Scholars discuss oral history in research

The featured image above depicts the subject of an oral history project by Nicholas Hirshon, New York Mayor John Lindsay, speaking in 1965. (Photo from the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)

podcastlogoFor the fourth episode of the Journalism History podcast, the podcast team recorded a panel at the American Journalism Historians Association 2018 national convention in Salt Lake City.

This panel discusses how to incorporate oral histories into research that will ultimately get published.

Panelists were David Caruso, Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, podcast host Nicholas Hirshon, and Ford Risley.

This episode is sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists chapter at William Paterson University in New Jersey.



Nick Hirshon: [00:00:10] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through your own drafts of history.

This episode is sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists chapter at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

Oral history allows scholars to walk away from the microfilm reader, depart the dusty archives, and discover new perspectives on history through interviews with the people who lived it. In this episode, we will listen in on a panel discussion among five oral historians that took place at the recent conference of the American Journalism Historians Association in Salt Lake City, Utah. You’ll hear from David Caruso, the editor of The Oral History Review, followed by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez of the University of Texas, then from myself, Nick Hirshon of William Paterson University, and finally from Ford Risley of Penn State University, the editor of American Journalism.

David Caruso: [00:01:18] Thank you very much, and thank you for having me today. So, I thought what I would do is talk a little bit about the journal, what we tend to publish, what we don’t publish.

[00:01:28] I also provide an example of something that we would probably be interested in, using some of the material that I research on. Clearly, I can’t submit to the journal at this point in time, but I think it can give you a general sense of some of the things that we’d be interested in seeing in our journal. So The Oral History Review is the journal of record for the Oral History Association. It’s been published since the mid-1970s. Currently, we have two issues coming out per year, roughly 200-250 pages per issue. Each issue has roughly three or four articles, a number of book reviews, and media reviews as well. The individuals that send us articles do give us a wide variety of material to look at.

One of the things that I would say immediately is that while we are The Oral History Review, we are not the journal that just publishes oral history interviews. So, if you’ve gone out and you’ve interviewed someone, even if it’s a very interesting and dynamic interview, we’re not just going to publish that in its entirety. That’s not what we’re really interested in. What we look out at for The Oral History Review are individuals who are using oral history as a methodology and engaging a bit with that methodology in the papers that they wind up submitting to the journal. So, it’s not just, ‘I interviewed someone, I learned something interesting, let me tell you what I learned,’ it’s thinking a little more deeply about the process itself and talking about that process, while also recounting some of the stories that you learned or trying to tell the narrative that you’re interested in conveying.

We do have two to three types of articles that we wind up accepting in the journal on a regular basis. A traditional-length piece you’d find in any other type of journal. We also accept short-form pieces. These are much more theoretical, much more interesting idea kind of pieces, they don’t necessarily have to be fully fleshed out. They don’t need necessarily to be grounded in oral history methodology and other theory, just about exploring a new idea you may not have answers to yet but could be of interest to the oral history community itself. One that comes to mind almost immediately is a piece that someone submitted recently that gets into the idea of when we talk to individuals who are victims of some sort of trauma, there are times where while we’re speaking with that individual, we may hear about a trauma we haven’t been expecting, or maybe interviewing someone generally, because of the nature of oral history, someone feels very open and actually tells us about a trauma experience that we weren’t expecting as interviewers. This author explored the idea of what to do in situations when you are exposed to a trauma that you didn’t expect to hear and how do you handle that with the interviewee. That was a relatively short-form piece that we will be publishing in the journal.

But to give you a sense of generally what it is that we wind up publishing, I thought I would talk a little bit about one of the projects that I’m currently working on that focuses on science and disability. It really is a project that focuses on individuals in science, engineering, technology, and medicine who had to adapt the way that they work to fit within “disabled” research structures. They’ve adapted research structures to fit their “disabilities” or have decided to pursue different careers, career objectives because of current research structures. You can think of this in terms of the physicality of it. I’m sure everyone here has done or participated in some sort of science, or lab even, in high school, middle school, college. Think about the layout of that lab and the benches that you tend to work at. They’re set at a very specific height. If you cannot stand up, how do you work at that bench? If the aisle ways are narrow and you’re in a wheelchair, how do you navigate down those aisles to get to the lab space? If you need to reach something that’s stored high up, how do you do so?

