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An introduction to passing down stories orally instead of by writing

Once a project is under way, we need to assess and ensure the accuracy of the data gathered. We have to face the question: At the very least, we must be aware of the limitations of oral history in order not to mislead ourselves into believing that oral history automatically yields accurate renditions of past events. Because oral history depends upon living people as sources, we have limits; we can go back one lifetime. Because oral history uses spoken, not written sources, the allowable evidence expands.

Even in the absence of written documentation, groups such as women, minorities, and the not-famous have been able to record their own histories and the histories of those they consider important using oral history.

  • Apart from stone inscriptions, few examples of these media surivived;
  • Write on the board:

History is no longer limited to the powerful, famous, and rich, and literate. Now history can give us a much more inclusive, and, one hopes, accurate picture of the past. Used to accurately record oral narratives, the inexpensive portable tape recorder helped democratize the gathering of history.

Griots and Griottes

Interestingly, while technology in the form of the tape recorder is responsible in part for the spread of oral history techniques, technology is also to blame in part for the need for oral history.

Rather than write letters, for instance, people travel to see each other or they make telephone calls that dissolve into air. Now electronic mail via computers may make written records even more scarce. Trained to depend on written records, traditional historians have been known to shudder in horror at the potential problems and inherent weaknesses of oral history.

What of the failings of human memory? What an introduction to passing down stories orally instead of by writing the human tendency to impose a narrative structure on events that may not be closely connected? What of the self-serving motives of the story teller? What of the power relationships between interviewer and interviewee that affect what and how events are reported? What of the differences between the spoken and written word?

What of the inaccuracies that creep into meaning when trying to put a conversation onto paper? Well, many of the same problems arise in using written records. Written sources can carry personal or social biases.

Written sources occur within a social context. As an example, newspaper accounts contemporary with events often suffer from historical inaccuracy because of the ideological slants of reporters and editorial staff, because of the availability of sources, because of advertisers' interests, and because of the need to sell interesting stories that the public wants to buy.

Yet these same newspaper accounts can be used as historical evidence of people's attitudes and interpretations. Even historical analysis published by professional historians intent on upholding the best standards in their field still falls short of that elusive goal, a complete and totally objective account of events. How about films and photographs? Can the camera remain objective and give us an accurate view of events?

Even visual media give only fragments. Furthermore, the photographer chooses to record a portion of an event, and her point of view suggests an interpretation.

The equipment, social context, and intent of the photographer affect what photographs will be recorded, what will be printed, and how it will be presented to viewers.

In oral history, in addition to asking all of the historian's usual questions about accuracy, one must also ask questions about putting spoken words on paper. At first one tends to assume that a transcription of a tape-recorded interview of an eyewitness would be a very accurate record of an event. As historians we must examine that assumption. We all know how hard it is to find the right words for our thoughts. In an interview, with a stranger listening and a tape recorder running, how closely can the actual words of the interviewee approximate the thoughts that the interviewee wants to communicate?

We all know the tricks that memory plays on us, even just trying to recall what happened last week. In recalling memories from a long-ago event, how closely do the memories of the narrator approximate a true rendering of the actual experience?

Our problem becomes more complicated when we try to write down what has been said. People don't always speak in complete sentences. They repeat themselves and leave things out.

They talk in circles and tell fragments of the same story out of chronological sequence. They mumble incoherently and use wrong names. When they speak, they don't use punctuation.

Storytelling in Film

How is the transcriber to put spoken words onto paper with a semblance of written coherence without changing the narrator's meaning? Finally, the transcript does not carry inflections of voice and body language. Therefore the reader of the transcript does not have all of the information that the interviewer had originally.

In addition, readers and listeners will add their own interpretations in trying to understand what the narrator said. We come to realize, then, that every person, every step, removes one farther from the event as it happened.

Questions of accuracy are not unique to oral history. Problems of accuracy hound us no matter what sources of historical data we use. If we understand the characteristics of our sources, however, we have a better chance of controlling the process to minimize inaccuracies. As a methodological balance to oral history, one can enlist other sources of data such as related artifacts, written documentation, and other interviews.

A single interview by itself can pose frustrating questions, while an interview in a context of other data can clarify details and create a sense of the whole. Therefore, the users of oral history, aware of the characteristics of their medium, may proceed cautiously without apology.

Oral history has come of age and now commands a receptive, respectful audience. Note of Encouragement At this point, some people feel overwhelmed. As long as you are aware of the pitfalls, you will be fine. Proceed step-by-step, discover the problems, and work through to the solutions. At the end of an oral history project you will understand the oral historian's challenges from the inside-out, and you will forever after look at historical documents of any kind with a wider eye.

When in doubt, keep it simple. Part of the process is enjoyment and part of the an introduction to passing down stories orally instead of by writing is learning from mistakes. Pinpointing Problems in Your Interview The interviewee. This interviewee is not about to let you deviate from his script. This person needs questions to get warmed up and more questions to keep going. For instance, a modest woman might not feel comfortable talking to a male about birth experiences.

The memories have a form other than linear time and you have to figure out how to allow the narrator to tell these memories in a way that makes sense to both teller and listener. Were the people I interviewed the right ones for my research? How did I prepare for the interview? Did I prepare enough? What did I use for equipment?

Did it work satisfactorily? What changes should I make? What kinds of questions did I ask? What kinds of questions worked well?

Importance of the Oral Tradition

Where did I conduct the interview? What in the environment affected my interview? Did my subject want to talk?

How did I encourage my subject to talk? What "masks" did my subject wear? Did my subject drop the masks? When did I tell my subject the purpose of the interview and how it would be used? Did my plans to use the interview seem to matter to the subject?

How accurate were my subject's memories? How accurate was my subject's reporting of her memories? How do I know? Who controlled the interview? How did I feel while interviewing? How did my subject feel while being interviewed? Would it be useful and possible to return for another interview?

How do these results affect my original goals? Do I need to adjust my research design? When I transcribe, will I write exactly what was said or will I begin light editing right from the start?

How will I decide what to write and what not to write?

Keeping the Tradition of African Storytelling Alive

How can I ensure that the transcription is accurate? How can I ensure that the transcription reports what the subject wanted to say?

  • After reading aloud the folktale to the students, I will give them a chance to share their feelings and thoughts;
  • Students can be grouped according to skills or interest;
  • These folktales will teach principles of morality and provide students with a sense of identity;
  • The students will write the phrase or word in their journal.

Who owns the interview and has the right to decide how the completed interview and transcription will be used? Next time, what would I do the same? What would I do differently?