Life story

Earlier today I met with Richard B. Stamps, Associate Professor of Anthropology at OU, to record an oral history. As you might imagine, I was full of nervous energy by the time I arrived, having researched Stamps in a way that I thought of as exhaustive, but that turned out to barely scratch the surface. For example, though I had read all of Stamps’ published work that I could find, I didn’t know anything at all about his childhood in California.

We met in the anthropology lab, 115 O’Dowd; if you’ve never been there, it’s kind of difficult to find. Fortunately I’d left myself plenty of time, had all necessary equipment in hand, and we began recording without incident.

Personally recording Stamps’ history was quite different from shadowing Cornelia to Dulio’s recording session. First of all, Cornelia was much more active in Dulio’s history than I was in Stamps’–in fact, besides laughing where appropriate and thanking Stamps for the recording at the end, I wasn’t a part of his oral history at all. I prompted him before I began recording–“Tell me your life story”–and Stamps took it from there. I found listener to be a comfortable role for me, though it took a lot more energy than I would have expected. Listening intently is exhausting.

Second, I learned that, even though Stamps and I weren’t engaged in conversation, we warmed up to each other over the course of the recording: our postures relaxed, he began speaking more openly and fluidly, etc. We did talk a little bit before the recording began, I told him what I was looking for, went over the informed consent form and the deed of gift, but our conversation after the recording reflected the rapport that was built over the course of recording.

Third, I found that noises I noticed during the recording didn’t turn up in the audio file like I thought they would. For example, I noticed a lot of door opening and closing sounds as I sat there, but very few are audible. At one point, one of Stamps’ colleagues entered the anthropology lab and said hello, then left a few minutes later. That little interruption is audible, but just barely. That taught me a lot about what the microphone picks up.

Before we began recording, I mentioned to Stamps that I was interested in his life story in general and his time at Oakland University in particular. It occurred to me that two recording sessions might be necessary to get all that information in, and Stamps seemed to agree: We decided to wrap up today’s recording with just his life story and to record a second history of his time at Oakland in the future. We haven’t set up a day/time yet, but I expect that it’ll be in the next month or so. Given his facility with storytelling, I’m looking forward to what he might have to say about how OU has changed since he began working here in the ’70s.

If you’re interested in listening to the oral history I recorded, you can find it here–it’s the second one on the page. The history is about two and a half hours long, a fact that led me to consider going through the archive and putting the length of each oral history in its description. One of the challenges I’ve encountered in going through the archive to update and standardize keywords is not knowing how long any particular history is; I think that including lengths could be really helpful to people who go through the archive in the future.


Michigan Oral History Association, Part 2

The pre-conference continental breakfast started at 9 yesterday, so of course we showed up at 8:55. Geneva was again beyond thrilled to see us–it seemed like she wasn’t expecting us to come back.

Larry Massie, the keynote speaker, gave the first presentation of the day. He’s the author of 20 best-selling Michigan history books, including On The Road to Michigan’s Past, which my sister bought. He wrote a history for Western Michigan University and has been approached to write histories for hospitals and libraries as well. Larry told us that, though he almost never turns down a job offer even when he’s not interested in the subject matter, he’ll sometimes name a higher price than he thinks the institution will pay…and that 9 times out of 10, the institution will say, “Sure!” and make it worth his time.

Larry recorded multiple oral histories with John Fetzer, a radio and television exec who was best known as owner of the Detroit Tigers from 1961 through the early ’80s, before Fetzer’s death in 1991. Upon his death, Fetzer left $200 million to the study of the paranormal–his true passion. This foundation hired Larry because of his association with Fetzer. Larry told us a story about going to see a medium at Camp Chesterfield as part of his research, with a couple of his friends tagging along. The medium told one of his friends that his aunt Martha was there; the friend replied, “How do you know about Aunt Martha?!” Then the medium told Larry that the spirits of his father and grandfather, mother and grandmother were all present–and that Larry was going to fall in love with and marry a woman he met in the next three months. Larry’s eyes were twinkling as he informed us that, first of all, his mother is still very much alive, but second, and perhaps more importantly, his wife wasn’t thrilled to hear that he was going to fall in love with and marry someone else.