So, those physical structures are sort of preventing people in certain ways from participation in science and technology. It’s not just the physical aspects. If you suffer from autism spectrum disorder or some other social anxiety, a lot of science is about interacting with other individuals, developing collaborations. How can you negotiate those spaces with those types of disabilities? So, that’s really what the project is focusing on. And just to provide one specific example of something that I encountered that was new to me during the course of the project, I had never interviewed someone who was deaf before and during the course of interviewing a scientist who was deaf, we were using interpreters, sign language interpreters, to convey information back and forth. What I began to realize during the course of that interview is I rely very much on facial expressions, the tone of my voice, to convey a certain amount of information to my interviewees. Sometimes I don’t actually ask full questions. I trail off at the end because what I’m getting at tends to be implied.

But when I have an interpreter in the room, and that’s being translated in a certain way, what I’m doing with my voice really has no meaning. So, if I were interested in writing a piece for The Oral History Review, I would talk about what I’m learning from interviewing scientists with disabilities. But I would also talk about some of the complexities of doing the project from an oral history methodology or practice perspective. What does it mean to be using interpreters or how those interpreters convey information for me? One of the things that we’ve also come to realize in the project is that when we have transcripts of those interviews, the transcripts are based on what I said and what the interpreters responded, not what the individual signed. There have been instances where the interviewee has told me, ‘What the interpreter said is not what I signed.’ So, my responses to what the interviewees said or my follow-up questions don’t always make sense because there was something lost in translation. So, if someone submitted an article to me talking about the project itself, some of the results of the project, but also engaging with the difficulties surrounding conducting that project, that’s certainly something that I’d be very interested in publishing in the journal.

There are also times where we have individuals talking about pedagogy, ways to teach oral history, or how to engage students about oral history, so we do accept a broader list of topics for the journal. But again, I just wanted to stress that we’re not publishing oral history interviews that you conducted. You have to be engaging with the material in order for us to consider it.

We are a traditional journal in the sense that we do peer review for all of our pieces. Once they come in, we do a preliminary assessment to make sure that it meets with all our guidelines and we’ll contact oral historians to get their perspectives on the piece. Very often, I was looking at the statistics today, we have a roughly 30 to 40 percent acceptance rate. Part of that is we do regularly get people submitting just oral history interviews to us and those are rejected immediately. But there are a fair number of pieces that we receive that even if they are not engaging with the methodology in the way that we would like them to from the outset, we’re more than happy to work with authors to get them to explore that issue a bit more. And we still go through the peer review process, we determine that it does have relevant material for the journal. Once it’s been accepted for publication, then I start working with the authors directly to develop the pieces in ways that I think are most appropriate. Overall, from time of submission to time of publication, I’d say we’re on average about maybe nine months to a year, at most. A lot of that is dependent on the author’s timeframe, we find that it takes three or four months sometimes for an author to get to revisions. But that’s generally the process that we have for the journal and the types of articles that we’ve been interested in publishing in most recent years.

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez: [00:10:31] So, I’ve been doing oral history since 1999 and our project, it’s called the Voces Oral History Project, began as the U.S. Latinas and Latinos World War II Oral History Project. So, we were really devoted to the Latina and Latino World War II experience. We produced five books.

[00:11:12] How we’ve done it is, because I teach journalism and I come from a journalism background, my students would write journalistic treatments of their interviews or interviews somebody else did, and then we would do side-by-side edits from the interviews. And then it would go through a couple more revisions and fact-checking and copyediting. So, one of our books is exactly that, there’s summaries of those longer stories. You can find the longer versions of stories on our website, So, that’s one thing that we’ve been doing kind of as a matter of course.

