Stephen Sloan and Adrienne Cain
Season 5 - Episode 504
Baylor’s Institute for Oral History preserves history through the collection of stories that would otherwise go untold. In this Baylor Connections, Stephen Sloan, director of the Institute and associate professor of history at Baylor, and Adrienne Cain, associate director and lecturer, share more. They explain how oral historians democratize history and offer tips for individuals seeking to preserve the stories of family or friends.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are discussing Baylor's Institute for Oral History with Stephen Sloan and Adrienne Cain. Baylor's Institute for Oral History has preserved history for more than 50 years, collecting interviews with individuals who are eyewitnesses to history. Oral history staff have interviewed thousands of individuals whose stories reflect diverse insights, the topics of social and historical significance. Stephen Sloan serves as director of the institute and as an associate professor of history at Baylor. Adrienne Cain is the institute's associate director and lecturer. It's great to have you both on the program today. Stephen and Adrienne, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you here.
Adrienne Cain:Yes. Thanks for having us.
Stephen Sloan:Thank you, Derek. Thanks for the invitation.
Derek Smith:Well, it's great to visit with you and to learn more about the Institute for Oral History, because we've got about 20 minutes or so here. But I imagine we could go on for hours about all the great interviews that you both individually and then collectively as a group have done over the years. But I'm curious, I want to start, just to give people a sense of what it's like at the Institute for Oral History. If we were to take a peak at your calendars, are there any projects that you're working on or upcoming or recently that give people a sense of the work that you do? Stephen, I'll start with you.
Stephen Sloan:I think one of the fun things about what we do is it's very varied. I mean, as far as day to day, what we might be doing. You mentioned the interview projects that we're conducting right now. I'm involved in a grant project, where we're doing the history of one of the largest ranches down in South Texas, actually one of the largest private land holdings in the nation. And so that's a project that we may write and get a grant for to conduct interviews ourselves. But what's fun is the way in which we get to multiply work done with oral history. So we're advising on faculty projects on campus, off campus, working with community groups to learn the ways to better document and share, record, preserve, and share their own stories. So that may look different. I was contacted last week by someone from the Perot family that wants to conduct some oral history interviews with those that knew H. Ross Perot, or I've talked to the Disney archives recently on them doing an oral history project. And so it can look very different from week to week. I also, because I'm interested in local history, I do a lot of things locally in Waco. And so Wednesday I'm doing a talk with Baylor staff on learning about Waco. What is this place? What is its history? And what should we know about that if we want to interact with the local community?
Derek Smith:What about you, Adrienne?
Adrienne Cain:Well, in addition to that, we also have opportunities to work with other departments here on campus. Well, I can't say other departments now that we are a part of Baylor libraries. But one project that is coming up is that the Texas collection received quite a large donation from Bishop College, which was an HBCU. It ended in Dallas and they closed in the 1980s, and so the alumni have gotten together and tried to preserve the history and memory of it. So there's the opportunity that we're going to take to do an oral history project there. In addition to that, one thing that Sloan did not mention, one of our fun projects that we're working on right now is that we are actually writing a book. The Institute is involved right now with writing a book, Oral History at a Distance, which is very timely because talks about doing remote interviews. And not just because we are in the times that we're in, but there may be certain situations where travel is not an option or that you have to conduct a remote interview, with someone's health maybe being a risk or, again, with traveling not being an option. So we're writing a book on how to do that.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Adrienne Cain:It's fun. Yeah, fun.
Stephen Sloan:And just all the implications that go on with doing things at a distance. About two years ago, when the pandemic broke, we started getting a lot of inquiries as a place that's for a long time spoken in the best practices with oral history, of how do I transition work that I'm doing to a distance format. And what does it mean to do that? We're doing this interview face-to-face and I know you've done distant broadcasting-
Adrienne Cain:Yeah. Both of them.
Stephen Sloan:In your work and it's very different. It becomes something fundamentally different. And so how do we navigate that and still pursue best practices, is something people ask us about. So we actually held an online webinar that had over 500 international participants, an overwhelming response of folks that were interested in learning more about how to do it right. And so from that came this book contract that Adrienne talked about that we're fulfilling, not as we're sitting here, but when we go back to the office, yeah.