He also had a story about meeting one of Fetzer’s lifelong friends who was involved with building the Fetzer Institute. This man shared Fetzer’s belief in the paranormal: Before building the Institute, he’d had people come through to appease the spirits of the land. Apparently, though, at some point a path was bulldozed without appeasing a territorial troll who resided there. Larry played part of the tape of his interview with the man, who claimed that he had seen the troll. Listening to the tape, it became clear that Larry had had a hard time of taking the man’s story seriously, but that he’d forced himself to maintain decorum because he wanted to hear the story, his beliefs aside.

Throughout his presentation, it was obvious to me that Larry truly loves recording oral histories–traveling to obscure places, getting stories from people whose experiences would otherwise die with them. He advocated using tape recorders rather than digital means to capture oral histories. In his experience, tape recordings held up, but he voiced skepticism about how long digital recordings would be relevant.

Our second speaker, Terry Wooten, replaced a speaker who had backed out a few days prior. Terry calls himself a poet-bard–he uses the oral histories he records to write free-verse poetry. Interestingly, he’s dyslexic. Terry told us that he has over 500 poems committed to memory because he performs poetry live but has a hard time reading.

Although he’s not a degreed professional teacher, he calls himself an educator. He goes into schools and leads workshops on writing free-verse poetry from recorded oral histories. These workshops run for at least three days. On the first day, Terry talks to the kids–mostly in middle schools, though recently some in high schools also–about poetry, including introducing them to “power words.” He explains power words as words that paint a picture in the audience’s minds. The second day, elders from the community come in and are paired with students who interview them for about 45 minutes. The students then transcribe short sections of the material they think they’ll use in their poetry–Terry tells them to use the elders’ words alone to write. Then, on day three, the elders come back and record another 45-minute oral history to fill in any gaps left on the previous day.

Terry told us that he would be able to conduct better, more thorough oral histories than the students are capable of, but there’s a special energy and bond that happens between old folks and thirteen-year-olds. For example, there was a middle schooler named Jamie who interviewed a woman named Joanie. The two maintained a relationship after the workshop, through Jamie dropping out of high school, getting married, and becoming pregnant. They’re still in touch now–Joanie is invited to Jamie’s upcoming baby shower.

Terry also founded a group called Stone Circle. From what I can tell, the purpose of Stone Circle is to allow modern people to experience storytelling, poetry, and music in the same way that their ancestors did: sitting on stones, under the stars, around a campfire.

The stories that Terry told were the most moving of the day. His book Lifelines, A World War II Story of Survival and Love, for example, tells the story of a couple, Jack and Leda Miller, in their own words as expressed in Terry’s free-verse poems. Terry performed a number of poems for us, both his own creations and some written by kids who’d participated in his workshops. His performance style reminded me of poetry slams I attended in Ann Arbor some years ago. One of his published works was turned into a play that was performed by a number of schools across Michigan, and a book that’s coming out soon will also be turned into a play.

The next speaker was Mark Harvey, who’s worked in the State of Michigan Archives for over fourteen years and has been State Archivist for Michigan since 2005. From his job title, I had assumed that his position was boring, but during his presentation called “Michigan History is Alive and Well” he had unexpectedly dramatic, funny stories to tell.

One involved the 2009 foreclosure of Yamasaki & Associates, the architecture firm founded by architect Minoru Yamasaki, who’s probably best-known for designing the World Trade Center. After Minoru’s death in 1986, his company was headed by a string of relatively incompetent CEOs, ending with an entrepeneur who drove the company into the ground. Mark was given a heads-up from a Chicago architecture firm on a Monday that state officials in Michigan were planning to auction off all the furniture at Yamasaki on Tuesday and shred all of Yamasaki’s original drawings rather than have to deal with them. By Monday afternoon, Mark had convinced Michigan’s State Treasurer to allow him and his team of archivists to go through Yamasaki’s building ahead of the shredders to save important documents.

