The Eleasticity of Memory

Guest Blog Post (2 of 3) written by 
Taylor Schafer, SMCM ‘2015, Sullivan Scholar, Summer 2014

This summer, aside from my internship in the Archives, I have been conducting interviews with alumni for my St. Mary’s Project–some of which I have chosen to transcribe and donate to the SlackWater collection. My SMP interviews have proven to be a great training ground for my oral history interviews, especially when it comes to understanding exactly what it is that oral history interviews do: they gauge people’s memory about a certain time, place, or event. This concept seems simple and straightforward, however, the hidden complexity of memory becomes more apparent when you ask 40 people the relatively same set of questions. My SMP interviews have all focused on the same thing: the 7 Wonders of St. Mary’s. (Church Point, the Hidden Grave, the Garden of Remembrance, Freedom of Conscience Statue, St. John’s Pond, the Bell Tower, and the Shoe Tree.)

St. John's Pond. Which may, or may not, have been dyed green in the 1970s

St. John’s Pond. Which may, or may not, have been dyed green in the 1970s

One particular example from my interviews got me thinking about how people recall their memories. I was interviewing a 1974 graduate of the College who had mentioned that one year for St. Patrick’s Day, he and some friends had dyed St. John’s Pond bright green using the same environmentally-friendly dye that is often used to track currents in bodies of water. Several other alumni from that same era vividly recalled the same incident happening as well. There were a few alumni, however, who not only could not recall such a prank occurring but they also assured me that something like that would not have happened back then. Whether it was because of the newer surge of environmental awareness of the 1970s or the fact that they claimed they would have remembered such a visible prank, the strongly opposing answers surprised me.

But this instance made me realize that the information I’ve received about the various landmarks and traditions of campus has heavily relied on how people remember their time at St. Mary’s. While some people had vivid memories of this certain specific occurrence, others relied on their characterizations of their St. Mary’s experience to explain their absence of memory.  In other words, it seems like the attitudes and values of the interviewees shape their concrete memories. For example, one alum characterized St. Mary’s students in the 1970s as environmentally conscious, meaning they would not have engaged in such behavior as to dye the pond green for a laugh or to celebrate a holiday. Other alums recall them being very connected to the campus and student life, therefore they would not have missed such an occurrence. This phenomenon occurred several times throughout my interviews, which was an important lesson for me to have learned while learning to conduct oral histories. This is not just specific to St. Mary’s either; it can be applied to any oral history project.

Next week, for the last of three Blog posts, I will write about interviewing former college presidents Joe Urgo and J. Margaret “Maggie” O’Brien.  This post will also have a link to the interview transcripts.


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