Monday, April 21, 2014

Structure and Agency: Learning about History through Processing TAVP's Archive

Sharla syncing Kristin Houle's video to her transcript

Sharla Biefeld is a junior Bridging Disciplines scholar at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Women's and Gender Studies and Psychology. She is a Human Rights & Archives intern with TAVP this semester. Read more about Sharla in the Meet the Interns post!

This post is part of a series titled Digital archives internship (also tagged as Archiving the death penalty), where TAVP interns publish their reflections on processing the TAVP collection. Check back for future posts. 

Structure and Agency: Learning about History through Processing TAVP's Archive
By Sharla Biefeld

Formatting, transcribing, auditing, syncing: rinse and repeat.

This is the formula I originally thought my internship would follow. I imagined I would be assigned an interview, do the steps required, and finish by uploading it onto the Human Rights Documentation Initiative. However, I swiftly realized my internship would lead me on a more complex and enriching route.

While I was responsible for completing the delivery of an interview from start to finish, not once did I feel like I was following a senseless formula. Instead, I got to constantly apply the specific experiences of narrators, such as Joyce Hazzard Easley, to a broader understanding of Texas and capital punishment. 

It would have been easy for TAVP to recruit interns, train them and then set them to work. However, this formulaic approach and slavish adherence to a set of rules goes against what an oral history archive stands for. An oral history archive strives to narrate pieces of history through individuals' lived experiences. However, no experience exists in a vacuum, and we are all shaped and driven by the structures of history we inhabit. Joyce Hazzard Easley, Keith Brooks, Kristin Houle, and David Atwood each narrate a unique experience, but through each we can also discern patterns, and each may be representative of the way Texans have experienced recent history. 

Before I dove head first into processing and archiving these individuals' experiences, my supervisors required me to to read about Texas and capital punishment, as well as some theory of oral history. Then, as I documented Easley's experience with capital punishment, racism, and issues affecting her neighborhood, I had the historical background to help make sense of her experience. I imagine an alternative universe where I could have gotten lost in the sea of daily tasks, focusing on transcribing verbatim, finding the perfect clip, cutting it cleanly, and syncing precisely. However, as the semester progressed, the interns were constantly asked to sit back, reflect, and think about the complications and implications of the work we were doing. 

While this type of reflection prevented me from getting lost in a sea of monotony, that is not the only metaphorical ocean to avoid. As well, if we only focus on individual narrator's words and experiences, but refuse to see how they fit into systems and society as a whole, then we risk getting lost in a different sea: a sea of sentimentalism, individualism, and storytelling detached from context. While there is value in that sea, it can only be found when the emotions and struggles of the individual are set against the backdrop of history. 

Using this backdrop, along with the stories of TAVP's narrators, I have come to better understand how legislation, the justice system, and capital punishment affect the lives of Texans. Because I have gotten this understanding, I believe the oral history archive has done its job. It pulled me away from the specificity of my daily tasks and allowed me to realize and appreciate the way history is woven and created by the people who experience it. 

If one dives into the archive, they will find discussion about the Vietnam War, desegregation, drug epidemics, the first execution by lethal injection, and landmark Supreme Court decisions. However, these historical events are explained in a way one will never find in a textbook. They are explained through the struggles and triumphs of Texans. And through this description one can walk away not with more knowledge about dates and names, but instead an understanding of how those dates, names and events impact the lives of Texans.

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