Teaching Oral History

This chapter-in-progress was prepared for the “Panel Discussion on Oral History and African American Educational History,” with Nicholas Kryczka, Dionti Davis, Jackie Blount, and Dionne Danns at the History of Education Society meeting in November 2019. The need for a chapter on ways of teaching oral history was inspired by a conversation a year earlier with Pamela Grundy, Jake Hardesty, and Kevin Zayed at the History of Education Society meeting in November 2018.

Organizations such as the Oral History Association and other authors have published many helpful guides, including the OHA Principles and Best Practices. Most of these guides emphasize the logistics and legalities of collecting and curating interviews, primarily for directors of oral history centers, archivists, and scholars. But relatively few focus on the pedagogical planning for teaching students how to prepare and interpret oral histories, particularly in the context of a college-level course. This DRAFT chapter seeks to offer both strategic and pragmatic advice.

Historians can learn a great deal from ethnographers, journalists, podcasters, and others who have been trained or gained valuable experience in interviewing people and listening carefully to how they tell their stories …. and we can add to their work by emphasizing what historians do best: listening to how people tell stories about the past as a way to analyze change and continuity over time, and linking individual testimonies to the broader context. Overall, start small – teaching with oral history will become much easier the second and third time, when you will have sample interview guides, transcripts, and essays to share with future classes

Integrating oral history into your course

This chapter is written primarily for history educators who wish to incorporate oral history into their courses, with examples drawn from college-level courses. But before we leap too far ahead in the planning process, it’s important for instructors to gain first-hand experience in the steps we ask of our students – such as interviewing, transcribing, and analyzing – before creating an oral history assignment for an entire class. If these steps are new to you, then perhaps the best way to start is to assign yourself some oral history homework, and consider inviting a colleague or a small number of students to accompany you in the process.

Over the years I’ve coached several faculty who are ready to take the next step of integrating oral history into their class, most often for a history and/or education class, but also for courses in sociology, anthropology, economics, and religion. Most of these faculty faced an important curricular decision: How might an oral history project fit into my existing course? Or, how should I reorganize my course to fit better with an oral history project? Either way, a common goal is to deepen student learning about the past by engaging with people whose lived experiences may differ from our own, and/or whose perspectives may challenge us to reconsider previously published accounts.

At least five conceptual models for integrating oral history into courses stand out in my mind (and I encourage readers to email me with others that I have overlooked).

  1. The class analyzes pre-recorded interviews: While interviewing a real person has intrinsic value, there’s also much to be learned from reading transcripts, listening to audio, or watching video of interviews that have already been conducted, especially as oral history collections become more widely accessible on the web. This model may be most appropriate for courses on topics that have no living narrators, or no local access to topics in different parts of the world. It also may work best in courses that focus primarily on analyzing oral histories, as described further below.
  2. Each student conducts an individualized interview: In this model, each student is assigned to conduct an interview with a narrator, often a person of their choice, on a topic related to the class, then compare this oral account to conventional published sources. This model can work in a class regardless of its size, because the work is individualized, with no collaboration between students. For example, in a large US history survey course that relies on a textbook, the instructor can assign students to conduct an interview with a family member to compare their memories of an event or time period to its portrayal in the text.
  3. The class conducts and observes a group interview: In this model, the entire class observes a group interview with one narrator, typically through pre-planned questions asked by a series of students. This approach only works if the narrator is comfortable with being interviewed in a large-group setting (and see more about this further below). One benefit is that the oral history typically is conducted during class time with everyone listening, and can be set up to model good interviewing skills.
  4. Individual students conduct similar interviews and share transcripts: In this model, the class must be assigned or agree on a common set of interview questions, designed for people who have a common experience or time period. Each student conducts an interview with a narrator, either of their choice or assigned by the instructor. Next, students share transcripts, either in small groups or the entire class, either on paper or through a shared digital folder. The instructor can assign students to analyze patterns across interviews, and/or compare narrators’ experiences with conventionally published sources.
  5. Students conduct similar interviews at a community event and share transcripts: This resembles the “History Harvest” model developed by historians Will Thomas and Patrick Jones at the University of Nebraska. [Add cites] The class participates a public history event, perhaps co-hosted with a community organization, to bring together narrators to sit for interviews with individual students. This approach requires more coordination and time commitment than others above, but also has potential to expand the community of learners far beyond the classroom.

