American Lives, American History:

Oral History and the Understanding of Social Change

Richard Cándida Smith Office hours by appointment

3104 Dwinelle 489 Bancroft Library

Tu 2-4 642-7395


This course provides an introduction to oral history as a research method generating primary sources with distinctive information about the past. Primary and secondary readings will help students explore the potential of oral history interviews to augment historical understanding, with focus on how social change marks the lives of those it touches. We will examine the ways in which memory and identity are continually changing responses to historic events and processes that are always simultaneously both personal and collective. Students will receive training in preparation, conduct, and analysis of interviews. Students will conduct a short interview for the course and write a brief analysis of what they learned and what the record might contribute to historical understanding of the U.S. Interviews for the course can be done in preparation for the senior thesis, but students may also choose to participate in one of several ongoing interview projects organized by the Regional Oral History Office on campus. ROHO projects that will be discussed in class include documentation of the home front in Richmond during World War II and how wartime experiences affected postwar life; Latino leadership and community contexts; California music and musicians; science and national security on the Berkeley campus during the Cold War.

Books assigned:

Hamilton Holt, The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans As Told By Themselves

Studs Terkel, My American Century

Gloria Emerson, Winners and Losers

Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past

Valerie Yow, Recording Oral History

There is also a course pack

Class schedule

Jan 22 – Introductions

Students will introduce each other, explaining interest in oral history/life stories and any previous experience they have. This is followed by a discussion of the course, readings, and assignments.

Jan 29 – Life stories in the development of history, journalism, and the social sciences

Readings: Thompson, The Voice of the Past, chapters 1 and 2

Holt, The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans

Some study questions on Thompson: What is the historical background behind the practice of interviewing people about their experience? When did it begin and why? How and to whom have oral sources been an important source of information about the past? What are the most important reasons for the return to oral sources in the twentieth century?

Some study questions on Holt: What do Holt’s collected stories tell us about family life, work, migration, education, racial and ethnic relations, religion, and politics at the beginning of the twentieth century? What stories seemed to reveal the most about American life in 1906? Did anything in particular surprise you? What aspects of these accounts did you find hard to believe? What do you think was Holt’s motivation in presenting these stories? What might have been the motivations of his informants? Which stories seemed like oral reminiscence and which seemed more literary?

Feb 5 – Life stories and reinterpreting the past

This week you should come to the office of the Regional Oral History Office on the fourth floor of the Bancroft Library. If I’m around, come and talk to me, but if not, staff in the office will be happy to help you. What we will try to do is direct you to interviews that deal with subjects of particular interest to you. What I want you to do is browse through the interviews that ROHO has done, thinking about what’s going on between the interviewer and the narrator and what you are learning about an aspect of the past in California. Plan on spending a couple of hours and reading maybe a hundred or so pages. If something really hooks your interest, feel free to stay longer. If the interviewer is around, you might talk to her or him about the volumes you’ve looked at.

Study questions: How might interviews change what historians have written? What can we learn from firsthand accounts that is different? How does the information in interviews relate to what we can learn from other sources?

Written assignment: Turn in a paragraph or two on interview areas you would like to work on if it were possible. Just tell me what’s catching your attention and why you think it would be interesting to learn more using oral interviews.

Feb 12 — National memory and generational identity

Readings: Terkel, My American Century, 83-146, 161-218, 301-377

Thompson, chapter 3

ROHO oral history transcripts on the World War II homefront experience in Richmond, California, (available in ROHO office)

In course pack: Frisch, "Oral History and Hard Times"

Also check out some of the following web sites offering interviews usually juxtaposed with other primary sources:

We will discuss how Terkel weaves together interviews to propose images of a shared national experience that might be very different from what other historians propose. We will compare Terkel’s interviews with ROHO interviews and explore how interviewer and project goals shape interview process and outcome.

