In this post, OHMA alumna Cindy Choung (2009), recipient of our first OHMA Alumni Conference Travel Grant, writes on dialogue and difference among oral history practitioners at the 2016 Oral History Association Meeting. She offers thoughts on creating space for connection and reflection between oral historians across generations.
In my eight plus years as an oral history practitioner, I’ve accumulated quite a few analogies to illustrate my answer to the question, “Wait… what exactly is oral history?” Among them is the apt metaphor of oral history as a conversation between the past and the present, in audience with the future. The fiftieth anniversary of the Oral History Association in Long Beach, California, this year was an interesting extension of that metaphor, which I was honored to attend through support from the OHMA Alumni Conference Travel Grant.
In tandem with the OHA 2016 Annual Meeting, my fellow Columbia OHMA alumnae Sewon Chung Barerra, Sarah Dziedzic, Nicki Pombier Berger, and I launched the first issue of our oral historical online publication, In Context Journal—an independent platform for oral historical work and thoughtful explorations of what it means to listen, to speak, and to be heard.
Appropriately themed “Traditions, Transitions, and Technologies from the Field,” this year’s Annual Meeting was a great place to debut our passion project, which was born from serious contemplation of what oral history has been in the past, what it seems to be now, and what it might be in the future. The Meeting’s attendees were themselves manifestations of these temporal categories: current OHMA students mingled, conversed, and debated with veterans of the field about the future of oral history.
But the generational differences extended beyond age groups and career stages. For example, I came to the OHA Meeting as a member of the Asian American Oral History Collective and the Groundswell Practitioner Support Network working group, a founding editor of In Context Journal, and a representative of my own personal projects. While I met many colleagues who had been practicing oral history at the same single institution for a few decades, I (along with many of my contemporaries) don’t have an oral history 9-to-5, but rather pursue these projects after my day job, late into the hours of the night and on weekends.
Another point of difference is not just in the way we practice oral history, but how it’s understood. I came into the field trained by some incredible academics, but with hopes of bringing oral history out of the academic realm. My colleagues at In Context Journal have the same hopes:
“We’re wholeheartedly proud to share our first issue and the beginnings, we hope, of a new wave of oral history—one that doesn’t use the term carelessly or, on the other hand, obsess over defining its parameters, but instead expands its definition into new directions of inquiry, exploration, creativity, and collaboration.”
—Letter from the Editors, First Issue of In Context Journal
But, to be clear, difference isn’t opposition. Just as the past isn’t necessarily in opposition with the present, the generations of oral history practitioners aren’t at odds with each other; they just aren’t completely connected yet.
And how do we make these connections? Well, that’s where a forum like the Oral History Association Annual Meeting comes in handy—it’s the place where my go-to analogy comes alive: it’s that conversation between the past and the present, in audience with the future. And I’m excited to contribute a part to that conversation.
For more information on Cindy’s personal work, check out her website.