Alighting on Love

When I set out to collect oral histories, I did not expect to hear any love stories. After all, I was asking about neighborhood change, social services, Jewish communal politics, interethnic relations... heavy stuff! And yet, I've heard about how people met and fell in love and started families and raised children and shepherded those children towards love and families of their own. I did not anticipate this, and that was an oversight as a historian and as a human. I became too focused on conflict, too focused on struggles and tensions and negotiations--I began to overlook that the 1950s and 60's and '70s were also decades filled with love and growth. So I'm re-adjusting my perspective and trying to keep the pendulum from swinging too far in either direction, rosy sunshine to doomy gloom. 

I can't share the stories that I've collected here, so might I recommend checking out the New York Times' Summer Love feature? And I'll leave you with one of my favorite summer love songs: 

Early Lessons

As I described in my last post, my entrée into oral history was a solo pursuit, albeit one aided and abetted by the published wisdom of more experienced practitioners. Between books, websites, Amazon reviews, and some old fashioned trial and error, here are a few of the lessons I have learned so far:

1. With equipment, less can be more. When I first decided that I would like to incorporate oral histories into my dissertation, I assumed that I would need an expensive recorder and microphone. While I am sure that these technologies would improve the sound quality of my recordings, I have been very satisfied with the low-budget, low-tech equipment I ended up purchasing. I selected the Olympus WS-822 GMT Voice Recorders with 4 GB Built-In-Memory because, for under $100, it offered sufficient memory, a built-in USB, and had a 4.4 (out of 5) star rating on Amazon. Having done almost 20 hours of interviewing with it so far, I can attest that the memory is indeed quite capacious. I often have multiple interviews stored on the device at once, because I do not delete them until I have two copies on my hard drive, one in cloud backup, and two audio copies burned to CD-R. It has a feature where you can save recordings into folders, and although it's a simple A-E folder system that cannot be renamed or re-ordered, I find it offers just enough organization so that I don't make silly mix-ups. The built-in USB is probably my favorite feature, though, because I simply drag and drop files onto my Desktop as soon as I finish an interview. Finally, the battery life is excellent--though I replace the battery after every 2-3 sessions because all of the advice I've read says that it pays to be paranoid. 

I pair the recorder with the Olympus ME-52W Noise Canceling Microphone. Amazon suggested it when I selected the recorder, as one of the "frequently purchased with" items. I'm very, very happy I spent the extra $13 and would highly recommend it, with a few reservations. I have found that, when clipped to my interviewers shirt, it picks up both of our voices quite nicely. My voice is strong and I am careful to speak up and enunciate when I ask my questions, but the mic has also successfully captured a few lower and raspier voices. The noise canceling feature is difficult to evaluate because I've predominantly used it in quiet office environments, but I still think it does a decent job of buffering out background noises. My biggest reservation is that the lapel clip on the  mic requires some agility--the clip is quite tight and the grip is not ergonomic--and several of my interviewees have struggled with attaching it to their shirts. Overall, however, I think it's a bargain and definitely worth trying out!

2. Don't ask for more consent than is necessary. After reading Doing Oral History, I decided that I needed a "Gift of Deed" form from each of my interviewees. The form asked interviewees to release their copyright claims (to the audio and transcript of their interview) to me and to an archive where I would eventually donate their oral history. I decided on this for two reasons. First, it's a "best practice" in oral history to make interviews accessible to the broader public by giving them to a library. Second, the book was written for someone seeking to do a large oral history project on a broad topic (and not, say, as a small part of a dissertation). In that case, the whole project would be designed with an archive or library in mind. After my first interview, I realized that a "deed of gift" form was too much, too soon. Asking people to release their copyright was an intimidating and legalistic request, especially for the small possibility that I might donate the oral histories in the future. I would like to do this eventually, and think what I have collected would be of immense value to academics in many disciplines, but for now my focus is on gathering what's necessary to write my dissertation. The informed consent that I ended up drafting makes clear that my questions will relate to only a few topics (participation in or relationship to activities: at the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood; within the Jewish community of northern Manhattan; or in other venues that attempted to create or improve interethnic/interracial relations amongst neighborhood residents), and then clearly states how I will use the interviews:  

Your taped interview and transcript may be quoted directly, paraphrased, or used to interpret historical events within Avigail Oren’s dissertation project and related research studies (such as articles, conference papers, and presentations).

I think this is the right balance of information for an ethical informed consent; it allows people to make an educated decision about what they will say or discuss on the record, but does not discourage a good conversation by burdening the interview with the potential judgement of a future public (that may or may not materialize). I have verbally told each interviewee about the possibility of donating their oral histories in the future, and when the time comes I will work with an archivist and my interviewees to properly and ethically make their materials public. 

3. "Why?" is better than "How?". It seems obvious, but the hardest part of this project for me has been accepting that people don't necessarily remember the historical events that are important to me and my dissertation. Memories are solidified as narratives, and details often fall out of stories over the course of time. I have heard some really beautiful and compelling stories, many of which are historically very interesting, but they only tangentially answer my questions about how something happened. When I press for details, people often just cannot remember. My friend, who has several years of experience with oral history, suggested that I incorporate more "why" questions. For example, if someone cannot remember an event you offer them details and then ask "why do you think this happened that way?" Or, "why did you/he/she/they make that decision?"  The idea is that people remember their motivations and interests more vividly than they recall the particularities of an event. I've only had one opportunity so far to incorporate this strategy, so I will have to report back on its efficacy.