Derek Smith:Is it fair to say that, at least... I think, there's nothing quite like face-to-face and being in the room with the person. But you think about individuals, zoom is a great tool that's going to open up more doors, especially if maybe you don't have the resources to travel somewhere to go places.
Stephen Sloan:Yeah. But it presents a host of different, I think, considerations when you do that and Adrienne, particularly, talks about the ethics and additional issues that are introduced about it.
Adrienne Cain:Yeah. It's just with your everyday zoom meeting, you have the implications of like, oh, okay, what's hanging in..." Early on with this, people were doing this from their homes and it's like, okay, you have your kids running around in the background, you have dirty laundry piled in the back. The glitches of where you're talking over one another, it still happens today is something that probably can't be fixed. But just all of those things that you have to consider when recording someone in their home and at a distance, and also just the availability of what's their bandwidth like, what's their internet capability. I had a meeting last week with someone who's in, I don't want to say the middle of nowhere, but the middle of nowhere. She was in a very rural area, and our meeting the whole time was very choppy.
Derek Smith:That's tough.
Adrienne Cain:But if that's what you're working with, you have to think, "Okay, what are some of these other options I can do?" If not zoom, maybe just a simple... I think we've forgotten that a simple telephone call can do just exactly the same thing. So maybe that's a better option, but that's what we're talking about in the book. Just considering all those options.
Derek Smith:We look forward to seeing that when it comes out, the work y'all are doing. As we visit with Stephen Sloan and Adrienne Cain. Adrienne, I want to ask you, and then Stephen, what drew you into oral history? What was it about preserving history in this manner that really appealed to you?
Adrienne Cain:Okay. I will make this very short. So when I was in graduate school, getting my master's in library science, I took an internship with NASA Johnson Space Center with their history center, which no longer exists, but that's a story for another time. And during that time we were working with archives and the subject of oral histories came up. So there were these oral histories that they did with flight directors, with past directors of the space programs and just all of these people. And it was cool to me. At that moment, I was like, "Oh, okay. That's cool." I didn't think much of it, but it stuck with me. Fast forward a couple years, I'm on my first job interview for Houston Public Library and we're talking, going through the whole thing. And they were like, "Hey, by the chance, do you know anything about oral history?" And it's like, "Well, why, yes, yes I do. I do know a little something." So I ended up getting that job. And one of the first things I did actually was take the work shop that we now teach. Yeah. So that was my formal training, I will say. But that is how... I don't like to say I fell into it, I will say that I was guided into it. And that's how I got into oral history. And it's just interesting just listening to people share their stories from their perspectives. It can be a bit cliche when I say this, but it's like when you sit across the table from someone and you're able to listen to them explain in detail their life experience, you may not agree with them, but you can develop an understanding of, okay, that's why you have those certain feelings or that's why you believe this certain thing. And again, not agree, but you kind of develop an understanding. Yeah.
Stephen Sloan:Yeah. And I think for me, there's a lot of answers I could give this question, but one, I would say as a historian, I became very aware of the silences that exist in the historical record. What we document is not neutral. Some people are very overrepresented in the historical record and some are underrepresented or vacant. You can't even find traces that they lived a life and that they had a perspective and that they had a view. And so that opportunity of bringing those voices and the way they want to be shared seemed a way to me to democratize history, to bring more voices in and to bring understanding of someone else's perspective. I don't know, Derek, how you see the color blue, but if you can describe it to me, that's the closest I could get. And so I'm just amazed at, again as a historian, events that I think I know the history of, the way in which they encounter a particular life, I find endlessly fascinating because it's always unique in some respects. And so I love discovering that.
Derek Smith:What are some examples of projects that have been meaningful that have really stood out to you as being able to give, like I said, voice to people who maybe didn't have that, or there moments that just really stand out when you're sitting across from someone and it just hits you? A perspective or something that you're seeing in a new way.
