Welcome to our seminar in Oral History.
We are literally surrounded by history in the memories of those around us, a rich source for understanding the past. Anthropologists and historians have used oral history as a method of recording the history of groups of people who have not left written records. For example, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s sponsored interviews with people who had been slaves, interviews that can be found at the Library of Congress website.* "Slave Narratives" have provided insights into slavery from the perspective of folks whose experiences would otherwise not have been recorded, as well as insights into the Great Depression. These narratives were a collaborative effort, and in this class we will address some of the theoretical, ethical, and practical issues that have come to define the (ever changing) collaborative process known as Oral History--a process that creates public record.
We will begin with examples of Oral Histories, and then in the first seven weeks of class discuss them as well as theoretical and ethical issues that inform the "collaboration." We will also address the practical methods of Oral History as you design your own project. We will address topics such as memory, subjectivity, ethical and legal issues, communciation barriers, designing and implementing a project, and then "transcribing" interviews--addressing the newest ways of doing so via programs that allow the segmenting of interviews on websites. It is also possible to video interviews, though we will focus on the preservation of interviews via voice recordings (and words).
The example of the WPA's Slave Narratives is a famous one, a public record both used in the writing of histories, as well as studied for an understanding of the nature of oral history. In the 1960s, in writing history from the "bottom-up," historians also began to interview laborers in an effort to view daily life for the "common" person (people who did not typically write memoirs). Military interviews have also been significant, interviews conducted both within and outside the military establishment. Interviews with women have provided insight into a variety of life experiences, from birth control in the early twentieth century to Rosie-the-Riveter work during WWII. Oral Histories have flourished in contemporary American culture, and the web, along with new technologies, has only made it easier to record people's stories--stories that we might otherwise not have heard. NPR stations around the country, for example, have made their studios available to local communities in "Storycorps," for the "sharing and preserving the stories of our lives."**
While understanding historical significance is important to the process of Oral History, we will focus on two critical elements of the process that are especially challenging in our fast-paced world of technological change--listening carefully to others and then retelling their stories.
*Federal Writers' Project (WPA), "Born in Slavery," Library of Congress Website: https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html
**NPR, Storycorps: http://www.npr.org/series/4516989/storycorps