Subversion: One of the Points of Oral History?

Jonathon Fairhead recounts a discussion between Professor Alessandro Portelli and students in the Columbia University Oral History Masters Program, 4 April, 2015. Watch the full lecture on YouTube.

In these terms, research may help us cope with some of our most pressing contemporary needs: the redefinition of “self” and the crisis of political action.  . . . At a time in our common history when the crisis of radical and revolutionary movements has left most of us alone to face our individual and common problems, the quest for self-definition often takes the form of narcissism, cynicism, downright selfishness, and disregard for general issues. I believe that one possible function of research today is to, once again, place the question of identity on a social and interpersonal plane, and to help us recognize ourselves in what makes us similar yet different from others.

-Research as an Experiment in Equality, Allesandro Portelli

Meeting finally Alessandro Portelli, one of the fathers of oral history in the academy, I am delighted to be reminded of oral history’s populist roots. Professor Portelli found himself inadvertently collecting oral histories while traveling in the poorest most forgotten corners of Italy recording working-class folksingers. It was from these conversations and relationship that his reflective writing on oral history emerged, and continued. He is here to talk with students about in the Oral History Master’s Program about the genesis of oral history in the academy, to answer questions, and to engage.

We ask Professor Portelli about oral history's struggle for acceptance and respect as a discipline within the university; and he tells us that only now, over 30 years into his celebrated career as an oral historian, is he teaching his first classes on oral history per se. He is teaching simultaneously this spring semester in Columbia's Oral History Masters Program, the only program of its kind in the United States, and also at Princeton. There he is teaching a seminar on Bruce Springsteen, resonating as “The Boss” does with his early interest in folk music and his being a professor of American literature. At Columbia he is teaching a seminar on his own writings and work in oral history, memory and meaning making.

Until now, he tells us, he has been teaching American literature at the University of Rome and elsewhere, while working and writing and operating as an oral historian. That was his “in” to the academy he explains (before literature he'd studied law), adding that Luisa Passerini as well had to publish a conventional history in order to secure her university position before moving on to a career as oral historian. All of his work so far has been self-funded he tells us, emphasizing that he learned reflexively about oral history by doing it along the way. This is evident in his writings which are deeply memoiric, his research questions and psychic exchanges often on display. Initially he would spend hours transcribing his interviews, something he tells us gave him a bad back but also forced him to listen deeply. Now he tells us, he has help with this.

The relationship between oral history and the academy is definitely changing. Before Portelli, oral history was restrained by skepticisms around its supposed historical accuracy. It was dogged by questions such as did such-and-such, that this person is telling you, actually happen in that exact way? At that exact time? People were concerned. How could hearsay be taken as fact? How could there be many ways to remember history, version that often contradicted public facts. We ask him about this.

Portelli made studying the space between what happened, what is remembered, and what is being told the point of oral history. In his talk with us he called this turning “the question of factual accuracy on its head.” It is what has established him as one of the fathers of oral history as an academic discipline. In explanation he underscores the now well known fact that each narrative is made up of two events: what is being told and the fact that it is being told. It is the time of meaning making between the event and the telling that is also of interest to the oral historian, he explains. It is this contribution of Professor Portelli's that has given oral history its foothold in the academy. “We are using oral history to find about facts,” he tells us, “what people remember and what they forget.” What Portelli calls the “interference” of the oral historian is thereby cast as the resource. The space between teller and listener becomes valuable as the effect they have on each other, and creating the space between, is analyzed and acknowledged.

Portelli circles the question of oral history, in gaining traction in the academy and becoming something of an interdisciplinary-discipline, losing much of its subversive and destabilizing potential? It's a question he doesn't answer head on, telling us only that it has become more conservative as it has entered the academy, and the question of its being subversive is now being questioned. For those of us drawn to oral history as a mutually pedagogical research methodology because of its promise as an experiment in equality: these are important questions to bear in mind going forward, probing and expanding the frontiers of oral history while prioritizing still its political orientation towards egalitarianism, respect and mutual curiosity.