[Workshop Reflection] Influences & Ideas: An Interviewing Autobiography with Sady Sullivan

by Cameron Vanderscoff 

                    To ask questions in oral history is not just to ask about someone’s life as a whole, but their plural lives across personal and public globes. The field is based on going beyond the surface of the present, and exploring the biographical basis for individual motion and motivation. When my colleague Allison Corbett and I had the opportunity to interview Sady Sullivan, director of oral history at the Brooklyn Historical Society, we wanted to get a feel for the biographical and intellectual trajectories that pointed her towards the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations Project. In doing so, we hoped to explore the relationship of one particular project of an oral historian to the contours of their professional background. We also felt that in this field, we routinely write about our process of interviewing as a part of the interpretation of our fieldwork. However, often forget how that story can be complicated by switching chairs and, instead of writing about our professional background, narrating it for another interviewer.

                    Sullivan kindly agreed to work through her professional life history with us, exploring her experience in and outside of the field and identifying key areas of development. Early on in the session, she shared her first encounter with history bibliography and methodology.

                    The first interview of her career, Sullivan went on to explain, was with her grandmother, a person she had effectively been raised with and knew well. It proved to be an illuminating introduction to the complexity of the oral history method, and its capacity to both contextualize and complicate narrators. As she explains in the following clip, this opportunity provided an entry point for a body of fieldwork that in time expanded into a diverse range of experiences and approaches.

Throughout the session, Sullivan’s exploration of her background provided a framework to consider the richness of oral history methodology as a composite practice. In addition to her interest in women’s studies as an undergraduate, she related her experience in radio, where she encountered both fulfillments and frustrations that circled back to inform her work in oral history. Radio work gave her the chance to work with audio in a precise, edited, and detailed way, and she gained experience reconfiguring longer interviews for different agendas and audiences. However, while she ultimately pushed back against the short form and constraints of the medium, her radio experience stands as one of the components of her compiled practice.

Sullivan also discussed her early experience coding psychology research interviews. It proved to be an intensive close reading experience for interview content on a word-and-sentence level. In this clip,* she discusses a particular study she worked with featuring the perspectives of young female students, and explains its varying degrees of relevance for her interview and interpretative styles.

For Sullivan, oral history is a situated practice that has its own distinct approach, but is open to stylistic and methodological adaptations from other fields. Sullivan posted readings from feminist psychologists like Carol Gilligan and the writer Zadie Smith to provide attendees with a sense of her theoretical background, and her bibliography underlying (and predating) the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations project. These readings, coupled with the interview session, provide a picture of her work which is at once both more expansive and more intimate than that provided by studying CBCG alone. Altogether, we identified several keys area of practice: the feminist psychology discovered in her undergraduate years; her experience with audio and short formats in radio; her coding work with psychology interviews; and her interest in Buddhist deep listening. For Sullivan, these different skeins of experience come together in her work at the Society, and in her involvement in the field more generally. The interview presented an opportunity to explore the complexity of oral history practice through a biographic lens. At this writing, I find myself increasingly curious if we can develop this idea--akin to Pierre Nora’s idea of ‘ego-histoire,’ introduced to the current OHMA cohort by Professor Luisa Passerini--as a way of considering the compositional nature of oral history as an approach. Sullivan provided us with an illuminating study of her own influences, which not only enriched our understanding of her as a practitioner, but of CBBG as an endeavor. 

* In regards to audio statement that she is “not thinking” in the interview, Sullivan feels that “not analyzing” is a more apt descriptor of her listening approach.