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From the Viewpoints column of the February 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Historicizing and Humanizing Historians: Oral History and History Faculty

Andrew Darien, February 2008

Voice is of paramount importance for the profession. Oral historians aim to mine buried voices, provide voice to the inarticulate, and render visible the subject position of historical actors otherwise absent from the historical record. Oral history's great gift is its capacity to locate voices, flesh out the historical record, offer a more representative telling of past events, and provide texture and substance to social experience. Oral historians are among the most sensitive to the nuances of voice and narrative. But how thoughtful have we, as history faculty, been about our own voices, particularly in the classroom, during office hours, and with individual students? What does our tone, memory, and audience tell us about the narratives we construct on a daily basis, whether they be historical, professional, or personal? If we ask our students to critically examine voices of the past, should we expect them to accept uncritically our own?

My interest in oral history has compelled me to examine the everyday narratives that we historians construct as scholars, teachers, and mentors. The integrity of the profession requires that historians demand for themselves voices and narratives that have been scrutinized with the same rigor that they have come to expect of their historical subjects. We must look self-critically at our own philosophical, political, family, and personal influences, and also have a mechanism for imparting to our students the process of professional and personal introspection. We benefit most when our "teaching" narratives are treated as tentative truths, and our voices are accessible ones. Just as Michael Frisch suggests that there ought to be a "shared authority" between narrator and interviewer, I propose a shared authority between professor and student.1

Historians and their students would profit from a contested narrative that is primarily shaped by the teacher, but is both flexible and open to student inquiry. Too often students view their teachers as operating in a mystic world of research, scholarship, and knowledge to which the students rarely have access. Students are inclined to believe that their teachers have a monopoly on historical truth, which only need be imparted to them. Likewise, few students have any sense of the process by which one becomes an academic, the bases of their teachers' intellectual foundations, and the forked paths that the majority of us took to arrive in academia. At traditional college campuses, young men and women face the often overwhelming challenges of coming of age, securing a career track, shoring up their political views, and forging an identity. Yet they view professors as neat and polished finished products, assuming that they have always been some version of the knowledgeable, articulate, and intellectually astute person who appears on the podium. Other erroneous beliefs are that most professors were always successful students, had been reared in intellectually lively households, and came from a privileged class. Surely this must be intimidating for students, who, even when full of bravado, are often riddled with doubt and vulnerability. Even those of us who strive to make ourselves accessible to students, proctor discussion rather than lecture oriented classes, and promote more colloquial faculty-student relationships, have work to do in narrowing the gulf between us. When we do not reveal explicitly to our students the personal, political, family, neighborhood, and social influences that have shaped, and continue to form, our world views, we reinforce the notion that history is objective and that our voice is divorced from the self.

Of course there are risks involved in an approach to history that strips away professorial authority, and there is value to certain boundaries between faculty and student. It would be neither prudent, nor necessarily helpful, for students to have access to all of the most intimate aspects our lives. Every college campus has at least one professor who claims to be an open book for the students and aims to be friend rather than mentor. Although the forthrightness and honesty of such professors can be well-intended, they risk blurring the line between professor and student in such a way that they become surrogate parent or therapist. (It should be noted, that the "forthrightness" of such professors is itself a well-crafted, albeit invisible narrative.) The other problem with sharing or deferring of all of one's authority and voice to the student is that it affords them the opportunity to substitute their personal identities and politics for substantive historical research, documentation, and verification. There is a difference between revealing our narratives so that they are contested, and pretending as if the generations of scholarship upon which we have built our careers and ideas and bring to the classroom is meaningless. Sharing authority is about the collaborative effort in creating truth rather than allowing "each man to be his own historian." Just because an oral historian provides space for his or her subjects to tell their own stories doesn't mean the stories ought to be accepted uncritically. We best accomplish our pedagogical mission when we are honest about our personal influences and invite students to problematize our narratives and voice, rather than to ask that they rewrite them from scratch.

My interest in using oral history to narrow the gap between teacher and student was born out of a 1993 New York University history department panel commemorating the 25th anniversary of 1968. Fellow graduate students had organized this event to provide history faculty with a forum for reporting where they were and what they were doing in 1968, how they conceived of the cataclysmic events of that year, how it shaped their ideological perspective, and how they assessed those events with 25 years of critical distance. This had been at the end of my first year in the NYU doctoral program, during which I spent much time terrified of the intellectual prowess of my professors. Yet transporting them back to their youth created an opportunity for them to divulge the nonacademic influences in their lives: generational conflict, neighborhood identity, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, and popular culture. What was most satisfying about the panel was the way in which it stripped away their professional veneer. Professors spoke romantically about their youth, identified their most sacred political and philosophical influences, and conceded the many ways in which the road to professional historian was a long and muddled one. Although I would not go so far as to postulate a direct relationship between the political and the personal, the forum, at the very least, helped to put faculty members' scholarship in context. The nostalgia of the sixties also afforded the faculty—even those on diametrically opposed ends of the political spectrum—to share intimacy and humor with one another. Even though the event was not a formally recorded oral history, it served much of the same in purpose by the ways in which it provided texture to the subjects' lives and connected the individual with the world-historical.

