Thursday, July 12, 2012

dear boston globe, please do your homework!

To the Editor:

As a practicing oral historian, I am writing to express my concern at Ms. Kayyem’s characterization of the Belfast Project (“BC casethrows cold water on IRA, academia,” 7/12/2012) as “inconsistent with … oral-history standards.” Best practices in the field demand that all interviewees be fully informed, and sign a use agreement, prior to the oral history interview. The Oral History Association’s Principles and Standards  state that “interviews should remain confidential until interviewees have given permission for their use,” that interviewees have the right to seal portions of their interviews, and that sponsoring institutions and archives have the responsibility to honor the agreements made and documented between interviewer and interviewee.

While it is possible to make a legal argument both for and against respecting the confidentiality agreements the Belfast Project interviewers made with those whom they interviewed, those agreements were not “inconsistent” with oral historical best practices. Rather, they followed the guidelines set out by professionals in the field.


Anna J. Cook, M.A., M.L.S.
Allston, Mass.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

review of "hillbilly nationalists"

I have a book review of  Amy Sonnie and James Tracy's Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Melville House, 2011) in the Spring 2012 issue of the newsletter of the New England Historical Society (NEHA). Sonnie and Tracy explore, through oral history and archival research, the history of working-class white activism, primarily in the Chicago area, during the 60s and 70s, with an emphasis on the alliances between poorer whites and non-whites to work for social change.
The co-authors of Hillbilly Nationalists have taken on the ambitious project of researching and describing the under-documented efforts of white, working-class community organizers in the urban North during the 1960s and 70s. Sonnie is an educator, librarian, and author who co-founded the Center for Media Justice; Tracy is a social justice organizer in the San Francisco Bay area who focuses on issues of poverty, racism, and the environment. Drawing on extensive archival research and over sixty oral history interviews, these two practiced scholars map out the short-term politics and long-term effects of inter-racial community organizing in the era of Black Power.
Read the rest in the PDF newsletter, which you can download from the NEHA website.

Friday, February 3, 2012

quick hit: christian college presidents + human sexuality

Libby Nelson @ Inside Higher Ed reports on a recent meeting of Christian college presidents on the subject of non-normative sexuality (specifically homosexuality) and the Bible:
Part of the goal of the session was to allow college presidents to discuss how to handle [incidents of bullying and harassment] and other situations, which are happening with increasing frequency on college campuses as more students come out as gay as undergraduates and as other groups, including many representing alumni, ask the colleges to change.

“It’s important to us as leaders of Christian colleges and universities to promote sexual purity, to exercise good pastoral care and to articulate Biblical convictions,” said Philip Ryken, the panel’s moderator and president of Wheaton College in Illinois. At Wheaton, gay alumni and their supporters founded a group, OneWheaton, that counters the college’s view on sexuality, and held an unofficial homecoming event.

All three presidents [from Messiah, Wheaton, and Westmont] pointed out that they do not discipline students for same-sex attraction, and that the restrictions on sexual behavior are roughly analogous to those on heterosexual students: all prohibit sexual contact outside marriage. Gay students and alumni argue that a ban on premarital sex is not the same as a ban on homosexual “behavior,” since they would not be able to hold hands with a partner of the same sex, while straight students would.
I'm headed back to Hope College at the beginning of March to speak at a Women's Studies symposium, and I'll be very interested to hear and see first-hand what the climate for queer students and faculty is like now. It's been seven years since I graduated now (!) and with the current president now in his final year of service, I get the sense things are ripe for change -- though in what direction it's hard, as yet, to gauge.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

quick hit: alissa m. goudswaard in perspectives

My aunt just sent me the latest issue of Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought (December 2011) with a note to check out Alissa M. Goudswaard's essay "Everything That Rises," which reflects on aspects of her experience at the Oregon Extension in her junior year of college.
My first taste of bread handmade from yeast starter came the evening after the first day of class. I was reading about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with my cabin-mates when there was a knock on our door. It was John, one of our professors, a white-haired man who tied fishing flies as he talked to us about Derrida. He brought Cosette, the canine darling of the campus, and a towel-covered platter ... "I've come to feed you," John said (8).
Like so many of the personal reflections on the Oregon Extension I've listened to, and read, Alissa's account includes struggles to convey the inner revelations experienced while at Lincoln, and also some measure of insecurity as she worries that her own revelations -- her own personal journey -- somehow fail to measure up to those of her cohort:
Sarah came back to the cabin in tears one evening. She'd mailed her father a paper she wrote about Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhist philosophy. She was excited about it, but her father was not. "I feel like I'm losing you," he had told her. "I feel like you're losing your hold on Jesus." "But I'm not!" she told us tearfully ... I celebrated with them, and waited for my own revelation. I waited for my dreams and visions, but nothing worked for me. I became increasingly restless (10).
In such an intense environment, it seems difficult for even the best-intentioned faculty and students to keep the momentum of majority culture from rolling forward, and sweeping everyone along into a group conversation that, inevitably, leaves some to feel they've missed the boat -- failed, in some way, to experience the revelation. I wouldn't go so far as to say such a dynamic is inevitable, but it does seem a difficult one to counter.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