At that point, Mark decided to have both the State Treasurer and the soon-to-be ex-CEO of Yamasaki & Associates, Ted Ayoub, sign documents of donation so that the State Archives would be in the clear as far as possessing and showing any documents they found. The State Treasurer immediately signed and returned the document, but Ayoub wanted to meet Mark in person. Mark was supposed to be to Yamasaki & Associates at 8 on Tuesday morning, and Ayoub agreed to meet him in the Starbucks parking lot across the street at 7:30.

Mark was sitting in his car at 7:30 when a black Lexus with tinted windows pulled up beside him. The driver rolled the window down and motioned for Mark to do the same. Mark did, and the driver said, “Get in.” Mark only hesitated momentarily before getting in. The driver turned out to be Ayoub. He wanted Mark to talk to his lawyer-son on the phone before he agreed to sign the document of donation. Apparently Mark passed the son’s test because Ayoub signed with no further questions.

After Mark’s presentation came a round table on “Hot Tools in Oral History.” The main takeaways from that were: buy and use the best equipment you can afford; technology is always changing; and restoration of sub-par recordings can be cost-prohibitive. Three of the panelists were well-heeled professionals, but the fourth had been doing research for a sci-fi novel and sounded like every crazy conspiracy theorist I’ve ever heard. The combination of viewpoints was intriguing.

The conference ended with the attendees talking about our projects. There were only four of us–not including my sister, since she’s not involved in an oral history project–and the other three turned out to be from MSU’s Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing program, i.e., the grad program I’m applying to shortly. One of the women, Andrea, is a doctoral candidate, but the other two, Trixie and Malea, are on the admissions board. They both gave me their cards and implored me to contact them if I had any questions. Needless to say, I’m ecstatic to have made that connection.

Following that, the conference wrapped up. I’m incredibly glad I went–the people I met, the stories they told, have given me a new perspective on the value of oral history. On that note, Dr. Stamps emailed me back about setting up an appointment to record with him; my next step is to call him and finalize arrangements.

Michigan Oral History Association, Part 1

My sister and I left for Traverse City and the Michigan Oral History Association annual conference yesterday around 12 and got to our hotel just after 4. The welcome reception for attendees, held at the picturesque Traverse Area Historical Society, took place from 6 to 8.

Upon arriving, we were welcomed by Geneva Wiskemann, the woman I’d had email correspondence with to set everything up. She was really excited to see us–I assume she knew who I was because she didn’t recognize me and she knew everyone else there. Everyone there was curious about me and Sarah, and there was no shortage of people to meet and greet. Barbara, who’s on MOHA’s board of directors, wanted to know about my project; David, MOHA’s president, overheard us talking about the Michigan Relics article by Richard Stamps and told me that he’s interested in fakeries and frauds. He gave me his card so that I could email him the information (which I did shortly after I got home tonight).

While I was talking with David, I mentioned that I might want to find work at a charity or non-profit organization after grad school, and he gave me an interesting piece of advice: to take a couple of accounting classes in case the organization needs help in that respect as well. I hadn’t thought about it from that angle before, but it’s probably an idea I’ll take him up on. Anything that will boost my resume is good with me.

We also met Derek, a twenty-something grad student at U of M, who introduced himself by saying, “You guys look young, I’m gonna come talk to you.” (To be fair, there were only five younger people present at the conference today and everyone else was probably sixty and older.) He regaled us with stories about the differences in personalization of programs at the different universities he’s attended (MSU, EMU, and U of M).

The conference proper took place today, from 9 to 4. I’ll update about that tomorrow, but here’s a sneak peek: The experiences of archivists and oral historians can include being ordered to get in to a Lexus with tinted windows and interviewing someone who claimed he’d seen a troll. They can lead crazy lives, is what I’m getting at.