Stephen Sloan:Well, I'll pick a project that we did recently that I think is interesting. And in launching the project, I said civil rights history is local history. We think we just celebrated MLK day or recognized MLK day. There's a local story of civil rights as well that's too often thought in national terms or in terms of just a few individuals. And so a project that we worked on last summer with the Dr. Pepper Museum is a new exhibit that they have on lunch counter integration in Waco. So local folks that participated in this effort to integrate spaces that were whites only up until the 1960s. And so going out and gathering those interviews for me is a way to really push back at a few different narratives. One, that it didn't happen here, it happened somewhere else. And it wasn't local people that did it. It was people that are somewhere else that are in my text book. And so those sorts of stories, I think, are extremely important to change how we think about the place where we are and how we think about our own history.
Derek Smith:What about you, Adrienne?
Adrienne Cain:I agree with that. Also just what's interesting to me when interviewing people is just everyone has a story, but it's just sometimes when people think of interviews, they're thinking of people who are famous, who have status, money. Kind of like what Sloan was talking about earlier with history being told from this very, very distinct perspective. But when you encounter people like the person you may sit next to on the bus, they have a story. And when you hear that story, it's like, "Wow, you were involved with that. You did that." Those stories are the ones that stick with me, especially, I would say people who are underrepresented, or who seem to be the underdogs. Also stories that really preserve the history or the story of certain communities, communities that no longer exist, whether that be for vacating the areas, gentrification, whatever it may be. But people who can hold onto a certain space and say, "We were once here." This is what once was here. This is the history of this area. These are the things that this community did. It's not just this, what it is today, may it be destitute or just how some people look at some areas and like, "Oh," but it's like, "No, this place has a story." There are people who are here who can tell that story. And that there was something here before you got here. There were people that lived here. There were schools that were here. There were jobs that were here. There were just all sorts of things. And I think that those stories are important as well. And I would say that one thing's that we have to be cautious with as oral historians, and we talk about this a lot on the national level with stories sticking with you, because you hear so many stories and hear so many people's experiences that sometimes it's hard not to take that in or hard to try to leave that there. But there are people that you come across that you never forget. There are some stories that you hear that sometimes you can't unhear, you can't unrelive that. And also you develop relationships with people. The people that you're interviewing is not like you're talking to them today, and then it's just like, "Okay, thank you for your story. I'm out." No, you want to make sure that you are respectful of the fact that they were willing to share their life story with you, that they were willing to take the time and go into some very personal details of their life and allow you to record that, document that, and make it available for other people to use for research in the future. That's a very special privilege.
Derek Smith:Yeah. I would imagine sitting across from someone in their living room, or where have you and having them tell about their intimate details of their life. You talk about the ethics, I'm sure you build a connection there with them in that moment that's powerful. How would you describe what that's like to people who haven't maybe sat in a room like that?
Stephen Sloan:Yeah. I mean, I've heard before the saying that the greatest favor you can do someone is let them tell you their story. I mean, and oftentimes we're hearing things that the family may not have heard, or they haven't shared before. And in many cases the interview that we do with them is their testament. In other words, families aren't doing this for themselves. And so, these have an immediate value of course, but they have an increasing ongoing value. We've had people come back to us and we have the recordings of grandfather and grandmother that they didn't think to do themselves. And so it's a very vulnerable thing for them to do, and we try to be good stewards so that Adrienne and our work, just to think about what's best for them in sharing their story. It's very collaborative is one of the things I really like about it. We're a lot like KWBU in that we have a very outward facing component of what we do. I mean, we're always collaborating with different groups to accomplish. A lot of places on campus are very insular to campus. We're very engaged with individuals to collaborate with communities to collaborate, but I see it as a big responsibility in how we do that well. And with ethics, it's always there are new questions about, is it right to do this? Is it right not to do this? And those sorts of things.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are discussing Baylor's Institute for Oral History with Stephen Sloan and Adrienne Cain. And you mentioned Houston University Libraries. The Institute has been around for now 52 years, 52 years. Where would we find you all physically? And what would we find if we visited? Particularly, I'm thinking about, I use data as a broad term to think about all the thousands and thousands of interviews, or transcripts, or videos, or what have you that you all have documented.
