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H-Net at AHA '97
[Note: this paper will be accompanied by overhead transparency illustration of all cited web sites, plus a print handout giving the URL codes for each of them.]
Twenty-five years ago, as I was voyaging through graduate school, navigating its many, many challenges, and dreaming about the day in which I just might get an honest-to-god, paying job, oral history wasn't even on my radar screen. I'd heard of it, but nobody I knew seemed to be doing it, or even using its results as serious scholarly resources. And certainly none of my professors ever suggested that oral history might be something that I should be learning to use in my own classroom. Well, today times are changing, and increasing numbers of people like me are no longer ignoring oral history, but instead are working, in various ways and at various levels, to incorporate it into everyday history teaching.
So just how have the times changed, in ways that make oral history a common tool we might all want to be able to use, at least a little, in our teaching? For me, much of my interest has grown out of my enthusiasm for social and especially women's his tory, which brings with it a much greater concern for the details of the lives of "ordinary" people. Then, too, technology has simply made recording interviews a great deal easier, with smaller, better, cheaper machines and microphones. Even transcription, although still a chore, is eased thanks to the word processor. It is a kind of research that I very much enjoy doing, and one that I can do near to home, cutting down on long, costly research trips to distant archives. It is also a kind of activity that often connects me both to individual community members and community schoolteachers, producing the sort of good public relations that tends to win me fairly generous support from my home institution. And finally but also most importantly, when properly taught, it is an activity that can greatly excite and motivate students, drawing them out of more passive learning roles, and into the world of active historical research.
But if oral history is worth doing, doesn't it also call for a large committment of time before it can be done reputably? Well, certainly like any skill or field, it is something we as professionals should not do or teach without adequate preparation. But, and this is of course the basic point of this presentation, the internet and especially a number of world wide web sites now make such an endeavor distinctly easier. Six or seven years ago, when I first came to want to do oral history, none those resources were yet available - or certainly not to me. So I did the traditional, established thing. I went over to our library and read the skimpy collection of (rather dated) books on our shelves. I then drove around consulting with some friendly area experts, and based on their advice wrote up and got a grant to buy needed recording and transcribing equipment. I then consulted some more, and finally went out and started actually collecting histories. I'm happy to report that even done the old-fashioned way, this whole adventure turned out fine. At a basic level, good history is good history; a well-trained historian will need some time and effort to do and teach good oral history, but this is not an unmanageably time-consuming skill to acquire (at a basic level), especially with the help of the many internet resources now available.
So, to actually get down to my announced topic: what kinds of resources are available, in what form, where on the internet. And what isn't available (at least yet), and of what problems should one be wary?
As of December, 1996, my usual web starting place is the Michigan
Oral History Association website [http://atl46.atl.msu.edu/moha.html].
Right now its top page is somewhat frustrating, since many of its web
connection buttons, when clicked, yield only an "under construction"
screen. Nevertheless one of those buttons listed, "Oral History Links,"
when clicked does work, and leads to an invaluable section entitled "Oral
History Internet Resources,"
The "Resources" list is not only comprehensive, it is also usefully
organized under a number of helpful headings, so that one can go directly
either to various oral history "how-to" guides or bibliographies of
recommended print works, or to information on internet discussion lists,
on workshops and conferences or on existing projects, subdivided by
subject area. Right now I am using various links from the list's "Oral
History Resources for Teachers"
Since the variety of resources to be discovered, through all the interlinked websites on these lists, is almost infinite, the only way to get any accurate sense of the whole spectrum of available resources is each interested person to put in some significant time clicking from one resource to another, pausing to insert an electronic "bookmark" at all promising pathways. How one uses these is of course another whole topic. So far, given the fact that most people have at best only limited access to the live internet, I am currently still using it mostly as a resource from which I pull individual items, which I then print out for redistribution. But where possible I also suggest that interested individuals go on-line themselves, and so am already developing some recommended direct contact web visits and activities.