But then we also wanted to incorporate not just oral history, but also some other work that other, mostly historians, have been doing on the Latina Latino World War II experience. So, the other four books are combinations of people that have used oral history and people who have just come from the history background and have really relied more heavily on archival and other secondary materials to fill out their chapters. The material that we’re developing and the research that we’re developing has, for the most part, really not been done before. So, the hard thing for us has been to tease out some of those themes and help scholars find ways developing that research. So, we’ve had a number of conferences and workshops. We’ve had workshops that were a week long, we’ve had other ones that were weekends long, to show them how they can incorporate oral history into some publishable, peer-reviewed research.

[00:13:00] So, we’ve spent some time on that. We launched our own journal, the U.S. Latina and Latino Oral History Journal, a year ago. Our next issue will be coming out this fall, I think sometime later this month. And that really does come out of wanting to promote the use of oral history in the study of research on Latinos and Latinas.

[00:13:28] We think that there’s people that are not from oral history backgrounds, that they’re really history backgrounds and we want them to incorporate oral history because we know that’s one of the few ways that you can get at research on the Latino experience. Our population oftentimes doesn’t have a lot of primary source materials other than oral histories, and a really scant amount of secondary materials. So, the way that we can get into this is really from conducting oral histories ourselves, so our journal is really a way to promote oral history in the study in research of Latinos and Latinas. So, one thing we did find as we were putting our journal together is that there was a real need to do some additional training. A lot of people that were doing oral history, and I’m sure that David has had this experience as well, really had not been trained as oral historians. And so what they were submitting to us, or what they were submitting just as ideas before we even launched, were ideas that really show that they didn’t have that necessary training.

[00:14:37] What we require, and I know this is true for David too, we require that whatever interviews are being incorporated into your research is actually recorded. We had instances of people who’d say, ‘I did an interview,’ but what they had was they had notes from an interview, which does not, in my book, classify as an oral history interview.

[00:15:00] They didn’t have consent forms. Even interviews that had been recorded and had been deposited at libraries and other archival repositories, they never got consent forms, and that’s required whenever you’re gonna get published.

[00:15:16] Some of them would have interviews that they had recorded and had been sitting in their closets for a number of years. And so we started an oral history institute, we did it the first time in 2017 and then again in 2018. We try to keep it really limited. It’s taught by me and Todd Moye, who’s the president of the Oral History Association. We limit it to two instructors of that. People come from around the country and they learn the basics of oral history, but also a big thing that we spend a lot of time on is using this for research, using it so you can publish oral histories. So, everybody has a different take on it and it’s really a vibrant community of scholars that gets together.

[00:16:06] So, that’s one thing that I work on. The other thing that I work on is also, through the AEJMC, we have a Trailblazers of Diversity in Journalism and Mass Communication, and that’s a much smaller project that we do. We do the interviews mostly at the AEJMC convention, we did, I think five, in Washington, D.C. These are videotaped interviews and the original interviews are housed here at the Briscoe Center for American History. We’ve done a few panel discussions and we’ve started putting together some treatments for research, but it’s on the website, unfortunately we don’t have a good URL to find it, so you have to do ‘trailblazers’ plus ‘Briscoe oral history center,’ ‘AEJMC.’ But, we do have those that are actually online and they’re synchronized. So there’s a transcript that is synchronized to the interview, which will make it much easier for interviewers or researchers to go through and find that part of the interview that they want to focus on and develop that into some research. I think the biggest challenge for most people that want to use oral history in their research is having it easily accessible.

[00:17:28] I know in our case, for the Latino Voces Oral History Project, we haven’t transcribed most of our interviews. So we are just doing a crowdsourcing project to be able to put synchronized transcripts and video up on our website. It’s extensive and it’s very time consuming, but for us to do that, we’re able to share what we have with scholars around the world and it’ll make for easier methods of research. So, I think that’s about all I have. Thank you.

Nick Hirshon: [00:18:13] So, alright, I’m here to talk about Giving History A voice, obviously the name of this panel, specifically how I used oral history interviews in my research on John “Mets” – meaning the New York Mets baseball team – Lindsay. And he was the mayor of New York in the 1960s. So, I’ll talk specifically about how I did that for a upcoming journal article that will be in American Journalism. And I’m from William Paterson University, by the way, in New Jersey. So, before I get into that, just to give you an idea of some other media history projects I’ve done that involved oral history, and I tend to research a lot of sports media topics, for those of you who don’t know about my research, and they’re from the latter half of the 20th century.

