||History Department Oral History Guide
“Take your time. Or no, let’s put it the
right way: let them take their time.”
Studs Terkel, quoted in The Oral History Reader, Second Edition
Oral histories can provide what we might think of as hard facts—names and dates, population numbers—but they also serve as invaluable records of less concrete information about narrator’s memories, experiences, personalities and values.
The interview techniques described below are recommended for eliciting this second sort of information, personal testimony that provides later listeners a more textured account of speakers’ lives as remembered in recorded conversation. By adopting a flexible and sensitive approach, interviewers can yield control of the interview, allowing passive interviewees to become active narrators, experts on the topics at hand and equal participants in the creation of a historical account.
This method, marked by long speaking turns by informants and fewer overall questions by researchers, leads to more interesting and, presumably, honest testimony, and often leaves narrators with a greater sense of satisfaction.
The best approach to conducting an interview depends on a multitude of factors, including project goals, participants’ relationships and identities, narrators’ personalities, physical context and other variables. Each narrator will have unique expectations and needs, and each interviewer will have particular techniques that must be adapted to every new situation. Generally though, the interviewer should show interest and engagement, and even a measure of deference toward the speaker and his or her testimony.
Strategies for Excellent Oral Histories
Listen carefully. Oral history is about listening, both to what people say and what they leave out. It is about listening to people in a way that they may never have experienced before. The way you listen will be more important than the questions you ask.
Avoid Interruptions. Rather than stopping a story for the sake of clarification, it is often better to wait until a pause in the narrative. Usually, an interviewer should jot down omissions or confusing points and save them for follow-up questions at an appropriate break in speech.
Loosen up on the reins. There are times when a researcher will want to re-focus an interview. An interviewee will introduce a new topic, make chronological leaps or respond to a prompt in a way that does not immediately make sense. In some instances, the connections that inspire these choices will make more sense during another viewing, sometimes not. It is important, though, to respect the interviewee—the person whose experience and testimony are the subjects of the recording—as an expert. Furthermore, dialogue that seems unimportant or uninteresting in the field may prove invaluable at a later date.
Stay Engaged. Conducting a good interview is surprisingly hard work because it requires the interviewer to stay alert and attentive, even when an interview seems to lack energy. Narrators can tell when interviewers lose their focus, and it discourages them from providing rich and honest testimony. Furthermore, remaining engaged is the only way to spot the details and omissions that lead to necessary clarifications and strong follow-up questions. A good interviewer has to have a natural interest in the words of others.
Demonstrate interest (quietly). Although it is a good idea to minimize audible responses to the interviewee for the sake of an uncluttered recording, visual cues—head nods, smiles, hand gestures—demonstrate the interviewer’s interest in the interviewee’s stories.
Leave the script at home. While researchers often go into an interview with a predetermined set of questions, moving through a laundry list of topics will not foster the sort of rapport that yields detailed answers and extended story-telling. Interviewees usually know what is important to them and what they feel comfortable talking about. They also know when someone is paying attention to what they are saying. Leaving interviews open-ended allows interviewees’ personalities and experiences to come through on the recordings, but it requires flexibility from the researcher.
Pay attention to themes. As a substitute for scripted questions, develop a list of themes or subjects to cover during an interview. Create the list in preparation for your interviews, but make sure to update it as new areas of conversation surface during the project. The list should be used to expand on an interviewee’s prior statements—using a story about a child as an opportunity to inquire about Sunday school at the local synagogue or Temple—or as a resource for guiding the interview to new subjects if the conversation loses momentum. A list of themes can be found here (make it a hyperlink). Remember, though, to treat themes more as a map to potential topics than as a checklist through which to hurry.
Avoid yes/no questions. One of the major rules for successful interviewing is to avoid the sorts of questions that invite yes/no answers. “Was your father popular in town?” is less likely to prompt a revealing answer than a request, perhaps phrased as “tell me about your father’s relationships with non-Jews in town.” “Tell me about…” is often a very good way to begin an inquiry. Keep in mind, however, that large topics can be overwhelming; a request for information about a family business will be more digestible if the interviewee is asked first about merchandise or services offered, then, if need be, about the clientele or customers that frequented the business.