quick hit: belfast project oral history lawsuit

Earlier this year, the British Government requested the audio recordings and transcripts of interviews from a Boston College-based oral history project documenting the history of conflict in Northern Ireland. The oral history narrators who participated in the project originally granted interviews on the condition (agreed to in writing) that the interviews remain sealed until after their death. English officials are arguing that the interviews are required as part of an ongoing criminal investigation and claiming that the United States government is under treaty obligation to obtain the materials from BC and hand them over.

After initially resisting the request, Boston College appears to be on the brink of complying with a Judge's order to hand over select interviews. This decision not only represents a breach of promises made to human beings whose lives (and the lives of countless others) will now be under renewed threat, but will have a widespread chilling effect on the practice of oral history in situations where, perhaps, the oral historical record is particularly vital: sites of conflict where normal modes of documentation are lost or never created.

You can listen to an interview with the former director of the Belfast Project, Ed Moloney, on WBUR's Radio Boston.

You can read more about the lawsuit at Boston College Subpoena News (a blog set up to follow the story, which is unaffiliated with BC), as well as access many of the publicaly-available legal documents related to the case.

Neither the Oral History Association nor the American Historical Association have weighed in on this issue recently -- at least that I can find -- although the AHA did acknowledge back in May that the issues are "murky" and raise complex ethical questions about the practice of oral historical research.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

booknotes: see me naked

One of the books I consulted for my thesis was Amy Frykholm's Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford U.P., 2004). In Rapture, Frykholm traveled around the nation interviewing readers of Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, exploring the effect of rapture narratives in Evangelical culture. Frykholm -- who grew up Evangelical and now attends an Episcopal church -- studies her former subculture with a keen and empathetic eye. In her latest book, See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity (Beacon Press, 2011), Frykholm turns to personal narratives of sexuality, embodiment, and Christian spirituality. The slim volume contains nine profiles of Protestant Christians struggling in various ways to integrate their physical, sexual selves with their concepts of Christian "purity" or righteousness.

As much as possible, Frykholm backs away from any larger-scale analysis in the interest of allowing her subjects to make meaning of their own lives. However, it seems clear that all of her interviewees have struggled to integrate their sexual selves with their theological beliefs. Some because they experience same-sex desires, some because they're struggling to live up to demanding Christian ideologies of chastity or modesty, some because anything associated with bodily desires became the enemy.

One of my favorite essays was less about sexual activity or relationships, per se, than it was about our sense of embodiment and the sensual experience of being and expressing oneself in flesh. "Monica" recounts her experience of attending a life-drawing class while studying abroad -- an experience that challenged her understanding of propriety and ultimately helped her re-evaluate her expectations of what beautiful bodies should look like and how women's bodies should behave. At first repulsed by the normal-looking nude model (to the point where she almost dropped the class), Monica perseveres and eventually exhibits her drawings in the college library upon returning to her home campus:
Monica heard two things in the comments [about her art show]. She heard the same fear and revulsion that she had experienced in herself when first encountering the model. It was a disgust that human beings exist in this form ... she also heard in the comments that Christianity and nakedness were incompatible -- that somehow being clothed and being Christian were necessary to each other (84).
At that point in her own journey, Monica has grown enough to be critical of these assumptions, and by the end of the piece has challenged herself to volunteer as a nude model for community life drawing classes -- an act of bravery that seems to be very intertwined with her developing sense of spiritual practice.

What I think may surprise non-Christian readers of these narratives is their familiarity: in many ways, the discomfort with embodiment is a malaise that is more American than Christian, though obviously practicing Christians will express their struggles in theological language. The individuals here struggle with unrealistic beauty standards, with the commercialization of sexuality, with questions of attraction and desire and what their bodies want versus what they're being taught they should want by their parents, youth leaders, peers. The process of coming into one's own bodily self and finding a voice for our desires is rarely an easy one, regardless of the faith tradition we're raised in.

