One Story at a Time

January 26, 2020
two people facing pictures on easels

“Can you tell me about your early years?” a female voice asks.

Another, older female voice responds with a story about a lynching—one that prompted her father to leave his home in the South and venture north to Brooklyn, where he eventually met her mother.

Only the younger woman is physically present. Her name is Nicole JeanBaptiste (’14GSAS, MA), and she is both a practicing doula and an alumna of the Oral History Master of Arts program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University, the first and only program of its kind in the United States.

Although her voice is audible, JeanBaptiste’s lips are motionless. Instead, her words emerge from a pair of speakers. So, too, do those of her subject, Salaamah Abdullah-Zaimah, the first African-American woman to graduate from Emory University as a certified nurse midwife. Abdullah-Zaimah is present on a recording that JeanBaptiste made for her Master’s thesis, a recording that JeanBaptiste is playing for the 50 or so people who have gathered for an open house hosted by the Oral History program on the fifth floor of Knox Hall.

Not long before, a number of those same people were milling about the refreshment table, engaging in what passes for small talk among oral historians:

“We do the interviews, then prepare the transcripts.”

“I’m interested in prisons.”

Now, however, they sit in rapt silence as JeanBaptiste plays a series of audio clips from her thesis which examines the evolution of birthing practices among African-American women and their relationship to the history of midwifery in the South. It is a story that JeanBaptiste would someday like to transform into a work of creative nonfiction.

In a different clip, Abdullah-Zaimah discusses the role that midwives played, “before they were legislated out of existence,” as trusted advisors to African-American women, and indicates a need to revive the practice of midwifery in order to improve birth outcomes. Another interviewee—or narrator, as some oral historians prefer—talks about how over time midwifery has been devalued in comparison with other healing professions. And JeanBaptiste’s own mother speaks of the racism that JeanBaptiste’s grandmother witnessed as a nurse at Harlem Hospital in the 1940s, when white nurses fed the white babies in their care, but left the bottles meant for black babies unattended on their pillows.

Afterward, one attendee of the open house asks JeanBaptiste how it feels “to be holding all of these stories.”

“Just listening to this audio today,” she replies, “I get all emotional again.”


Each of JeanBaptiste’s clips represented a brief excerpt from a much longer recording. A typical interview session lasts one-and-a-half to two hours. Yet, they nonetheless encapsulated many of the distinguishing characteristics of oral history. JeanBaptiste’s narrators offered personal testimony that could not have been gathered in any other way, and which otherwise would have been lost to the historical record. Their responses revealed much about the social and cultural contexts in which their experiences were embedded. They illustrated how the attitudes that informed those contexts changed over time; attitudes toward birthing practices, certainly—but also toward race, gender, and community, and any number of other topics that developed from carefully directed yet loosely structured conversations.

The clips were also inherently multivocal and intergenerational, with JeanBaptiste’s narrators speaking not just for themselves, but also for their parents and grandparents, weaving tales that stretched well beyond their own lifetimes. “You start talking to someone, and suddenly their grandfather is in the room,” says oral historian Mary Marshall Clark. Clark is the co-founder of the Oral History Master of Arts program along with Peter Bearman, the Jonathan R. Cole Professor of the Social Sciences.

The ensuing stories were complex, multilayered, variegated—history as a quilt knit from the impressions of many different participants, each with her unique perspective. The stories were also deeply personal, and, at times, emotionally charged. Oral historians often talk about the therapeutic quality of the interview process, though they are careful to say that they are not, in fact, therapists—a distinction that breaks down in the case of Lauren Taylor (’11GSAS, MA), a psychiatric social worker and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work who records her clients’ life histories as part of her clinical practice.

JeanBaptiste’s clips also raised many of the issues with which oral historians grapple, from the manner in which the relationship between interviewer and interviewee can color the story being told (one of JeanBaptiste’s informants was her own mother, after all) to the reliability of the narrator as a source of factual information. How accurate, for example, were JeanBaptiste’s mother’s descriptions of childbirth practices decades ago? Were midwives really “legislated out of existence?” Were birth outcomes for African-American women truly better when midwifery was more common?

