Active History: Personal Encounters in the Ivy Project
Steven Park, University of Montana

We need to claim spaces of ambiguity and transform them into places of solidarity, pooling and reworking the cultural and material resources at hand. . . . Those committed to a more just image of the world community need to engage in deep play with the forces that maintain and exacerbate inequities. It is a game we seemingly cannot win, but can't not play.

When I went with Professor Dorothee Kocks to help her sell the Ivy Project at the H-Net conference in 1997, it felt like a reincarnation of helping Mrs. Starbuck move into a new classroom at the end of ninth grade-I didn't know why she chose me, but hauling books or not I felt special just being able to associate outside of the classroom with what I thought to be the source of truth and knowledge. Through Dorothee's persistence, I've come to know her not as the source of truth, but as a source for wisdom and, more importantly, true friendship. And in attempting to erase that hierarchical boundary of teacher/student, she has made it easier for me to understand the meat of the Ivy Project, the project as itself, not as connected to a wizard of academia.

It is the meat of the Ivy project I speak of now: its ability to personalize, or democratize as Dorothee described it, the practice of history. I do not want to show and tell a project created two years ago by Dorothee and students in her Modern American West history class. You can listen to Dorothee discuss the Ivy Project in Real Audio at the web version of the 1997 H-Net conference, Envisioning the Future: Creating the Humanities Classroom of the 21st Century. In short, the Ivy Project is a collection of student-generated oral history web pages with aspirations for growth. You can explore most of the project itself at the Ivy Project home page. What I want to do instead is ask some questions of historical practice and see if and how a modified Ivy Project can answer those questions.

The study of history, as taught in secondary and post secondary schools, does not include spaces of ambiguity, and so leaves no room to engage in deep play that would make history personal to the player. Instead, historians strive for a truthful recreation of the past so that the rest of us can learn lessons from it. But the truths or the lessons are all provided by hegemonic sources. History professors lecture on campuses that resemble nothing if not small countries where they are the benevolent dictators. They write books published by those same universities. Far from a personal practice, history (at its best) seems to be an intellectual feast in which the meal is prepared by and consists of oppressed peoples.

Having said enough to make myself feel anti-intellectual, I'll back up. History as taught in university or secondary school classes is not wrong, just incomplete. Professional historians, like professional auto mechanics or medical professionals, do a great service in being a source for expertise, but we expect mechanics and doctors to include us in their diagnoses, so much so that it has become a cliché. Mechanics and doctors generally ask the driver or patient what they think the problem is, and why. Good mechanics and doctors will even ask for background history that led the customer to an analysis of the ailment. Mechanics, doctors and their customers all expect, and probably rely on this kind of dialogue; when possible, the dialogue and the expertise lead to a correction of the problem. This rarely happens in the practice of history, but it could.

In The Battle of Valle Giulia, oral historian Alessandro Portelli defines oral history as "an art dealing with the individual in social and historical context" where the goal is to "connect them [persons] with 'history' and in turn to force history to listen to them." Oral history forces established history to listen to unhegemonic people in two ways. First, assuming someone (or something) publishes the oral histories or puts them in an archive, they add to the body of published history that students of history go to for sources or ideas. So oral histories literally put individuals on the library shelf, perhaps physically dividing histories that exclude those individuals.

Oral history also forces individuals into history in a very personal sense-Dorothee refers to it as personal history. Thomas Dublin, in researching the history of post 1920s northern Pennsylvania coal mining, found traditional sources of history-"local newspapers, union and trade association publications, censuses and government reports, and scattered published memoirs"-unable to tell the complete story of the decline of coal mining. As a last resort he turned to the people of northern Pennsylvania since most of them had lived the history he hoped to retell. He writes that talking to people in the area "opened up a world I had hardly imagined. The residents of what had seemed to me an impoverished backwater quickly took on identities of their own." Dublin's experiment with oral history, then, forced those "backwater" people onto the bookshelves and into future footnotes, but it also forced them into Dublin's own consciousness, his personal sense of history.

The historian does not (or should not) walk away from the dialogue the only participant whose consciousness changed as a result of the dialogue. If the object of personal or oral history is to force unhegemonic individuals into history, and in the process turn "spaces of ambiguity" into "places of solidarity, pooling and reworking," there is an implication of consciousness raising for the observed, or the unhegemonic, as well. Portelli argues that "Oral history does not begin with one abstract person observing another, reified one, but with two persons meeting on a ground of equality to bring together their different types of knowledge and achieve a new synthesis from which both will be changed."

Barbara Kopple shows this process of consciousness raising through dialogue with authority in her 1976 documentary film Harlan County, U.S.A. The striking miners in the film and especially their wives were very much conscious of their role in history. Initially, I could not figure out where it came from. Many of them referred to an earlier labor struggle in Harlan County in the 1930s, and obviously much of their memory followed directly from their cultural reliance on folksongs. But most of them moved on the screen with ease, an ease that doesn't come from folksongs or even familiarity with strikes; that ease with telling their story came in large part, I think, from previous dialogue with oral historians, documentary film-makers and the like.

