Letter from the Editors: Questions

Letter from the Editors: Questions

Dear Readers,

Typically, the Editor’s Letter of a publication’s inaugural issue tells how the publication came to be. An idea sparked lying awake late at night. A conversation that grew bigger than its participants. A topic of inquiry that just had to be investigated.

Our origin story starts with a gripe.

In the last few years, pop culture has co-opted the term “oral history,” taking the form of clickbait that promises “The Definitive Oral History of…” everything from The Goonies to the poop emoji. These interviews were pithy but not necessarily prudent. Compelling perhaps, but with no sense of the time and care put into what we knew as oral histories. They were ready-made, pre-fab. Multivocal but one-dimensional.

Where had this wave of trendy “oral histories” come from? Did this cresting genre threaten to knock us off our feet and wash us out to sea along with it when the tide receded?

Full disclosure: our editors all have graduate degrees in oral history. But let us be clear. Questioning this new status of oral history in pop culture did not mean trying to settle the persistent quandary in our profession: What is “oral history”? Instead, what we want is to explore a new form of this question alongside people who don’t agonize over those two words, but who instead practice its ethics and tenets of inquiry in adjacent fields.

So we started to consider the term oral historical. This term didn’t beg definition; rather, it encouraged an openness to discover where it could be applied. From there, our first theme, “Questions,” emerged organically. They’re what drive the work our editors and contributors do, and what unite us across professional, scholarly, and creative fields.

In response to our call for submissions, we received many thought provoking works that left us with many more questions: not least was how we would follow through with creating an actual online publication! While each of us brought a different set of skills and working knowledge to the project, we were in uncharted territory in creating something we felt was wholly unique. But we were committed to our vision and to producing this publication through a collaborative process—a process that, no doubt, was informed by our training as oral historians.

Nearly a year after our first meeting, we’re wholeheartedly proud to share our first issue and the beginnings, we hope, of a new wave of oral history—one that doesn’t use the term carelessly or, on the other hand, obsess over defining its parameters, but instead expands its definition into new directions of inquiry, exploration, creativity, and collaboration.

A special thanks to our contributors—Elizabeth Ann Berton-Reilly, Kayan Cheung-Miaw, Sarah Dziedzic, Emily E. Gallagher, Jesse Hardman, Alexandra G. Kelly, Sarah K. Loose, Leslie McCartney, Sarah McColl, Kathleen Payne, Pat Payne, Yadira Perez Hazel, Jacob J. Podber, Suzanne Snider, Liz Strong, Cynthia Tobar, and Leyla Vural—who have worked so diligently with us to share their creative, thoughtful, and poignant work in our first issue. Thanks also to the Columbia Oral History Alumni Association who fostered our interest in developing a publication to support the work of our peers.


Sewon Barrera, Nicki Pombier Berger, Cindy Choung, Sarah Dziedzic
Co-Founders and Editors, In Context Journal