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Oral History Association

A Short Reflection on Teaching Memoir and Oral History


Author(s): Sharon O'Brien
Source: The Oral History Review, Vol. 25, No. 1/2, Practice and Pedagogy: Oral History in the
Classroom (Summer - Autumn, 1998), pp. 113-117
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oral History Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3675581 .
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Oral HistoryReview25/1-2(Summer/Fall
1998): 113-117

A ShortReflection
on TeachingMemoir
andOralHistory
by SharonO'Brien
It mightseem thatmemoirand oral history,
althoughboth
formsoflifenarrative,
do nothavemuchin common.One textis
theotheroral;onedemandsan individual
whilein
written,
author,
theother"authorship"
existsin theinterplay
betweeninterviewer
and storyteller;
one concernstheself,whiletheothermovesoutstrivesto captureanother'svoice and
ward,as theoralhistorian
on
and
one
is a shapednarrative,
a close cousinto
story tape
page;
theotherseemingly
closerto factand truth
as
fiction,
(troubling
thoseconceptsare)as thewords"transcript"
and"archive"
suggest.
As a teacherof bothcreativewriting
andAmericanStudies,
I
thatthetwogenresare close relahowever, havelongthought
tives.Bothareformsofnarrative
in whichordinary
peopleclaim
theauthority
to telltheirown stories;bothare formstingedby
as well as memory(sincetheoralhistory
narrative,
imagination
likememoir,is shapedby selectionand omission,as well as by
the lengthof the interviewand the interaction
betweeninterviewerandstoryteller).
Andmemoir,
likeoralhistory,
arisesfrom
theinterconnection
or
oftwo moresensibilities,
sincememoirists
writeofrelationship
to others,
as wellas totheselfin
commonly
thepast.Bothareconcerned
withmemory,
and
andstory,
history,
bothchallengetimebyretrieving
from
of
the
the
flood
something
itforthefuture.
pastandpreserving
In thespringof 1996,alongwithSusan Rose, a sociologist,
and ChuckBarone,an economist,
I team-taught
an experimental
one-semester
course in multiculturalism
and diversitycalled
"AmericanMosaic" at DickinsonCollege.The overarching
proof
the
course
was
a
of
Steelton,
ject
community
study
Pennsylvain thegreater
area.(The
nia,a multiethnic
community
Harrisburg
SharonO'Brienis JohnHope CaldwellProfessor
ofAmericanCulturesat DickinsonColshe is completing
a memoir,"'A CertainSlantof Light':Reflections
on
lege. Currently
DepressioninAmerica."

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114

ORAL HISTORY REVIEW

projectis describedin greaterdetailby MarjorieMcLellanelsewhereinthisissue.)


was thememoircomponent
of thecourse.
My responsibility
the
read
memoirs
and
first
six
weeks
students
During
beganwrittheir
own
and
the
conduringworkshops,
writing
workshops
ing
tinuedduringthesecondsix weeks.I suspectedthatoralhistory
and memoirwouldcomplement
each other.I was also eagerto
who wouldneverhave signed
teachmemoirwriting
to students
for
a
creative
course,assuming,likemostof us, that
up
writing
teachersonce
But,as one of myfiction
theywerenot"creative."
observed,"Everyonehas a storythatonlytheycan tell."I knew
thiswas as trueof Dickinsonstudents
as it was of steelworkers
in
I
and community
members Steelton. hopedthatas theyrealized everypersonin Steeltonpossessed a story,our students
wouldbeginto see and to shapetheirown.I also hopedthatthe
cross-fertilization
wouldstrengthen
bothmemoirwritresulting
ingandethnography.
A guidelineformemoir,
as forfiction,
is "Show,don'ttell"a sloganreminding
thewriternotto use abstractions
or unconvincingadjectives,butto relyon details,images,and scenesto
withthismethodalso preparesa stuconveymeaning.Working
denttobe a goodobserverandinterviewer,
so I decidedherewas
wherewe shouldbegin.The memoirI assignedforthispurpose
was Charlotte
Nekola'sDreamHouse,a historically
detailedand
in
account
of
Americain
1950s
lyrically
melancholy
up
growing
a middle-classfamilyriddledwithunspokensadnessand loss.'
uses metaphoric
Nekola,who is also a poet,brilliantly
objects
and actionsto suggestlargerlevels of meaning-a man's suitcase, packed withironedshirtsand a bottleof JimBeam; a
woman'srecipebox; a can opener;Dick and Janeschoolbooks;
roadtripsin finnedcars.The narrator,
to deducethepast
trying
fromthescrapsof evidenceleftbehind,paysexquisiteattention
to such detailsbecause,regardedwiththe righteye, theycan
yieldmeaning:"You couldtellthat[AuntGrace]was a womanof
theworking
worldonlybecausetherewerestacksofscrappaper,
indifferent
placesinthehouse,madeoutof8 x 12 papertorninto
fourquarters.The backs of thepaperswerecoveredwithblue
exercisesof
printfroma dittomachine;theyhad been grammar
' Charlotte
Nekola,DreamHouse (St. Paul: Greywolf,
1995).

