Steven Puente is a current OHMA student. In this blog post, he discusses the importance of public facing work in oral history.
I’ve been listening to some old music – like 2003 old. The band is Grandaddy, the album is Sumday. It was an album that made lyrical sense to me. The band’s front man, and songwriter, Jason Lytle wrote lyrics in a way that was at the time, revealing. His openness to sing what he was feeling was (for me) perfect. His ideas seemed to speak to me and for me - simultaneously. Here is an example of that, from the song I’m on standby:
I’m good at saying, “I gotta go”
Number one at saying, “I don’t know”
But from the stories that I heard
You humans require more words
Ok- so why am I talking about a singer songwriter from 2003, in an Oral History blog? And why should you care? I’m not sure? Yet, this might be the point. The world of digital media is making everything so accessible that scarcity seems to be a marketing ploy. Who is speaking to us? I miss the days when I thought I knew. Why does it seem that more words are being used than necessary? Have we reached a point where the Internet and its content need curating? There is a lot of noise out there.
“Hear Our Stories,” a collaboration with the Center for Digital Storytelling and researchers at University of Massachusetts Amherst who are using digital media to tell human stories in a human way. Going back to the Grandaddy lyrics “you humans require more words”– Hear Our Stories is flipping the script, and saying less is more. The digital stories they create are short and focused, without sacrificing complexity. Having professors Aline Gubrium and Elizabeth L. Krause at Columbia University showcasing their research was such a fresh breeze. Their openness about themselves and their project spoke to the rigor of public facing work. It reminds me of Portelli when he talks of his approach to oral history interviews as being an experiment in equality. Elizabeth and Aline exemplified this in their presentation. They talked openly about the difficulties in the work and the many barriers overcome to create rigorous work. The placed themselves at eye level with those they collaborated with including young Latinas in Holyoke, MA. To look directly at someone requires an openness that I think both professors embodied. This is the rigor Ann Cvetkovich talks about. Ann talks of openness being the rigor not academia. Openness, she says, is a necessity for research that is public facing. For a researcher to look into the eyes of their collaborators and allow the curiosity to return its gaze is arduous.
Collaborating with Center for Digital Storytelling is a fresh approach to an old problem: How do I get people listen to my story? And what this is really saying: How can people appreciate the history I come from? For me digital storytelling -- using audiovisual techniques in the form of short videos to be seen on-line -- is a shorthand tool to get people to listen. How deeply are they listening? I don’t know. This type of work is young compared to the radio and TV programing and even younger compared to film. Yet, what it has in common is an idea.
The idea behind Hear Our Stories is simple and in the title. Young parenting Latinas are trying to change the world’s opinion about their history. They are standing up and sharing their story. Here is a great example told by Daisy:
Sometimes Daisy feels like a bad mother because she doesn’t get to spend as much time as she’d like with her son. Though she often becomes frustrated and overwhelmed, Daisy tries to find joy in simple moments. “When he throws his food on the clean floor, he makes a face, and he laughs,” she says. “Even though I don’t want to, I laugh too.”
The lyrical words, You humans require more words, makes me smile every time I hear it. Because Jason is right, so many humans, including myself, talk and talk and talk. This is great for an Oral Historian needing an interview. Yet if you are like me, I don’t want just any dialogic interview, I want a conversation filled with meaning and purpose. I think Daisy’s digital storytelling is getting at something greater. She is helping us to have appreciation for a story that gets to the point and says something. A story with a voice. A belief of mine is that you can hear people’s stories through knowing your own. And getting a story to a place worth listening to takes time and patience. The process of storytelling no matter the format is rigorous and at times painful. You have to be open. I could hear the openness in the voice of Daisy. I experienced the openness in Daisy’s professor friends. It was beautiful. To listen deeply is not just radical, it requires openness.
I hope OHMA will continue to showcase and produce public facing research.
Aline Gubrium Associate Professor of Public Health and medical anthropologist at the is author of Participatory Visual and Digital Methods (Left Coast Press, 2013)
Elizabeth L. Krause is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and author of the blurred genre Unraveled: A Weaver’s Tale of Life Gone Modern (University of California Press, 2009)