On the other hand, See Me Naked does put those struggles in a particularly Christian theological and social context, and illuminate some of the ways Christian language -- particularly theology which seeks to construct rigid definitions of "right" and "wrong" sexual expression -- fails believers. Reading stories about young women starving themselves to the brink of death in the name of "modesty" and young men told their interest in pornography was sinful, brought to mind the recent post, How Modesty Made Me Fat, by Sierra of No Longer Quivering in which she writes:
Modesty made me “fat” because it defined my relationship with my body in terms of appearance. Not action. Not gratitude. Not the joy of movement. Just appearance. It also defined my relationship with men as one of predator and prey. It was my job to hide from men so that their sex drive would lie dormant, like a sleeping wolf. But if that wolf ever awakened, it was not because it had been sleeping for a long time and its circadian rhythm kicked in, or it was just naturally hungry. It was my fault because I had done something to “bait” the wolf. Just by being visibly female, or by moving in “unladylike” ways. You cannot consider women full human beings unless you recognize that their lives do not revolve around the male sex drive. Modesty is a philosophy that dehumanizes. It incites constant fear and vigilance in one sex while excusing the other of all responsibility. It’s immoral."
See Me Naked offers similar examples of the way in which our religious language falls perilously short in its ostensible effort to increase well-being for all. Naked tells stories of women starving themselves close to death for the sake of being pure, stories of women and men who feel lost when faced with the task of integrating queer attractions with their Christian faith, and stories of men who are taught to hate and fear their feelings of sexual desires as something inherently impure or incompatible with living a righteous life.

At the very end of See Me Naked, Frykholm does offer some reflections on an alternative ethic of sexuality, one that I think is worth contemplating whether or not you're interested in the explicitly Christian language in which she couches her suggestions. "True, deep, real pleasure is an avenue to the Holy," Frykholm writes. "Through discernment, wonder, and aliveness we will know what real pleasure is ... and when we sense true pleasure, we will trust it and be able to act bodily in it and with it." She recounts the counsel of a parent to her soon-to-be adolescent daughter, "Your body will know more pleasure than you can even now imagine. You are going through a period when your body is going to learn to feel pleasure, and you will be amazed" (176)  While I'd argue that children, too, have the bodily capacity to feel pleasure -- though of a different kind than adults -- I like this invitation to an emerging teenager to embrace that part of her growing-up. Too often, we're quick to associate teenage embodiment with danger, not pleasure. As Frykholm says, "We all know that puberty, adolescence, adulthood are not solely about pleasure ... But pain we know well. Pleasure we sometimes need help attending to" (177). Such an invitation crosses the boundaries of faith traditions and is a reminder to us all how much better we could be, as a culture, at living embodied and joyful lives.

Cross-posted at the feminist librarian.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

thankfulness: thesis edition

Maggie + wood stove (October 2004)
photograph by Anna
Cross-posted at the feminist librarian.
One of the most enjoyable parts of writing my Master's thesis was pulling together the acknowledgments. Since it's unlikely everyone who appears therein will read the thesis in full [PDF], I'm reproducing the acknowledgments here. 

It should go without saying this is far from everything I have to be thankful for this year, but it's a damn good starting place. 

May your holiday weekend be peaceful and content, wherever and with whomever you may be.

As a reader, I often turn first to the acknowledgments when evaluating a book.  It is here that one gets a true sense of the solitary author working in a densely-woven web of social and intellectual relationships, one that often fades into the background with an author’s solitary byline.  For while it is accurate to say that I crafted this thesis myself, and that the analysis herein is my own, the thinking and writing I have done over the past three years would not have been possible without the myriad conversations, generous support, timely encouragement, articles and books shared by my friends, family, and colleagues. As my partner, Hanna, points out, “alone” is not the same as “lonely,” and although I have written this work alone, many, many people deserve the credit for making sure that I seldom felt lonely or worked in intellectual isolation.

O.E. class of  '75
Without my oral historical narrators, of course, I would have no primary source material to analyze and thus no story to tell.  My gratitude belongs first and foremost, then, to Sam and Pat Alvord, Randy Balmer, Doug and Marj Frank, Mark Evans, Anne Foley, Alison and Phil Kling, Rebecca McCurdy, Sogn Mill-Scout, Paul Norton, Jim Titus, and Randy Wright for sharing their memories of the Oregon Extension and the contents of their personal archives.  Particular thanks are due to the folks at Lincoln for hosting me during my research trip in March, 2010, when we recorded the majority of our oral history interviews. Thank you also to Doug Frank and Sam Alvord giving me access to administrative records and personal papers from the early years of the program; to alumni Phil Kling, for sharing notes, papers, and other ephemera from his student days; and to Alison Kling and Jim Titus for generously sharing their photographs from the early years.

My thesis advisers, Laura Prieto and Sarah Leonard, have been invaluable and professional support throughout the research and writing process. It was my [admissions] interview with Laura back in July 2006 that convinced me I would be able to complete the research I had in mind under the auspices of Simmons' History Department. She has been unfailingly supportive throughout my tenure at Simmons, giving my research notes and early drafts careful and insightful readings.  Any remaining weaknesses in my thinking and writing are, needless to say, my own responsibility. Sarah, meanwhile, deserves particular thanks for allowing me to hijack her seminar in Modern European History in order to write a paper on American psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the influential educational philosophers whose work inspired the Oregon Extension's founders.  Her passion for intellectual history and the dedication with which she approaches her vocation are almost enough to make me reconsider the teaching profession.

