"It's Not Just Common Sense": A Blueprint for Teaching Oral History

Article excerpt


Imagine an oral historian in a conversation with a student and a colleague from another fieldwork-based discipline. The student asks, "Isn't oral history just common sense?" The colleague asks, "Can you really teach fieldwork? Isn't it better just to jump in and learn by experience?" These questions illustrate the dilemma facing the oral history instructor because both express the same assumption, that oral history is merely formalized conversation and conducting such a conversation is not learned, only practiced. It is the task of those of us who teach oral history to impress upon potential interviewers its non-common-sense nature--the advanced preparation, the complexity of interview relationships, the questioning and listening skills and, as important, the ability to understand oral evidence and use it in a wide variety of settings. The purpose of this essay is to review some of the strategies employed in teaching oral history at colleges and universities and, by synthesizing the available material, create a blueprint for planning a course.

While oral history is gaining a foothold in research, there has been relatively little published discussion of the ways potential scholars might be trained in the method.(1) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few authors wrote essays making the case for teaching oral history and in particular encouraging the use of interviewing to enliven student interest in a variety of content areas.(2) More recently a number of articles have reported on particular projects or courses, providing models for how oral history might be taught. For example, Michael Ebner, in "Students as Oral Historians" (1976), leads the reader through a fairly detailed discussion of his course goals and content. A different perspective is provided by John Rothstein, a student who in "Oral History: A Student's View" (1988/9) reports his own experience taking an oral history course and conducting his first interviews. Perhaps the most creative approach is in "Get Real: Empowering the Student Through Oral History," (1990), a piece co-authored by a professor and student. In it, John Forrest and Elisabeth Jackson take turns describing their perspective on their oral history course and, in the process, shed light on the human relationships involved in interviewing.(3) In an effort similar to the present one, Thomas Charlton published a brief report in 1974 on a survey of graduate instruction in oral history. He commented on the diversity in the courses offered but also proposed that much oral history training takes place outside of formal classrooms.(4) Many of the themes in these essays are summarized in the chapter on oral history in the classroom in Don Ritchie's Doing Oral History.(5) My goal is to pick up these leads and update and elaborate upon them by adding material from other courses currently being offered around the country.

This essay is the result of an Oral History Association (OHA) education committee project. The committee set out to gather and make available syllabi and other materials used in teaching oral history on the collegiate level. At first we collected syllabi informally and later through a request on the internet and in the OHA newsletter. Then, I circulated a brief questionnaire through the same channels. Following that survey, I called people who had responded and asked more in-depth questions. Much like Charlton's effort, this survey makes no claim to be representative.(6) Rather, this essay is a guide to strategies for, and issues in, teaching oral history, based on material volunteered by a selection of oral historians.

In order to make sense of the material collected, I have organized it according to the outline of a typical syllabus. The sections are: goals, readings, structure and lecture topics, assignments, and problems and solutions. Under goals I discuss the instructor's intent for the course along with some general issues for consideration before beginning a class. …