By Evan Faulkenbury
I have to admit, now that almost three years have passed, that I secretly wished my students would pick a different topic. It was my first month on the job at the Southern Oral History Program, and I was sitting in my class of four students, listening to them choose to focus their collective oral history project on the history of gay student activism at UNC Chapel Hill. A librarian from the Southern Historical Collection was in our class, listing off collection after collection the archive held of different student organizations. My students had several options, but when the librarian talked about the papers of the Carolina Gay Association (CGA)—founded in 1974, and with abundant primary sources that few had ever looked at—my students’ eyes lit up. The decision was made: we would do an oral history project on the CGA and gay activism at UNC.
I inwardly cringed. I knew nothing about gay history. How was I supposed to teach a class on oral history, with a collective project on gay history at the center? To make a long story short, I learned quickly. Along the way, I became as interested in the topic as my students, listening in awe to the voices of those they interviewed—CGA members, university administrators, people from the Chapel Hill community. We focused on the same project during the next semester, and by the end of the academic year, my eight undergraduate students had interviewed sixteen people, put on two public performances, and helped document a piece of UNC’s history too long hidden from view.
But we didn’t stop there. With one of my students, Aaron Hayworth, the two of us decided to write an article about what we had uncovered about the CGA. We heard about a call for papers from the Oral History Review for a special issue on LGBTQ Lives. We thought our project on the CGA would be a perfect fit, and Aaron and I worked over the summer to write a first draft. We wanted to write a long piece on the wide history of the CGA, as told to us by our interviewees. We had heard so many fascinating stories about the university, the CGA, discrimination on campus, the South, and how they had come to terms with their sexuality. We didn’t want our interviews to just sit in an archive; we wanted to write about it and share with a bigger audience.
So, Aaron and I sat down to write an article on the CGA. I don’t mean that figuratively, but literally. For much of the article, we wrote it together, sitting beside one another, figuring out the best language to use. We divided up some parts and wrote them separately, but for the most important parts of the article, we wrote them together. Then, we edited together. And edited, and edited. It was a great experience to collaborate with a former student of mine. No longer was I the teacher and him the student, but we were partners, figuring out history together.
They’re called “rough” drafts for a reason. Our first draft was unfocused, and we didn’t present a substantial argument. We got caught up in the voices of those we interviewed, hoping they would “speak” to the reader. But we needed to do more. Luckily for us, the editor and two anonymous reviewers sent back our first draft with instructions to revise and resubmit, and they included many helpful suggestions. Aaron and I got back to work. We threw out much of the first draft, re-wrote the entire piece, and re-submitted it to the Oral History Review. We’re happy to report the journal accepted it, and you can read it in the latest issue here.
Let me leave you with one lesson I learned: don’t let your oral history interviews sit still in an archive. Write about them! Create podcasts; perform live shows; anything to share your interviews and the voices of those you recorded with the wider public. Even if you don’t know much at the start—like me!—you can work your way through it and ensure that more people share in the richness of oral history.