"Connecting to the Ideologies That Surround Us": Oral History Stewardship as an Entry Point to Critical Theory in the Undergraduate Classroom
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"Connecting to the Ideologies That Surround Us":
Oral History Stewardship as an Entry Point to Critical Theory in the Undergraduate Classroom
Abstract

In this article I argue that oral history stewardship, as a mode of digital archival practice, offers a useful entry point into understanding and engaging with critical theory in the humanities. I survey recent scholarship to propose that the practical conditions of digital oral history archiving inform the most theoretically engaged work in the field of archival practice today. Through a discussion of a collaboration between the spring 2015 undergraduate English class I taught at Southwestern University and the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) oral history collection at the University of Texas Libraries Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI), I argue that in a higher-education setting, the practical experience of digital archival stewardship clarifies a theoretical understanding of the features of responsible community engagement.

Keywords

community engagement, critical race theory, digital humanities, feminist studies, postcustodial archives, undergraduate education

In response to a dearth of collections on women, communities of color, and other marginalized groups in university archives, the social history movement of the 1960s and 1970s adopted oral history methods to create a more inclusive historical record from a grassroots perspective. Since it emerged to counter the [End Page 348] elitism of the academy, the field of oral history has created rich archives of community-generated memory. In part as a result of oral history's grassroots methods, and in part as a result of the field's historically critical orientation to archival custody, oral historians are often the primary creators and stewards of their own research collections.1 The roles of scholar, interviewer, and audio/visual archivist may overlap; sometimes, all three roles unite in one practitioner. In the case of Alessandro Portelli's seminal They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History, for instance, Portelli's method of collecting 200 oral history tapes is almost as important as the content of those tapes.2 As Portelli theorizes in "Research as an Experiment in Equality," the oral historian "has an objective stake in equality, as a condition for less distorted communication and a less biased collection of data."3 Portelli must work towards what he terms a "mutual sighting" in order to build trust with the narrators whose testimony he seeks to record.4 Equality is thus both an ethical and a methodological value in oral history practice.

The notion that oral histories are intersubjective—that is, that they are creatively coconstructed by interviewer and narrator—was a useful entry point to critical theory for the undergraduate English class, Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition, which I taught in Spring 2015 at Southwestern University.5 During a collaboration with the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) oral history collection at the University of Texas Libraries Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI), students had opportunities to study both the contents and the stewardship contexts of oral history collections.6 In the process, they saw firsthand the ways in which knowledge, meaning, and identity are socially constructed. As part of their course work, these students read widely in literature while digitally archiving approximately fifteen hours of oral history testimony. Cross listed with feminist studies and race and ethnicity studies, the course paid attention to such topics as detention and US foreign policy, feminist abolitionism, and the historic role of Texas in the US imprisonment regime. The utility of oral history to illuminate and respond to histories of inequality is well established, so exploring oral history collections such as the Rule of Law Oral History Project and the Texas After Violence Project oral history collection was a [End Page 349] natural direction in which to extend our coursework. Yet in addition to listening to oral histories, collaborating with archivists at the Human Rights Documentation Initiative to digitally archive these oral histories provided a practical immersion in aspects of critical theory. In the process of digitally archiving oral histories, students grasped principles including multiplicity, counternarrative, self-reflexivity, and the contingent, constructed nature of historical and literary narratives. As I show in the pages to follow, training students in digital history stewardship is an effective way to practice theoretically...


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