From New York City to Oklahoma, OHMA to Anthropology

Miriam Laytner is an OHMA alum and a graduate student in Anthropology, studying stories of storms, drought and other severe weather events at the University of Oklahoma. In this post, she describes the transition from OHMA to a PhD program in Anthropology.

In 2014, I was a successful oral historian and OHMA graduate living in New York City. I had an internship with the Apollo Theater Oral History Program, was working with a small roster of private clients, had multiple interviews accepted to the folk art archive at Brooklyn Arts Council and was credited as a writer for the Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion exhibit at the New York Historical Society. However, my goal had always been to earn a Ph.D. and someday teach and conduct research at the university level. I thought it would be easy to build from oral history—a truly interdisciplinary field—into a doctoral degree in another field like anthropology.  In some ways, the transition has been easy. OHMA benefits its students by exposing them to theorists and methodologies in a wide range of fields. I find myself in an excellent position to take graduate-level courses not only in anthropology but also in sociology, English, psychology and other fields.  In addition, I am able to think about wider applications for research than most of my peers will even consider. Where other students tend to think in terms of published papers, I think about the potential my work as an oral historian and anthropologist can have in the form of public archives, community engagement projects, social justice initiatives and more.

However, here lies one of the major challenges in transitioning from OHMA to anthropology. I don’t need to tell prospective Ph.D. students that the focus for most academics is still publication of a book or in a scholarly journal. Blog posts, plays, online archives, audiovisual performances or exhibits and other work valued by oral historians barely ranks as an achievement for the more traditional professors and departments future OHMA grads will encounter. As an oral historian, I love the potential for wide use and application of oral histories and oral history methodology. As a graduate student, I have realized that I need to refocus my energy on publishable material and presentations. I have only had this focus for a year, but I have already encountered and overcome several challenges. 

One of the first challenges I encountered is the focus on the author/self in academic publishing. Like many OHMA graduates I know, I view my thesis and the interviews I conduct as an oral historian as the result of co-creation between my interviewees and myself.  It was only when I entered into a Ph.D. program that I realized I was expected to present my work using my name and not those of my co-creators. However, after some searching, I have been able to find a number of outstanding ethnographies in which the authors name their interlocutors or even include them as co-authors. In fact, it seems that the trend toward inclusive and community-based anthropology is growing. I have been thrilled to find that many professors are receptive to my ideas for future papers and projects.  However I usually only gain their support after a long discussion of the nature of oral history projects as well as their potential to create future opportunities for myself and, through the creation of archives and other resources, other scholars. Fortunately, future OHMA graduates will have access to a set of guidelines for presenting oral history as a valuable form of scholarship currently being developed by the Oral History Association (OHA). Though it may be aimed at established practitioners, this document will help future graduates argue successfully for the use of oral history theory, methodology and material in the dissertation and other projects.

The second biggest challenge is one any OHMA grad faces when leaving the OHMA community for parts unknown: that of loneliness and the fear of somehow becoming permanently detached from the oral history world. While Oklahoma State University has an excellent oral history department, the distance between OSU and my new home at the University of Oklahoma situates the frequent collaboration and exchange of ideas I experienced in New York firmly in the past. That being said, Oklahoma and the surrounding areas are full of opportunities for oral history projects. When I first moved to Oklahoma, the vast tracts of uninhabited land and the wide sky made me wonder if I would ever find anyone to interview again. Now, barely into a year at the University of Oklahoma, I have found professional support in the form of my anthropology professors and a number of exciting projects to work on. Although I have had challenges that I could not foresee in leaving the OHMA community to pursue anthropology at OU, I feel that I have been able to parlay those experiences into better opportunities to grow myself as an anthropologist and oral historian.