Publication Date

November 27, 2017

Origins of the Oral History Jukebox

Patrick Nugent: The idea for the Oral History Jukebox began with a Google search: “audio examples oral history interview techniques pedagogy.” No luck. 

The Oral History Jukebox Workshop will be held at the 2018 AHA annual meeting in Washington, DC. Design Credit: Austin Maddux

I had just begun working for the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. My position, among other roles, called for teaching American history and helping to steer the StoryQuest Oral History Program’s World War II home front project. There was one challenge, however: while I had experience teaching WWII history, my background practicing and teaching oral history was limited.

During that first summer on the job, I leaned on and learned from my Starr Center colleagues as they taught the ethical questions surrounding oral history practice, the reasoning behind field standards, and the many techniques for effective interviewing and archiving. My colleagues were thorough and creative in their pedagogical approaches. But as we walked students through these various lessons, I found myself searching for audio examples that would help elucidate various lessons for our students.

Our training methods plans certainly experimented with interactive ways to teach by example: students interviewed one another about shared historical experiences; newcomers accompanied more experienced students on field interviews; interview teams listened and assessed previously collected interviews. But what we hadn’t yet developed was a collection of at-the-ready audio examples from the field, a catalogue of sound bites that could demonstrate interview methods and techniques: how to create a welcoming environment, how to formulate open-ended questions, how to encourage elaboration, when to embrace silence, how to navigate difficult topics and traumatic turns, how to close an interview with grace and gratitude.

What I was looking for was a mix tape of audio examples for the next generation of oral historians: a greatest hits album of interview successes, a basement tape of breakthroughs, a cutting room floor of lessons learned, an oral history jukebox of “teachable moments”—one that could demonstrate through soundbite rather than edict, through slip-ups and serendipity in addition to well-tuned mandates. And one, I hoped, that might humanize and model the mercurial, circumstantial, and self-reflexive experience of oral history practice.

Around this time, I was invited to participate on a panel at the AHA annual meeting by a wonderful group of oral historians working with the US Navy, National Archives, State Department, and Library of Congress. When I proposed to them the idea of working on an Oral History Jukebox Workshop, they offered a valuable insight. Namely, if the jukebox were to reach a broader cross-section of oral historians, both in and outside the academy, it shouldn’t focus solely on interview methods and undergraduate pedagogy.

Instead, they suggested the jukebox might also include collection samples that had pushed professional oral historians to reconsider their archival, management, or marketing practices: how a particular moment from an interview might open up new approaches in archive processing, staff workflow, community crowdsourcing, or project development.

When Erica Fugger arrived at the Starr Center and joined the jukebox planning team, she recommended yet another direction for this emerging audio aggregator. Perhaps, she suggested, undergraduate students—after listening to and reflecting upon the interviews they collected—could themselves contribute to the jukebox. In the process, students would not simply be learning oral history methods, but teaching them, too.

Creating a Pilot Jukebox

Erica Fugger: At the end of this year’s StoryQuest summer program, we decided to ask our students to reflect upon their own growth as oral history practitioners. We invited them to create a pilot Oral History Jukebox and hone in on specific interview moments that changed their approach to oral history.

As part of the assignment, StoryQuest intern Maria Betancur wrote,

Since the narrator had brought pictures of herself during the war, I tried to ask her about the way women dressed at the time. However, the answer received was short and lacking specific descriptions. There was room to elaborate with another question and delve deeper into the subject, but instead the narrator simply moved on. My clip highlights the need to be prepared to follow up with additional questions in order to elicit more descriptive responses, especially when one notices key themes emerging in the interview.

As we listened to our students present their jukebox selections, we were able to learn more about their process of mastering core oral history skillsets. We encouraged them not only to discuss moments of success, but also to go back to their earliest interviews to explore—and witness—how they’d grown.

We found that our students learned the most from instances of experimentation, if not mild embarrassment: missed opportunities, misunderstandings, awkward silences, abrupt transitions. By carving out space to reflect upon those experiences, the students drove home to one another the importance of preparation prior to the interview, flexibility within the moment, and self-reflection afterward.

Similarly, we continued to be curious about how oral historians—of all backgrounds, working across many different environments—grow from their experiences. What interview exchanges keep them up late at night: thinking, reflecting, regretting? What do they write in the hidden footnotes beneath the interview index, transcript, or monograph?

Through the Oral History Jukebox Workshop at the 2018 AHA annual meeting, we invite you to share those very moments that stick with you as an interviewer. The final application deadline for presenters is soon approaching on December 1, 2017.

The session will be an open, informal exchange where oral historians of all experience levels and backgrounds come together to listen and learn. We will turn an open ear to the granularity of oral history recordings, searching the medium for key insights into the field.

The workshop will open with a lightning round of presenters who will illustrate a diverse range of lessons learned. Participants will then break into smaller groups to consider additional excerpts and contemplations. The workshop will conclude with reflections on where the Oral History Jukebox can go next, as we think through both ethical and structural considerations for crowdsourcing an online repository of interview excerpts and self-reflections created by and for oral historians.

We hope that you will join us in sharing your interview experiences and perspectives. Collectively, we can help guide a new generation of oral historians through their first interviews, as well as more closely examine our technique, pedagogy, and programming.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

Patrick Nugent is the deputy director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, as well as a lecturer of history. He teaches courses on the WWII home front, America in the 1960s, and 20th-century social movements. His research explores mid-20th-century Staten Island and the mercurial relationship between civil rights, conservative, and environmental movements while planning the borough’s post-Verrazano Bridge growth.

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