Twenty years after the production of Harlan County, U.S.A. Alessandro Portelli also entered Harlan County to write an oral history of the area. As part of a lesson on interview manners, he describes how colleagues warned him of unfriendly attitudes toward outsiders among the people who live in Harlan County. After feeling comfortable in one interview, he asked why the interviewee had been so nice, so willing to talk. She explained that she had talked to her sister about Portelli and they decided to talk to him if, when they met him, he wasn't "too stuck up." They determined his level of cultural acceptance when he came into their dirty house and he "didn't look around for a clean place to lay your butt on." While the lesson on etiquette is important, so is the lesson on what happens when peoples' memory becomes important to and a part of history. The woman with the dirty house and all of the people of Harlan County can be "stuck up" in their own way because they know their memory is important. They know this in part, I think, from years of talking to historians, labor organizers, filmmakers, and ultimately, hearing themselves talk, which facilitates talking to each other.

Though the act of oral history is a dialogue, the final product, and there is a final product, is still a monologue from above. Thomas Dublin had the last word on how or what part of his dialogue with people in northern Pennsylvania would be published. Portelli offers a perfect example of this problem. One of his subjects disagreed with Portelli's interpretation of what that subject said, and Portelli's text centered on that person's story. Portelli solved the problem by including both interpretations: "Because oral history is dialogic, we still began the book with the story and our interpretation of it, but we ended it with the narrator's counterinterpretation, and then we inserted our interpretation of his counterinterpretation." He adds that the narrator could then, again, counterinterpret Portelli's counterinterpretation, as could others. But the narrator cannot continue arguing in print. University of Wisconsin Press does not run a public forum or "letters to the editor" on the back cover of its published books. It does print a kind of elite forum, or letters to the editor from people who matter-"Michael Frisch, author of A Shared Authority" or "Ronald J. Grele, Columbia University." With oral history as it stands, then, there are limits: only professional historians can publish oral histories, thereby making the dialogue serious, and that dialogue stops when the press rolls and the author gets paid. Those limits can be overcome. The dialogue can be more inclusive; it can go beyond hegemonic interviewer and unhegemonic subject. And the dialogue can be continuous. Both of these goals are possible through use of the world wide web in conjunction with the practice of oral history-the Ivy Project.

The internet is an ambiguous space because of its unlimited size and unlimited access. What if all of the benefits of dialogue that go to the oral historian and subject were shared with a broader class of people-students, community groups and interested individuals? Most oral history tools are already available to everyone: a tape recorder, an historical question, and a willing subject. One important tool is not: the ability to put those collected stories on a library shelf so they become a part of textual history and not just an experience in the memory (and trash can) of the participants. As important as I have already indicated dialogue is socially, the quality of that dialogue depends somewhat on the dialogue becoming a part of textual history. This expectation on the part of all participants makes the dialogue serious. Without it, the dialogue is just a chat between friends-no, a chat between strangers, which can seem pointless and then might become pointless. The internet, though, is a virtual publisher with unlimited space. And a publisher with unlimited space will not censor for commercial reasons. In this way the world wide web functions as a virtual library with unlimited shelf-space and (most importantly) unlimited patrons who can access many different publishers and individuals.

Using the internet with oral history can also solve the problem of the "last word". There are no last words on the internet. Portelli's example of a narrator disagreeing with him on the interpretation of the narrator's story would work something like this: Portelli interprets the interview and publishes it on the internet in some kind of space connected to a chat room or discussion list, or in a space that publishes multiple personal histories and is not limited to professional historians; the narrator counterinterprets his story in the chat room; Portelli counterinterprets the narrator's counterinterpretation; the narrator's neighbor has been following the stories/interpretations and so offers her own story that defies all previous interpretations; Portelli and the narrator adjust their interpretations to account for her story; a person from a different country with a similar story tells it and then includes all previous stories/interpretations into his own interpretation. It shouldn't stop. Obviously, someone would have to create a structure that allowed this type of online dialogue, and it would have to be managed, organized, and easy to use (to encourage the dialogue). But it could happen, and in a small part, has happened. The Ivy Project is a space of solidarity for the pooling and reworking of cultural and material resources, and a space in which a student of history can act within an historical context. It is a space for people to claim history.

Having made such large claims about how this process of talking to individuals and telling their stories over the internet-the core of the Ivy Project-personalizes history it seems necessary to justify that claim. In 1958 my dad knocked up my mom just as another man with two other wives was hoping to make her the third. My dad converted my mom to Mormonism; twenty years and 11 children later my mom divorced my dad because, among other things, he had become anti-Mormon. My mother then raised the children who chose to live with her while she ran a daycare in her home and went to school at night to get her associates degree. We lived on rice, beans, pasta, the Book of Mormon and a 13 inch black and white T.V. until about ten years later when she remarried. She is still alive (and beautiful) so her story does not end there but is still in the making, still changing with every telling. But you won't find her story, now or in the future, in a history book because she defies, as do all people, historical generalizations. Instead, you and I have to talk to her and talk to each other, and as we do I think we will see old histories break apart. But as old histories break apart they offer us-amateur and professional historians, teachers and students-the opportunity to make something better of broken historical ground-new truths.