Generational Transferring of Oral History

Reading about and discussing group oral history interviews last class got me to start thinking about alternative ways of conducting oral history interviews than the traditional one-on-one method. Although the group interviews had several downsides, including individuals being silenced by the rest of the group or topics being rapidly changed, they offered unique insights into how individual memory can be influenced, suppressed, and even altered by the power of collective memory. This alternative approach made me interested in how memories can be transferred across generations, from those actually experiencing events to their descendants merely retaining the accounts which they are told.

Both of my grandmothers have long had an interest in retaining and uncovering the family history. I grew up hearing stories about their lives, and stories that they remember being told by older members of the family, whether it was their parents or other extended family members. When I try to recall some of these stories, many of them are vague and seem very distant from myself. Others, I can almost quote word for word because they were told to me many times. Some of them I found more interesting than others, and will occasionally share them in conversation when topics make me recall them. However, I am stuck thinking about the accuracy of these memories. After all, we know that our own memories are fallible, and that they are constantly changing throughout the course of our lives. How much more would these alterations to memory build up if they are also transferred between multiple people? It is like trying to play the telephone game.

This research would not be an effective way of gaining information about a particular event, however, like the group interviews, it has an alternative benefit. Looking at how memories can be transferred between multiple people can help oral historians, psychologists, and sociologists to better understand memory retention and transmission levels of people who are not primary owners of the memory.  This can help to analyze how contributing factors, such as changing public perception and personal interests, influence the levels of retention. With the telephone game, the purpose is to see if, or to what extent, meaning can be transferred from the original individual to the last individual through multiple participating bodies. This would be interesting to see if the core meaning of memories can be effectively transferred, despite the fact that subsidiary details may be altered or tweaked by memory over time or the desire of the teller to increase the stories interest value for the listener.

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What was it like when…? Preserving lived experiences

The summer before I graduated with my undergraduate degree. I distinctly remember walking around a dig site during our field school excavation and thinking. “I wish we could just ask them what this structure was for—it’d be so interesting to know for certain.” It was the ‘for certain’ that got me. Later in a medieval history class I had the same questions: “If only I could ask them what it was really like to live in the fourteenth century.” Obviously, without a time machine such questions are now impossible to ask.

I’ve found myself (and heard others) asking similar questions about periods in time much closer to the present. My younger brother once asked me “I wonder what it was like to be a fighter pilot during the Second World War” in response to my question about a project he was working on. These are exactly the type of questions that oral history can help us answer. It can help us to preserve others’ lived experiences and extend their voices into the future. It can provide a window to help us understand what life was really like for people as historic events were taking place and how those events impacted their lives personally.

It is in this vein of preservation as well as my own interest in gender roles that I have selected the topic for my interview: women’s roles and how they shifted during and after the Second World War. I would like to interview a woman who lived through the war. I intend to pursue the interview as her life story while paying particular attention to how the war impacted her ideas about gender roles as well as shifts in those roles over time.


The ‘Death’ of Women-Only Education at Royal Holloway and Bedford College

A question that is often posed to me is, ‘But, what kind of history do you do?’  I used to not have an answer to that question, because I don’t have a specific area that I am particularly enthralled with.  However, when I got that question the other day, my friend piped up and answered if for me, ‘You do, like, history around here, right?  Like, local history.’  Finally, it was put into words.  Over the past few years every time I’ve gone to study in a new place, I immediately throw myself into learning about the history of that location and here in Egham it’s no different.  My Skills project last term was on life in Surrey in the Edwardian period based on postcards and the programme I am making for ‘The Public Communication’ is on the ‘hidden’ history of Royal Holloway.  I thus want to continue in this tradition and learn about why Royal Holloway College and Bedford College went co-ed in the 1960s.  I would like to explore the ‘death’ of women-only education in those two institutions and perhaps across Britain.

I come from a place that is known for its higher education institutions.  When I describe where I’m from, I’ll say Western Mass, you know, the Five College Area?  UMass Amherst, maybe?  UMass is usually the landmark people identify with, but of the other four schools of the ‘Five Colleges’, two of them are well-known female only institutions:  Mount Holyoke College and Smith College.  Both of these schools take great pride in being just for women (for undergrad, at least) and strive to stay that way.  Interestingly enough when I was applying to schools for my undergrad degree, three of the four schools I applied to where originally female only:  Endicott College, Lesley University, and Lasell College.  I chose to go to Lasell, where I learned that they didn’t go co-ed until the late 1990s.  Coming from that background, I am particularly interested in why Royal Holloway and Bedford went co-ed so early compared to schools in the United States.

I hope to interview Professor Caroline Barron, a former History professor of both Bedford College and Royal Holloway Bedford New College.  She also recommended that I get in touch with Dr John Prebble who was vice-principal of Bedford at the time of the merger of the two schools in 1985 and to look at the book Bedford College, University of London edited by J Mordaunt Crook.

The significance of this topic to public oral history will be that it will explore how the dynamic changed in higher education from just having females on campus to having both sexes.  Both Bedford and Royal Holloway were founded to provide women with an education equal to that of men, so why was it that they then let men join them?  As the topic is still within living memory and also coincides with the greater movement for women’s rights, I would like to understand how going co-ed changed the legacies of both schools.


The Use of Oral History in Public History Audio Walks

These days we are just a finger click or page turn away from a popular presentation of the past. If you chose to, I’m sure you could spend a whole 24 hours just consuming history through television and radio programmes, in magazines and on the internet.

Oral history audio plays a key role in many of these presentations but the viewer or listener tends to absorb it in a mostly passive capacity. Developments in technology, like GPS and smartphones, are now allowing us to break free from our living rooms and to engage with the past in a more active way.

Jill Liddington has argued that people acquire a sense of the past through memory, landscape, archives and archeology. The use of oral history in audio walks brings all four together almost uniquely in a public history context. The result is a powerful and engaging presentation of the past. In fact, it is more than a mere presentation. The use of fragmented narrative and located memory gives each user an opportunity to share in the process of interpretation. They do not just consume the historical narrative but participate in the experience, and this allows them to develop their own meanings.

It is this use of oral history in public history that I will explore in my essay. As well as outlining the opportunities offered by audio walks and located memory, I will also look at how they are constructed and the challenges they present both to an oral historian and to a public historian.


From Factory to Farm – one Land Girl’s story

From Factory to Farm – one Land Girl’s story.

The ‘land girls’ have been described as the forgotten veterans of the Second World War. These women, members of the Women’s Land Army, were recruited to help increase the amount of food grown in war time Britain.

The Women’s Land Army was first created during the First World War, and then re-established shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, in June 1939. It was disbanded again in 1950.

At its peak in 1943 over 80,000 women from all backgrounds were ‘land girls’. (Imperial War Museum, 2013)

I am going to interview Dorothy, aged 82, who was a land girl in 1948 aged 17 (despite the minimum age for joining up being 17 and a half). She left her family and her job in a mill in urban Yorkshire to be part of the Women’s Land Army in rural East Suffolk.

I am interested in the history of women during the Second World War and the period of austerity which followed – specifically the employment opportunities afforded to women as a result of the war, the ways in which it also presented a chance for some women to leave the constraints (social and financial) of their parents and gender relationships in the aftermath of war.

I hope that my interview with Dorothy will give me an opportunity to explore these themes. In addition, as the number of land girls alive today diminishes all the time, I believe it is important to record and give a voice to their experiences.