Oral History: An Introduction

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We often think of history as big events—think battles, coronations, explorations—that’s observed impartially, recorded faithfully, and carefully preserved in libraries and universities for later generations. But history is as much about the lives of every day people as so-called great events, and we all can play an important part in preserving our own, and our community’s, history.

And these days, it’s hard not to feel as though we are all in the process of making our own contributions to history.

Over several posts, we’re going to present materials for learning about oral history, great examples of oral history that students can easily access, and methods for incorporating oral histories into the classroom. We’ll even focus in on how students can take their own oral histories and preserve their communities’ stories.

To begin, two organizations doing incredible work in this field.

Storycorps, frequently featured on various NPR programs, has been helping people interview each other since the first story booth in New York City’s Grand Central Station in 2003.

Their mission is simple:

StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.

We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.

The site is beautifully organized, making it easy to find educational materials, locate a story booth and make a reservation to conduct your own interview, or simply listen to a curated selection of stories for the week. Right now the front page is filled with stories about love, and you can take your pick: two immigrant New Yorkers, one from the Dominican Republic, one from Pakistan, discussing how they first met twenty-five years ago while working together at a hotel; a woman who grew up in Georgia in the 1940s telling the story of her love for another woman that she could never fully experience; and two sets of identical twins reminiscing about how they met and fell in love, with each other.

There are also several thematic collections.

One of the things we love most about using Storycorps material in the classroom is the way students react to hearing people describing their own history, in their own voices. Since there are no visuals, listeners can focus in on the language people use and the way they describe their lives. There are few other ways we’ve found to make recent history so vivid.

Voice of Witness is another wonderful place to begin with oral histories. They seek out, record, and “amplify unheard voices” in a series of books that range from stories from a Chicago housing project to undocumented immigrants living in the United States to incarcerated women to survivors of Burma’s military regime.

OUR MISSION

Voice of Witness (VOW) is a non-profit that promotes human rights and dignity by amplifying the voices of people impacted by injustice. Through our oral history book series and education program, we foster a more nuanced, empathy-based understanding of human rights crises.

Our work is driven by a strong belief in the transformative power of the story, for both teller and listener.

OUR HISTORY

Voice of Witness was cofounded by author Dave Eggers, writer & educator Mimi Lok, and physician Lola Vollen. Eggers originated the VOW book series with Vollen in 2005. In 2008, Lok transitioned Voice of Witness to a 501(c)(3) organization and established its education program.

For over ten years, VOW has illuminated human rights crises in the U.S. and globally. Our oral history book series has amplified hundreds of seldom-heard voices, including those of wrongfully convicted Americans, undocumented immigrants, and people in Burma, Zimbabwe, and Colombia.

Our education program serves over 20,000 people annually. Our oral history pedagogy has been used to train a broad range of advocates for human rights and dignity, including educators, writers, journalists, attorneys, and medical doctors.

Take it from an educator; I’ve used VOW material in the community college classroom myself, and I can’t speak too highly of how students respond. And if you’re going to be at AWP this year, check out their panel (and then tell me how it was!):

PANEL: AMPLIFYING UNHEARD VOICES

When/Where: Thursday, February 9th, 2017 from 4:30-5:45 pm in Room 202B, Level Two
Moderator: Dave Eggers
Speakers: Mimi Lok (Executive Director, Voice of Witness), Jennifer Lentfer (Director of Communications, Thousand Currents), Lorena (VOW narrator, Underground America)

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