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AFS Review: Notes

Folklorist Sue Eleuterio Facilitates Veterans History Project Workshop

Friday, May 24, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Ben Bridges

By Ben Bridges — On May 14, 2019, AFS member Sue Eleuterio traveled to Danville, IN to lead a Veterans History Project workshop, one of many that she has facilitated over the years in partnership with the American Folklife Center.

Sue Eleuterio stands in front of a pop-up exhibit about veterans at the workshop. Photograph by Ben Bridges.

The Veterans History Project (VHP) aims to collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war. In 2002, two years after President Clinton signed VHP into law, the American Folklore Society partnered with the project to facilitate community-based oral history workshops around the country. In 2013, the Oral History Association joined us in this partnership. AFS and OHA provide experienced folklorists and oral historians to lead workshops for community groups of all kinds throughout the country that teach the basic communication and technical skills for interviewing US war veterans to document their personal experience narratives and oral histories. In conjunction with the Oral History Association, the Society’s work has reached over 10,000 people.

The workshop offers instruction and advice for people interested in collecting oral histories from veterans. Many participants often do not have formal folkloristic or interview training, making the workshops useful for covering the fundamentals of interviews. The goal is for participants to leave feeling sufficiently equipped with tools and strategies for conducting oral histories with veterans.

Sue began the workshop by introducing herself, AFS, and the history of VHP. She thanked the two dozen participants present and expressed her appreciation for their interest in collecting veterans’ stories. She highlighted some of the collections that now exist because of people’s interest in VHP over the years, such as the Women at War collection that focuses on the stories women have shared about their time in service and the D-Day Journeys project that maps the parallel paths of four individuals during WWII.

The workshop then shifted to the interview process itself as Sue walked through the Field Kit, a compilation of guidelines and forms for interviewers to use during the collection process. She pointed out that while oral histories are the main focus of VHP, material objects such as letters, photographs, and veteran-created artwork are also acceptable items to submit. Individual veteran collections on the VHP database served as examples of how useful the site can be for researchers of all kinds, ranging from professional academics to curious family members.

Sally Siegrist and Matt Row practice interviewing one another about their names. Photograph by Jesse Fivecoate.

Sally Siegrist and Matt Row practice interviewing one another about their names.
Photograph by Jesse Fivecoate.

Toward the end of the event, Sue gave participants a chance to practice interviewing someone else in the room. Each person received a document with a series of questions about names, such as, “how did your family pick your name?” or “have you ever wished you had a different name? If yes, what name would you choose and why?” Participants partnered up and took turns interviewing one another, switching roles to ensure each person practiced. Following the exercise, when Sue asked them to reflect on the interviewing process, many people shared the simultaneous benefits and challenges they encountered during their conversations. Getting to know someone before interviewing them, tracking the conversation closely enough to formulate follow-up questions, and figuring out what is ethical to share or not share about an interlocutor were all topics that surfaced during the reflection.

In only two hours of preliminary training, workshop participants left feeling ready to venture into the field to collect oral histories. Thanks go to AFS members such as Sue, who help bring folkloristic methods and themes to the wider public.

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