Collecting Stories about Strip-Mining: Using Oral History in the Classroom

By Kerrigan, William | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Collecting Stories about Strip-Mining: Using Oral History in the Classroom


Kerrigan, William, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


The study of history has always been an interdisciplinary exercise that borrows generously from the methods and insights provided by other disciplines, but the narrative method continues to remain central to the discipline of history. Telling stories as a method of explaining how things have changed or why things are the way they are is at the heart of most historical endeavors. Despite the centrality of story-telling to the discipline of history, until relatively recently, historians have given little critical consideration to the narrative as a method of explanation, and non-historians, our students among them, even less so. Most of the students in my classroom enter with the understanding that history is merely a series of stories, and that stories are merely a collection of facts. It is important, however, to make students of history aware that the narrative is a method of explanation, that story-telling is not merely the process of ordering a series of facts. One of the most valuable lessons students of history can learn, I believe, is that narratives can be constructed in ways that will lead different storytellers (and their audiences) to quite different conclusions. The use of oral history in the classroom can be an effective method to help students understand the power of the narrative.

Inviting students to examine how we tell stories about transformations in the natural world can be a valuable learning tool in the environmental history course as well. In "A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative," William Cronon tells us that "When we choose a plot to order our environmental histories, we give them a unity that neither nature nor the past possesses so clearly." (1) Cronon's observation can be demonstrated successfully in the environmental history classroom through the use of oral history to explore local or regional stories about environmental change. What follows is a description of one peculiarly local example, unique to the time and place where I teach. Nonetheless, it might inspire others teaching environmental history, local history, or even more broadly defined American history courses to consider employing oral history to examine their own local or regional stories.

This project centered on the demise of an earth-moving machine called "the Big Muskie." The Big Muskie rested atop a ridge about twenty miles south of the college where I teach. It was, until it was cut up for scrap in the summer of 1999, the largest walking dragline ever built. (2) Between 1969 and 1991, when it was finally retired, the Big Muskie operated 24 hours a day, 364 days a year (with all-too-frequent interruptions for repair), stripping the surface of seven townships in southeastern Ohio in order to expose seams of high-sulfur coal. After its retirement in 1991, it rested upon that ridge, rusting away, until American Electric Power decided to cut it up for scrap. The news of the Big Muskie's demise provoked a curious response in this community. It seems many locals had a great deal of affection for this machine, and great efforts were made to "Save the Big Muskie" and turn it into a museum. But all of these failed.

As a newcomer to the region and an environmentally minded liberal, I was a bit perplexed by this local response. So was one of my colleagues in the Biology Department, who endured the wrath of many when he publicly declared that we should celebrate the demise of "the Great Rapist." The Big Muskie was not only a source of local pride, but had been for many years a source of the highest paying jobs this region had to offer. It was a "mortgage lifter," one of its defenders proclaimed.

The demise of the Big Muskie seemed to mark the end of an era--the era of surface mining in southeastern Ohio. A few small mines remain, and have been given new hope of resurrection by the Bush administration, but in recent years they have had increasing trouble finding customers for their high-sulfur product. …

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