- Oral History at the Crossroads: Sharing Life Stories of Survival and Displacement by Steven High
From 2005 to 2012, Steven High, the director of Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, was the ringmaster of a sprawling, ambitious, and highly generative collaborative project called [End Page 652] Montreal Life Stories. Supported by a cura (Community-University Research Alliance) grant from the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council as well as hundreds of dedicated university and community volunteers, the project was a collaborative effort to document and curate the life stories of Montrealers displaced by war, genocide, and other mass human rights violations. This book is both a testament to the culmination of that work and a structural ethnography of the process. It does not offer closure or any grand conclusions to the “big history” questions of mass violence in the 20th century — an impossible task given the scale and scope of atrocity and the inherently irresolvable nature of trauma — but focuses on the “continuum of reflection, dialogue, commemoration, and research” (p. 300).
Michael Frisch’s notion of “shared authority” is the moral spine of the book and of the project as a whole. As interpreted and manifest by High and the mls team, this principle was not only a literal application of the cura mission of “ongoing collaboration and mutual learning” between community and academic partners, but evolved into a broader model of practical ethics in public scholarship.
Unusually for an oral history project, where the main deliverable is a data dump into the archives, as much attention was given to curation of the life stories as their collection. The book’s two main sections detail these aspects of the project, though this analytical separation belies the degree to which they overlapped and were mutually implicated in practice.
After an introductory overview of the project — appropriately anchored by the testimony of a survivor of the Rwandan genocide — the book’s first section examines the interviewing process from a variety of perspectives. Chapter one details the long process by which the ethical and methodological considerations of interviewing survivors of trauma and mass violence were unpacked and negotiated. The careful ways the project was “collectively imagined” (p. 18) ultimately framed a theory and practice of sharing authority in the design, training, tone, and implementation of the larger project. Other chapters in this section detail the activities of the Rwandan, Jewish, Haitian, and Cambodian working groups. Each confronted unique challenges and developed best practices that were shared among other working groups to inform an increasingly sophisticated praxis across the project. The final chapter in this section examines an individual case study in detail, a close critical forensic reading that also functions as a useful step-by-step guide through the interview process.
The second section focuses on the working groups dedicated to curatorial praxis (what cura calls “knowledge mobilization”) with refugee youth, education, and performance. Each drew on the source material to engage broader audiences through various media: radio, theatre, internet, and urban ritual. The final chapter returns to the ethical considerations and [End Page 653] implications of such collaborative and interactive work, with a subtle, cumulative plea for academic social responsibility.
Each chapter is rich in ethnographic and procedural detail, thoroughly grounded in the unavoidable yet candid messiness of such an ambitious project. If one were to strip away the many anecdotes, field notes, excerpts from transcripts, reflective blogs and debriefings, memoranda, and other references, the core of the book is a sustained meditation on the practical ethics of social science research, the meaning and meaning-making of history, the social function of the academy, and the human capacity to make sense of our lives in the aftermath of mass violence: a deep reflection on what we in the academy do, how we do it, and why.
It is impossible to disentangle the thick description from the moral philosophy, however, and ill-advised as this methodological humus provides a compendium of best practices, an...