Queens College English 395W (5134) Spring 2012


Theory and Practice of Oral History

English 395W (5134) Spring 2012

Professors Bette S. Weidman and Ben Alexander

Oral History is the practice of recording interviews with narrators who wish to preserve significant life experience. In this class we will prepare ourselves to be effective interviewers by learning research methods, developing productive questions, indexing our work with finding aids to make it searchable, and connecting individual interviews to larger projects. We will look at academic and popular models of oral history and frame our hands-on approach with readings about the philosophy and politics of oral history work, the art and science of memory, legalities associated with interview preservation and dissemination, the contribution of new technologies and the development of archives. Our own practice interviews will be eligible for inclusion in the Queens Memory Project, a digital archive established in the Rosenthal Library of Queens College.

Oral History has been present in the American academy since 1945 when the historian Allan Nevins founded the Oral History Office at Columbia University. In the last fifty years it has spread to college libraries and historical societies throughout the country. Throughout this period there has been an international presence with some philosophical differences influential to contemporary American oral history practice. More recently the populist approach to oral history has been developed by organizations like StoryCorps, a project in which relatives or friends are empowered to interview each other in recording booths outfitted with professional recording equipment and trained facilitators. All recordings are deposited at the Library of Congress as well as in local repositories such as Queens Library so they are both preserved and freely accessible to the public. Excerpts from these interviews are broadcast on National Public Radio and on the StoryCorps website. Thus oral history has loosened the bonds of the university and become a popular art form.

A special collaboration between the Cultural Studies concentration of the English Department, The American Studies Program, and the Archival Certification Program of the Library and Information Studies Graduate School, the curriculum for this course has been developed through a federal grant from the Queens College Asian American Center. This course is uniquely positioned between academic and popular oral history, as the Queens Memory Project has established a partnership with StoryCorps. This may be the only oral history course in the country in which a student’s work could be entered into the permanent collections of a massive public library system like Queens Library alongside StoryCorps interviews and interviews conducted by professional folklorists documenting life in New York City.

As each student will produce three practice interviews which will be audited and critiqued by the instructor, enrollment will be limited to fifteen students and will include undergraduates from a variety of disciplines and graduate students in Library and Information Studies. Students who successfully complete this course will receive a detailed letter affirming their readiness to participate in professionally established oral history projects. This credential may provide an advantage in applying for jobs in teaching, in local history societies, in libraries and in government.