Documenting History: Oral History Project

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The Oral History Project 

According to historian Henry Luce the Twentieth Century was “The American Century.”  This was a dynamic time in history shaped by the lives and experiences of Americans from different backgrounds that do not receive equal recognition in the history of this period. This project provides students the opportunity to further uncover the “American Century” through interviews with individuals who were actually part of shaping, or witness to, events or periods that form the American experience. Students are required to interview a non-family member about a particular period or event of the American Century or the early years of the twenty-first centruy. This project is an extension of our history studies and not a separate entity of the course. Interviewees have ranged from war veterans, athletes, artists, Civil Rights activists, politicians, and restaurant waitress, to survivors of the Great Depression and the Holocaust. The breadth of interview subjects supports the traditional coverage of each period or event leading to a fuller understanding of American history. 

In order for students to become excited about history, they must see the relevancy of the past to their own lives. Oral history provides such an opportunity as students go into the "field" and, as oral historian Studs Terkel once said, they uncover the "living repositories of our past." Moreover, unlike most of the work done in previous history classes in which projects are often developed for an audience of one--the teacher--and are complete after receiving a grade, the rich archives that your project will become a part of are shared with the larger community through the annual Oral History Night and “published”at www.documentinghistory.org or www.mdch.org.

You must remember throughout this oral history project that, like all historical sources, oral history has its strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, this project draws from a wide range of primary and secondary historical sources to not only ensure historical accuracy but to also ensure the most complete presentation possible. After selecting and receiving written permission for an interview, students will thoroughly research the history surrounding the period or event in a seven-to-ten page research paper converging a minimum of eight primary and secondary sources. Students use their research as a basis for formulating open-ended interview questions that not only focus on gaps in existing primary and secondary sources but also challenge the interviewee to address the complexities surrounding historical events. Each project concludes with analysis of the historical value of the interview, and where it fits into the history of a period or event in American history.