Stephen Sloan:Yeah. So we have about 7,000 interviews in our collection, over 200,000 pages of transcript. And so a lot of data, a lot of audio recordings, a lot of video recordings on every format that you can imagine, starting on reel to reel back in the day and transitioning course to digital recording that we're doing now. We're a little unusual on Baylor's campus, as far as the libraries go and that we have an all digital collection. So, we don't have stacks that you can go into and rummage through and find things. All our recordings are being or have been born digital or digitized over time. And so you can move through things online and Baylor's online collections were one of the digital collections there, and you can go there and searchable. What's nice is you can see the transcripts, we still transcribe everything we do, which is not the case of every oral history program. And we've also attached media to those transcripts. And so you can look at the transcript. There's nothing like listening to the audio and you can hear the audio that goes along with it. So there's a robust collection there online that is very accessible all around the world.
Derek Smith:It's the easiest way, what Google Baylor Institute for oral History, or is that the easiest way for people to do it if they're just driving around right now?
Stephen Sloan:I think the best place to go... There's baylor.edu/oralhistory. And there not only can you search our collection, but if you're saying, "Hey, I'd like to do this." We have an introduction to oral history manual that's up there and available. We have resources. We do training a couple times a year. So there's places they could go next to kind of learn more, to not only expose themselves to oral history but also learn how to create it themselves.
Derek Smith:I want to ask you, I'm sure there's people listening, who in the back of their minds have thought, it would be fun to sit down and record my mom and dad, or my grandparents, or my aunt or uncle, or whomever. And like so many things it's easy not to do it or think, "Oh, I don't know how I'd go about and do it." So let's see if we could take the last few minutes of the show, maybe to demystify this for people a little bit, or at least give them a couple of hooks they can hold onto. So this is broad, Adrienne, but I'll start with you. What are some tips you would give for people if there's someone in their life that they would like to preserve their story, how they could go about doing that.
Adrienne Cain:Well, and not saying this jokingly, first, I would make sure that they want their story to be documented or to be recorded. That's very important. The many oral historians have run into the spot where, "Oh, my grandpa would be great," and you get there and it's like, "Grandpa does not want to talk to you." So first making sure that they want their story recorded. As Sloan was saying earlier, we have several resources available on our website, the intro to oral history manual that we have. And it's just going through some basics of what kind of equipment do you use? What kind of interview are you wanting to create? Do you want audio? Do you want video? There are different equipment that you use for that. Also just what is it exactly that you want to know? It's not that you're just going to put the recorder down in front of someone and just say, "Hey, talk." Are there specific things that you want to know? Do you recall specific times in their life? For my parents' generation, it was more of like, okay, Kennedy's assassination, MLK's assassination, Bobby King. Those moments that stick out for people. How did that affect you? Those are some of the things that you want to think about. So maybe do a little research of like, okay, well, this is dad's timeline. What did he like in high school? What were some of the things that he was into? Did he play sports? Was he in the military? Just doing your research to try to form those questions, to get around, what I will say, the reluctance to talk sometimes. Because you will get in front of people and talk to them and record them, or you'll ask to record someone. And the favorite thing that I love to hear was like, "Oh, I don't have much to say," or, "I'm not that important." And then you sit down with them and you listen to their stories and your mind is just blown by the things that they've seen and experienced. So make sure they want to be recorded. Do a bit of research about their life and their time. And then also just make sure that you are listening. Listening is so important in oral history because you're not only listening for what they're saying, you're also listening for what they're not saying. Are there things that are being skipped around? For example, in an interview I did with a veteran, sometimes when you're talking to veterans about their combat experience, they need time. There may be some things that they have seen that that may be the first time that they're reliving or retelling these stories. And you just have to be prepared for that. So you have to listen, you have to be patient, especially for dealing with older populations. Sometimes it takes a little longer to warm up. And if you're talking to someone who's 80, 90, even a hundred, that's a lot of memories that they have to go through. So patience is also important.
