Using Oral History Extracts in Teaching

Posted on 01/06/2011 by


I’ve recently had a short stint of teaching a course in community oral history to business undergraduates at an international university in London.

So I thought I’d continue the theme of teaching and oral history from yesterday’s post and kick-start the ‘experience-sharing’ part of the blog with some comments (and sounds) on how I went about introducing oral history to these business students, who are doing a summer course/project in community oral history.  

It was one of my first experiences of teaching undergraduate students, and, in the first of three separate seven-hour (!) long sessions I’ll deliver, I relished the opportunity to introduce them to oral history, the power of the person- of the voice!-, and expose them to as much oral testimony as time (and their attention-spans) would allow.

I felt there were two main strands to the students in the class: the ones who didn’t get their first-choice of the short course in archaeology,  and the ones who just needed some course credits. Some students seemed interested from the off but in general, it was going to be a tough crowd.  So I knew I was going to have some severely uninterested students on my hands who would rather be studying the FTSE 100 or, more likely, playing on their iPhone than listen to me, and I had to try my hardest to make the session interesting and engaging…. this was perhaps my chance to convert the future Hedge Fund Manager into an Oral Historian!

The only way to get them engaged with oral history was to use oral history… and lots of it!

Before I started the on the oral history, I played the students the earliest audibly recognizable record of the human voice yet recovered. I think I heard this at a training session with one of the Oral History Society‘s trainers some years ago and I found it fascinating that sound was captured as long ago as 1860! I hoped that fascination would rub off on the students and also, it’s a good place to begin looking at the recording of the human voice.

In order to give the students examples of oral history, the British Library’s online resources of course proved invaluable. I made use of their  George Ewart Evans collection, which is interesting not only for its content, but also as an example of early oral history in the UK. I particularly like the interview he conducted with a Mrs Susan Mullenger in 1967. In the extract, she recalls the old remedies for whooping cough which was to inhale fumes from a gas-works or eat fried mice- really great topic for capturing interest and creating a little disbelief with students!

I also used the British Library’s Voices from the Holocaust learning resource; the clips are well-edited, incredibly powerful, and also have accompanying transcription (which allows an exploration of issues of transcript, orality, voice, etc).

It was also nice to use a clip of an oral history interview I  had conducted myself, for a project with West Yorkshire Archive Service about the lives of LGBT people in the county back in 2007. So they listened to Harry gently talk about how ordinary gay life was, contrary to popular opinion which seemed to think that gay life was all “one continual sex”.

I also made use of a couple of clips from the huge volume of oral history clips of the StoryCorps project in the USA. I didn’t have a lot of time to navigate through the masses of clips that are on the site, but one I did stumble across which had quite an impact on me was  the testimony of Hector Black, who remembers the murder of his daughter, Patricia Nuckles, by an intruder in her home.

I used three different oral testimonies in an exercise designed to make the students think about the orality of oral history (in Portelli’s words “Oral sources are oral sources“),  and to contrast listening to extracts of oral histories compared to reading the text of transcripts.  For this,  I used an extract of  Delia Green describing her mother’s sweet shop in Northampton during the 1950s, again a part of the British Library Sound Archive Learning Resources;  the testimony of Haydn form the the Living Stories website has been created as part of the Haemophilia and HIV Life History project and has a collection of over 60 interviews; and  finally, the students listened to  the testimony of  Barbara Stimler who experienced and survived Auschwitz, also from British Library’s Voices from the Holocaust .

Whilst bearing in mind I was teaching first-year business undergraduates  with little or no previous knowledge or experience of oral history, I did want to tackle the issues of reliability, subjectivity, narrative and more generally memory in oral history. I knew I couldn’t set Durkheim,  Frisch, Portelli, Halbwachs, Nora, Assman et al as reading material so I wanted to address the topic of memory in a more accessible, engaging way. Ok, I admit I did bombard them with a few quotes in bold type on Powerpoint slides from the above roll-call…

But I also found a piece by the BBC World Service Witness Series which demonstrated engagingly, if  a little one-dimensionally, the concept of memory and ‘contested narratives’. I used the World’s Service’s Witness  programme on the Brixton Riots of 1981,  which is still available on-line and as a podcast. In the programme,  the ‘story’ of the riots is told through two, contrasting testimonies from “witnesses” to the riots: a young black ‘rioter’ and a young white policeman. The clip, which at nine minutes long makes a nice addition to a long lecture for students to sit back comfortably and just listen, seemed to work really well to make the students begin to think about some of the issues  that might be involved in oral history and remembering.

I was aware that my audio clips are rather “British-/Euro-/Western/Caucasian-centric” and if I  deliver this type of introduction to oral history again, I’ll make an effort to find oral history clips drawn from a wider geographical horizon.

And, well, the students seem keen so far, but how that will last into the coming weeks and translate into the interviews they undertake- fingers crossed! I will be continuing to teach and oversee the community oral history course until the start of July 2011. I’ll be sure to report back if any of the my students give up their internships at Credit Suisse and opt for a life as an oral historian…