Take notes. Notes are an invaluable tool for the researcher, before, during and after the interview. While some narrator’s may find note-taking distracting or even rude, many people will see it as an affirmation of their testimony. A good interviewer will recognize a narrator’s reaction and respond accordingly, minimizing notation if it seems to bother the speaker. As for the actual notes, a prepared list of background facts or talking points generated from pre-interview research will serve as a useful guide during the recorded conversation. These could be included in your general notebook or kept on separate pieces of paper. For interview notes, I recommend using a bound—not spiral—notebook, and write in pen. Keep your notes legible. Experienced researchers often use one page for a loose summary of topics, keeping track of approximate time and general commentary, and write notes about follow-up questions on the back of the preceding page. Notes are crucial for documenting information that will evade a recording device: conversations that happen before or after recording, off-camera visual details, and the thoughts and impressions of the interviewer in the moment. Good notes will help you locate the most important parts of the interviews and provide insight into the recording and its context for later users.
Follow up. Small details can be big clues, and tiny omissions can change the meaning of a story. As you listen, use notes to keep track of points that need to be expanded upon or simply clarified. Be patient, though; it is often better to wait for a pause than to break the momentum of a good story. In some cases, a subtle cue or lingering silence elicits further commentary as well as an overt question. One interview trick is to invite a more detailed explanation of a memory just by repeating an interviewee’s last statement.
Silence is okay. Many people are uncomfortable with silence, especially in the context of a recorded interview. There is no need, though, to rush to a new prompt when an interviewee completes a response or ends a story. If you have follow-up or clarifying questions, ask them. Otherwise, a long pause allows everyone to take a breath and leaves the floor open for the interviewee to expand on an earlier topic or bring up a new subject.
Review your recordings.As soon after the interview as possible, watch or listen to the recording. Assess the technical quality of the recording and the overall success of the interview.
A Word About Difficult Topics
Oral history is not just about personal accounts of public events. It is about an individual’s first-hand experiences and emotional responses. Often, a narrator may have feelings about past events that run counter to cultural expectations. In the case of Southern Jews, for example, there is a tendency to de-emphasize feelings of difference or exclusion. For a variety of reasons, Southern Jews may be hesitant to share negative memories of being left out of local organizations or of an insensitive comment from a peer at school. To varying degrees, topics surrounding Civil Rights, politics and religion may lead to similar conflicts between a narrator’s experiences and view points and his or her sense of what sorts of responses are expected and appropriate.
Any culture has rules, often unspoken, that limit when, where and among whom individuals may discuss a variety of issues. Jews in the American South are no exception to this, and many emotional displays or personal topics may lead to embarrassment on the part of the narrator and/or interviewer. So, an interviewer should strive to demonstrate empathy with the speaker and to ask follow-up questions that invite, rather than discourage, the narrator to expound on his or her emotional reaction to events and situations. Switching topics or pursuing factual clarifications in the wake of a revealingly emotional statement or the hesitant disclosure of a sensitive detail might signal to the narrator that this sort of testimony is out-of-bounds. Instead, take a deep breath, leaving room for your narrator to continue without prompting. You might choose to repeat the last statement as a cue for him or her to continue, or ask for clarification about specific words that the narrator used to describe an experience or emotion.
Above all, learning to navigate sensitive subjects takes experience. Many scholars of oral history, however, have written about these sorts of problems, especially in regard to issues of gender. Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack's "Learning to Listen," found in the Oral History Reader, provides a number of useful insights. Another helpful source is the Jewish Women's Archive how-to manual, In Our Own Voices, which is available for free download in .pdf format. In Our Own Voices includes a wealth of material on women's and Jewish topics, as well as sample forms and other information that will be of use to any oral history project.
While it is not the job of an oral historian to press narrators into uncomfortable topics, an effective listening and asking strategy will leave room for narrators to share feelings and experiences of which they are hardly aware. Developing this sort of rapport takes time, practice and luck, but open-ended, nonjudgmental questions and a patient attitude will lead to more open responses from narrators. The resulting interviews will provide more textured and in-depth accounts of the past and present, richer sources for future investigations into the lives of ordinary people.
Topics and Themes
This list of subjects is not designed for use as a checklist. Instead, consider the topics below as potential jumping off points for use in the recorded conversations that will become new oral histories. This list is by no means exhaustive.
Try using prompts to raise new topics or sub-topics. To inquire about employees at a family business, you might begin, “tell me about the people who worked at your uncle’s store.” This request immediately gives the floor to the narrator. If you do ask a question, keep it open-ended. “What do you remember most about the customers who visited?” invites more vivid commentary than merely asking “Who shopped at the store?”
Affiliation and Involvement of Members
Relationships Between Congregations
Education in the Home
Priority of Education
Impact of Nearby Colleges or Universities
Jewish Fraternities or Sororities
Feelings of Difference
Exclusion of Jews
Inclusion of Jews
Relationships with African Americans
Regional Jewish Networks
Politics and Identity
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