Stephen Sloan:Yeah, I think those are some great points that Adrienne gave. We ask open-ended questions, which is really important to not go in with a specific agenda and try not to lead anyone to a certain conclusion. We can do this very subtly by assuming information, oh, this must have been... Can you talk about... I've done interviews on some pretty tough topics, but I can't assume that their experience with that topic is X. I've got to allow them to relate to me the ways in which they live these experiences because I've had some very humorous moments shared with me on some very difficult topics, or I could assume that generally historically their experience would've been this. But that could have been very far from how they encountered whatever event that may have been. And so I don't want to lead them to a certain conclusion there. That's really important in the ways in which we ask questions. Yeah.
Derek Smith:We'll talk about asking questions. I mean, I can always use tips myself here. You mentioned open-ended questions. Are there any, whether you're thinking about them as icebreakers, I'm just thinking about people with their families right now, or a neighbor they're getting to know. Are there any surefire questions that are good ways just to start a good conversation that you found with people to get to know them, as far as getting to know their history? Is there anything that you're like, if you ask this question, you're at least honoring them or bound to get something interesting?
Stephen Sloan:Yeah. I think, and maybe this is because I'm Southern, but where are you from? We always seem to start with where you're from as a place to... And in many ways, when we do a oral history interview, whatever the topic we're dealing with, we do a little bit of life history there because as a historian, I know context is extremely important. And so, we want to ask them questions early on that are easy for them to answer. And so an easy thing for them to answer is a little bit of the backstory, a little bit of where they're from, where they grew up, those sorts of questions. I mean, if I'm interviewing someone about something very difficult, like a genocide, I want to understand their worldview. I want to understand the lens through which they experienced events. And the only way I can do that is, who was this? What was formative in their life growing up? Who spoke into who they were? What did they learn? Where did they go? What did they do? Those are the sorts of things that I would be exploring early on in the interview.
Adrienne Cain:Or even for example, with interviewing alumni, one of the things I like to ask are, growing up, what did you want to be? What did you want to be when you grew up? Because there's always your standard answer and then there's something that happened that may have changed that trajectory. Or what your favorite subject was just to see if that was something that continued on in their life. Because you want to give them something that's very easy and comfortable to talk about. Sometimes when people are interviewed, they may feel this need to put on airs or get really nervous and stiff, but it's like, no, you're the subject matter expert because we're talking about you. So tell me about you. If there's a certain hobby or something that you know that they're affiliated with. Well, when did you learn about that? Tell me more. What's your interest with this? And then they'll get to talking. Yeah.
Derek Smith:Well some great tips here as we visit with Stephen Sloan and Adrienne Cain. As we wind down, I want to close by asking, we mentioned, you've got the archives, you mentioned people can go online and find them digitally. You've got a book coming up. You've done other projects. It was Waco History app. Waco, what history that people can visit. Can you tell us where people, if they want to find a little bit more about the work you do and kind of some fun ways, are there places they can go to take part in that and use it themselves?
Adrienne Cain:Yeah. As mentioned earlier, our website www.baylor.edu/oralhistory. You can also find us on social media. Our Twitter handle is at @BaylorOH, OH stands for Oral History. So you can find out about our projects and upcoming events there as well.
Stephen Sloan:And we're on the Facebook as well, as my mom likes to call it. So you can find us there as well. Baylor Institute for Oral History. I will mention you mentioned the Waco History app. So we have, if you're here in Waco, a app project we started about seven years ago now, has about 200 entries. It's got historic images from The Texas Collection, which is our partner on the project. It's got oral history excerpts. And so you can introduce yourself to oral history by hearing some excerpts, some oral history there, thousands of images, hundreds of oral history excerpts on about 200 stories here locally. I also do a Waco History podcast. And so you can check out some stories in the Waco History podcast as well, which is out there. So we try to always do a lot of stuff locally, but we're also doing things statewide and we're very involved in the national and international world history associations as well.
Derek Smith:That's great. A lot of great ways people can find out more. Well, Stephen, Adrienne, really appreciate you taking the time to share and hope people check out the work you do.
Adrienne Cain:Thank you.
Stephen Sloan:Thank you, Derek.
Derek Smith:Thank you. Stephen Sloan, director of the Institute for Oral History and associate professor of history at Baylor, and Adrienne Cain, associate director of the Institute for Oral History and lecturer at Baylor, our guests today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.