Then, there are the ethical questions that arise: What kinds of liberties should oral historians take with their raw materials? How much control should narrators have over their own life histories? And ultimately, what is the oral historian’s responsibility to his or her interviewees?

Those questions have far-reaching implications. For his own thesis, Sam Robson (’14GSAS, MA) interviewed dementia sufferers and their caregivers—including his own father, who had Alzheimer’s. Accurately representing narrators whose cognitive and verbal abilities were impaired, and obtaining their informed consent in the first place, posed challenges that Robson only overcame with help from the university’s Institutional Review Board, and with the insights he gleaned from a class in the program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. (Robson eventually turned some of his thesis material into a play, Timothy and Mary, which was staged at the Manhattan Repertory Theater.)

Meanwhile, lawyer and oral historian Phil Sandick (’05CC, ’09GSAS, MA) has used narrative theory, neuroscience, and the psychology of memory to argue in the Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights that the very process of gathering witness testimony of human-rights abuses for the International Criminal Court can both re-traumatize victims and traumatize their interviewers. Sandick, who earned a J.D. and an LL.M in International Human Rights after leaving the Oral History program, and now clerks for a federal judge in Atlanta, made the case that the ICC had a legal obligation to adopt interviewing guidelines that would protect both parties, and offered concrete suggestions for how to do it.

This balance between the pragmatic and the intellectual is typical of oral history, a field whose practitioners must master not only the technical aspects of producing, presenting, and archiving intimate and multifaceted interviews, but also the interpretive frameworks required to make sense of them. Grounding students in both sides of that equation—in methodology and theory, interviewing technique and post-interview analysis—is the core of the Master’s program in Oral History (OHMA).

According to Sandick, that blend of theory and practice lends the program in Oral History a gratifying immediacy and an “art-school feel” that are often absent from cultural studies programs. The program was designed to blend the humanities and social sciences in a way that exemplifies how interdisciplinary research should function. Consequently, OHMA is changing the traditional boundaries of what oral history is and what it can accomplish.


As oral historians like to point out, their field is hardly new. For eons before writing, oral history was the only form of historical knowledge that human beings possessed; long after that ceased to be the case, firsthand accounts of individual life histories, of major events and public figures, remained a source of fascination to historians and the broader public alike. Observe the continued interest in Herodotus’ Histories, or the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project during the 1930s and 1940s—or even in Studs Terkel’s best-selling oral histories (The Good WarHard Times) and the popular StoryCorps project.

Nevertheless, most date the academic origins of modern, systematic oral history to 1948, when Allan Nevins, a journalist turned history professor, founded the Columbia University Oral History Research Office for the purpose of recording, transcribing, and preserving oral history interviews.

Like most oral historians of his day, Nevins focused on recording the recollections and life histories of prominent businessmen, politicians, and government officials.

Over time, however, that focus changed, as oral historians grew interested in broad social movements such as feminism and civil rights, and began tapping a larger range of interview subjects, from labor activists to racial and ethnic minorities. This shift in emphasis, which tracked the emergence of social history generally, continues to inform the field.

Today, many oral historians seek not only to document social movements, but also to advance them. Sarah K. Loose (’11GSAS, MA), who worked as a community organizer before entering the program, says that her experiences as an oral historian have both motivated and informed her activism, helping her to understand how individual experiences relate to larger systems of oppression and to develop strategies for fighting injustice. For her thesis, Loose convened a retreat for oral historians who shared her commitment to social justice. That, in turn, led to Groundswell, a network whose approximate 600 members—some professional oral historians, others activists interested in using oral history in their work—are dedicated to guaranteeing the rights of immigrants, ending police brutality, and advancing a host of other causes. For example, click a pin on an online map of Greensboro, North Carolina developed by the oral historians and community activists behind the Maps of Healing initiative, and you will hear a story of police brutality in the voice of the person who experienced it.

As oral history’s focus shifted from collecting stories of the distant past to documenting the world in which we live now, the Center grew beyond its single location in the Columbia Libraries. The Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) is now located in the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE) in Knox Hall. The Center for Oral History Archives remains inside the Columbia Libraries and provides access to both historic and new collections. Clark runs the CCOHR; Bearman directs INCITE.

