Introduction to Oral History:

Or the Art of Engaging with Living Sources

Course Description:
“The real and significant historical fact which these narratives highlight is the memory itself.”1

Most memory theorists have been concerned with communal or public forms of memory, ignoring or even denying the existence of individual memories. Meanwhile, many oral historians have focused on the importance of individual voices to the neglect of communal narratives. As a result of this division between memory studies and oral history, scholars have not resolved “the relationship between the individual who does the remembering and the memory of the group.”2 In this class, we will explore what we can learn from both these groups by listening to individual voices, hearing how they converse with those in their families and social groups and asking about the social, political and cultural implications in how communities choose to commemorate the past.

Each of the oral histories you conduct will be with members of the clerical staff who have worked here at UMass. Though a few academics have attempted to look at the struggle that university faculty and students have had as they fought for better working conditions, scholars have spent little time considering other forms of labor in the academy. The oral histories you conduct and the final research project you develop will be part of correcting that oversight.

Required Readings:
Online Readings:
During the course of the semester, we will use journal articles rather than books for our in class discussions. Each of these articles is available online through the library website. I debated linking directly to them for you, but to help you become more familiar with using the online databases, I have decided to have you find them yourselves. Go forth and forage!

  • The Oral History Manual:
    Sommer, Barbara W. and Mary K. Quinlan. The Oral History Manual 2nd Edition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2009.
  • Oral History Theory:
    Abrams, Lynn. Oral History Theory. New York: Routledge, 2010.Course Structure:
    We will begin the semester by reading about the theoretical foundations undergirding both memory studies and oral history, which will help us to consider: What role do stories and storytelling play in our society? Can we identify central myths and traditions that define (perhaps confine) us? Have these stories and traditions been passed down through several generations or have they been “invented” at some more recent point in time? How have interpretation of these stories changed over time? How do those changes affect the ways we understand ourselves and our world?

    Toward the midpoint of the semester, we will turn to the practice of oral history and how memory studies can inform our approach to interviews. We will ask what it means that the memories we hear in interviews recount events that occurred many years, or even decades, earlier. We will also explore the ways that interviewers shape the memories that interviewees present and discuss the ethical implications of that. Toward the end of the semester, we will begin reading some of the “best practices” in oral history analysis, gleaning techniques, analytical tools and other methodological practices that will be useful in writing the final project.

    You will complete a series of four interviews this semester. Two of them will be due during the semester, and we will workshop them together. In addition, there will be a final project that will be informed by your oral histories. It will consist of three parts:

    The interview portfolio: prepare each interview for submission to the university archives.

    The research project: Using these interviews along with other primary and secondary resources, write a ten–fifteen page paper or another project of similar length and quality. If you would like to put together an online museum exhibit or something similar, I am happy to work with you on that.

    Class presentation: You will have fifteen minutes in class to present your research.

    1 Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History SUNY Series in Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991): 26.
    2 Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, “Introduction: Building Partnerships between Oral History and Memory Studies,” in Oral History and Public Memories, Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, eds. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2008): x.


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