Listening, learning and sharing: The impact of group facilitation in oral history
At the time of agreeing to help facilitate the Advanced Oral History Theory and Practice training programme at the Scottish Oral History Centre (SOHC) based at the University of Strathclyde, along with my colleague and mentor Arthur McIvor, Director of the SOHC and my supervisor Erin Jessee, I had not realised how incredibly fruitful and humbling it was to be involved. My name is Lorna Barton and I recently passed my Viva for a PhD in history. My thesis and heart is grounded in oral history. Oral history is my absolute passion in life – not just in listening to people’s rich and diverse narratives, but training others from undergraduates, community workers and archivists to grad students in best practice and ethics. My goal – apart from enlightening those interested in pursuing oral history of its time-consuming process – is to nurture a desire in others for listening to individual historical narratives and all that they can reveal about a person and their experience of an event or time in their lives.
The proposed training programme over 2.5 days was designed for doctoral researchers – who had already taken steps in implementing oral history into their research and undertaken a number of oral history interviews – to refresh their approach to theory, practice and ethics. As described by one doctoral researcher, Daniel Heathcote from the University of Edinburgh, ‘The first day of the three-day training acted as a half-day refresher course where Lorna took us back to basics reminding us of the many crucial aspects of conducting oral history’ as well as ‘good ethical practice, different interview formats, the questionnaire, the structure, the importance of a research diary and transcription’. The second day focused on memory (led by Lorna Barton), subjectivity and inter-subjectivity (led by Arthur McIvor), legal and ethical frameworks in oral history and navigating trauma: facilitated by Erin Jessee, based at the University of Glasgow where she is the Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow in Armed Conflict and Trauma. Kristin Hay, doctoral researcher within the Centre for the Social History of Health and Health Care / SOHC at the University of Strathclyde reflected on day two in her own words:
The ethics of using individual stories in art as well as academia was a recurring theme, as students grappled with the power balance between themselves as researchers and narrators as they researched. The workshop leaders listened and offered words of support, but also encouraged debate between students, avoiding telling us what to think in favour of facilitating discussion and enabling us to reach our own methodological resolutions…The safety of not only our narrators but also ourselves as researchers was also addressed, particularly when working outside of the U.K…Hearing the experiences of oral historians who have worked in some of the most extreme environments was helpful to remember the value of thinking through risk assessments and ethics approval. We were reminded that these are not barriers to our research but safeguards to our own safety and the safety of our narrators, which was a really positive outlook on what is typically seen as a mandatory exercise.
The third day was designed to be student led and invited participants to discuss difficulties and weaknesses they had identified in their interview[s] – for example, whether this was down to skill or technique as an interviewer, being affected by residual trauma, or an interviewer who was spooked by the recorder. By choosing a specific clip lasting a few minutes within an interview, students were asked to be prepared to allow us as facilitators and as a group to listen and, among other avenues, discuss the context of the interview, the background to it and whether/ how it could be improved on for future interviews and practice. Due to the personal and group scrutiny which individual students were being invited to open themselves up to, we were unsure how many students, if any, would apply and attend; being a doctoral researcher is difficult enough, never mind in allowing peers to examine your weaknesses under a spotlight – in this case a sound clip – and feel vulnerable to criticism! However, we had 11 enthusiastic doctoral researchers attend, most of whom had attended the previous two days and all of whom had a diversity of research backgrounds – creative writing, performance art, history, science and technology studies, law, psychiatry, social work, heritage studies, medicine etc. – and experience in using oral history which promised an extremely productive day.
At the SOHC we view our training days as flexible and informal, inviting participants to ask questions throughout, contribute to what is being discussed and if the need occurs, to change the format of the training to suit the learning needs of those attending. As an oral historian and facilitator/ trainer at the SOHC, I find it effective to follow people down their narrative or training needs rabbit hole, and this is exactly what happened on the third day. We began by outlining the day, as intended: having everyone introduce their research, their progress, and the challenges they were facing. These reflections were set to last for the full morning and the plan was to move onto the individual difficulties in interviews and discussing sound clips and ethical issues arising in the afternoon. However, once the researchers began to describe and discuss their research – it’s direction, methodological and theoretical underpinnings in relation to oral history – it was found that the learning opportunities were clearly being mapped out in peer contribution, reflections on each participants personal and professional approach to practice, and therefore breaking the momentum and discussion to listen to sound clips seemed unrewarding with this group. Continuing on the day in the flow of participant led discussions seemed most useful because of the different stages each person was at in their doctoral journey and the freshness of their experiences: failures, successes, stumbling blocks and growth which they shared. Each person courageously laid out their learning starkly and honestly for the room, no holds barred. It was clear that in their passion for their research, they needed input. There was so much to listen to and learn from that fruitful discussions continued throughout coffee breaks and lunch until the end of the day. As a trainer and facilitator, it was an exhilarating experience to witness the level of participation, pursuit of best practice, ethical standings and knowledge exchange within the room.
When I asked for voluntary reflective pieces from the researchers providing feedback on the day, I was met with enthusiasm. José David Gómez, a doctoral researcher in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at The University of Edinburgh had this to say:
From my point of view, the third day was an excellent experience because it allowed connecting many of the topics that had been discussed in the previous days such as the ethical dilemmas that one finds when conducting oral history or how to compose an overall narrative from individual interviews. I think that leaving for the third day the presentation of the research topics of each of the participants was ideal because it allowed the discussion to be enriched with what the workshop itself had taught us in the previous days…Regarding my research, the third day allowed me to reflect more deeply on how to incorporate my interviews based on oral history with my other documentary sources and with the interviews I have done which are more inspired by a sociological present-oriented perspective.
Daniel Heathcote from the University of Edinburgh reflected:
…the session was self-led by the participants, where each of us took it in turns to talk about our research and how far we had come with it, what the difficulties were we were facing, and our experiences interviewing, taking the opportunity to ask the other participants for advice. After, we took questions about our research from the group… the group listened to my contribution and were able to provide a lot of useful advice and information. We explored some of the potential problems I may face and how to overcome them…
Most interestingly, Daniel stated, ‘Having been relatively undecided about how oral history will feature in my upcoming thesis, after attending the three-day workshop I have felt reaffirmed of the immense value of oral history and know that I want to include an oral component to my upcoming research.’
Lastly, Kristin Hay of the University of Strathclyde shared:
Overall, the Advanced Oral History Theory and Practice workshop was an invaluable opportunity to consolidate my knowledge of oral history theory and ethics, as well as bolster my confidence in conducting oral history interviews. I met some amazing PhD students who are conducting valuable, original research and – thanks to this workshop – I have more academics in my oral history network. I learned a lot from the expertise of the oral historians leading the workshop and appreciated the open format that they facilitated across the two days. Leaders effectively structured the workshop to allow us to have some control in how the days were shaped and – in true oral history style – shared authority with the students to enable valuable discussions to be had. I would encourage any PhD student at any stage to take part in a SOHC oral history workshop – whether they are doing oral history, sociology, anthropology or even creative writing! The lessons learned across the two days will help to inform my subsequent oral history research as it progresses throughout my PhD.
As I stated at the beginning of this post, I did not realise what a privilege it would be having the opportunity to facilitate such useful and in-depth learning with colleagues and doctoral researchers using oral history within their research projects. However, the experiences shared above has shown what integral work we do at the SOHC and the resounding need to pursue and conduct further advanced oral history training and workshops throughout the academic calendar. There is such a wealth of knowledge waiting to be tapped into when experts and trainers take a back seat, and the main and most excellent contributions are made by the students themselves.