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A ShortReflection
on TeachingMemoirandOralHistory

115

the tediouskind thatEnglishteachersseldom give out these


days."2
My firstin-class free-writing
assignment-"Describean
in
on
or
object space important yourfamilypast"-sent students
the pathtowardmetaphorby anchoringthemin the concrete,
finelyobserveddetail-the birthplaceof good writingand, I
One studentwould latershowthe
think,of good interviewing.
such
detail
in
her
ofa childhoodvisitto her
of
description
power
in prison:
father
The vendingmachinesold gum,bags of Doritos,and candybars,
whichwereplacedbetweenmetalcoils and identified
by a system
similarto churchbingo:E4 = pack of Trident,B6 = Hershey's
chocolate,B7 = Hershey'swithalmonds.... Afteryou punched
thecoil twistedand thecandybar crashed
therightcoordinates,
downbelow.A hugemetaldoorstoodbetweenme and thecandy
barthathadjust plummeted
down.I was certainthatwhenI was
thedoorwouldcrashdownon my
retrieving
myThreeMusketeers
handandtrapme inthatmetalbeastmouthforever.

The writerdoes notneed to say,"WhenI visitedmy fatherin


too"-we see that.And how pale and
prison,I feltimprisoned
reductive
thatsentenceseemsnexttothechillyvisionoftheominousvendingmachine.
We hopedthatthe studentscould drawon these"literary"
skillsin theirworkas sociologistsandoralhistorians.
One ofthe
Susan
Rose
was
to createa
mycolleague
gave
fiistassignments
of
a
member
the
student
had
interviewed.
She
portrait community
askedthestudents
to "bringthepersonto life"through
descripto encourage"showing"as well
tion,detail,dialog.This attempt
as "telling"did notworkas well as we had hoped.Students,
for
themostpart,reliedtoomuchon abstraction.
(One exceptionwas
whonoticedthehardhatin a unionofficial's
thestudent
officeas
well as his crispshirtand tie-signs of his doubleallegianceto
hisworking-class
role.)By theendof
originsandhismanagerial
thecourse,however,
wereselectingrelevant
manymorestudents
detailseffectively,
bothin creating
andin interviewing.
portraits
Memoirand oral historyare also linkedby theconceptof
voice.We wantedourstudents
to discover(or create)theirown
voicesas writers,
and in turnlearnhowto listento thevoicesof
2Nekola, 18.

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116

ORAL HISTORY REVIEW

ForthispurposeI assignedBen Hamper'sRivSteeltonresidents.


ethead:TalesfromtheAssembly
recollection,
Line,a first-person
told in a jaunty,at timesin-your-face
voice, of
working-class
life
and
on
the
General
Motors
work
assemblyline.3
Hamper's
This is a usefulmemoirto teachparticularly
whenstudents
will
Hambe interviewing
people fromworking-class
backgrounds.
raises
about
the
links
raucous
narrative
between
questions
per's
to analyzea pasclass,language,andpower.I askedthestudents
sage fromHamperand thento writea passage inspiredby his
voice. In responseto thisprompt,
a youngwomanfroma workbut
Dickinson("I
ing-classbackground "passing"at middle-class
was a J. Crew lookalike.")movedfroma genericwritingstyle
intothislivelyvoiceas shereconnected
toherownpast:
SchuylkillCounty,PA. Home of theYuenglingBreweryand Mrs.
T's pierogies.The birthplace
oftheDorseybrothers
and anthracite
coal mines.A place wherefashionis tenyearsbehindtherestof
A place wherethepopularguyshavea rustycar in the
thecountry.
backyardup on cinderblocks.A place wherethesteepcoal banks
can be mistaken
formountains,
andthebiggesttourist
attraction
is
a townthat'sbeenon fireunderground
forovertwenty
years.

