Crafting History: Oral History Projects, Experiential Learning, and a Meditation on Teaching and Learning

Article excerpt


Oral history has earned a well-deserved place in the academy, especially among professional historians. (1) This article grows out of an effort to wed the use of oral history to instruction in an entry-level World History course. At its foundation, the project aimed to strengthen students' skills in communication and critical thinking, to deepen student learning of basic course themes, to increase student knowledge of specific facts and events in the course, and to enhance a sense of democratic empathy among the students.

A primary goal of the oral history project was to encourage the students to see themselves as participants, rather than "neutral observers," in the process of understanding and analyzing historical phenomena. (2) The project created a space within which students could analyze course topics through a critical lens on power and privilege, race, gender, class, and identity) For students in a general education history survey course, the project was an effort to deepen student learning and foster engaged citizenship. Thus, the project was not simply a way of recording personal narratives but a tool with which to decipher the multiple meanings of that narrative, a means of creating new "'mines of raw data' from which [to] extract historical interpretations." (4)

In addition to the scholarly assumptions about the value of oral history interviews, I placed the use of oral history interviews within the context of the extant literature on innovative pedagogy and enhanced learning. As a result, this project also rested on the research of historians and other scholars who champion, in particular, the value of experiential learning. Experiential learning takes place when a student forms a direct relationship with the subject matter. In this atmosphere, knowledge becomes active, teachers become active learners--through their joint experimentation with their students--and students become knowledge creators. (5) Furthermore, I was responding to a call by scholars who challenged academics to be more pro-active in addressing the well-publicized achievement gap facing students of color. (6) Consequently, this article is grounded in the scholarly discussions on oral history and effective pedagogy, serves as a complement to the scholarship of Perks and Thomson, Vasquez and Wainstien, and others, and provides a template for other academics to duplicate, discard, or enhance.

Setting Up Shop: The Project Plan

A growing scholarly consensus maintains that for teaching to be transformative for students, instructors must teach beyond the content of their courses. (7) For some, it might mean challenging the scholarly and popular consensus about the value or importance of certain people, groups, or events. (8) For others, it might mean creating a classroom environment that pulls students into the material. At least one historian who does work within the realm of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning ("SoTL") (9) asserts that the best teachers set a tone that helps students to develop both an inquisitiveness and healthy skepticism that allows those students to draw connections and make comparisons. (10) While laudable goals to which many teachers aspire, developing practical ways in which to implement these goals in the classroom can be difficult. The difficulty is increased in teaching large bodies of students in required courses who might lack enthusiasm for the subject and any real context or understanding of the importance of the issues being presented. The need to create connections between history and the student is particularly critical when teaching students of color and at-risk youth, specifically. (11)

The desire to inspire and to encourage healthy skepticism grounded this effort to develop an oral history project in an entry-level course at my home institution, York College, City University of New York (CUNY). Students at York College who enroll in a survey class in the Humanities often do so in order to satisfy general education requirements for graduation. …