Showing posts with label oral history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label oral history. Show all posts

Friday, November 10, 2017

Listen to Veterans: the Student, Citizen, Soldier Oral History Project

Veterans of the armed services aren't visible in our public and political culture because they aren't statistically significant.  That's what Tom Landers, an Army veteran and a graduate student in History at Salem State University, reminds us in an oral history with historian Andrew Darien for an important oral history project that launches for Veterans Day.

Support for veterans' benefits and accolades for their service spike during campaign season, but once the spotlights fade, political leaders shirk their promises.  U.S. veterans fade back into the shadows of American society.  We rarely see or hear them speak for themselves about war, politics, or the short and long term effects and implications of their military service.  They become a convenient soundbyte.  In many cases, their history gets used for others' gain.

Over the past five years, Salem State University has grown its enrollment of veterans, thanks in large part to the Veteran Assistants Veteran Integration to Academic Leadership program, also known as VITAL.  SSU has the largest enrollment of veterans out of any of the Massachusetts state colleges and universities and has been lauded for its military-friendly policies and programs.  A strong Veteran's Affairs office and an active student association for veterans have empowered veterans to claim their space at the institution.  We are a bettter place because of them.


Veterans in the classroom are often more motivated, outspoken and unabashed about their commitment to learn and excel in school.  In my history classes, they bring experience, insight and incisive questions to discussions about war, colonialism and the myriad ways we see power wielded by different people and groups. They get support from a Veteran Scholars Learning Community, which connects first year veterans in an interdisciplinary approach to history, literacture, writing and public speaking. Darien teaches in this program with fellow SSU faculty Kim Poitevan, Julie Batten and Julie Kiernan. 

Veterans are diverse and difficult to categorize.  They bring their own complex biographies to their service and to their college journeys alike.  Student, Citizen, Soldier, Darien's project, undertaken with his Oral History students, brings together veterans' voices while preserving and celebrating the unique histories, experiences and voices of the men and women who comprise the veterans' community at Salem State.

Student, Citizen, Soldier offers insight and invites us to get to know the veterans in our midst.  Drew developed this project as he does everything, carefully and thoughtfully.  Whether he conducted the interviews, or his students did, the emphasis here is on creating a comfortable contemplative space for participants to examine their own roles as students, citizens and veterans.

The project does not create a hagiography of militarism, nor does it romanticize or valorize war or military service.  It invites viewers to engage with the men and women in uniform on a variety of issues, from the reality of IEDs to the struggles with pain management and opiod addiction to insights into US foreign policy.

Today, Veterans Day, you have an opportunity to listen, to really listen, to veterans.  Take it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

LIve on Grundy CountyTV with my Students

This was a really fun TV appearance with three of my best and most delightful students. There is so much I could say here about our Highlander efforts and about how hard these students work, but you should just watch the segment:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Since when were the Gardaí on the other side of the Northern Ireland conflict?

Today, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience announced its grant awards for 2016.



Photo courtesy of SHOUT
One grant was awarded to an organization called  Diversity Challenges, whose mission is "to assist culturally specific groups in integrating community relations principles and considerations within all aspects of their work."

(No, I don't actually know what that means either.)

According to the Sites of Conscience the grant will fund “Voices from the Vault,” a project that collects stories from former police officers in two police forces on either side of the (Northern Ireland) conflict. The work is groundbreaking in the sense that it is uncommon for state agents in any dispute to talk about their experiences."

Ummmm, what?

As a public historian, I tend to dismiss academics who get petty about semantics.  They always seem to have an air of the kid in the front of the room just dying to get the answer right. (The kid waving their hand in the air so hard you think they might pee themselves.)


As an historian of Northern Ireland, though, this term "on both sides of the conflict" jarred.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Night Will Fall: A Meditation on Representation

At ceremonies and pilgrimages, through newspaper accounts and private reflection, people around the world observed the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last week.  It has become a touchstone date, a moment for remembrance, a call to witness. 

Perhaps the ghosts of the Holocaust were with us as well.  In a locked room at Auschwitz in which an the Italian television crew and Jewish leaders found themselves trapped. Amidst silence and candlelight at vigils across the globe.  
And in André Singers' film "Night Will Fall," which aired around the world on January 27th.


