You may have seen representatives of the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) at the OHA Annual Meeting this year. We rumbled down hallways in a pack six strong, all twenty-five years old and younger, all smiles, all ears, and all left feet. After years working behind the scenes, this was for most of us our first national academic conference–and the farthest north we’ve ever ventured. We were militantly ready to learn about the field and claim our place in it.
The relationship between junior and senior scholars is cyclical, yet the world we’re learning in is new and different in many ways: fraught with new ethics questions, digitization challenges, and multiplying global crises oral historians are called to record and interpret. Our advisors, older colleagues, and titan historians hand us the projects, the inspiration, and the advice, and with that comes meaning and structure that help us face the new day. The rest is up to us, and that responsibility is titillating and frightening.
Besides the food, music, and friendly faces, here are five reasons why young professionals loved the OHA Annual Meeting.
(1) Big ideas, executed.
When undergraduates and postbacs transition into the staff at SPOHP, they have boundless ambitions that range from reorganizing project databases to writing field-redefining case studies. But how to get there? Oftentimes, those who collaborate on projects only see their share of the work and aren’t privy to the mainframe, the construction of a whole project start to finish. Individually, we become so concerned with doing our jobs right and on time that we miss the forest for the trees. We learned last month that we will connect to the field in ways that are meaningful to us, and in tandem with each other. Diana Dombrowski, our web coordinator, was most inspired by University of Kentucky Doug Boyd’s OHMS and the prospects of open-source programs. Our resident musician, Chelsea Carnes, arrived ridiculously early to Michael Honey, Jonathan Overby, and Pat Krueger’s plenary session on African-American song and poetry. Senior research staff Sarah Blanc says, “I was fascinated by the number of younger scholars pursuing incredibly cutting edge research. It made me want to step up my game. It was also reassuring to hear how much thought and energy went into the ethical aspects of their work.” Watching scholars present their lifetime work, with joy, reminded us that when it comes to developing our own innovations and interests, the reins are already ours.
(2) Openness to change — and to us.
Diana was pleasantly dismayed facing a full house when she spoke during the roundtable, “Recording Voices and Inspiring Communities.” Professors leaned forward in seats and against walls and columns to listen for a while; voices from near the door shouted encouragement to the front during discussion. People really wanted to know, and wanted to share what they know.
It’s important to start talking soon because we will face the field’s challenges together. SPOHP’s Latina/o Diaspora in the Americas Coordinator, 22-year-old Genesis Lara, puts her experience as an audience member at Diana’s panel like this:
“The discussion of the panel quickly turned into a conversation regarding ethics in the oral history community, especially in terms of conducting oral histories among undocumented communities. It was a debate that was repeated in several of the panels that our staff was fortunate to attend. Throughout the entire meeting, there was this atmosphere of question and curiosity: where do we go from here?”
Knowing that established members of the OHA care what we think and how we do things encourages more people to join the conversation.
(3) The focus on fieldwork gives us a chance to shine.
Every year, Sarah Blanc returns from UF’s annual trip to the Mississippi Delta, sleeps a couple of days, writes some thank you cards, and starts preparing all over again. “Fieldwork” rolls off the tongue dramatically, but it’s tough to coordinate with community members in another state while navigating university policies and student schedules; then, the fourteen-hour days on-site. Although the concept is Dr. Ortiz’s, the trips and their stories become ours and the interviewees’. Obviously, in oral history, no one can go it alone.
Then go on and try to condense those relationships, hundreds of hours of audio, and what it all means to you into a bullet list on a PowerPoint. Oral History in Motion teaches us that stories about topics from Freedom Summer to the anti-incarceration movement matter, and it’s our job not to give meaning but to interpret, to convey the excitement and sense of discovery to people who weren’t with us. We work hard but we’ve been privileged through the opportunities we’ve been given. It’s now our privilege to share with you the places that brought us to Madison, from Mississippi to the Dominican Republic.
(4) Oral history has a pantheon of heroes.
Donald Ritchie was reclining in a chair eating those free Concourse Hotel hard candies. He was trying to enjoy a panel about the legacy of Freedom Summer, featuring the up-and-coming work of Senate and House oral historians Jackie Burns and Katherine Scott, and UF’s Sarah Blanc. That’s too bad.
My plan of attack, carefully conceived, started with casually sidling up (harder than you’d think) and saying a little too loudly, “SORRY TO LURK.” The final product of our brief conversation is above.
My overtures of friendship were by most standards terrible, but here’s the thing: I teach SPOHP’s internship class around Dr. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History every year, twice a year; it’s how I learned what to expect and what to ask as an undergraduate too. I watch students read it and discuss it, and then they get that oral history has distinct potential bounded only by the researcher. Donald Ritchie makes that moment possible every year, twice a year, in our classroom and many others. He embodies the transformation from student to researcher and in many cases, non-major to major in history. We can’t thank him correctly, so we took a picture together.
(5) Oral history has many faces: activists, public servants, poets, musicians.
Chelsea Carnes is a musician and activist as well as a student, but she found inspiration in a meeting of historians exactly because they weren’t just historians. There are both academics that fill multiple roles–Mike Honey, the activist, historian, and musician–and full-time artists and union organizers who have something to say. The resulting free exchange of inspiration and experience opened the door and let the fresh air in. Chelsea explains it best:
“Oral historians are addressing ways that history can come to life through activism, education, art…I’ve always been told that the career of historian is a very lonely and self-reliant one, but at the conference I saw and heard about historians working together cooperatively and really engaging with their communities. There was a real focus on a macroscopic objective and humanistic worldview that I found very progressive and exciting.”
Chelsea picked up on what Genesis calls our “essence as human beings who are trying to help other human beings, through the most elemental of things: our human stories.” We’re proud to be a part of oral history’s motley crew.
All images courtesy of Jessica Taylor.