Using Oral History Methods in the Classroom

As Chris Morris and I continue to research oral history methods in the classroom this summer, I felt it was appropriate to interview an individual who has not only conducted a vast amount of oral history interviews, but has used these methods within a classroom setting as well. Dr. Mark Souther is an associate professor of History at Cleveland State University and his teaching specialities include urban history and 20th-century United States history. Dr. Souther is also the Director of the Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection, from which many of his digital projects draw, including Cleveland Voices and the current History Speaks  project.  Here is our discussion about oral history interviews and the specific methods needed to employ such resources within a classroom.
McDonough: Can you explain the process of creating/conducting an oral history interview?
Souther: It begins with identifying what the scope of your interest is and seeking out appropriate people to engage. Calling someone or talking to them in advance to explain your purpose is important. Creating a permission form is a best practice as well – if you’re going to publish or put the oral history interview on the Internet, you definitely need to get written permission. A permission form needs to be expansive, up to a reasonable point – try to imagine what you might do with this interview in the future, as you may not get a chance to go back and ask them for further permissions at a later point in time [due to age or proximity]. Before conducting the interview, I would also research quiet places and select appropriate recording instruments: when you take interviews into the classroom, they need to have good sound to be effective. As for the interview itself, think about a good length of time as an hour (plus or minus) and give your interviewee an idea of how long the interview might go. During the interview, start with general questions about the interviewee’s childhood or memories to get them comfortable (maybe do a soundcheck at this point) and gradually work towards the heart of what your interview is about. Balancing your agenda with your responsibility to create an opportunity for the interviewee to benefit is vital. You are co-creators, so ideally you would be able to meld both interests throughout the course of the interview (this could even happen before the interview so that you can tailor your questions – you can both discuss your interests). Another best practice from the Oral History Association is to identify a proper repository that is publicly accessed. It is a missed opportunity if the oral history interview just sits in your desk, as there could be greater opportunities that arise from your interview. There are manuals, like the Baylor University Oral History Manual, that help you frame questions and use best practices when creating interview questions. You don’t want yes or no questions; it is better to frame your questions like this: “How did [blank] look or smell?”, “Can you describe this event to me?”  Invite responses of thoughts, feelings or memories by asking open-ended questions. You find that many people do not think they have much to share but they can become a wealth of knowledge for your topic the more they continue to share. Listening is a big thing during an interview – balancing your need to guide the interview and think ahead. Don’t let your plan to move forward get in the way of asking good follow-up questions. At the end, ask if the interviewee has anything else they want to cover as a courtesy. Following the interview, however it is being recorded, get the file into a computer and create redundancy; make sure you have more than one copy and name it appropriately so it isn’t lost.
McDonough: What are some of the technologies or resources needed to conduct an oral history interview?
Souther: I think one thing is a good microphone – that is the most important tool of the entire endeavor. Having the most expensive recorder without a good microphone is the greatest mistake. When looking for a recorder, try to get one in WAV format with 44.1 kHz, which is considered radio quality sound and is of good quality from an archival standpoint. You can convert these to MP3 because that is the standard for public sharing, but for archival work, it is good to record in WAV. As for recorders, you could go as inexpensive as $75, and the recorder might even be one of several good recording apps on your phone, for example the Rev app on iOS. Regardless of the recorder, having a good external microphone is key.  The microphone helps minimize outside noise that you’d hear if you simply placed a recorder on the table and let it use its own internal mic. You could use a simple handheld recorder, but just find a microphone that is compatible with your phone and produces quality sound. Find a computer to put your files on – backing up files to the cloud is most beneficial because interviews take up a lot of space on the harddrive of a computer.
McDonough: Can you describe the usefulness of oral history within the classroom?
Souther: If you have the time to create usable clips from larger interviews, I think it can add a lot. Oral history interviews give a very specific context to something that you might just read or say as a fact. It gives an immediacy for history and events. It’s something that a student can see that someone actually lived through – like the James Jones interview (regarding his refusal give up his seat on a military bus to a white soldier on a Texas army base during World War II), that teachers can compare to other more famous examples like Rosa Parks’ experience in Montgomery in 1955. Oral history interviews give students another example of what people were doing at a specific point in time by going beyond the most memorable example.
McDonough: Do you think it is beneficial for students to conduct their own oral history interviews? If so, why?
