An Educational Exchange: Teaching Oral History on the Post-Secondary Level

By Fong, Timothy P.; Kahn, Ava F. | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

An Educational Exchange: Teaching Oral History on the Post-Secondary Level


Fong, Timothy P., Kahn, Ava F., The Oral History Review


We conceived this roundtable as a way to exchange ideas about the theories and practices of teaching oral history and to create a forum for instructors to discuss curricula and methodologies for the college classroom. The session was held at the 1997 annual meeting of the Oral History Association in New Orleans, and it brought together a diverse and interdisciplinary group of oral historians who shared how they teach oral history in their own disciplines. Along with the differences, this roundtable highlighted successful teaching methods and areas of difficulty that cross disciplinary boundaries. As the following transcript of the roundtable demonstrates, the dominant topics of the roundtable were: (1) the types of texts used and assignments given to students; (2) the use of interdisciplinary approaches in teaching oral history; (3) how to balance theory and practice in teaching; and, (4) what the Oral History Association can do to help instructors. The roundtable drew a large audience of those with a great deal of experience teaching oral history, as well as those who want to begin teaching oral history for the first time.

In addition to the editors, Timothy P. Fong, Holy Names College, Oakland, California (Sociology) and Ava F. Kahn, University of California at Davis (American Jewish History), the panel included Patricia Laurence, City University of New York (English), and moderator Marjorie L. McLellan, Miami University of Ohio (History, Chair, OHA Education Committee). The editors want to thank the audience at the session for their lively participation and apologize if we had to edit out some comments due to page restrictions. Several audience members were identified in an effort to personalize this article, but regrettably we were unable to identify everyone who spoke. Lastly, we wish to express our hope that this session was just the beginning of an ongoing discussion on the teaching of oral history.(1)

Approaches to Oral History

McLELLAN: I'd like to thank you for coming to the Education roundtable this morning. We have a variety of perspectives on oral history. To start, I want to ask each of the panelists to please explain how they approach teaching oral history in a general sense. Let's start with Pat and then move on to Ava and then Tim.

LAURENCE: The Activist Women's Voices Project, which is being conducted at the Center for the Study of Women and Society, through the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is a constellation of educational, historical, social, political, literary, and, sometimes, even comic activities. The Project, which grew out of a course, "Women, Community, and Public Voice," taught by my colleague, Joyce Gelb, and myself, has several goals. First, we draw students from multiple disciplines, students who are in the doctoral programs at CUNY in history, sociology, art, English, political science, and psychology. We value the multidisciplinary perspectives that the students bring because we're examining in this course new aspects and new dimensions of "voice," particularly women's voice, for a reason I'll elaborate as I go on. We're also examining new notions of community in urban situations.

Second, we explore traditional and feminist approaches to oral history. We conduct practical oral history workshops--we teach the students how to conduct various kinds of interviews--and we oversee, of course, the oral histories that they are collecting. Because of the generosity of the Ford Foundation, AT&T, and MS Foundation, we're able to offer our students urban fieldwork internships in the community organizations where they eventually interview a woman leader. The community organizations are small, often poor, and struggling to stay afloat, and they need help.

As you know, there has been a lot of talk about university-community relations in the popular press. In addition, the field of Women's Studies is being attacked for being too focused on "theory" and drifting away from the "real" issues that women have. …

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