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Oral History Toolkit for College Instructors: Assignments

This guide offers resources and ideas for instructors who want to use oral history projects with their students.

Integrated Group/Individual Assignments

The assignments listed here can be sampled from, extrapolated upon, or used wholesale, and the oral history project could be scaled to a week's worth of work during which students interview their peers or stretched over a whole quarter.

Brainstorming the Project [Learning Objective 2]

Have students bring to class at least two potential oral history projects they would like to pursue.  Students should form groups of no more than four per group.  Students should share their project ideas with each other.  The rest of the group should offer feedback and historical information they might know about their group members’ projects.

Library Information Session [Learning Objective 1]

After students have decided on a project, the instructor should schedule a session with the Library on how to use TCC’s research materials including the Library’s website, collections, and archive.  This session is meant for the class as a whole.

Working Bibliography [Learning Objectives 1-2]

Students should begin to conduct secondary readings.  Have students provide a working bibliography of resources they are consulting for their project.  The number of resources is up to the instructor’s discretion.

Identifying Primary Sources [Learning Objectives 1-2]

Students should provide the instructor with at least one primary source.  Primary sources include TCC’s and UWT’s oral history collection, The News Tribune, TCC’s The Challenge, The Seattle Times, pictures from the era, political posters, and materials from TCC’s archive.  Narrators should not be counted as primary sources for  this assignment.

Group Comments; Locating a Narrator [Learning Objectives 2-3]

Students form the same groups from assignment 4a.  They should share progress made from the first assignment and other group members should again offer feedback.  Students should also identify at least one narrator they want to interview and why this person is relevant to the project.

 Oral History Video Breakdown [Learning Objective 3]

During class, play a 15-minute clip of an oral history from TCC’s archive.  Pause at critical points and explain to students these three major components: 1) Camera/audio angle and clarity; 2) Method of interviewing (interviewer’s voice, dialogue with narrator, and interviewer’s ability to develop questions based on new information revealed during the interview); 3) Language and organization of interview questions. 

For No.3, provide students with the interview questions.  This will allow them to see the respectful, yet probing language of the questions.  They will also be able to see how questions build off from each other and are organized chronologically and thematically.

 Open up a class dialogue with students by asking them if they thought the interview was successful.  What in particular made the interview successful?  Where was it weak?  What could have been done to make the interview stronger?  Did the interviewer do enough research?  How can they tell?  This dialogue can also be used to practice the skill of constructive criticism.

 Depending on class time, this assignment can be handled either in one day or separated into two.

 Drafting Interview Questions [Learning Objectives 2-3]

Students submit a draft of their interview questions based on research and informal conversations with the narrator.  These questions can be evaluated from the same group as assignment 4a and 4e.  Students should be mindful of chronology, themes, and not have assumptions built into the questions.  A minimum of 15 questions is suggested for this assignment.  Note to students that they should have more than 15 questions for the actual interview.

Optionally, instructor could require the draft to be revised after feedback and turned in again.  This would work well as an assessment of growth in the student’s understanding of oral history interviewing.

Mock Interview [Learning Objective 3]

With a student volunteer, conduct a short mock oral history interview in front of the class.  Within this interview ask the following questions:

            i. What is your name?

            ii. When were you born?

            iii. When did you first attend TCC?

            iv. Are you involved in student government?

            v. If the student answers no: Why not?; If the student answers yes:  Why?

            vi. Don’t you want to make a difference?

Stop at question vi and ask the class what occurred here (embedded assumption and judgment of narrator).  Ask students to rephrase a line of questioning that can draw out more information from the narrator regarding their work in student government or any other non-academic activities they are involved in.

Interview [Learning Objective 2-3]

Using the interview questions developed previously and the research conducted at earlier stages, conduct at least a .5 hour audio and/or video recorded oral history interview using the principles and practices observed and discussed previously.

Final Assignments [Learning Objectives 1-3]

There are two different types of final papers that can be assigned.  The first is a reflection paper and the other is a research paper.

 Reflection Paper (4-5 pages) [Learning Objectives 1-3]

This paper should focus on the student’s experiences throughout the project.  The student should address the following themes:

  1. The evolution of the project;
  2. Processes and difficulties in research and question development;
  3. The experience of conducting the interview.  In particular, did the student have to improvise questions?  Why or why not?  What did the student learn about the narrator that wasn’t revealed during preparatory research?; 
  4. New knowledge gained by the student about their topic and history.

Research Paper (8-10 pages) [Learning Objectives 1-3]

The research paper is an argument-driven essay where the student discusses their historical topic using the oral history interview as the main source.  Information from the interview must be complemented by secondary sources.  The secondary sources serve the dual purpose of offering historical context for the narrator’s experiences (operating within history rather than outside of it) and to revise any errors in memory by the narrator.  Both the oral history interview and secondary sources should present a more complex understanding about events in the narrator’s life rather than repeating the interview verbatim.  The research paper should have an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs that support the thesis, conclusion, and works cited.

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