Since these are conceptual models, educators can mix and match to suit their learning goals. For example, I have arranged for my class to conduct a group interview as a practice session with a dual-role narrator, prior to their individual interviews using a common questionnaire. A dual-role narrator belongs to the community our class seeks to interview, but also is familiar with our academic mission and need to teach novice interviewers. One dual-role narrator who partnered with my Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar was Renita Satchell. During the 1970s, she was a young Black student enrolled in the Project Concern city-suburb interdistrict busing program for racial integration. Decades later, she worked as a staff member in Open Choice, the successor program to Project Concern. In 2002, she agreed to partner with my seminar on our Project Concern Alumni oral history project. To help my students improve their interview questionnaire and skills, she agreed to participate in a group practice interview during our class. During the practice portion, a series of students each asked Renita a question that their class had prepared in advance, with the recorder running and everyone listening. Immediately afterwards, during the talk-back portion, Renita reflect with us on what worked well, and what we needed to improve. Typical reflection questions include: Did the interview questions make sense? Or use words or terms that narrators may not understand? Did interviewers follow-up when appropriate, and refrain from interrupting? Did the interview encourage storytelling by the narrator? Even when only a small number of students ask interview questions during our practice session, the entire class learns by listening closely and imagining what they would have done if they were in their classmates’ shoes.

Several years later, my Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar and I co-hosted a “Civil Rights History Harvest” event with the Sheff Movement for school integration on their 25th anniversary public celebration. Describe more from this link

Decide who will be interviewed, and why

  • Think carefully about how and why you are selecting interview participants. There is nothing wrong with a selected sample or even a snowball sample, as long as you recognize and write out limitations.

Preparing students to interview and listen

Previously I searched for the “best oral history” article or chapter to assign to my students, thinking that knowledge would help them become better interviewers. But I now believe that interviewing is best taught as experiential learning, where students engage in the process and reflect on their successes and mistakes.

  • Check privilege at the door. Describe more about crafting interview question about race, perspective, and power.
  • The best interviewers are the best listeners, not the best talkers, which typically is the opposite behavior of what we instructors encourage in our discussion-based classrooms.
  • Assign the class to listen to a pre-recorded interview (read a sample interview transcript, Read a sample interview transcript (and recording): In what portions did the interviewer do well, and how? Where could the interviewer have improved? Point out places where participants were encouraged to elaborate or redirected to the core question, or interrupted, allowed to ramble – include CSS samples
  • Read up on the people you’re interviewing… one of the best ways that historians can build rapport with interview participants, and show respect for their lives, is to bring them copies of photographs, newspaper clippings, or archival documents that we have found in our historical research. These tangible pieces of the past also can spark memories, “How do you feel when looking back at this photograph?” and also prompt some comparative interview questions, such as “Is there anything that the newspapers back then left out of the story?”
  • Craft a common interview guide. Closed-ended survey-style questions versus open-ended questions that encourage participants to tell stories. Inserting prompts: “tell me more about…” and “how did you feel?” (not just how did you think or do) – include CSS samples. (focusing on a select number of essential questions, rather than a long list of questions)

When my colleague Mira Debs, a sociologist of education at Yale University, visited one of my Trinity College classes in 2016, we crafted what we jokingly called the Debs-Dougherty Interviewing Principles, to encapsulate the advice we found ourselves repeating to our undergraduate research students:

  • Design interview questions to obtain responses that you can analyze to answer your research question.
  • Ask open-ended questions that encourage participants to tell their stories.
  • Listen attentively as participants respond and avoid interrupting, unless they go way off track and you need to bring them back.
  • Follow up with prompts (“Tell me more about….”) as needed to focus their responses or delve deeper.

Perhaps Mira and I were mistaken to “jokingly” label these guidelines, because in all seriousness, it’s exactly what our students — and perhaps yours — need to hear.

Ethical questions: Who owns oral history?

Whether or not “individualized” oral history interviews are subject to IRB review has been debated for decades, and in 2015, the US federal government effectively made oral history interviewing exempt, DESCRIBE more from https://www.oralhistory.org/information-about-irbs/. But even if your oral history class project is not subject to IRB review, oral historians still contend that there are ethical obligations for participants to voluntarily consent and know what will become of their interview recordings and transcripts, particularly with vulnerable populations.

One of the most important and overlooked questions is “who owns the oral history interview?” See this chapter in this volume https://ontheline.trincoll.edu/who-owns-oral-history.html

Recording and transcribing oral history

Everything I taught has now been replaced by http://Trint.com

Teaching students to analyze and write about oral history

  • Here’s where reading helps greatly, compared to the experience of interviewing

  • Review key concepts from Jack Dougherty, “From Anecdote to Analysis: Oral Interviews and New Scholarship in Educational History,” The Journal of American History 86, no. 2 (1999): 712–23, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2567055.

Preserving oral history in collaboration with libraries, archives, museums