In light this complexity, what I want to do here is simply to describe some of the kinds of resources that I am currently finding most useful, citing a couple of examples of each. Let me start with the topic of "How-to" handouts. One of the first things I look for, on every new site I visit, is any and all versions of "How-to" handouts for oral history. For a variety of reasons I often can't or don't want to ask my students to buy a whole book on oral history; and very often (especially in workshops or when consulting with a local group, but also increasingly with regularly-enrolled college students) it is hard to get interested people to go sit in the library and read reserve readings. In these circumstances, the web's many different lengths and levels of "How-to" essays are tremendously useful. Many are offered freely for academic redistribution, and so can be printed out, copied and then either given out free of charge or put into course packs to be sold (for copying costs).
Indiana University's Oral History Research Center [http://www.indiana.edu/~ohrc/] offers a six-page "Oral History Techniques" guide that I've used as the basis of individual training for some of the individual students who've done projects for me using oral history interviews. This particular guide is especially useful because embedded within its web pages are links to the two documents Indiana suggests for obtaining informed consent for the interview, and then securing a deed of gift for all rights to the results of that interview. Informed consent and use-permissions are, of course, absolutely crucial for all oral history endeavors. UC Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office website offers two very useful shorter "How-to" guides. "Tips for Interviewers" [http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/BANC/RO HO/rohotips.html] is three pages long, while their "One- Minute Guide to Oral History" [http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/BANC/ROHO/1minute.html] manages, a promised, to compress everything into only one page. I have a folder of printouts (of these and others), for use or consultation when appropriate.
Since I'm actively expanding the kinds of oral overviews I teach and
the active projects I supervise, I'm always interested in how the experts
structure their classes. Two very useful ones are now provided on line by
Marjorie McLellan of Miami Unive rsity of Ohio, and can be found either
MU's Oral History [http://miavx1.muohio.edu/~oralHxCWIS/mu.html] or its
Miami Valley Cultural Heritage Project
There are also a number of sites with materials designed specifically for younger students. The "Teaching Resources" list, mentioned above, has links to a number of general ones. But there are also a good selection of much more focused ones, to be found scattered all over the web. Just recently I went looking to see what is available for the Depression, hoping to incorporate some of it into the materials I'm gathering for this summer's planned schoolteachers' summer seminar on 1930s Kansas history.
One very effective site, that I definitely plan to include, is offered by the Michigan Historical Museum [http://www.sos.state.mi.us/history/history.html] site, which under its "Teacher's Stuff" has teacher's materials and activities on the Great Depression. Among these is an "What Was Life Like During the Great Depression?" oral history activity module, including suggested background notes, objectives, sample interview questions, and also some broader interpretative questions to guide further student investigation and discussion. The site also provides a number of related segments which teachers might use for background about the era. Many of these can be found on a page headed "The Depression News" with links to subpages on New Deal relief programs, 1930s bungalow living, and era sit-down strikes.
For a variety of reasons, I like to be able to show my students, and then discuss with them, the texts of some sample completed interviews. While there are not yet a great variety of good examples available on the web, some can be found. Again, the Miami Valley Cultural Heritage Project site is useful, offering successful college-student-level interviews, including some on depression and World War II era memories [http://www.muohio.edu/~oralHxCWIS/hard_times. html]. Not surprisingly, the Library of Congress's excellent American Memory Project site [http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/amemhome.html] offers a rich array of documents from earlier oral interviews. For my current interest in the 1930s, I am presently especially interested in the project's "Life History Manuscripts" section, which contains a number of histories written up, 1936-1940, as part of the Folklore Project of the WPA Federal Writers.
But even these, generally very valuable, interviews do bring up a problem with the great variability among interview results now available in websites. Many are written up in a popularized form, omitting all interviewer questions, with the result that they leave readers ignorant of what and how much of a role that interviewer played in shaping the resulting narrative. I am therefore still leaing most heavily on my favorite, reliably-complete, print interview transcripts for current teaching examples. But I also intend, if anything, to expand future discussion of the great variation of quality and style of web-available interviews. It is very important that we alert all those interested in oral history to the scholarly problems involved with using any source in which the full transcript of an interview is in any way altered, and especially if this alteration has been done without making that fact crystal clear to all who see the final product.