Night Will Fall is a film about witnessing.  About survival amidst death. About the ways to tell a story, the impact of the visual, the politics of evidence.  About the power of solid historical research to deepen our understanding of both the past and the horizons and the limits of our humanity.  It is a difficult and necessary film.


There's been much ado about the documentary, and for good reason.  It introduces most viewers to historical newsreel footage of the Allied liberation of Nazi concentration camps that British filmmaker Sidney Bernstein used to create the film "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey."  Bernstein's film was never completed, the project ultimately axed because the US Army withdrew its footage due to fears of alienating Germans at a critical point in the early Cold War.  

Some of the US footage was used by Billy Wilder, an Austrian Jew and Hollywood director , members of whose immediate family were killed in the Holocaust.  Wilder produced "Death Mills" for the U.S. Department of War.  Its purpose was perhaps best expressed by the intro for US audiences to the English language version of the short film, which played in German in cities and towns across occupied Germany and Austria to showcase Nazi atrocities.  "It is a reminder that behind the curtain of Nazi pageants and parades, millions of men, women and children were tortured to death -- the worst mass murder in human history." The Bernstein film that was never made, (until recently under guidance of the Imperial War Museums staff,) was a subtler, more evocative exposé.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"Humbling Moments" at the Oral History Association Meeting

While I wait in the airport for my husband to finish running a half marathon and then drag himself to come get me,  it's a good time to write a quick post about the 2014 Oral History Association Meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. 


It was my first OHA meeting.  Seasoned oral historians and experts on reflection and analysis of the interview process Stacey Zembrzycki and Anna Sheftel invited me to participate in a roundtable conversation on humbling moments because of my insistence on discussing failure in community collaborations more openly last spring at the 2014 National Council on Public History annual meeting

The panel also included the trailblazing feminist oral historian Sherna Berger Gluck and Janis Thiessen, a thoughtful and critical historian of Canadian labor, business and religion.  We had really good attendance and a remarkably rich and flowing conversation, given the fact that there were about forty people in the room.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Return to Sender: Lessons from Boston College' s Belfast Project


On Tuesday, May 6th, Boston College’s Director of Public Affairs, Jack Dunn, announced that ‘The Belfast Project” oral history initiative would honor all requests from participants to return recordings and transcripts of interviews not currently in use as evidence in the murder investigation of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972.  The college will keep no copies. The information in the interviews will remain known only to the interviewers, a few Boston College employees and William Young, a federal district court judge who read the transcripts to determine which ones should be delivered to Northern Irish authorities under a treaty governing exchanges of information between nations for the purposes of law enforcement. 

Boston College’s decision came on the heels of events last week, when the Police Service of Northern Ireland held Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams for questioning about his involvement in the McConville murder.   Evidence came directly from the Belfast Project interviews.  The move by the PSNI invited new scrutiny on an oral history project that has already been the focus of very public controversy, as Beth McMurtrie laid out in her detailed investigative piece published last January in The Chronicle of Higher Education

News that the recordings and transcripts would be returned was surely met with relief by former republican and loyalist combatants who had agreed to share their stories from the front lines of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, a thirty-year period of political turmoil and civil violence which left 3,700 people dead and approximately 10,000 injured.  Those interviewed had been promised confidentiality in exchange for honesty.  Interviewees revealed information about activities “the dogs on the street” may have known about, but which were rarely discussed on the record.  

For Anthony McIntyre, the former republican prisoner and scholar who conducted interviews with fellow ex-combatants, the public announcement was a “symbolic washing of the hands” on the part of Boston College, a way to distance itself from criticism emerging about the project.  While not pleased at being cast adrift by college administrators, McIntyre and others closely associated with the project agree that the information on the recordings was not safeguarded well.

While the case has implications for a wide scope of scholarly research, oral historians in particular have been watching the situation closely since 2011, when information from the interviews was first subpoenaed on the basis of material that project co-director, journalist Ed Moloney, included in his book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland  Moloney’s use of interviews by former IRA Belfast Brigade commander Brendan Hughes was in accordance with contracts signed by each interviewee forbidding access to interviews until after a participant’s death.  Hughes died in 2008; however, many of the people he discussed on the record remained very much alive.