I brought my newfound interest in oral history with me to Salem State College, a teaching-oriented institution where the distance between faculty and student was refreshingly narrower than that at the Research I Universities of my previous employment. At Salem State, faculty pride themselves on close relationships with students and high teaching standards. Nevertheless, professors' heavy teaching demands combined with scholarly aspirations and students' carefully budgeted time for work and school, places significant constraints on these relationships. Likewise, because the typical Salem State student is apt to be working-class and first generation in his or her family to go to college, the illusion of professorial authority is greater. The intellectual rigor and culture of college life is so foreign to many of our students that they can be easily intimidated by, and in awe of, faculty.

I decided that my first oral history class at Salem State could be used to narrow the gap between faculty and student. Why not historicize the historians? What better way to demystify the professional and render visible the personal, social, family, political, and philosophical influences that have shaped historians' career trajectories? Such a project could use oral history to strip away the scholarly façade, and invite students into the world of the professional historian. This was a means of inviting students into what might otherwise seem to be alien and hostile territory. I also foresaw added advantages for individual faculty and the department as a whole. Professors could profit from an exploration of their personal, family, political, and philosophical roots, while the department could use the videotaped interviews to gain a higher profile throughout the college. Excerpted video clips could be posted to the department web site. A promotional video could be used to introduce or recruit students to the major and give a public face to the dusty image of the history department. The interviews would also be valuable pedagogical tools for courses in historiography and historical methodology. It seemed the ideal experiential project for my undergraduate course, which otherwise only grappled with the theory and methodology, rather than practice, of oral history.

This was a rewarding experience for both faculty and student, but it was not without its pitfalls. First, there were the expected student anxieties about conducting interviews on camera and, as interviewer, acting in positions of authority relative to faculty. Putting students at ease required a good deal of hand holding, practice, and reassurance, but in the end they tackled the task with great aplomb. We spent one day a week forming interview questions, conducting mock interviews, familiarizing ourselves with the television studio, and getting acquainted with the research subjects. It was especially satisfying to see the project mobilize students who previously showed little interest or effort in researching and writing traditional history papers. Many otherwise poorly performing students discovered that they were endowed with verbal and communication skills that allowed them to outshine their more accomplished peers.

The majority of faculty were willing to make themselves vulnerable by exposing the professional and personal components of their scholarly lives. Of the 17 tenure-track faculty members, 13 agreed to be interviewed, along with 4 full-time adjuncts. Nonparticipants expressed reservations, citing concerns about negative past experiences with interviews, the nefarious purposes for which these interviews might be used, or simply the anxiety of appearing on camera. My assurances regarding the pedagogical value of the interview, the limited scope of the project, and protection of their interviews' distribution rights did little to quell those fears. In the end it seemed unwise to press my reluctant senior colleagues for participation, particularly because the adjunct faculty who replaced them were such impressive and enthusiastic interviewees. Many of the adjuncts worked in intriguing nonacademic settings, and, most important, were not going to serve on my future tenure committee!

The style and content of the interviews varied according to interviewer and subject, and through my colleagues' forthrightness about their lives and careers, students encountered a rich tapestry of personal and professional trajectories related to the historical profession. Students also glimpsed the unique worlds of a Sudanese refugee, a counter-cultural peace activist, an ordained minister, a journalist, the child of a renowned public intellectual, and a public historian working on an Emmy-nominated documentary.

The more successful interviews connected the personal, political, social, and family experiences with the professional and intellectual. Of course, some faculty guarded their "selves" more than others, focusing on the strictly professional and intellectual. There certainly were difficult moments—awkward silences, questions that threw faculty off-guard, responses of which students were unsure how to handle, and personalities that simply did not mesh—but on the whole students' preparedness and the willingness of faculty to "share authority" made this a project of great intellectual and experiential import. Faculty afforded students access to their personal and professional selves. In the process, they broke down barriers, demonstrated the viability of professional success, and in some cases reflected for the first time upon their bases of their own professional development.

—Andrew Darien teaches in the department of history at Salem State College.

Note

1. Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York, 1990).