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Student Blog: Collecting Oral Histories

Anonymous (not verified) -- Mon, 10/16/2017 - 8:02am

Reed Everette is a Junior in the Department of History’s program and the Student Co-PI on the Unforgettable Crises: The Grand 16 Theater Shooting Incident Oral History Project, run by Dr. Liz Skilton, and a part of a larger grant through the National Science Foundation. Funding for Everette’s work this past year was provided by an Undergraduate Research Grant from the Honors Program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the UL Lafayette Department of History Guilbeau Charitable Trust.

Almost a year ago now, Dr. Skilton approached me with an offer. I was taking a class with her at the time, a US Women and Gender class that will definitely go down in the books as one of the best classes I’ve ever taken, and she brought me and one other student into her office after class to ask if I would be interested in working with her on an interdepartmental research project. I would be classified as a Student Co-PI—Co-Primary Investigator, a great line on a CV—and the research would be payed through an Undergraduate Research Grant. As I think a lot of—admittedly—ambitious students would respond, I was immediately interested. I thought, Oh, what a wonderful opportunity; of course I’ll do this!

Before I accepted, she warned me that although the workload would never be overbearing and at no point would (or should) take precedence over my standard course load, the type of work we would be doing could be a little emotionally taxing.

What this research project would be looking at is the human effect of the Grand 16 Theater Shooting Incident of 2015. I would be starting work in the next semester, and the research was projected to last one to two years. Other researchers working on the project would be looking at the event from a scientific perspective, but it would be our duty to collect people’s memories of what happened that night and how the community responded. The bulk of the project would entail creating a series of oral histories, mining the experiences of those who were involved in the shooting then transcribing the interviews after collection. We could expect to find a lot of pain, a lot of trauma, and a lot of heartbreak, but there would also be stories of incredible strength, of people coming together in a deep interlocking web of love and support as they mourned what had happened to their community and celebrated the lives of those recently departed.

History Harvest Grang 16 Flyer
History Harvest: Memories of Grand 16 flyer


I admit, I did pause for a minute. I wasn’t sure if I felt that I had any business in dredging up those memories for someone to research. When the shooting occurred in July 2015, I was out of state on a road trip with a friend of mine in that attitude of total bliss that one can only find in a car with a friend you love; I was wildly removed from the drama that was going on in my hometown. When I came back some three weeks after the shooting, the atmosphere in Lafayette was different; not so much because of the F. Scott Fitzgerald cliché—It’s a funny thing, coming home...You realize what’s changed is you—but because there was an odd weight in the air that felt like both a mix of neighborliness and mourning. Everywhere I looked there were “Lafayette Strong” signs posted, and I kept hearing people talking about the politics of the signs, when it might be appropriate to try to move on, and just how sorry everybody was that this had happened. I had this strange insider/outsider perspective as to how Lafayette was mourning and celebrating its recent past because I had not directly experienced this process and yet Lafayette is my home town; I have a lot of family and friends who did experience this disaster first hand and were a part of creating the atmosphere that I came back to. Even then I was asking the question, What happened? But didn’t quite have the channel to put it through.

Fast forward to sitting in Dr. Skilton’s office, and suddenly here is this person offering me the opportunity to ask that question and get an answer beyond that which I ever could have gotten on my own. To a certain part of me it sounded a bit cruel, maybe even presumptuous, to ask people to tell me, or to tell us, how they experienced something as intense as a shooting and loss of life; a memory can be a lot to ask of a person. We carry our traumas with us all of the time, each of us in different places, and it's possible to move through life with them forgetting that they’re there or simply learn them and find a way to move forward. But what happens when someone reminds you that it’s there to ask you if it still hurts? What then?