My internship has been a flurry of emails lately: between me and Cornelia, me and Geneva Wiskemann (the contact person for the MOHA conference), and now from me to potential oral history interviewees. I emailed Dr. Richard Stamps–Associate Professor of Anthropology at OU–to set up a recording with him, and found myself paralyzed trying to write the subject line. I think the brevity of subject lines belies their relative importance–it’s the writer’s first chance to make an impression, and, if done incorrectly, can lead to all kinds of badness. Perhaps there should be a subject-line-writing class.

I’m looking forward to hearing back from Dr. Stamps. His will be the first oral history I’ve ever recorded and I’m nervous about doing the actual recording. At the same time, though, I’m really excited about getting the opportunity to put my research to use and hear from Dr. Stamps about his multifaceted life. I’ve spent hours researching Dr. Stamps, including reading some of his published works and listening to the oral history he already recorded. The purpose of this second recording is to have Dr. Stamps talk about his personal history–his original recording focused on Michigan’s history instead.

This weekend I’m heading to Traverse City for the Michigan Oral History Association conference. I’m planning to drive up Friday, arriving in time for the welcome reception in the evening. I’m staying at the Traverse City Holiday Inn Friday night, then attending the conference all day Saturday. The program for the conference looks diverse–there’s no question that there will be a lot to learn.

As I mentioned last time, I’m going to write a post about the conference when I get back. My camera’s coming with me, so expect some pictures of the conference!


This morning I shadowed Cornelia as she recorded an oral history with Dave Dulio, Associate Professor and Chair of the PoliSci department at OU, in preparation for the GOP debate on campus November 9. (If you’re interested in listening to the oral history, here’s a link. Note that, though I had to cough through pretty much the whole recording, I managed to hold it.) Observing Cornelia’s process really helped me feel more comfortable about doing my own recordings–it’s a completely different experience to be present at a recording session than it is to listen to an existing file, since you have not only the audio information but also body language, gestures, expressions, etc.

Here’s how the recording session played out:

Cornelia began by going over the necessary paperwork–the informed consent form and the deeds of gift for both ROHA and the Rochester Hills Museum. As an academic, Dave Dulio is familiar with the IRB and the concept of informed consent, so she skimmed that information with him; when recordings are done with non-academics, more in-depth discussions might be necessary. The two of them also discussed what questions/prompts Cornelia would be asking, what direction she wanted the oral history to take, etc. This pre-interview portion lasted about fifteen minutes and also included time to set up and test the recording equipment. I noticed that Cornelia was very explicit about when recording would begin: When she plugged in the microphone, it began to glow, but she assured Dulio that she wasn’t recording yet. She told him what would happen in case of an interruption–she would edit it out–and he offered to unplug his phone.

I was really interested in what Dulio would say about how he came to be interested in politics, whether he would discuss his affiliation, how he views the coming debate, etc. Interestingly, Cornelia actively attempted not to ascertain Dulio’s political leanings, going out of her way to frame things so that he wouldn’t have to give himself away. While it might seem as if that information would be vital to the oral history, I didn’t feel like anything was missing. Dulio was very articulate, talking about his earliest political memory, his collegiate apathy toward politics, and his anticipation for the debate. As I listened to him, I found myself taking note of some of the names he mentioned and thinking about what kind of keywords I would include on his file. Clearly the hours I’ve spent indexing the ROHA database have changed how I listen to oral histories.

After the recording, Cornelia spoke with Dulio a little bit more before we left, including mentioning that she would email him a link to his oral history. (Even though he gifted the recording to ROHA and the Rochester Hills Museum, it’s still also his to use as he sees fit.) He said that he would probably never listen to it because he hates the sound of his own voice–another aspect of oral histories I’d never thought about.

Though, as I mentioned, I wasn’t able to go to the Oral History Association conference in Denver, there’s a Michigan Oral History Association conference on November 4-5 in Traverse City that I’m definitely going to attend. My next step is to register for the conference and book my hotel room, and I’m planning to write a post about my experience there.

Down to details

You might be wondering, “Is Rachel updating from the OHA conference?!” The answer, sadly, is no. I applied for the student travel grant that Dr. G mentioned, but they never got back to me, and I just don’t have $500-$600 extra to spend out of my own pocket…so the conference is going on without me. I’m bummed about the missed opportunity, but there’s plenty to do around here to keep me busy.

