A Personal Introduction: The Ethos of Oral History

By Kristi Raffa

Oral history captures a first-person account of the life experiences of a narrator. It is the creation of an auditory primary source (the recorded conversation) that is then used to create a second, written primary source (the transcription). The human component of multiple actors synthesizing speech and text with human experience and emotion calls for a pause in how oral history ought to be perceived. Oral history is an art in itself.

Much like a sculptor creates a certain likeness through their own vision, oral history comes filtered through the lens of the participant, interviewer, and transcriptionist. Life experiences are reported in a recorded conversation that is informally structured and fluidly guided by the interviewer. Prompted by open-ended questions, the narrator and interviewer have a dialogue where the narrator recalls memories and shares stories about their experiences. Once the interview is complete, the transcriptionist uses their own intuition to translate an auditory source into a written one. It is a truly human endeavor.

I began this project as a transcriptionist and placed the value of oral history on creating the most efficiently-written verbatim transcript. I held the view that because these people had knowledge, it was my job as a historian to take everything they could offer so that I could use it for all it was worth. I was prepared to jot down every “um” and all the background noises that are so absent from my usual company of 12th century sources. I didn’t particularly care about the participants beyond squeezing every bit of detail out of their story as I could. It sounds callous, but I believed I’d be doing future historians a service by using this methodology to catalogue these details.

"So I found, I think looking back, my failure lay in the fact that I was more interested in the idea and the product than I was in the person." — Jennifer Floether

My thinking was flawed for a myriad of reasons, one of them being the utility of every verbatim and objective detail. In a critical edition of a primary source, a translator makes discerning judgments based on their expertise in an area to write the same — but new — text. The original text is there as a reference, but the translator’s biases are often very useful and wanted rather than ignored in the new text. A transcriptionist’s task of translating an audible source into a written one is similar in many respects.

Being a part of oral history is a humbling experience. I learned, firstly, that there’s more to oral history than just typing what you hear verbatim. This became apparent almost immediately when the date was said aloud and suddenly I no longer knew what to type! But it’s certainly much more than following arbitrary style guidelines. It requires a human component, first in that very practical sense where you do need to follow those not-so-arbitrary-but-still-arbitrary style guidelines that demand certain formatting for reasons like continuity and searchability. It requires intuition to determine whether pauses should be indicated with commas or em-dashes, and creativity to convey a spoken smile into text. It requires tact and compassion when choosing which crutch words and thinking sounds to include. It requires personal judgment to adapt when new situations inevitably arise. Above all, it requires humanity.

The stories told are a gift to us, and in return we give the transcription as a gift back to the speaker. It is a privilege to learn these stories and to be a part of telling them. The audience for these interviews is as much future historians as it is the participants themselves. I owe this realization in part to Jennifer Floether, an artist and one of the participants in this project:

"So there’s a dialogue, there’s an interaction between you and the material — in my case, sculpture and glass — and you learn to be, if you like, obedient to the truth of that material, of that concept that you’re trying to articulate in this material. I began to see that this is the same process — may not be following the same logic — but it’s same process of engaging with this new topic in an obedient way, a dialogical way, listening, rather than imposing my will upon it, just as I learned not to impose my will on a lump of clay or piece of glass." — Jennifer Floether

Throughout this guide you’ll find pieces of my first transcription — Jennifer’s interview — sprinkled throughout as illustrations and examples. My experience of transcribing this interview helped me to grasp the spirit of this project, which now serves as the guiding thread for this manual. This project aims to capture the interdisciplinary nature of the Torrance theological tradition, and it begins here with art. It’s not about collecting data more efficiently than a computer, and it’s not about imposing our will upon these interviews to push an agenda. In this human endeavor, it’s all about listening.