The mention of transcripts then brings up another issue for which the web offers some advice and solutions: that of transcription itself. A number of web (and, of course, printed) "how-to" guides discuss the question of whether and how all i nterviews must be fully transcribed in order to be useful. So far, I require full transcripts whenever my students do interviews that are to count as part of the body of primary documents on which their senior theses must be based. Other than that I still waver, valuing the complete written transcript, but also recognizing competing issues of student time and access to usable equipment. In something of an aside to this topic, since perhaps only a few students are likely to want to pay the required amount, I was nevertheless recently interested, to run into the University of Connecticut's Center for Oral History [http://www.ucc.ucon.edu/!cohadm01/sampform.html] website's "Tapescribe" service, which will arrange professional level tape transcriptions at $3.00 a page for all those interested in their service. And certainly "Where can I get it transcribed" is a question that comes up fairly often among those in the community with an interested in doing oral histories. The Tapescribe site not only offers one place that will do this job; it also offers a model of what is involved, plus a price standard against which to compare local (or internet-available) typing prices.
The mention of transcripts then brings up another issue for which the web offers some advice and solutions: that of transcription itself. A number of web (and, of course, printed) "how-to" guides discuss the question of whether and how all i nterviews must be fully transcribed in order to be useful. So far, I require full transcripts whenever my students do interviews that are to count as part of the body of primary documents on which their senior theses must be based. Other than that I still waver, valuing the complete written transcript, but also recognizing competing issues of student time and access to usable equipment. In something of an aside to this topic, since perhaps only a few students are likely to want to pay the required amount, I was nevertheless recently interested, to run into the University of Connecticut's Center for Oral History [http://www.ucc.ucon.edu/!cohadm01/sampform.html] website's "Tapescribe" service, which will arrange professional level tape transcriptions at $3.00 a page for all those interested in their service. "Where can I get it transcribed" is a question that comes up often The mention of transcripts then brings up another issue for which the web offers some advice and solutions: that of transcription itself. A number of web (and, of course, printed) "how-to" guides discuss the question of whether and how all i nterviews must be fully transcribed in order to be useful. So far, I require full transcripts whenever my students do interviews that are to count as part of the body of primary documents on which their senior theses must be based. Other than that I still waver, valuing the complete written transcript, but also recognizing competing issues of student time and access to usable equipment. In something of an aside to this topic, since perhaps only a few students are likely to want to pay the required amount, I was nevertheless recently interested, to run into the University of Connecticut's Center for Oral History [http://www.ucc.ucon.edu/!cohadm01/sampform.html] website's "Tapescribe" service, which will arrange professional level tape transcriptions at $3.00 a page for all those interested in their service. "Where can I get it transcribed" is a question that comes up fairly often, especially in community oral history projects. The "Tapescribe" cite definitely offers one resource; and also serves as a standard of what should be involved in such a service, and what prices might be charged.
This then brings me to discussion of another sort of internet resource which can be of great help on all "no one-size-fits-all" sort of problems such as that full transcription vs. calendaring. This is the internet discussion list. For all interested, try OHA-L, the Oral History Association's internet discussion list [for information, write "review OHA-L" in body of email to: email@example.com]. There is a great deal to be learned just by "lurking" there, that is, silently reading all of the messages exchanged. I've also gotten a lot of very good, generous answers to specific queries both that I've sent to the list as a whole, and more quietly to individual list members. There is also an Oral Traditions Discussion List [write "review ORTRAD-L" in body of email to: firstname.lastname@example.org]. More occasionally various H-Net lists also discuss oral history topics; recently H-Survey has had several good discussions on how its members use oral history in the classroom.
