Values and Methods in the Classroom Transformation of Oral History

Article excerpt

History offers no answers per se. It only offers a way

of encouraging men [sic] to use their minds to make

their own history.

William Appleman Williams

Despite the possibility of quite different formats and audiences, changing fashions in bibliography, differing requirements of graduate programs, and the whims of various instructors, a graduate course in oral history is, by its very nature, a course in historiography, an exploration in the nature of historical documentation. The course must, therefore, address itself to three major questions: How are such documents created? How they are interpreted. And, how they are presented. Trying to answer such questions raises, of course, all of the issues that have engaged oral historians over the past ten years: the dialectical relation between the interviewer and the interviewee and the historian and the text, problems of authority and ethics, memory and ideology, and the tension between the private and public roles of the historian.

The first problem presented by such a three-stage division of the oral history process is that it does not find a correlation in the literature of oral history. There are relatively few oral history readings which devote detailed and consistent examination to all three aspects of the issues raised, and none are so organized. Paul Thompson's The Voice of the Past, and Valerie Yow's, Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists, two of the most useful basic texts for any college level oral history course, do, of course, discuss the creation of, reading of (interpretation of), and use of oral histories, but these discussions are, of necessity, broad overviews and they must, therefore, be supplemented with other readings.(1) Both Thompson and Yow devote extensive discussion to issues of interviewing and forms and arenas of presentation, but less to issues of interpretation. They are also quite different in basic thrust. The Voice of the Past gives far more extended discussion to the history of oral history, the historiographical issues involved in interviewing, and the bibliography of oral history. The Practical Guide is informed by a more complex interactive view of the interview and the document produced, and has a much more social science-oriented bibliography. My own work, Envelopes of Sound, which is sometimes used as a basic text, is almost totally devoted to issues of the creation of oral histories and the methods of reading, and says little about problems raised by presentation.(2) Michael Frisch's, A Shared Authority, on the other hand, explores in detail methods of reading and presentation, but expressly does not deal, except in passing, with issues of creation.(3) The two when used together do reveal interesting tensions within what seems to be on the surface a seamless historiographic posture. To simplify a complex debate. I think my own concerns are more structural while those of Frisch revolve around issues of agency. In general, I am more concerned with the structural field within which human action in history takes place. In this case I am concerned with the structures of the interview and how, if possible, they reflect the structures of the mind making history. My reading of Frisch's work is that he is more concerned with human agency in the making of history; the ways in which structural boundaries can be transformed and transcended by human activity. I have found the discussion of these tensions to be one of the most useful guides into issues of the historiography of oral history. They also resonate with larger issues of the tension between agency and structure raised in recent historical study in any number of areas.

Questions of creation, interpretation, and presentation are, of course, widely discussed in oral history anthologies and compilations of readings. The two most comprehensive and useful are: Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, compiled by David K. …