Bearing Witness to the Witness Seminar

Nicole JeanBaptiste is a current OHMA student. In this post, she compares the 'witness seminar' to the conventional one-on-one interview.

A few weeks ago Christopher Sellers gave a talk on the witness seminar, a tool he’s relied upon quite heavily for an oral history project that he’s leading, which explores the history of an industrial site and its relations to its past workers and surrounding community.   Originally developed by the Institute for Contemporary British History (ICBH) the witness seminar has been employed as an alternative interviewing technique for those engaging in oral history collection.  In the case of Sellers’s study he brings together 10-12 people with extended but very different perspectives on the history of the hazards of lead and petro-chemicals at four industrial sites in Texas and Mexico.

In a sense learning of the witness seminar as an interview format troubled some of the comforting responses I’ve developed to the oral historian student’s question around what constitutes a really good interview or at least a properly conducted interview.   By now, it is pretty well understood that at the core of oral history is undoubtedly the interview.  Upon entering the Oral History MA program here at Columbia the importance of the interview was ingrained in every student’s head.  Lots of class time and assigned readings were devoted to thinking about what a solid interview looked, sounded, and felt like.  While we touched briefly on interviewing in small groups this idea of a witness seminar hadn’t been fully explored.  As an audience member at Sellers’s workshop so poignantly pointed out that by calling them seminars rather than interviews, the fact that the participants are experts is being highlighted.  

With a zeal for his recorded interviews that I’m sure most oral historians ultimately acquire for their own respective projects, Sellers played for the audience video clips of exchanges between participants in his witness seminars. He directed us to play close attention to a particular person’s body language while in a heated disagreement, or the rise in another’s voice.  What he was asking us to observe and what he’s so enthusiastic about are the varying dynamics present when these groups come together for an oral history interview conducted in the witness seminar format.  What I witnessed in these video clips was chaos at times, high emotional energy at others and some active listening.  I placed myself in the shoes of the widow whose husband died as a result of respiratory problems triggered by exposure to hazardous chemical emissions at the industrial site in question.  What I then wondered was, what about everybody else in the room with her?  Did they - could they - empathize with her?

Many questions around managing large groups such as the witness seminar arose and Chris had some very straightforward advice to impart.  Have a listen:

Clearly the witness seminar is a totally different beast than the one-on-one interview.  What potential then, Sellers asks, does the witness seminar have in making a difference and stirring democratic process and deliberation?  I’m personally a little skeptical of the witness seminar’s ability to meet this aim.  I am particularly concerned that individual thoughts and opinions risk being lost in the fray.  It also prompts me to think about the significance of identifying one’s goal when organizing an oral history project and adhering to this goal.  I would imagine that only certain oral history projects would be interested in creating a space for the promotion of democratic process.  Instead I think that the witness seminar has enormous potential to serve as an even greater form of a therapeutic, even healing space.  As common as it is for oral historians to receive feedback from their narrators expressing the therapeutic benefits of participating in the oral history interview, I can only imagine how much greater this could be if done with adequate care and skill in a witness seminar. 

View footage of Christopher Sellers’s full talk here.

To learn more about Sellers’s book, Crabgrass Crucible, in which he also uses oral history, visit this site.