In the same vein, however, I questioned what could more natural, more healing, than telling a story. What could be more comforting than knowing that there are people out there who are still willing to hear what you have to say—people who still care? We hear a lot about ideas of re-traumatizing in discussion over internet culture and what is acceptable in language, but in some cases talking through a painful memory may be the best way to cope. So I accepted Dr. Skilton’s offer to participate in the research project, and I wish that there was some way to measure the amount that I’ve learned in working on this project. But growth isn’t always measured in inches. Sometimes growth is measured in memories, experiences, and skills that stay with us into the future—and that I have in plenty.
After accepting Dr. Skilton’s offer, there were of course the bureaucratic things that had to be dealt with to officially put me onto the grant—putting in paperwork, talking to a few officials, getting the little things sorted out—but work started pretty quickly considering how slowly things can move. Coming in, there was a clear outline of what needed to be done and what was to be expected of me throughout my time working as a Student Co-PI. I was, and am, one of two student researchers working on the project, and our first task was to go through both local and national news sources to gather all articles relating to the Grand 16 shooting. It was a massive task, and I didn’t think that I would be any good at it or that it would be enjoyable in the least. To my surprise though, I was good at it, and I enjoyed the work. It didn’t take long to figure out where all of these articles and things were stored, and a lot of the databases have very user-friendly navigation tools to help a researcher find the needed information. UL students have free access to multiple databases through the Dupré library such as NewsBank, which I used extensively in this initial archival data collection. NewsBank (also called America’s News) is organized by periodical, and once a researcher has found the desired periodical, it can be sorted by date in order to find the relevant information. After the researcher knows they are searching in the correct time frame, it’s simply a matter of sifting through and analyzing the mass of articles to find what is needed. The Daily Advertiser maintains its own database with public access to all of its published articles that is organized similarly and requires the same skills to manage, and national news sources like CNN just require a quick Google search and some poking around. To keep track of the158 articles we found relevant through this process, Dr. Skilton introduced us to a fantastic reference management software called Zotero that acts as a personal, shareable database that was absolutely perfect for the sort of cooperative information gathering that we were doing. Skimming through the articles that cropped up in the databases to figure out which articles were actually relevant was an interesting mental exercise in a few ways; it made my mind feel sharp, it improved my speed-reading and skimming skills, and little interesting tidbits of information and patterns kept cropping up. For example, it was quickly apparent that there are several modes of thinking, a few distinct phrases and attitudes, that people use frequently when talking about a tragedy, particularly one like a shooting, which is always a surprise when it happens and is the result of another person’s actions, unlike, say, a natural disaster.

Simultaneous with the archival data collection was the construction if the IRB (Institutional Review Board) paperwork. Up until sometime in January 2017, in order to conduct oral histories it was required that a researcher get IRB approval. IRB approval would be the rubber stamp on our work that said we were conducting our research as ethically as possible with minimal potential harm to research subjects, who in our case would be our interviewees. To do this, we had to create an informed consent form for interviewees to sign, which would briefly walk them through the project and give us permission to use the interview in research, as well as draft a set of questions we intended to put to interviewees. Overall, it was a pretty straightforward process, but it was a vitally important one. Getting the proper documents in order had to be done right in order move on to the next phase of our research; without IRB approval, our project would have been at a standstill.


Thankfully, our project was approved by the IRB and we were able to move forward with the work, which was especially exciting because the next phase of the research was the really fun part. The second phase is where I got to meet a lot of really remarkable people and find myself in some bizarre and unexpected situations. There are moments in this process that have really stuck with me, each of them for reasons as distinct as the people they’re associated with. After doing the initial archival data collection and learning about the shooting and the following events, we moved into interviewing those people who were directly involved: first responders, city officials, community organizers, and friends of the deceased. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to every one of the interviews that Dr. Skilton conducted, but the ones that I was able to attend were never disappointing. Then, for the interviews I missed, I either had to transcribe or audit-edit the transcript. I was privileged with hearing stories from intimate friends of Lafayette-local Jillian Johnson, regretful confessions of estrangement from people who had lost contact with the deceased or felt they never had the chance to actualize what could have been incredible friendship, as well as mind-boggling stories of government logistics from former City-Parish president Joey Durel and current mayor Joel Robideaux. They all had incredible things to say, and often just as interesting as the stories themselves was the context in which they were told. These interviews brought me into places as varied as the mayor’s office, a therapist's office, and people’s homes. There was so much love and pain in what everybody had to say that it sometimes sent me reeling. I can remember one moment as I was in my room transcribing a particularly tough interview that I had to stop work for the night after maybe fifteen minutes. Everything this woman had to say was such an intense mixture of love for her deceased friend and regret for the things she felt could have done that I felt as if I was drowning in her words. My head was swimming with her voice and I got up from my computer, walked into my roommate’s bedroom, sat on his bed and cried. I can still hear her voice in my head sometimes, saying Why didn’t I… Why didn’t I… Why didn’t I...
When I was worrying about whether or not I should accept the offer to help on this project, I never stopped to consider that some stories are almost as difficult to hear as they are to tell.

