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Doing Oral History in Chicago: A recap

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to take part in the Oral History Summer School in Chicago. I’ve been excited about the potential of oral history since before returning to grad school. Now as a grad student, I am designing and carrying out my own oral history project for the first time—a really rewarding (and often bumpy) learning process in itself! I’ve also been drawn into May Chazan’s research, which does really interesting things with oral history methods, centring the stories of the women taking part in the research, and making meaning collaboratively with them. Juggling these many interests, I was so excited to head down to Chicago to join a like-minded group of oral history nerds.

Oral History Summer School is an intensive eight-day course on oral history methods, ethics and practice, where students are encouraged to really interrogate what oral history can and should look like, and how it can be mobilized in empowering ways. Coming from the sometimes isolating world of graduate school, it was incredibly refreshing to be in a group that was full of people doing exciting things outside of the hallowed halls of academia, as well as inside. We were a dynamic mix of academics, journalists, documentarians, community organizers, archivists, artists, and more. I learned as much from my classmates and their questions as from our instructor, Suzanne Snider.

We spent hours discussing and workshopping the craft of the interview. I learned more than I thought was possible about the art of the open-ended question (it’s harder than it sounds). My classmates and I also struggled to get comfortable with the idea that silence—many, many seconds of silence—is not only okay in an oral history interview, but is often crucial and can transform an interview dynamic. One of the most rewarding parts of the course was the opportunity to actually conduct several life history interviews, putting into practice all that we discussed during the week. In terms of putting oral history to emancipatory ends, we had the privilege of learning more about the incredible activism of a local collective, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. Their campaigning recently led the City of Chicago to pass unprecedented reparations legislation, and now they are looking to use oral history to continue their political and educational work.

Check out their amazing work:

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