At thesametime,thisauthordevelopedgreatersensitivity
as an
of retiredsteelworkers,
interviewer
ask
the
to
learning
questions
thatallowedthemto speakintheirownvoices.
thatmostdramatically
combinesmemPerhapsthenarrative
oirandoralhistory
is ArtSpiegelman'sMaus.4 Spiegelman'srenditionof his father'sexperiencein theHolocaustis based upon
thattheauthorconductedwithhis father
overa
tapedinterviews
whichcan be heardon theCD-ROM
periodofyears(interviews
versionofMaus). In thetext,Spiegelmaninterweaves
hisfather's
the
with
of
the
conflicted
of
father
and son
story
past
relationship
in thepresent,includingseveralscenesof theson interviewing
the father.Spiegelmanis bluntlyhonestabout Art's frequent
interviewer
himselfas thesingle-minded
insensitivity,
portraying
who at timesignoresthewishesofthesubjectin orderto getthe
he keepsurgingthefatherwho at
story.("Back to Auschwitz,"
3Ben Hamper,
Rivethead:TalesfromtheAssembly
Line(NewYork:WarnerBooks,1991).
4ArtSpiegelman,
Maus I: A Survivor'sTale: MyFatherBleedsHistory(NewYork:Pan-

theon,1992); Maus II: A Survivor'sTale:AndHereMy TroublesBegan (NewYork:Pan-

theon,
1991).

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A ShortReflection
on TeachingMemoirandOralHistory

117

timeswantsto talkaboutanything
else.) Assigningthismemoir
in thecontextofdoingoralhistory
can keepstudents
andfaculty
sensitive
to themoralandethicalissuesinvolvedin interviewing.
I usedMaus to encourage
In thecontextofteachingmemoir,
I gave a freeto broadentheirempathyas writers.
my students
I
in
which
asked
students
to
take
on thevoice
writing
assignment
in theirmemoir.In reof a charactertheywere representing
a memoircentering
on her
sponse,one student-whowas writing
an
uncle-came up withherfinest
schizophrenic
pieceofwriting,
fromheruncle's pointof view that
accountof a hallucination
showedherabilityto crosstheboundary
betweenselfandother:
I beginto movearoundtheroom,trying
to avoidthefallingdarkness.I runintothenextroomhopingthedarknesswilldrainaway,
like waterdoes in theshower.I can see it comingafterme. The
darknessis creepingon the floorlike a giantamoeba. I throw
thingsat it to stopit fromgrabbingmyfeet.Stayawayfrommy
feet!I am standing
in thefarcornerof thebedroom,watching
the
darknesscreeptowardme.

hadwritten
a memoirthat
By theendofthecourse,everystudent
combinedemotionaldepthwithsomelevel of aestheticcontrol;
in turn,thememoirworkenrichedtheoral history
and commuof
the
course.
The
forms
of interplay
nitystudycomponent
betweenmemoirand oralhistory
are noteasy to measureobjecbutmycolleaguesandI believetheywereprofound.
As the
tively,
students
became
better
listeners
to
the
of
voices
others,
gradually
theylearnedhow to listento theirown; as theyrecognizedthat
othershad storiesto tell,theyrealizedthattheydid,as well.The
questionstheywereaskingof otherstheybeganto ask of themselves;theanswerstheywerehearingcausedthemtolookdeeper
intotheirownlives;theempathy
theyweregainingfortheirsubin memoir,
characters
jects aidedthemin creating
justas theemin
memoir
theconnection
pathytheygained writing
strengthened
felt
with
the
residents
of
Steelton.
Both
forms
ofstorytelling,
they
memoirandoralhistory,
enrichanddeepeneachother,
andI hope
thatfacultyfroma varietyof disciplinesand programs-American studies,English,creativewriting,
AfricanAmerican
history,
andethnicstudies,women'sstudies-willfindwaystojuxtapose
thesegenresin theirteaching.

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