After the extensive interviews, there were the History Harvests that were held at the Farmer’s and Artisan’s Market at the Horse Farm and at the Baton Rouge Public Library. Those interviews generally weren’t as taxing as some of the large-scale ones could be, but the History Harvests sure were host to a slew of interesting characters. I met news reporters, community organizers, concerned citizens, and, quite memorably, a conspiracy theorist. Everybody had their own unique perspective to share on Lafayette’s recent past, and I was happy to listen to their stories. In addition to meeting interesting community members, the History Harvests were also a nice way to meet other students. There were several student volunteers that came out to help who were all very nice and I still am grateful towards. One of these student volunteers has even come onto the project for the semester to fill the slot of my co-student researcher, who graduated in the spring.

Map showing trauma-impact radius of the Grand 16 shooting. 

At the beginning of the fall semester, we are gearing up to move into the next phase of our research. I’m not sure what all it will entail, but I do know that it will be interesting. I do know that this next phase will involve taking all of the data that we have collected so far and beginning to synthesize it. We will be using a data-analysis software that will take all of the news articles we collected in the first phase of research as well as the transcriptions of the interviews we conducted in the second in order to find trends and make some visual representations of the data. The end-goal of this project is to have an article and/or a book chapter produced, which will mostly be Dr. Skilton’s duty, but in order for that to be written there is a lot of information that needs to be gleaned from the stories that have been gathered. Outside of a couple of oral history reports I’ve done in my classes, I’ve never done this sort of data analysis before. I’m a little nervous, I suppose, but I’m fully expecting it to be a fantastic learning experience, just as the rest of this research project has been.

The skills that I’ve learned and the people I’ve met are already becoming useful in other areas of my life. In the course of this project I’ve expanded my ideas of what history and research is, learned new methods of collecting data, how to properly transcribe interviews, and my interviewing skills have gotten better. In an interview, I now have a much better idea what questions to ask, how to ask them, and when to ask them. Though I haven’t done many extensive interviews myself, just watching Dr. Skilton guide an interviewee through their memories is a learning experience. These are all invaluable skills, especially as I look into continuing education and creating my own projects outside of school. As far as continuing education goes, this project has pushed me to start work on an Honors Thesis, which I did not know was an option before talking to Dr. Skilton. Also, my new transcription and interview skills are coming in handy through an arts blog that a friend of mine and I are collaborating on. We’ll be talking to a lot of artists and trying to represent them as well as we can, and I’m confident that I can create an interesting and well-crafted project in a way that I would not if I had declined to take on this research project. I’ve been able to gain such a ranging set of skills as this work has gone from its beginning to where it is currently—and it is ongoing—that it’s almost strange to imagine not having accepted.

Historians are often thought of—when they’re thought of at all—as working in dusty archives, sifting through yellowed papers written by dusty old men and deciphering script that most people would just balk at. These historians take these boring documents, make some remarks about them in a book, and pass that on to high school teachers who tell their students that This is important. But history is so much more than that, and it is not at all boring—if it ever was at all. Historians can be out in the field talking to living people, creating documents to be studied by future historians, and doing important community work. Research is not limited to archives and learning is not limited to the classroom; the only thing I can think of that research can’t be done on is the future, and even that isn’t all so far away. Classes I’ve taken at the university have of course expanded my understanding of history and its making, but working on a project like this and seeing professional research first hand is a much different experience from reading a book and writing about it. In working, it’s clear that the boundaries between subsections of the humanities are not as cut and dry as they may seem from afar, and it reminds us of the value and everyday humanity of a community at large. What it comes down to is talking to people and seeing what they think, finding the raw material of history, valuing that for what it is and trying to see it in a broader cultural context, much as an anthropologist, sociologist, or folklorist would do—as well many people living outside of an academic context. Humanity is everywhere, all the time, and history is always in the making. All one has to do is turn an eye to it, as this project has helped me to do—and for that I am so grateful.