List exchanges, for example, have given me all sorts of advice on video-taped interviews (discourage them in most cases), and exactly what it is about cheap 60-minute audio tapes that makes them bad buys (they aren't screwed together, so can't be taken apart and repaired if anything goes wrong after recording). On the topic of transcribing, a number of email exchanges have given me all sorts of common sense advice. Among suggestions received: if your department has a few foot-pedal, variable-speed transcribers available, put them on reserve in the library to be available for student reservations and limited check-out (and do the same with recorders and external microphones). If you are requiring a full-length interview as part of a short oral history segment, require full-transcription for a part of the interview, and then accept a detailed calendar for the rest. And, to return to the query of "Where can I get it transcribed," while OHA-L doesn't welcome posted ads *from* transcribers, it is a good place to which subscribers *seeking* transcribers (who would then make contact in private, off-list messages).
Discussion lists are also very valuable for alerting subscribers to problems of which they might not otherwise be aware. Several times recently, for example, list threads have discussed the problems some faculty have when oral interviews are judged to fall under their institution's often complex and time-consuming human subjects research restrictions. In terms of this particular problem, list discussions helped not only by alerting relative newcomers to the problem, but also suggested a number of stratagies for getting a separate, less intrusive status for established, ongoing student oral history interview projects. And finally, the discussion list form is also something that we ourselves can use more directly. Although we have not yet done so, down the road I hope to get my own department's History Forum students participating in an in-class email discussion list, with oral history problems and experiences very definitely being on of the topics to be required.
Clearly, web and internet resources are not the answer to all problems surrounding the teaching of oral (or any other kind of) history. Visits to a few web sites won't, all alone, come even close to qualifying even the best-trained historian to go out and teach oral history well. Clearly the print world still offers the most complete and academically-advanced sources both on how to do oral history, and on what it should look like when it is done. But for the day to day details of doing and teaching oral history, the virtual world has a lot to offer. The web resources that I've just describe do make very clear what is involved in teaching oral history to oneself and then to ones students. And then they can make that job, when undertaken, significantly more easily, and in some ways more effectively, done.
And this is at bottom perhaps *the* essential importance of internet resources to teaching of all sorts and at all levels. Those of us lucky enough to have established jobs in this difficult era of higher education, certainly have enough to do without seeking out new tasks. If we are doing our jobs right we must balance the all the competing obligations of scholarship, teaching and service: do research; structure, prepare for and teach classes; advise students; serve on endless committees; and more. And new colleagues and job-seekers face even greater time crunches. Lucky new-job holders now face the task of actually presenting a course in that quite unfamiliar area for which they were so eager to get a chance to teach. Adjuncts and "freeway flyers" hurry from place to place, underpaid and fragmented, teaching wildly varied courses.
But change is upon all of us. The new technologies are here to stay, changing how we communicate, and in what form we get and produce increasing varieties of materials, whether print documents or the new multimedia. For probably most of us, students are also different: perhaps less or at least differently prepared; certainly more varied in who they are, what their lives are like, and what they want from us. And increasingly, in response to the changing world, our own institutions are asking us to change, to connect more to the tax-base communities surrounding us, to engage students in new ways - and oh yes, do be sure to keep up high standards and convey an essential, unchanging love of learning.
In the midst of all of this, the new technology can be just one more burden; complex, expensive, frustrating to learn, and ever-changing. But, it also offers real compensations. Of course there is more mylar than gold on the world wide web, just as there is in the total output of world publishing. As trained professionals, however, armed with search engines, exit buttons and delete keys, and backed with judgment and experience, this really shouldn't be much of a problem. There are increasing numbers and varieties of treasures out there, and they do repay wise use. Participation in discussion lists can bring all sorts of new contacts and fruitful collaboration opportunities (including, eventually, unversity-based websites of many sorts). New kinds of teaching techniques, topics and resources really do reach new kinds of students, empowering them to start doing the excellent kind of work which is surely a goal toward which all of us are striving. For oral history, and indeed for most kinds of teaching, I recommend the "new-tech" resources as teaching allies well worth the effort acquiring.