Monday, October 7, 2013

NEHTA: Part 1: Learn History by doing history.

Here's the quickie version of the NEHTA talk, with just the guts of it.

Stories are what we live in:  Oral History and the Vietnam War.

First:  Students learn history best by actually doing history.  Research, reading and writing are at the core of the discipline.  Using evidence to make arguments is the end product.

Second:  Oral histories are particular types of sources that require particular skill sets that need to be taught.

Third:  You can use oral histories that others have collected or collect your own.

The guts of the presentation:

That's me.  In all my internet glory.  Almost nobody uses any of that stuff.  But you can! 

With the above slide we are into the meat of the presentation.  Here, and throughout, I'm drawing on the insights from Allesandro Portelli's excellent The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History although they were confirmed by my own research.    The two stories aspect is one of the trickiest things about oral history.  Like memoirs, oral histories are always two stories at once  The are a record of the time period that the story is about but they are also a record of the time period when the story is taken.  Time, personal memory and collective memory intersect and we wind up with false stories or wrong memories.  It's these wrong memories that are interesting.

In order to analyze false stories, it's helpful to think about the teller of the story locating herself somewhere on the grid below.  On the y-axis is how close or distant the teller was the event in question.  Near the top of the axis the teller would know only of the event through sources such as movies or popular songs written well after the fact.  As we get closer to the bottom, contemporaneous accounts from newspapers and radio come into play, as well as gossip, family members' accounts until at the bottom we get eyewitness stories.

On the y axis, is the time of the event.  The event can be in the distant past or relatively close to the present.  False stories are generally interesting in two ways, although of course they can be wrong in other interesting ways as well.    Below we have the typical vertical shift. 

Here the narrator is moving herself closer to the event.  Let's take a look at this with a specific example: Woodstock.  A small vertical shift might be somebody who claims to have witnessed Jimmy Hendrix's Monday morning performance of the Star Spangled Banner when they actually slept through it or were getting breakfast or had already left.  Of the 400,000 or so people who were at Woodstock, only 30,000 to 40,000 stuck around to see Hendrix perform.  There are more people who claim to have been at Woodstock but probably were not there.  Because the performance was filmed and iconic it's pretty easy to understand how someone could believe they saw the Hendrix performance, even if they hadn't.  The film becomes the memory.  (That's true even if you were there:  people memories of weddings now are as shaped by the videographer as they are by their own memories of the event).    

The Vietnam War era is interesting because we see the opposite shift as well.  People move further away from the actual event.  This came up especially in soldier's narratives.  Lots of soldiers oral histories indicate they knew about atrocities.  Almost no soldiers (and no oral histories that I'm aware of) admit to directly participating in atrocities.  In this case, the narrator moves up the y-axis, distancing themselves from events they directly witnessed or participated in.  Again, that's perfectly understandable.  It might even be psychologically necessary. 

The graph below indicates another type of shift:

In this Vietnam case, it's generally the opposite movement of the one described here.  People often push their opposition to the war back to it's earliest days.  Public opinion shifted over the course of the war but it's not at all uncommon for people who didn't oppose the war until 1971 to claim their opposition started much earlier.  Similarly, many people misidentify when they got a hold of Bob Dylan's second and third albums putting the dates much earlier.  Most people bought the second and third albums only after buying the fourth, and especially the fifth "Highway 61 Revisited" wherein Dylan had his first hit single that outsold his covers ("Like a Rolling Stone").  Prior to that, most people knew Dylan's songs from hearing other performers like Peter, Paul and Mary and the Byrds cover his songs on the radio.   If you collect oral histories, and have the chance to talk about a first Dylan album watch for telltale signs of shifting in descriptions.  Phrases like "I remember looking the racks at the college record store that were made out of milk cartons: no wait, that must have been for a different album because I bought the acoustic album when I was still in high school" are tell-tale signs that some sort of shift is going on.   The specific detail they remember conflicts with the perceived date of when they remember event. 

There are lots of ways to use already collected oral histories for assignments.  Of course, you can ask students to use oral histories as a component in a larger research project.  However, there are other types of assignments that use oral histories.  You can ask students to identify a shift and why they think the shift happened (to make the narrator look better, to conform to cultural memory etc.).  You can ask students to annotate an oral history and provide the historical context that makes reading the oral history more rewarding.  (Example:  Pick 5 events mentioned in the oral history and describe their significance to US History and to the narrator).  Or you can ask students to index the oral histories and defend their choices.

End Part 1.  


  1. Did you ever read Ronald Fraser's wonderful Blood of Spain?

  2. I haven't. I just looked it up. Fraser looks like he was a founding father of oral history (along with Studs Terkel and many others). It's amazing how much Portelli's work changed the field. The shift from trying to find accurate narrators to working on the meanings of wrong stories (especially when those stories were oft-repeated) might be condemned as being too post-modern but I think of it more as playing with the cards you are dealt with. For example, the oral histories collected in 1967-1973 that I used in my dissertation were pretty useless for their intended purposes (preserving traditional Navajo stories) but they were filled with contemporary references that were really useful to my work, including many wrong stories.