Saturday, September 14, 2013


I'm presenting at the NEHTA fall conference on Teaching the Vietnam War:  New Approaches, Perspectives and Resources. It's a great opportunity to talk about one of my favorite areas of historical research -- oral history.

When I taught classes on the 1960s in the US, I tried to incorporate oral history into the classroom in three ways.  First, I had students try to locate oral histories that were already available.  Second, I had students help collect oral histories.  Third, I had students use these oral histories to write research papers on the 1960s.  The first two steps here are comparatively fun and easy.  More and more oral histories of the 1960s are becoming available either as transcripts, audio files, or as video.  And parents and grandparents are often happy to come in and be interviewed, especially when they are told that their experiences will become part of a database on everyday life in the 1960s.

The last part is the tricky part.  As Allesandro Portelli showed back in 1991 in The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories, oral histories are difficult to work with but ultimately rewarding.  What Trastulli looks for are leakages or wrong stories, that is, stories that are factually wrong.  Stories are usually wrong in one of two ways, they either are horizontal shifts (that is dates are changed on the timeline) or they are vertical shifts (the teller inserts herself into or out of the story).  He then uses these leakages, which typically fall into specific repeated patterns, to learn more about the significance and meaning of the events to the tellers at the time the stories were told.  In other words, oral histories are typically as much about the time when they were told as they are about the actual events portrayed.  This can be tricky for anyone to navigate, but is subtlety that many high school students struggle with.  They understand right and wrong.  Many don't understand wrong in interesting ways.  But once they master the art of "but why is this story wrong?  how did it get this way?"  They can do some pretty powerful analysis.

One example of this that will come up at the conference is the "soldiers were spit on returning from Vietnam." It never happened.  Or maybe it happened once or twice.  But the stories that are told about spitting have shocking similarities.  They are so similar that they indicate that a larger something is going on than any individual story might reveal.  These spitting stories have become part of our collective memory. They tell us a lot about the time period when they first began circulating widely, but little about the Vietnam war itself.

I'll mostly be concentrating on some of the technical aspects of oral history methodology and research:  how to collect oral histories, where to put them once you collect them, and so on.  But at they'll be a hefty undercurrent of "wrong stories are interesting" in the background.  Because that's how I roll.