Souther: I think so because it creates and encourages and empathy and creates cross-generational understanding in a way that few activities match. It also teaches them a particular skill set that is extensible. They also get the chance to help make history. A down side for the teacher is that this process can be time consuming if, and when, technical problems arise. Student-led oral history interviews are tough to implement, so it is very fortunate that so many resources are available online. Using oral histories others have done may be at times better than asking students to do their own, unless you have the time to devote to the project.
McDonough: What are some of the downfalls or setbacks of using oral history within the classroom?
Souther: Selecting something that adds value is incredibly difficult, especially with limited class time. Something that is brief but discusses your topic may be hard to find, and may not discuss your topic in a limited amount of time. Covering content and engaging students at the same time is probably the most difficult aspect of implementing oral history in the classroom, but technical issues, such as bad sound quality, can also make the process problematic. Contextualizing is difficult as well; you can’t just put the material out there, you must give it a context and background to increase student understanding.
McDonough: Is there a target age range of students for whom oral histories would be most impactful?
Souther: No, not really. I think it’s all related to choosing examples that apply to the curriculum standards and are age-appropriate. Choosing age-appropriate content is most critical – obviously you wouldn’t choose an interview about genocide for kindergartners. It’s also important to use common sense – there is definitely something for all ages. Children love stories and hearing about others. I think it is educational and beneficial for all, even up to the level of adult education.
McDonough: Is there such a thing as an “ideal candidate” for the subject of a particular oral history interview?
Souther: In choosing a candidate, you have to focus on the scope of what you’re trying to learn, and then on finding the right people to speak to that specific event or memory. It is imperative that the interviewee was at an appropriate age at the time of the event so that they can actually recall specific facts and details. You need to know what you want from the interview and find someone that can closely match those expectations. Take special care to avoid candidates that have some mental impairment or issues with memory – extreme confusion can be detrimental to the interview and to the interviewee, not to mention that cognitively impaired and/or institutionalized elderly persons are federally protected, just like minors. You need to be very careful about who you select and how you seek permissions. Seek out any pertinent institutional review board (IRB) permissions and follow guidelines and staff opinions of who can participate if you are seeking candidates within nursing homes or other such facilities. In all cases an elderly participant must have power of attorney in order to sign a consent form to participate. The age range of the candidate will depend upon how old they were at the time of the events that you’re wanting them to recall, like I said before, but perhaps 50 to 85 years old is a ballpark range. We’ve certainly interviewed people much younger or older than that on occasion.
Below is a list of oral history resources that Dr. Souther recommends:
Veterans Oral History Project (Library of Congress) – The Veterans Oral History Project was created by the Library of Congress to preserve the unique stories and memories of American veterans who served in World Wars I and II, the Korean, Persian Gulf and Vietnam Wars, and the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Resources include audio and video interviews, photographs, letters and even personal diaries.
Presidential Oral History Program – Miller Center – – The Miller Center Presidential Oral History Program contains interviews with White House staff to gain a more insightful perspective into various Presidential administrations. Resources include interviews from the staff of Richard M. Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover, among other administrations. The Miller Center’s website also has a treasure trove of recordings made in the Oval Office, including meetings and telephone conversations on a range of historically significant matters.
Densho: The Japanese American Legacy – The Densho Project documents the incarceration of Japanese American citizens during World War II. Resources include oral history interviews and personal accounts, a timeline of events, a glossary of related terms, teaching tools concerning civil liberties.
Bracero History Archive – The Bracero History Archive documents the experiences of guest workers from Mexico during the 1942-1964 Bracero Program. Resources include interviews from workers, farmers and border patrol agents, photographs and documents, and activities that teachers can implement with their students using the information from the website.
Minnesota Immigrant Oral Histories – Minnesota Historical Society – The Minnesota Historical Society has produced over 300 interviews from immigrants (coming to the country between 1967 and 2012) to help document their experience as “new” Americans. Representatives of populations found in the interviews include immigrants from China, the Philippines, South America and the Pacific Islands.
Ellis Island Oral Histories – National Park Service – The Ellis Island Oral Histories project include almost 2,000 interviews with immigrants from Ellis Island to document their experiences as they entered the United States. Interviews include memoirs from citizens hailing from a large number of countries, including: Croatia, Barbados, Italy, Turkey and Ireland.
Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection – Engaged Scholarship @ CSU –  Started in 2002 by staff and students of Cleveland State University, this project documents various events and entities that have impacted Cleveland history. More than 1,000 interviews discuss topics ranging from the environment, to segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, to immigration to this bustling urban area.
Thank you Dr. Souther for sharing your expertise in oral history!
Check back soon for more information and resources on oral history, including sample lesson plans!

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