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.


3 thoughts on “Life story

  1. troyintern says:

    Very cool! I love the idea of adding the length of time to the oral history descriptions. Once things settle down with the end of the semester I would like to listen to a few, particularly this one. Have you and Cornelia discussed the possibility of staying on further to do more recordings after the semester has ended?


    • Well, I’m planning to record with Stamps again, quite possibly after this semester ends, so I’ll at least be around for that. In terms of continuing with the project…I don’t know, I think I’ll probably be done after Stamps’ second interview. I’m hoping to get through the rest of the database in the next week (which should be doable), then home free! But I’m so glad I’ve had this opportunity because I think I might want to do something with oral histories for a career–though of course that’s liable to change!

  2. ghagman says:

    After conducting six oral histories for the Chrysler Heritage Project, I am amazed at the variety of stories people who worked for the same company have to tell. I try not to interject myself into interviews either. I just ask my questions, listen, and think of any necessary follow-ups. I laugh sometimes (hopefully at appropriate times) when I conduct the interviews over the phone so the interviewee doesn’t think he is talking to dead air. When I interview in person I smile and nod constantly.

    I think adding the time of the oral history is important because it gives people a chance to budget their time and know if they’ll have to listen to it in multiple increments or in one sitting before they get started. I would love to hear Professor Stamps talk about how Oakland has changed since the 70s and will definitely be looking for it.

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