This is a piece about using technology to document and preserve as well as connect anew. It is also about advocating for audio documentation as a break from the insistent and incessant visual realm. Rest your screen eyes (after you read this) and just listen. I hereby issue a challenge to you: this Thanksgiving, be the weird/annoying relative/friend who is always up to something and can’t just relax in front of the parade, dog show, or Detroit Lions. Tell them you just have to do this one thing…
Select one relative or friend, perhaps a parent or the oldest person at dinner, and ask to interview him or her. If you have a smart phone, then you have a piece of recording technology John and Ruby Terrill Lomax could scarcely have imagined when they lugged around heavy equipment like this in the 1930s:
Even without an external directional microphone, the voice recording feature on smart phones is an incredible tool. The oral history project StoryCorps has declared the day after Thanksgiving “National Day of Listening.” I see this as a very intentional effort to combat the competitive shopping delirium of “black Friday.” StoryCorps provides an excellent list of questions that suit a variety of themes such as Working, Religion, Family Heritage, and War.
Even if you think you’ve heard every one of a person’s stories one hundred times, themes can open new territory. When I interviewed my father in the StoryCorps booth in 2007, I focused on his childhood memories of World War II. He had told me many times about peeling the foil from the paper of Wrigley’s gum wrappers and getting cash for the foil. But it was not until the recorded interview that he described the profound trauma of seeing news reels with concentration camp footage during Saturday movie matinees. I have a CD of the interview, and it remains startling when my father bursts into tears on the recording.
Starter questions such as “what is your earliest memory?” or “what are you proudest of?” put people in the zone of recollection. These questions can break surfaces that, through habit and routine, have congealed over something potentially rich and evocative; like a dull skin coating a luscious mousse. If you take up this challenge to conduct a Thanksgiving interview, and do wind up breaking through the stubborn skin to discover something profound, please report back to the blog and share your experience.
When we conduct interviews, we are not only communicating across various entities (curricula, generations, turkeys); we are creating primary documents for the potential researchers of tomorrow. A Speaker’s Guidebook (O’Hair et al.) discusses the use of different types of evidence for making a strong, clear argument. The types of evidence include: extended, brief, and hypothetical examples; lay and expert testimony; narrative or anecdote; facts; and statistics. The oral history interview potentially provides the listener / would-be researcher with most of these types of evidence. In this Lomax recording of
the Lomaxes intended to document a short lullaby, but inadvertently documented the use / employment of a black woman transplanted from Virginia to Texas who nursed well over a dozen white children across two generations. This snippet of musical ethnography suddenly becomes relevant to the research of labor historians, women’s studies scholars, African Americanists, and southern culture historians, to name a few.
Not only can interviewing foster emotional connections and provide future researchers with material, it can be a powerful and effective pedagogical tool. When I taught Introduction to Acting at Baruch, the final assignment of the semester was for each student to interview a family member and to create a monologue drawn from that interview. The project was inspired by the performer Anna Deavere Smith. Smith’s bio describes an approach to performance that “combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance.”
Whatever one thinks of Smith’s final performances, her methodology provided a strong model for my class. Students conducted the interviews, edited them for clarity and narrative focus, and formulated blocking choices based on the emotional beats. Without exception, the work was much more affecting, detailed, and fully realized than anything that had come out of students selecting monologues from edited collections.