Study questions: How does Terkel’s use of interviews to make visible underlying commonalties nonetheless remain cognizant of difference based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, income education? How much of what his informants tell us is trustworthy? What other sources would you want to examine to create a more complex picture of the United States between 1930 and 1970? Did Terkel do anything to help us assess the relative accuracy of what he presents? Compare with ROHO interviews you have read as well as with interviews you have found on the web. Can you frame the research questions driving the interviews you have looked at so far? How successful have interviewers been in capturing a record of historical experience that actually answers and, with luck, amplifies the questions researchers start out with.

Feb 19 — Community histories: connecting the local and the national

This week, we will discuss two projects that are underway in the Regional Oral History Office with the researcher/interviewers on staff who are involved in those projects. These are projects where you might participate as an apprentice interviewer. We will focus on the Rosie the Riveter Homefront project and the West Marin Agricultural Communities project.

Readings: Thompson, chapters 4 and 6

Yow, chapters 1 and 6

In course pack: Bunch-Lyons, "No Promised Land"; Gluck, "Interlude or Change"

Feb 26 — The dynamics of the interview

Reading: Thompson, chapters 5 and 7, also "A Life Story Interview Guide"

Yow, chapters 2 and 3

Today we will discuss the interview as an interactive relationship and practice some of the key techniques in successful interviewing. We will also consider the criteria for choosing a suitable subject for the interview.

Assignment for the coming week: tape a practice interview with family member or friend.

Mar 5 — More on the dynamics of interviewing

Reading: In course pack: Yow, "Do I Like Them Too Much?"; Morissey, "The Two-Sentence Format as an Interviewing Technique"; Kikumura, "Family Life Histories"; Anderson and Jack, "Learning to Listen"

Bring your practice interviews to class with a short section cued to play. We will discuss what happened and how to make interviews more effective.

Mar 12 — Interviewing artists and performers, capturing the gesture beyond the words

This week we will discuss interviews with artists, architects, dancers, and performers. How can the interview help reconstruct the creative process? How can interviews contribute to understanding works that no longer exist? We will look at videotaped interviews and strategies for capturing how artists see their work and occupy space. We will also think about how what we learn from interviews in the arts can broaden our understanding of gesture and space in oral history narration more generally. Can we learn more about the past if we go beyond the words interviewees use to tell their stories?

Readings: In course pack: Snyder, "Hope…Teach, Yaknowhati’msayin’"; Friedman, "Muscle Memory"; Pitt, "Actions Speak Louder Than Words"; and Clark, "Review of Susan Pitt"

Your second written assignment is due today. Working with two or more oral history transcripts in the ROHO office, analyze the different strategies that the interviewers used. What worked in your opinion and what didn’t work? How did the interviewers change their tack when a line of questioning did not seem to be productive? How does interviewing strategy relate to the personality of the informant, the research preparation of the interviewer, and the relationship that informant and interviewer develop? These are complete transcripts, typical of the material one has at the end of a successful interview. Length: 5 pages.

Mar 19 — Planning projects and the individual interviews

This week we will review the interview projects each of you has undertaken and workshop what needs to be done to prepare for the interview.


Apr 2 — Recalling disaster

Reading: Emerson, Winners and Losers

In course pack: Portelli, "The Death of Luigi Trastulli"; Riesman, "Making Sense of Marital Violence"; Baker, "Firefighters Oppose a Plan to Record Their Memories of Sept. 11"; Brinker, "Oral History and the Vietnam War"

ROHO interviews related to the Vietnam War (available in the ROHO office)

A barrier to assessing the personal and subjective component of historical change is the difficulty many people have speaking about painful episodes in their lives. Portelli shows how communities actively construct their own histories in an ongoing effort to maintain a sense of continuity and persistence. Riesman’s essay on interviews with battered wives provides an example about how getting women to narrate events that custom previously had required be silenced created a new community effectively able to lobby for legislative reform. What might the insights we can gain from Portelli and Riesman have to offer for Emerson’s narrative of the Vietnam War experience? What new do Emerson’s interviews bring to an understanding of the war and its effects on Americans, Vietnamese, and others around the world? What other information would you like to know and how would you go about getting it? Do the ROHO interviews provide a different picture than Emerson? If so, in what ways? Once again, check out the web sites for the resources they offer for deeper understanding of this period.

