic white, orthodox and secular Jews and Christians, gay and straight, young and middle aged, activists and politically unengaged along the political spectrum. None of the interviewers knew the interview subjects prior to the interviews and no one interviewer’s identity mirrored that of the interviewees. In other words, at first glance it appeared that there were no obvious “insiders” among the interviewers. And yet no one resided in a pure state of “outsiderness” either; we discovered that interviewers and interviewees shared various characteristics.
Common to the student interviewers and the interview subjects was the identity of being Brooklyn College students, albeit in different decades. This shared identity created a bridge across time, age, and ethnic and racial differences. Myron Kandel, involved with the Vanguard in the late 1940s, identified with his student interviewers and noted his ongoing commitment to Brooklyn College, “a school that has new waves of first generation people. I’m obviously prejudiced, being part of the first generation, but it seems to me people have made sort of disparaging remarks about the new types of students and the new waves that came from various places, some of them different colored skins or different backgrounds, and so on.”
Differences between interviewers and narrators, however, can sometimes function as a distraction and can result in the interview subjects shifting the focus of the central narrative. For example, one older Jewish narrator who was being interviewed by two black women students, responded to questions about his extracurricular activities as a student at Brooklyn College in the late 1940s with descriptions of his involvement in the 1960s civil rights movement and his reflections on race relations past and present. While not anticipating that the interview would go in this direction, the interviewers listened well and facilitated the unfolding of the unexpected. This example underscores what oral historians have described as the true value of oral history narratives: “It’s not the song, it’s the singing.”
The physical context of the interviews also shaped the narratives. Most of the interviews were conducted in the homes of the interview subjects. Often the interviewers invited their narrators to talk about photographs and other primary documents that were part of their personal collections. One pair of student interviewers faced the challenge of conducting an interview with a time-pressed judge in his noisy chambers. And several interviews were conducted in the classroom as demonstrations. In these cases, the interviews had a performative quality to them as the narrators were speaking to a group of students. In fact, more than one of the interview subjects were also teachers and there were moments in these interviews when the narrators eagerly impart information in a professorial style.