So, in most of the cases, the projects I’ve done involve people who are still alive, thankfully. When I first started doing this research when I was in my Ph.D. program at Ohio University, a lot of people were talking about oral history maybe not being accepted as a serious research method, and that we focused mostly on archival research, but I thought if we’re gonna do something that’s happening, for example, in the 1990s, there are plenty of people who have perspectives that have never been published before. So why don’t we go get them? So, just a few examples before I dive into the Lindsay stuff, I have an article coming out here, I’m sorry, this is the one that’s coming out in 2019 in American Journalism, about Phillies Jackpot Bowling. It’s a sports television show, one of the first shows to put bowling on TV and popularize bowling in 1959 to 1960 on NBC. Even though I was doing this research around 2015, there were actually four bowlers who appeared on the show in 1959 who were still alive and still willing to be interviewed, so a lot of people in their mid- to late 80s and early 90s who I was able to conduct phone interviews with for that piece, in addition to archival research and other sources. And then my doctoral dissertation, which is going to be published this fall, December 1, by the University of Nebraska Press, is called, We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders, hockey team. For that project, I interviewed 52 people who were somehow involved in rebranding the team.

[00:20:19] Essentially, they changed their logo to this, which looks a lot like the Gorton’s Fisherman logo. So I did interviews with designers, hockey players, executives who were involved in marketing this team, what went wrong. A lot of them had never done interviews before, so I couldn’t just rely on the traditional archival interview, archival research. I did some microfilm research and all of that too, of course, but I thought it added a very valuable perspective, and I’ll get into that when I look more specifically at Lindsay. So, just again to update you on this, and I was getting confused about the dates before, but this article that I wrote in American Journalism that I believe came out last year, was called, One More Miracle, and it was about the groundbreaking media campaign of John “Mets” Lindsay, as I said. He was the mayor of New York, elected in 1965, but when he’s running for a second term in 1969, he had alienated the middle-class white people and a lot of minorities.

There were concerns because when he came into office, there were strikes by subway workers, firefighters, police, teachers, and then there was a big snowstorm that he bungled, where the streets were not plowed for days, and that was the big thing that almost did him in. So, he actually loses the primary. He was a Republican and he actually loses the Republican primary for his seat, so he decides he is going to run as a Liberal Party member, even though he is the incumbent. One of the strategies he used was to find athletes who could be his surrogates. He came off as very elitist, patrician, he graduated from Yale. So, one of the ways he figured he’s going to reach out to minority voters and the white middle-class voters that he was losing, is have athletes come to his aid and say, ‘We can vouch for this guy,’ endorse him, and he’s one of the first politicians to really do this so effectively. So he decides to do it with what was my favorite baseball team growing up and to this day, sadly, the New York Mets.

[00:22:08] So, in 1969 the Mets started the season, 100-to-1 shots to win the pennant. And they had started out 1962, they had the worst record in major league baseball history, 40-120 is their record in their first season. But by 1969, they are starting to look up and eventually, you don’t need to get into all of this, but essentially they end up winning the World Series in very dramatic, spectacular fashion, and they call them the “Miracle Mets” because nobody expected them to win. This is all happening in October of 1969 right as we’re having the lead-up to the mayoral race. So, Lindsay realizes that he’s in New York, he can capitalize on this passion for the Mets by starting to associate himself with those players. When they clinch the pennant, and then again when they win the World Series, he’s in the clubhouse and players actually douse him with champagne.

So, you have this guy who has this image of being kind of stuffy and out of touch, but meanwhile all these athletes are just spraying him with champagne, it makes him look more accessible and it’s kind of a refreshing image for a politician. So, that’s the research that I was doing. But then we get into the oral history aspect of it, so how would you do this? Well, for that article I did look, at New York had five daily newspapers at that time.

