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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The art of listening

A few months ago, we asked you to tell us about the work you’re doing. Many of you responded, so for the next few months, we’re going to be publishing reflections, stories, and difficulties faced by fellow oral historians. This week, we bring you the first post in this series, focusing on a multimedia project from Mark Larson. We encourage you to engage with these posts by leaving comments on the post or on social media, or by reaching out directly to the authors. If you’d like to submit your own work, check out the guidelines. – Andrew Shaffer

I believe that “all stories are partial” and that “we need a multiplicity of stories to tell the whole story of our democratic experiment,” as author and poet Keith Gilyard has said. I curate a website, American Stories Continuum, the purpose of which is to share the voices of people I am listening to across our country as they explore aloud their own thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and experiences. The conversations revolve around specific topics like teaching in the 21st century, our personal relationships with money, and change. I am not a pundit, analyst, or debater. My aim is to hear them so I might briefly view the world through their eyes and share what I have heard.

I have undertaken this project for two reasons: I was interviewed twice by the great interviewer Studs Terkel and have seen him work. I know what it is like to be listened to for an extended session and with intense curiosity. I believe everyone deserves a chance to be heard that way. Secondly, I have grown weary and cynical of the cacophony of arguments that pose as discussion on television and radio. In Studs’ tradition, my message is: I am here to listen. I want to know what you make of your life, of life itself, of what is happening in our world. Like Theodore Zelden, I’m interested in the kind of conversation in which “you start out with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person.” I believe it’s possible to better know ourselves, both collectively and as individuals, when we allow ourselves to better know one another.

Most of my interviews generally take 60 to 90 minutes, with follow-up for clarification or to delve more deeply into previously glossed over topics. Some are phone interviews, but I make a rule of insisting on face-to-face conversations as often as possible.

I have a few prepared questions, but I am not seeking particular responses. I derive great pleasure in seeing where conversations will go within the framework of the topic–discovering, along with my interviewee, the story that he or she has to tell. It is always a fresh process of discovery, which is repeated in the editing phase, then again as the interviewee responds to the edited text, and finally as readers respond to what they read. The final pieces posted on the site are the version both they and I agree most accurately represents their voice and their story.

I take liberty in constructing the narratives from verbatim transcripts for the sake of teasing out the story that I sense is emerging. This requires rearrangement and elimination. But I adhere to the interviewees’ actual words and each person has vetted and approved them. This is a partnership in which my singular aim is faithfulness to what the subject feels and expresses.

Included here are brief clips from two of my interviews. The interview with 97-year-old Civil Rights activist and author, Grace Lee Boggs, came about when I heard that a 36-year-old teacher named Julia Putnam planned to open a school in Detroit based in Grace’s writings and philosophy. I have always been fascinated by the interplay between generations, so I asked to interview both of them together to talk about the aspirations for this school, which had not yet opened. We met in Grace’s living room in Detroit on a hot afternoon. As you listen, tune into the way these two generations, separated by half a century, play off one another. They’d known each other for 20 years, since Julia was 16 and signed on as the first member of Detroit Summer, which Grace and her husband, Jimmy Lee Boggs founded.

The interview with educator and author Gloria Ladson-Billings was one of my first. When I was a student of education, Gloria’s writings were highly influential to me. I wanted very much to meet her. The interview was almost just an excuse to spend time with her. She quickly granted the interview and we met in her University of Wisconsin-Madison office. In these clips, she talks about how she always views world events in an historical context. I reposted these interviews after the Ferguson, MO, Grand Jury Decision in the shooting of Michael Brown because she had offered a useful and comforting way to consider troubled times.

I was pleased recently to see that Gloria posted the clips to her Facebook page and said, “I really like the photos he chose. He got it.” That’s my aim. Faithfulness.

Image Credit: “Mark and Terri.” Photo used with permission from Marc Perlish.

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  1. […] to be listened to for an extended session and with intense curiosity,” Larson wrote in the Oxford University Press blog. ” I believe everyone deserves a chance to be heard that […]

  2. […] February, Mark Larson shared some of his multimedia oral histories and explained how his process aims to see the world […]

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