Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | July 29, 2010

Oral History and Listening

I conducted an oral history Tuesday, my first one. The man I interviewed is an activist and advocate whose career and interests have spanned decades, from an awakened political consciousness in the Vietnam era to the present. He’s semi-retired now.

For me, the experience was revelatory. When I have conversations with people, the kind of unguided, unstructured conversations that pepper our personal and professional lives, I feel like I’m constantly trying to be interesting. It’s one of the reasons my brain collects factoids. (A whale has a vestigial pelvis, left over from its distant four-limbed ancestors!) More often than not I can keep a conversation going, but you’re right, Ryan, it’s a hard line to toe: when are we really saying thoughtful, insightful things, and when are we retreating into the obscure details of our professional lives? The former makes for scintillating conversation. The latter just makes people feel alienated.

But in this conversation, the oral history, I was under no pressure to be interesting. I was there to offer only the barest structure for the conversation and, crucially, to listen. Because I wasn’t constantly thinking about what to say next (most of my verbalizing was the stock “mm-hmm”), I found myself freer to actually process the things this man was telling me. Because I wasn’t under pressure to keep up my end of the conversation, I really heard this man talking. And I remember the things that he said.

(Of course, it also helps that I’ve read through the entire documentary history of his career. He just donated his papers to the special collections at Du Bois library on the UMass campus. I read through all fifteen boxes worth.)

I’ll be posting more on oral histories in the future, especially since I have to slash get to read a bunch of books about it for comps. For now, it’s enough to say that at least for a while, I think I’m more familiar with what listening really is, the kind I’m sure I don’t do enough of.



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