I could not have done this project without the advice and support of books, the internet, and friends, but, as with any pursuit, there are some things you just have to learn by doing it!

A Primer in Oral History Methodology

Because my department does not offer a regular course or training in oral history, I had to teach myself how, exactly, one goes about interviewing people about their pasts.  When I interned at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in 2012, I had the good fortune to observe another intern as she worked on an oral history project for an upcoming exhibit. She was also a graduate student, but in a program specializing in public history. As part of her training, she took a course that discussed the ethics and best practices of oral history as well as the practicalities of interviewing. From our discussions, I learned that it was not as simple as sitting down with someone, turning on a tape recorder, and asking them questions. 

Three years later, as I began to prepare for my own project, I recalled this colleague and her giant  textbook on oral history. I turned to the internet to find my own guide, and after reading several reviews settled upon Donald A. Ritchie's Doing Oral History. I liked that it combined a theoretical discussion of the practice with a step-by-step guide to setting up a new project. While there are many brilliant texts out there that delve into the ethics of representation, the power dynamics inherent in the interview process, and the problems of memory, I felt that for my small, limited project I only needed a summary of these major debates.

I found the second and third chapters of Doing Oral History to be most useful for preparing well-structured interviews questions. Ritchie stresses that interviews should elicit remembrances relevant beyond the scope of a narrow project so that other historians may find them useful, and so I have taken great care to ask each interviewee a few questions about parts their lives unrelated to the events I am studying. Even more importantly, Ritchie emphasizes that questions should not lead interviewees to confirm hypotheses. Without reading his advice, I probably would have unwittingly asked questions that were too specific. My attempts to solicit the information I needed might have limited my subjects' responses in ways that, although confirming my argument, obscured feelings and events that complicated or contradicted my interpretation. 

I also relied on a few other sources for thinking about responsible consent practices for my interviews. Most basic, but also most helpful, is the Oral History Association's Principles and Best Practices.  I also really liked the section on "Establishing Ethical Relationships" in the Baylor University Institute for Oral History's "Introduction to Oral History." Finally, the informed consent form I drafted for my project is loosely modeled after this one from Boston College.

Now that I have four interviews under my belt, I think it's safe to say that without these resources I may have gotten the job done, but not done well. While there are still things I want to improve about my interview technique--more on that later--I'm getting the information I need to better understand the history of Washington Heights-Inwood and the YM-YWHA. 

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

I received generous grant funding to spend July conducting oral history interviews for my dissertation. Oral history is the practice of interviewing (and, commonly, recording) an individual as they recollect their life or an important historical event. I am asking longtime members of the YM-YWHA and longtime residents of Washington Heights-Inwood to tell me about what it was like in the neighborhood during the 1970s and '80s. Although each interview is different, the common questions that I've posed to each interviewee ask them to describe how the Y managed to provide for the social welfare of northern Manhattan's Jewish community at the same time that they served the needs of the non-Jewish community, particularly the growing population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. 

These oral histories are valuable to me for a few reasons. Most basically, the more sources you have describing a historical event, the better. Whether they confirm each others' descriptions or contradict one another, a multiplicity of accounts yields insight. Moreover, with the addition of these testimonies my interpretation of historical events becomes less dependent on organizational records from the Y or the Jewish Welfare Board or the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York. It gives me individual perspectives to consider, beyond the view provided in the Y's Board meeting minutes. Finally, it allows me to ask about issues or events that were left out of other records. 

So far, I've spoken with two staff members at the Y and a community activist who participated in this history in the 1970s and '80s (and have continued to contribute up to the present day). In the coming week, I am scheduled to interview two Y Board members who've had similarly lengthy tenures. I hope to continue adding more individuals to my docket in the coming weeks!

Riverdale, Bronx, NY

I must conclude by expressing gratitude to the American Academy of Jewish Research and the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History for making this research possible. 

Wind Down, Gear Up

As I watch my colleagues fighting their way across the finish line of the spring semester, I feel like my year is just now getting started. Perhaps that's because it's been almost a year since I defended my dissertation prospectus, became ABD, and began researching and writing my dissertation. I also had a fellowship this year that released me from my teaching duties, and so I never felt particularly moored to the rhythm of the academic calendar. If the Jewish new year coincides with the commencement of the academic year in the fall, and the Gregorian calendar resets in January, then it just feels right to celebrate some kind of New Year in the spring. May has become my Dissertation New Year, a time to be inspired by the accomplishments of the last twelve months and an opportunity to make resolutions for the next phase.

I am starting two major projects in the coming weeks. The first is an oral history project at the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood. I will interview staff and members who have been affiliated with the agency since the 1960s or 1970s. These oral histories will provide additional perspectives on the events that took place at the Y and in Washington Heights during these tumultuous decades. My travel and time in New York will be supported by a generous grant from the American Academy for Jewish Research. 

The second project is a bit out of left field, but I'm very excited about it. I will be conducting a corpus analysis to identify when the term "ghetto" was adopted by African Americans to describe  segregated urban neighborhoods in the United States. I will write about this in more detail in the coming weeks, because corpus analysis is not a methodology commonly used by American historians. It's part of an increasingly popular field called the digital humanities, and I've recently had the opportunity to learn about and practice methods for using digital tools in scholarly research and dissemination.

I feel rejuvenated by these new undertakings. Each is its own education and brings with it a new set of logistics. It's crazy but fun, and somehow I'm still managing to write my dissertation in fits and starts. Stay tuned for more.