So, I looked at all of them and their coverage of it, and there were a lot of photographs of Lindsay with the Mets. I did use traditional archives, like Lindsay went to Yale, so his archives were there, his papers, and New York mayors’ papers always go to the New York City Municipal Archives, so I went there for some of that. But I also tried to do oral history, because again, 1969 was not that long ago, when I was doing this research in 2015 about. So, I went to Lindsay’s aides, several of whom are still alive. Lindsay himself has passed away but his aides are still alive. Two of his children I interviewed, journalists who covered him, and a few Mets players, like the folks that I have up there on the screen who were the guys in the photographs actually spraying champagne on him. Since I keep mentioning it, there you see one of these images. So, both of these guys, Ed Kranepool and Rod Gaspar, I did interviews with about that moment. They’ve never really spoken much about it. It was something that I was just interested in because I had heard about it here and there growing up as a Mets fan. So, the value of oral history to this project. Then here you just see some of the newspaper coverage, you get a sense of, it was on the front page of the New York Times, it went national. It was in newspapers across the country, and aired on TV too.

[00:24:36] So, the value of oral history. So, what can oral history add to our research that maybe you can’t get from the newspaper article? A lot of color. And this came out certainly in my dissertation when I was interviewing those hockey players about “what do you think of this Gorton’s Fisherman-like logo, and this crazy coach you had,” and all these other issues that they had in that period. But, you know, just interviewing people like Rod Gaspar who you saw there pouring the champagne on Lindsay.

[00:25:02] I asked him, “Why did you do it?” You know, did you do it because there was some deeply held political feeling behind it, you wanted to help him win? You know, of course, as a historian you’re thinking like, this could be all these different nuanced reasons, and he’s like, “nah, he was fair game, so we nailed him.” He was just in the clubhouse at the time so he got that. And again, I think in bits and pieces, those sorts of things can add a lot our research, or some context.

So, Richard Aurelio, who is still alive, who was the campaign manager for Lindsay at that time. There was a lot of contention or a lot of discussion, when those photographs were taken. Was it something that Lindsay had coordinated? Did he mean for it to occur? Or was it really just spontaneous, you know, he’s the mayor of New York, so he ends up in the clubhouse and they’re all celebrating. And then he gets champagne on him. But, Aurelio made it clear that this was actually something that they were trying to engineer. They knew that there were a lot of positive vibes in New York City surrounding the 1969 Mets. They knew Lindsay needed a boost in this re-election campaign, so they put him in the right place at the right time. Now, they didn’t necessarily pay off the players to put the champagne on him, but you know that if you’re putting him in that position, chances are something like that could occur.

[00:26:09] So, getting that from the source, I think, really helped my argument that this was coordinated. This wasn’t, as Lindsay wrote in a book, he called it a largely spontaneous event, you know, and that it was unplanned and all of this, but not really, there were some people who were in his campaign who said the opposite.

Now, there are also challenges to oral history research, and this came up, I mean, many different challenges obviously that we have with it. But I learned that memory is fallible, of course, and so when you’re interviewing people in 2015 about something that happened back in 1969, especially when I was trying to get into specifics, there’s a lot that people may not recall exactly right. So, some of the people who I interviewed who I mentioned before, was Lindsay’s children. So, he had a daughter, Margaret. He also had a son, John Lindsay Jr., big shoes to fill, and when I first contacted him, I was a little bit wary. I had read a lot of news coverage of him, and over the years, he unfortunately had a drug addiction. He ended up in prison. There were news clips that were talking about John Lindsay, the mayor, going to his son’s hearing and court hearing, so he had a trying life. But also, when I look back at the actual clippings from 1969, he accompanied his father at a lot of these games, and I think he was about 7 years old at the time.

[00:27:31] So, I thought maybe he would have some memories. He was in the clubhouse and so forth. But, when I interviewed him and he kept telling me you know, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember a lot,” and he was trying to help. And I think that’s sometimes a challenge for oral history, is that they want to help us and they know that we’re looking for something, and they want to give it to us, but we don’t want them to say anything that isn’t true. So, then he told me at this point, “Oh yeah, they invited the Mets over to Gracie Mansion,” Gracie Mansion is where the mayor of New York City lives, afterward for a celebratory cocktail party, and he said the only thing he really remembered well was that he got to meet Roger Clemens. Anyone a baseball fan who knows what would be the problem with that? It’s that Roger Clemens in 1969 would have been seven years old.