Apr 9 — Community and personal ethics; legal issues

Reading: Yow, chapter 4 and appendices A, B, and F

We will look at the ethical problems of oral history, from power in the interview to the use of testimony, and the protection of informants at the point of publication. We will explore the range of uses of oral history and forms of ‘giving back,’ from local community projects and reminiscence work to radio and television.

Interview plan and research bibliography due in class today. Briefly assess what scholars have said about the subject you’re exploring and project your expectations for what your interview might add.

Apr 16 — Oral history and difference

How do age, gender, race, and other differences in background and social situation affect the interview relationship? Can those differences be made productive in a way that helps the informant elaborate on perspectives and information that s/he cannot assume the interviewer already knows? Conversely what are common problems if the interviewer and interviewee have a lot in common? What can be done to help voice unspoken assumptions?

Readings: Yow, chapter 5

In course pack: Borland, "That’s Not What I Said"; Salazar, "A Third World Woman’s Text"; Schwalbe and Wolkomir, "Interviewing Men"; Reinharz and Chase, "Interviewing Women"; Kong, Mahoney, and Plummer, "Queering the Interview"; Dunbar, Rodriguez, and Parker, "Race, Subjectivity, and the Interview Process"

Apr 23 — Interpretation or learning to listen

Readings: Thompson, chapters 8 and 9

In course pack: Cándida Smith, introduction and chapter 7 from Utopia and Dissent; Cándida Smith, "Analytic Strategies for Oral History Interviews"; Lummis, "Structure and Validity in Oral Evidence"

A completed interview is only one step in a longer and larger process of thinking about the past, what happened, and how crises, dilemmas, and accomplishments of previous generations continue to influence those who followed. Oral history in a reconstructive mode poses particular methodological problems. We will discuss the retrospective nature of oral testimony and issues of representativeness, as well as questions about how the "data" can be collated in preparation for analysis.

Study questions: What is "emplotment"? Are the structures of personal or community stories always clearly articulated in personal narratives? If not, what clues do interviews provide that can help historians reconstruct them? What is a narrative symbol and what is a narrative motif? How are symbols and motifs used to synthesize past events into an e experience of the past that can be shared? What do recurrent motifs tells us about the relationship of personal and collective experience? How might narrative analysis allow for exploring the relationship of family life and work, identity and subjectivity, moral values and political choice?

Apr 30 — Preparing interviews for publication

Transcripts make it easy to review interviews quickly, but we will consider what is lost in the transcription process and methods developed to convey oral forms of communication in printed format.

Readings: Yow, chapter 9

In course pack: Wilmsen, "For the Record"; Poland, "Transcription Quality"; Frisch, "Preparing Interview Transcripts for Documentary Publication"

Review transcripts already looked at during the course in the assigned readings, in ROHO interviews, as well as interviews on the web. Identity some of the differences in style of presentation and how they relate to the arguments made by the authors of this week’s readings.

Study questions: What are some of the most important differences between spoken and written language? Identify five different types of "accuracy" possible in a transcript. How does each type of accuracy affect presentation of the interview conversation in printed form? What are the arguments in favor of only lightly editing an interview? What are the arguments for lots of editing? What are the strongest arguments against transcribing at all? How have you decided to present your interviews to readers? What will be the relationship of the interview text to your own narrative and argument?

May 7 and 14 — Oral reports on interviews and what these personal narratives offer that deepens historical understanding of recent U.S., Portuguese, Brazilian, or Lusophone history.

Term paper: Discuss the interview you conducted and place the informant’s responses to your questions in the context of a larger historical question. After framing the larger question and the reasons for selecting the informant, assess what his or her account reveals about the interaction between personal life and social structure. What biases were present in the account, in particular what has been silenced? How has the interviewee expressed an interpretation of the past and its meaning for the present? To what degree is this an individual opinion and to what degree is the account shaped by the communities within which the person has lived and worked? What arguments does the informant rely on and how have logic, evidence, and emotion combined to form a conviction? What did you learn from the interview and is there something that historians had better pay attention to if they want to understand the development of American society in the twentieth century? Length: 12 pages maximum.

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