Clark and Bearman first worked together on the September 11, 2001 Oral History Narrative and Memory Project, which collected from a wide swath of New Yorkers firsthand accounts of that day immediately after the attacks, and then again years later. The goals were to present alternatives to the canonical 9/11 narratives that quickly took root in the media, and to investigate how the trauma of those events affected people’s identities and their understanding of the past.

It was a fortuitous pairing.

At the time, Bearman, a sociologist, was also the director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP). He had a longstanding interest in life stories and how people construct them by selecting events from the past and stringing them together to form narratives that explain who they are and how they became themselves.

Unsurprisingly, oral historians have their own abiding interest in how people’s ideas about themselves inform their perspectives on the past. As a group, Clark says, oral historians are interested in understanding change over time. And as Anne M. Valk, president of the Oral History Association, notes, because their sources are people whose views and identities have shifted over the years, oral historians must take pains to understand how those shifts occur, and how they influence the narratives that people craft—a task that may require drawing upon fields ranging from anthropology to literary theory.

Oral historians and sociologists also share an interest in the dynamic relationship between the individual and society. Often, the former use individual life histories to illuminate larger social and cultural systems, and to examine the complex dynamic between personal and collective memory, and between public and private history.

The 9/11 project led to a book, After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years That Followed. It also highlighted, says Bearman, the advantages of using oral history technique and social science methodology to probe important social issues. When Bearman was preparing to step down as director of ISERP, Mary Marshall Clark recalls, he asked if there was anything he could do for her before he left. Clark mentioned that she had been working on a graduate curriculum in oral history. “Okay, let’s do it,” Bearman replied. Thus was born the only graduate program in the country dedicated entirely to oral history.

On one hand, the program is infused with what Bearman, quoting Columbia sociologist C. Wright Mills, calls “the sociological imagination”: a tendency to relate personal life histories to larger social processes, and to explore how individual biography and those processes mutually shape each other. On the other, it is open to the many ways in which oral history might be used  as an undertaking whose signature technique of one-on-one interviewing, sophisticated approach to narrative analysis, and deep expertise in archival methods can be profitably applied to fields as varied as ethnography, psychology, journalism, and theater.

Students learn the latest techniques for digitally recording, editing, and disseminating their materials; analyze interviews conducted by themselves and their classmates using theoretical frameworks developed by oral historians and social scientists; and explore the intersections between oral history and public health, oral history and the arts, and more.

The idea, Bearman emphasizes, is not to cook up a “vacuous stew of interdisciplinary mush,” but rather to draw upon the core strengths and insights of many fields to build a supple toolkit for tackling a wide variety of problems and projects. As a result, students leave the program armed with broadly applicable skills—ones that they have been exercising in a diverse range of endeavors.

Alumni of the program continue to engage broadly. In addition to her work with Groundswell, Sarah Loose is coordinator of Rural Organizing Voices, an oral history initiative that documents, analyzes, and shares the lessons learned by community organizers in rural and small-town Oregon.

Meanwhile, Sam Robson recently began work at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum in Atlanta, where he is documenting the measures that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took to combat last year’s Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

And social worker Lauren Taylor conducts oral history interviews in her clinical practice as an especially effective way to help treat depression, but outside her practice also tackles various “straight” oral history projects. For instance, she will soon begin collecting life histories from members of Emeritus Professors in Columbia, or EPIC, an organization for retired professors, researchers, and administrators at the University.

In some ways, their careers could not be more divergent. Yet all are working to place the individual firmly at the center of historical inquiry, to understand how society and its institutions are built, and to document how they change over time.

The effort may be even more urgently needed today than it was a half-century ago.

“We’re suffering as a society from mass alienation,” says Clark. This estrangement has been brought on by rising inequality, mass-media saturation, and a political process that seems incapable of addressing our biggest problems. As a result, she adds, “we’re searching for meaning” and a sense that our individual voices matter.

Oral history—a discipline that explores who we are as individuals, what our personal experiences mean in a larger social context, and how our knowledge and values are passed from one generation to the next—provides a way of creating that meaning, one story at a time.