Boston skyline across
the Fenway Gardens
(December 2007)
I would like to remember the late Allen Smith who developed and taught a course in oral history at Simmons Graduate School of Information and Library Science, and whom I was privileged to study under during his final semester of teaching. His work at Simmons College paved my way with the Institutional Review Board, whose familiarity with oral history research saved me the anxiety and frustration many oral historians face when applying to do human subject research. I also wish to thank Gail Matthews DeNatale, oral historian and former faculty member at Simmons, whose experience and advice helped to shape my thesis proposal in its early stages.

Reaching backward in time to my undergraduate years at Hope College, I wish to recognize my colleagues on the Aradia Research Project, as well as the Aradians themselves, who served as my hands-on introduction to feminist-minded oral history and ethnographic research and who encouraged my enduring interest in the experience of those who live in intentional community.

The outstanding faculty of my alma mater, Hope College, were in many ways responsible for taking the enthusiastic autodidact I was at age seventeen and encouraging me to direct and hone that passion into something I could honestly consider a craft and a vocation. Poet and creative writing teacher Jackie Bartley first opened the door to creative nonfiction to me, suggesting that dedicated research and analytical writing could use the power of the particular to connect us to the universal.  It was Jackie who first suggested I consider attending the Oregon Extension. Thanks is also due to Lynn Japinga for introducing me to oral history methods during a summer spent transcribing her oral history interviews with Reformed Church clergy, as well her determination to offer classes in feminist theology in an often-hostile academic environment. Without her introduction to religious history, I might not have paid such close attention to the nuances of
religious thought and practice at Lincoln. My undergraduate adviser, historian Jeanne Petit, taught my first history class (20th Century American Women’s History) and was the first to suggest I consider graduate school. She has since become a colleague and a friend. I must also extend my gratitude to Natalie Dykstra for her friendship and enthusiasm, for her love of Boston, and for teaching a course on autobiography that was – hands down – one of the most electrifying intellectual experiences of my college career. Her training in the interpretation of personal narratives has stood me in good stead throughout the research and writing of this thesis.

Former colleague Jeremy Dibbell
(December 2007)
I must recognize my colleagues at the Massachusetts Historical Society, particularly past and present members of the Library Reader Services department, who have been unblinking in their support of my research – including covering for me while I spent two weeks out West doing fieldwork. It is impossible to say how grateful I have been these past four years to work at an institution that recognizes my labor as an historian as well as a reference librarian.

I would like to thank colleague Aiden Graham for offering to loan me recording equipment, and for timely technical advice including helping me figure out how to wiretap my phone for long-distance interviews. Thanks, also, to Linnea Johnson and the GSLIS Tech Lab for the loan of a netbook that would otherwise have cost me hundreds of dollars this poor graduate student didn't have.  The Simmons College Student Research Fund, likewise, awarded me a travel grant that helped alleviate the financial burden of my fieldwork in Oregon. Valerie Beaudrault’s assistance in the Office of Sponsored Programs ensured that my application for funds was complete and submitted in a timely fashion.

My father and mapmaker extraordinaire, Mark Cook, is responsible for the beautiful customcreated maps that grace the pages of this thesis: without him, my visual representations of the Oregon Extension as a geographic place would have been awkward and, in all likelihood, inaccurate. My mother, too, has my undying gratitude for first introducing me to the work of John Holt, Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill, and other activists in the free school movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as to the history of intentional communities and their intersection with child-rearing and educational practice. Moral and intellectual support and good-humored camaraderie came in full measure from two founding members of the Secret Feminist Cabal, Ashley Minerva LeClerc and Laura Cutter, and from fellow oral historian, kick-ass librarian Diana Wakimoto. Y’all rock.

A slightly different form of support came from Geraldine, the feline member of our household, who took a keen interest in my work and sat on my notes, on the keyboard, and occasionally on my hands in order to ensure that work never took precedence over chin-scratching and the dispensing of kitty treats.

Finally, a few words for Hanna, who stoically endures my mania for American countercultures, Christian subcultures, and the history of utopian thought. Thanks for flying solo for two weeks while I was off collecting interviews in Southern Oregon, for taping useful PBS documentaries, for forwarding promising book reviews, for teasing me about garish 1970s cover art. Thanks for the proof-reading, the cheer-leading, the bottomless supplies of tea, wine, and baked goods. Thank you for letting me cry on your shoulder and for pointing out (quite rightly) that if I didn’t finish this project I would always wonder.

Thanks for helping me keep it all in perspective.

I moved to Boston in 2007 to write this thesis, not fall in love. I found you here, sweetheart, so in the end I did both.