I am always excited by the arrival of a new semester. The moment we academics stop looking forward to meeting a new group of students, we should stop teaching. But this year is a particular thrill. For the first time in 14 years, I am teaching oral history again.
The last time I had this chance was in a New Zealand history department. That was before user-generated content, the iPod and compression files. At best, students used a Sony Walkman Professional and were inspired by Paul Thompson’s book The Voice of the Past. While the Walkman has been replaced by a range of digital devices for sonic capture, Thompson’s landmark work remains influential and is now in a third edition.
There is another change. Teaching oral history as part of a media studies degree is both a challenge and a gift. In history departments, there remains the vestige of a credibility gap between the serious diplomatic, military and maritime historians and the social historians who were influenced by the 1960s progressive movements.
For example, the legendary A. J. P. Taylor termed oral history “old men drooling about their youth”. Now that Big Brother contestants spit, it is probably time to reclaim and reassess the “drool”.
Departmental politics are much better now than when I did my history degree in the late 1980s. Phrases such as “heritage management” and “community engagement” have created new spaces for different types and modes of history.
But 20 years ago, a civil but staunch boundary was drawn between middle-aged white men arguing for the importance of parliaments and military strategy (code for “the empirical”) and middle-aged white women focusing on “speaking back” to power and gathering alternative voices (code for “the ideological”).
Traces of this debate are found in the early days of the History Workshop movement, founded by Raphael Samuel, which led to the formation of a journal in 1976. Samuel was able to combine innovation and accessibility alongside intellectual and political relevance.
Oral history was one method to construct a history from below, building collaborations between teachers, political activists, researchers, curators and archivists. Three universities are continuing this outreach function, with a master of arts offered in life history research by the University of Sussex and London Metropolitan University and an MA in oral history from the University of Huddersfield.
The Oral History Society also ensures community outreach beyond institutions of formal education, providing information about good practice and professional standards.
The gift of teaching these debates in a media studies degree is that we can also explore how the changes in media platform are transforming not only how oral history is recorded, but how it is disseminated. Great books such as Valerie Raleigh Yow’s Recording Oral History supply powerful advice and intellectual rigour but tend to underplay – even in the 2005 second edition – how media diversity and digitisation have challenged both the methods of interviewing and how the captured voice is “managed” by the interviewer. There is still the faint intellectual assumption of “tape” with the attendant and limited portability and preservation concerns.
Media studies can create a positive and proactive graft to such a well-drawn oral historiography monograph.
In a Web 2.0 age, oral history provides an engaging opportunity to explore the ethical considerations of using software – spanning from Audition III to Audacity with MixCraft in the mid-price and complexity range – to construct and control oral history files. These programmes allow precise editing, looping and sampling from interviews.
Such technical flexibility raises ethical challenges for “reclaiming” an “authentic voice”. Similar to the impact of Photoshop on photojournalism, the capacity to remove one word and drop in another raises research questions about the ability to change the views and meanings of others.
Oral history therefore not only provides a way for students to learn the skills and strategies for conducting interviews, but also to explore the impact of copyright on recorded speech.
The line between disseminating research and appropriating the voice and views of others is guarded by a single realisation: simply because a file can be recorded and uploaded to a web portal does not mean that it should be.
So often, tone, texture and feeling are burnt off the surfaces of history. Sound is a way to reclaim the passion and heat from the present and the past. Oral history is still a way to answer back to the powerful.
For example, both the medical profession and a plethora of talk shows mouth many millions of words on obesity, putting the metaphoric boot into particular body mass indexes that are rarely given the respect of a full name and time to convey their story, in their context, in their way.
If an overweight person is interviewed on television, the frame of that discussion is how the person should lose weight, often with phrases like “gastric band” and “stomach stapling” used as punctuation in the discussion.
There is so little space to talk about obesity in the social and cultural environment of the person involved. Until those voices and views are heard and understood, obesity rates will continue to increase.
Being “fat” needs to be understood on its own terms, rather than within the framework of a medical profession trying to cure an illness.
There are many topics that require such an alternative voice, often as a counter-melody to official documents and policies. For example, many of my former students have conducted interviews with citizens who are not computer literate.
Such interviews were not undertaken to shame and blame, but to understand their decisions and feelings of isolation (and often liberation and resistance) in a wireless world. There is some fine policy work on the digital divide, but understanding the views of an individual confronting these confusions and fears is a powerful method to think about inequality.
In the empire of the senses, we believe what we see. The iTouch and DS Lite have constructed productive and fresh relationships between touch and sight. But – with sonic media platforms such as the iPod and portals such as iTunes booming – oral history should remain a vital part of the humanities.
Podcasts grant an opportunity to present and preserve the voices of the past in a portable and accessible fashion. Great teaching-led research from scholars such as Deborah Vess at Georgia College and State University is revealing new models for “history on the go”.
In a 2006 article in the quarterly journal The History Teacher, she showed the impact in terms of student confidence when recording and reflecting on the views of others. Her students reflected on the relationship between writing and speaking, seeing and hearing.
And as Big Brother whimpers to its conclusion and Strictly Come Dancing sparkles and twirls its way through the autumn television schedules, there is value in teaching media students about intervening in a landscape of game shows and the lightest of light entertainment.
I want my media studies students to know – and really believe – that they can use their voices and technical skills not only to understand the past, but also to transform the present. That will be a successful semester.
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