[00:28:11] So, he said that and I immediately, on the recording, you hear me say like, “oh…” Cause I just couldn’t hide it, and I was thinking, I just got this guy and now he’s misremembering, again, not his fault. It’s just he’s trying to help. And so I said, “Oh, I think you’re confusing it,” because what he was thinking, was Roger Clemens played against the Mets in the 1986 World Series. The Mets don’t get to the World Series that often so it’s easy to conflate and so I think that that’s how it came up.

[00:28:39] But that’s just something we have to be aware of. And I have told my students about this, when I was doing my dissertation research, a lot of times as I was interviewing the hockey players from the Islanders about games and they would all give different scores of games and things. So, I tried to stop asking them about that because I didn’t care about that anyway. That I could find from some hockey reference website, you could find from a newspaper article. I tried to focus more on, what were their emotions, or can they confirm something that is a thesis in my mind, you know, you want to ask open-ended questions, it’s difficult. You don’t want them just to confirm which you have planted, but sometimes asking those sorts of things. Just quickly before I wrap up, I just want to make a quick pitch for using oral history in our classroom.

So, actually this just happened to work out right before we have this panel on Thursday. On Tuesday night, I partnered, at my university, William Paterson in New Jersey, with the Queens Memory Program. They’re based in New York City in the borough of Queens, where the Mets play, and they collect oral history interviews with just average, anybody who has either lived, worked, or attended school in the borough of Queens. So, the director of the program, Natalie Milbrodt, came from New York to New Jersey to talk to my students about it. And all of my students are going to be doing oral history interviews with artists from Long Island City, which is an artist neighborhood known for that sort of stuff. And we’re going to work over the course of the semester to get them into the city, meeting these people. We’ve had them do a lot of readings by media history scholars who are here today. So, I just say, again, remember we’re doing this in our research, but sometimes it’s fun to work it into what our students, the next generation of AJHA scholars, will do. So, there’s that. So, thank you very much for coming.

Ford Risley: [00:30:27] My comments are going to be fairly brief, I think my main role here can be to help answer questions that you all have, especially from the perspective of the journal. But, I have an interest in oral history really in two ways. One as editor of the journal, I love to see, frankly, articles like Nick’s that use oral history and really use them effectively. I also have one from a personal, cause I direct a little oral history program that we have in our journalism department at Penn State, where we interview Pennsylvania journalists, it’s something we’ve done.

So, anyway I have an interest in oral history in that way, just from my own personal work. But as far as editing the journal goes, as I said, I love to see articles that are submitted that use oral history. Of course, I’m not the judge, the final judge. They go out for review, and it’s the reviewers themselves that decide, you know, whether an article or a manuscript gets the thumbs up or thumbs down. Of course, and Nick pointed out several of these things, interviews should be just one tool that scholars use, just one tool in your toolkit. You can’t rely on them exclusively, but they, again, as Nick said, they provide that wonderful color, that context that can really just add a really nice feature to a lot of work.

[00:31:53] We trust that the interviews are done properly, that we have to, that the historian, whether using their own oral history interviews, as Nick has done, or using the interviews of other people, done by other people are done right. The other thing that I think I would caution about is overusing interviews, relying on them exclusively, in terms of not only the research but the writing. They provide, of course, a nice narrative element to any article, but they can’t be used exclusively.

[00:32:40] One thing as editor that I’ve never been a big fan of, and we try not to do a lot of in the journal, are, you know, just block quotes. And, of course, that’s easy to do. I would say it’s lazy writing in many ways. And authors generally hear from me if they have overused quotes in their work. So, that’s something that we always caution against. But I would really commend Nick’s article on the Mets and Lindsay as a good example of how to use oral history and use it effectively as just one, again, one more tool in the historian’s toolkit. Thank you.

Nick Hirshon: [00:33:40] Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Society of Professional Journalists chapter at William Paterson University. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”

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