For example, I’ve been reading Doing Oral History, a book Cornelia lent me. The book covers all aspects of oral history, from history and theory to starting a project to how long a tape to use during recording sessions. I haven’t yet recorded an oral history myself, but reading the book has given me ideas on how to go about it so that the material I elicit from my interviewee will be meaningful and long-lasting.

Perhaps more importantly, the book has helped me to contextualize the ROHA project within the larger oral history movement. Prior to interning with ROHA, my only experience with oral histories came to me through visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center and viewing histories recorded with Holocaust survivors. Doing Oral History emphasizes that oral histories can be collected for a variety of reasons: to preserve experiences related to an event (like the Holocaust), to preserve experiences within a particular community (like Rochester), or to preserve a single person’s life story–to name just a few. I hadn’t previously realized how widespread and diverse oral history projects are, but it makes sense, given how widespread and diverse human experience is.

I’ve also been working my way through our archive, listening to each oral history and editing the keywords linked to each oral history. The oral histories in ROHA’s database vary pretty widely in length: The longest history I’ve listened to was probably 45 minutes, while the shortest was probably 10 minutes. It’s hard to determine beforehand how long a chunk of time to set aside to listen to the oral histories, so I’ve been just jumping in and listening until my brain feels like mush.

Part of my challenge in editing keywords is that I’m not an insider–I’m not from Rochester, and my experiences in Rochester are limited. It’s hard for me to weigh the relative importance of some of the keywords, since I’m not familiar with the things or places they’re referring to. To kind of solve that problem, I’ve been trying to standardize how certain oft-used keywords appear, so that one concrete thing/place doesn’t have ten different variations of keywords assigned to it. The Older Persons Commission, for example, had about 5 different entries in the keywords, some of which were merely misspellings of “Older Persons Commission.” The Older Persons Commission is also commonly abbreviated to OPC, so what I did was standardize the entries for Older Persons Commission/OPC to “Older Persons Commission (OPC).” Hopefully the standardization will be helpful for people browsing ROHA’s database, both other outsiders who are unfamiliar with Rochester and insiders who have lived in Rochester their whole lives.

Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm

I visited the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm yesterday, enjoying the beautiful grounds before viewing the “Lost Rochester” exhibit. The landscaping behind the main house is lovely: flowers, benches in secluded areas, a small bridge, and a couple of streams. I imagine that if I had waited a couple of weeks for all the leaves to turn, I would have found the grounds even more breath-taking.

The “Lost Rochester” exhibit focuses on aspects of historical Rochester that no longer exist in modern day Rochester. For example, have you ever heard of the Rochester Ski Jump/Slide, built in the 1920s? According to this article, the ski jump lured skiers from across the country because of its height and the scenic view from the top. I know what you’re wondering: What happened to it? The Rochester Ski Jump/Slide was destroyed by a tornado in 1934.

Until I visited the exhibit, I had no idea that the Detroit United Railway once transported people living in or near Rochester to Detroit, mainly so that they could shop. The railroad was active from 1899 until 1931, by which time Rochester grew large enough that it could provide its citizens with all the shopping they needed.

Besides learning about Rochester past, my visit also helped me understand some of the oral histories I’ve listened to in the ROHA database. The Woodward School, for instance, is mentioned multiple times in multiple oral histories, but at the exhibit I actually got to see a picture of the structure as it used to be. (These days it’s the OPC Senior Center.) I picked up a free Vintage Views newspaper and realized that it’s a paper written by, for, and about seniors. One things that’s struck me about Rochester is its dedication to its seniors, from the Senior Center to the designated-for-seniors parking spots available at the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.

On the way home, I stopped by the Yates Cider Mill and was amazed at the sense of community there, too. There’s something about Rochester that begs for the kind of thing that ROHA is: Somewhere that remembers the city’s past with an eye on its future. I’ve never experienced anything like it.