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AU Scholars | Oral History for Scholars and Others

Spring 2015

“All wisdom is contained in stories.” - R. Verlin Cassill

This course spans the academic disciplines of history, sociology, literature, communications, and world culture. Personal interest, curiosity about one’s own friends and family, can also call for the application of this discipline.

From Herodotus to Studs Terkel and beyond, lively historical narrative has often relied on recorded interviews with individuals who witnessed or influenced major events. Current technology allows the interviewer to rely on inexpensive digital recorders rather than memory, PC and Mac sleight-of-hand rather than shorthand and knuckle blisters.

All persons are sources of oral history. Oral history can be oriented to an individual’s story, or to a particular theme (viz., the U.S. Institute of Peace’s internet collections of “lessons learned” from the Iraq Study Group, 2005; the Sudan Peace Process, 2007; and Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, 2011.)

The course will demonstrate the three phases of the oral history process: (1) recording of raw data; (2) transcription; (3) editing and selection for publication or data banks. Examples will be drawn from the American Memory collection of the Library of Congress, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia; the Chicago Historical Society collection “Conversations with America”; Studs Terkel, Touch and Go, New York: The New Press, 2007; and the late Terkel’s boxed CD set “Voices of Our Time,” (Chicago Historical Society, 1997.) The interview process, while following a methodology, is highly personal and relates to the individuals involved. The best interview are genuine conversations, not/not set “Q & A” patterns.

Required materials for the course will include the following;

  • A hand-held digital recorder (preferably the Olympia DS-20/30 series;
  • Boxed set of Terkel interviews as cited above;
  • Touch and Go, as above. ISBN 9781595580436
  • [Recommended: Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels with Herodotus. New York: Vintage, 2007. ISBN 9781400043385]

Additional source materials will be provided in class.

Course Objectives, expected Outcomes

The student will

  • Define “oral history” and identify its importance and use as a primary source;
  • Observe and conduct actual interviews;
  • Master standard digital audio format;
  • Learn audio archiving options for permanent storage;
  • Better understand the value of oral history as a course of cultural heritage;
  • Become conversant with free, on-line resources;
  • Develop options to apply raw data to formal and informal studies;
  • Understand legal strictures to publication and broadcast of audio material.

Interview subjects may be class or family members, and/or notables in the community whose stories may serve to educate successor generations.

[Foreign Policy Professor Dan Whitman was executive director of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, 2006-07. A 25-year Foreign Service veteran, he served in Europe, Africa, Washington, and Haiti. His completed oral histories include ambassadors, Foreign Service officers, journalists, civil servants, Foreign Service National employees of U.S. embassies overseas, recipients of U.S. government exchange grants, and war veterans. Whitman’s book of oral histories, published by SUNY Press 2014, explores the narrative of U.S. government exchanges with South Africa during the apartheid period.]