An increasingly public and vitriolic disagreement has taken place about who is to blame for the exposure of paramilitary secrets, heating up over the past week when Northern Ireland’s republican community reacted to Adams’ arrest.  They slammed the Belfast Project as a vehicle for former republicans disgruntled by the way the peace process unfolded to air dirty laundry, lionize themselves and castigate their enemies within the movement. McIntyre has long been a vocal opponent of both Gerry Adams and post-1998 republicanism, fueling these suspicions. 

The project director, Moloney, and interviewers, McIntyre and Wilson McArthur, who have no professional experience with higher education institutions, say they took Boston College at its word that the material would remain confidential.  They believed the college would be an honest broker and that BC’s Burns Library Special Collections would not only process, catalogue and preserve the collection, but would keep the information it contained confidential.  College spokespeople say that project directors knew from the start that the information would only be protected as “far as American law will allow” and that Bob O’Neill, head of the Burns Library, specifically indicated that it was not clear the commitment to protect the information could withstand a federal court subpoena. 

The question remains: What can oral and public historians engaged in collecting and interpreting histories about controversial, divisive and difficult issues and events learn from the Belfast Project and its fallout? 

First, if you are serious about collecting and archiving sensitive historical material, put your publishing ambitions aside for the time being.  Ed Moloney’s use of information
provided in Hughes’ interview and his discussion about it it with a Boston Globe reporter in 2010 (Thomas Gagen, “Adams’ Secret, Now His Shame,” The Boston Globe, January  07, 2010) opened up this can of worms. 

Next, when addressing controversial histories, it is even more important to remember that interviews are not objective, disinterested, or omniscient sources.  We all know this, but in this case, the media keeps forgetting it.  Obsession with “what is on the tapes” obscures the larger issues around collecting histories in conflict and recent post-conflict zones, let alone the interpretative challenges of working with oral testimony. 

Third, in cases like this one, the institutional review board (IRB) is your friend.  Establishing protocols and taking the necessary precautions to locate control of materials with the interviewees, instead of with the institutions, probably would have made a difference in this case, where interviewees didn’t have final say on edits, redactions, deletions, pseudonyms or anonymity, etc.  They talked, and that was that.  Getting involved with high-stakes history means taking seriously that, well, the stakes are high.

Finally, the critical lesson I take away from this is an affirmation of our priorities as public and oral historians: Trust matters.  So does process.  All the players in the Boston College case got involved for different reasons and wanted different things from the project.  Understanding and identifying partners’ motivations is a necessary prerequisite for endeavors like this.  It is only through this process that those involved can gain a clear understanding of the stakes involved and the breaking point at which commitment to the project and to the relationships that sustain it might falter.  As this case proves, sharing authority is no simple proposition and the tools required to do with integrity are not reflexive or intuitive.  The fragile and failed relationships between project administrators, researchers and interviewees in this case should be a cautionary tale for us all.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Vanishing and Secret Apps: approximating ephemerality?


What we say on the record has changed radically over just the past five years or so.  I think it has also devalued the first-person narrative.  Basic economics, right, 'cause there's an awful lot of it out there.    So, of course, I am interested in how the way we communicate is changing.  There was an interesting article by Hiawatha Bray in the Boston Globe this morning about our reacquaintance with the value of privacy:

"You remember privacy, right? We were quite fond of it until the Internet came along. Then we started handing our personal data to anybody who promised us free e-mail service."  
Bray highlights apps like Wickr, SnapChat and Telegram, where ostensibly, the content of your conversations is deleted and erased.  Like a real time conversation, it is ephemeral.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

On Memory and Methodology


 Academic historians tend to have a favorite question for me.  I was recently asked it and I didn't know how to respond. I wish I could say that it is irrelevant to my interests and concerns. However, it actually does matter quite a bit, though it matters differently for me, I think, than it does in the way the askers intend.

 The question is always a very polite and well-intentioned attempt to ask me if I missed the memo that tells historians that memories are untrustworthy as sources of historical information.  "You do know that you aren't supposed to trust memories to be descriptive of actual events, right? Right? OK.  As long as you know."  




"Memory is a poet, not an historian."


Historians tend to criticize the use of remembrance as a source for interpreting the past.  It is OK to discuss people's remembrances and recollections of the past only as long as one does not suggest that those recollections relate in any meaningful way to what actually happened.  Memories are partial, subjective, always in flux, in motion.  People misremember.  They embellish.  They reorder events and their significance, sometimes to align with others' memories, often to make the present make more sense.