Oral History and the Professor: An Academic Epiphany

Article excerpt

The events precipitating me into the then unknown realm of oral history include a happy pair of intellectual coincidences occurring in 1986. At that time I was completing studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Co-located with the War College is the U.S. Army Military History Institute, which hosts the Senior Army Oral History Program. Through initial contact as a student, followed by a series of brief tours of duty with the institute, I came to appreciate and value the ongoing work of the oral historians connected with the project.

Soon after returning to civilian service as a professor at Virginia Tech, I came in contact with a well-known Harvard professor, Roland Barth, who suggested during a formal presentation to a local Phi Delta Kappa chapter the need for more in-depth and less superficial research

in professional education generally, and on the public school principalship in particular. The question then raised in my mind concerned how to go about gathering in-depth information on the principalship. In a flash the answer came--through the use of oral history techniques. This idea appealed to me, since I'd become disenchanted with traditional quantitative data-gathering techniques and was casting about for alternative, and potentially more useful, approaches to the act of research.

Convinced of the "rightness" of the approach and excited at the possibilities, I set out to create a valid interview protocol. Working with current and retired principals and with graduate students and faculty members from Virginia Tech, I assembled a 53-item question set, and following field testing and "tweaking" of the instrument, set out to gather first-person accounts of principals' professional lives. The rest, as the cliche goes, "is history." In 1987 Mrs. Carlton and I underwent oral history training with Charles Morrissey at one of his well-known Vermont College workshops. (1) This training provided the basis for subsequent collection efforts.

Starting from a small beginning in late 1986, my graduate students and I engaged in oral history interviewing for the next 15 years. By the year 2000, we collected, transcribed, and deposited 316 interviews in the Special Collections Department of Virginia Tech's main library. In addition, we made the full text of all the interviews available worldwide through creation of a Virginia Tech-based website. The interviews address a wide variety of personal and professional topics of use to those taking advanced work in public school administration.

Due to funding limitations, collection during the early years was limited almost exclusively to the four-state area around Washington, D.C. (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina). Later on, collection expanded to Colorado, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Respondents were elementary, middle, and secondary school principals who retired during the decades extending from the fifties to the year 2000. They vary in age from the mid-50s to over 90. …