Scholarship on Oral History Pedagogy

Oral histories bring the past to life in ways ordinary textbooks cannot. Through the power of hearing an individual’s voice and listening to their stories, students and teachers alike form a powerful, personal connection with the historical period under investigation. In addition, the process of creating oral histories in the classroom allows teachers to introduce their students to this historical method. Working with oral histories helps students develop a number of skills including historical thinking, research methods, interviewing, and analysis that prove useful throughout their academic careers and beyond the classroom. Communities benefit from the probing questions posed to the individuals sought out by high school or college students. Archives preserve their stories and a town or city’s collective memory adds nuance and personality to an otherwise streamlined metanarrative of history. Oral histories provide personal windows into the past which students are not normally exposed to. A central theme in the scholarship of oral history pedagogy is the ability of students to create new material and add to the historical record.
Glenn Whitman is the director of the Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. In his 2000 article, “Teaching Students How to Be Historians: An Oral History Project for the Secondary School Classroom,” he outlines his practices for conducting an oral history project in a high school AP History classroom. He first introduces oral histories to his students via required summer reading. In this way, students come into contact with what others have produced, albeit in transcription form, asking them to critique these efforts, thus starting them on the path of historical discovery. From there, Whitman outlines seven phases of his lesson:

  • Interviewee Selection: subject must be of no-relation to the student. At this stage, securing permission from the interviewee is paramount. Failure to do so renders interviews inaccessible.
  • Biography: students delve into the interviewee’s background and create a short biography that provides context for understanding the place of the story within the individual’s life.
  • Historical Contextualization: students research primary and secondary source documents in an effort to provide context for and familiarity with the time period or event central to their interview. Students prepare a substantial research paper to relay their findings. This phase is particularly important in order to prepare their sequence of questions.
  • Interview and Transcription: interviews are expected to last for one hour. Students transcribe the conversation. This phase promotes development of listening skills and the ability to think on their feet in order to follow the conversation. Students learn the ever-important follow-up question, “I didn’t know that, can you tell me more?”
  • Historical Analysis: according to Whitman, the most important part of the project. Students consider how their interview adds or detracts from the historical record, identify bias and any revelations on their particular topic or event and whether or not it fits within their contextualization.
  • Public Presentation: students present these oral histories in a variety of different ways to the community during an annual oral history coffeehouse. Students might create a poster, one-act play, or PowerPoint presentation.
  • Assessment: Students are assessed using a rubric Whitman has developed over the years. He provides formal and informal feedback throughout the course of the project as well as examples of prior student work to serve as a guide for current students.[1]

These seven phases provide an effective start for teachers interested in oral history projects. For further reading on oral history guidelines in the classroom, the Oral History Association has written “Principles and Best Practices for Oral History Education”. The beautiful thing about oral history projects is they can be utilized in non-history classrooms.
Nathan Stucky, professor and Chair of the Communication Studies Department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has used oral histories in performance studies and interpersonal communication classes to explore human communication across cultures.[2] He follows steps very similar to those developed by Whitman, giving special attention to the ethical treatment of interview subjects and the importance of obtaining their permission to use their stories as well as conveying the purposes and parameters of the project accurately. One of the stated purposes of this project is to better understand another person, as such students are obligated to treat their subjects with a level of respect beyond simply obtaining permission. Every story told belongs to the person who told it, their voice is tied to their cultural and personal identity and should be treated with dignity. Instead of creating a poster or PowerPoint, they perform the oral histories on stage being mindful of how well they capture the voice and personality of the interviewee. In Stucky’s view oral history performance projects promote cross-cultural understanding, develop interpersonal skills, and generate knowledge.
By placing importance on cultural education, the author illustrates the adaptability of oral history projects and how they can be used to teach a variety of skills across different subject areas. Given the diversification and globalization of the United States of America, multicultural education has become vital to the success of students in such a diverse and interconnected society. Using oral histories to connect students with their subject and their cultural identity on a personal level benefits all parties involved. Oral history projects as part of multicultural education give voice to the marginalized and allow students to experience the life of another individual. The themes espoused by both Whitman and Stucky are representative of the pedagogy of oral history. Both educators use oral history projects to develop a certain skill set and create new historical records.
The oral history process requires students to engage with the past on a very personal level. By going beyond the classroom, this process eschews the top-down nature of conventional history teaching for a more bottom-up approach. It seeks to fill in the gaps by telling stories that would otherwise not be included in a traditional history class. The process reminds students that history is people’s stories. Oral history projects empower students by letting them “do history”.[3] While their efforts are often curated in online archives, other teachers cannot easily utilize them in their own classrooms.
Online archives such as Digital Maryland, where transcripts of student-created oral histories from Whitman’s classes can be found, and The Floyd County Oral History Project begun by A. Glenn Crothers at Indiana University Southeast make oral histories available to the general public.[4] This is a wonderful tool for researchers and the curious alike, however, for a teacher wanting to use these interviews in a classroom it can be a daunting task. With the advent of new technology and its prevalence in society, getting the interviews into the classroom is far easier than it was in the past. Through online databases, we can make the audio recordings available with relative ease, making the transcription process somewhat obsolete. Simply having access to these databases is not enough, however. Without proper tagging in order to align interviews with educational content standards, teachers have to wade through hours of recordings in hope of finding something germane to their lesson plan. Databases need to be searchable with tags and keywords that point to specific content statements. Our summer research project, “History Speaks: Using Oral Histories to Teach Historical Thinking” seeks to address this problem by developing standards for tagging utilizing the interviews contained in the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection.
Stay tuned to the blog for further posts on oral histories as our investigation continues!
[1] Whitman, Glenn. “Teaching Students How to Be Historian: An Oral History Project for the Secondary School Classroom.” The History Teacher Vol 33, No. 4 (August, 2000): 471-473.
[2] Stucky, Nathan. “Performing Oral History: Storytelling and Pedagogy.” Communication Edition Vol 44 (January 1995): 2.
[3] Whitman, 471.
[4] Crothers, A. Glenn. “‘Bringing History to Life’: Oral History, Community Research, and Multiple Levels of Learning.” The Journal of American History Vol. 88, No. 4 (March, 2002): 1447.

One thought on “Scholarship on Oral History Pedagogy

  1. CFM says:

    Very interesting topic. Leaves me with food for thought. History is a subject that is being left behind with the onslaught of technology. While search engines are good tools for research and quick answers, a broad scope of history nerds to be taught in a way that students will be captivated and interested in pursuing more.

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