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Sample Oral History Essay

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Oral History Term Paper

Introduction and Requirements

An oral history term paper of 10-15 pages is due in discussion section no later than Week 14, Dec 3. Progress reports on term papers are due on Weeks 9, 11 & 12. Students should use course themes to analyze change over time in the family, work, and community/political history of an American woman born before 1960. Evidence from the oral interview should be supplemented by at least 2 secondary sources and 2 printed primary sources. The following steps are recommended for the completion of this project.


Getting Started

    -- Identify a subject who who was born before 1960. (Subject does not need to be born in the US).

    -- Interview the subject about change over time in her family, work, and community/political history.

    -- You might find the following questions helpful.

    Family Facts

    Is she married?
    At what age?
    Does she have any children?
    How old was she when they were born?
    Has she been divorced?
    If so, has she ever remarried?

    Interpretative questions:

    • How did her family life resemble or differ from that of her mother's?
    • How does she account for these similarities and/or differences?
    • What social changes have affected her family life?
    • How would she describe the relationship between her family and her work experience?
    • How has that relationship changed?
    • How would she describe the relationship between her family and her community/political experience?
    • How has that relationship changed over time?

    Work Facts

    • What jobs has she held or career pursued?
    • At what ages has she participated in the paid labor force?


    • How has her working life resembled or differed from that of her mother?
    • How does she account for these similarities or differences?
    • What social changes have affected her working life?
    • How would she describe the relationship between her work and her community/political life?
    • How has that relationship changed?

    Community/Political Facts

    • What community/political organizations has she supported?
    • In what ways and at what ages?


    • How has her community/political life resembled or differed from that of her mother?
    • How does she account for these similarities or differences?
    • What social changes have affected her community/political life?


The Interview Process

  • Be imaginative.
  • Create your own questions.
  • Keep your focus on questions about change over time.
  • You might want to interview your subject more than once.
  • You do not need to tape the interview(s), but it might be helpful to do so.
  • If you do tape the interview(s), it might be helpful for you to transcribe some of the best quotations.


The Writing Process

  • In writing your paper, don't just repeat the answers to your questions.
  • Rather, integrate the answers/ stories to create an historical interpretation of change over time.
  • In what ways has your subject connected with the themes of the course?
  • How does her life illuminate change over time in the lives of American women in the twentieth century?


Outline Your Paper

  • Use the outline to identify your interpretive themes.
  • Use the outline to chart your chonological view of change over time.
  • Use the outline to summarize your introduction and conclusion.


Supplemental Sources

These can be secondary or primary.

  • You might use course readings (either primary and secondary) to support specific points in your essay.
  • You might use other secondary or primary sources to support specific points in your essay that were not raised in the course reading.
  • You may also decide to support your essay with primary sources that pertain to your subject (newspapers, for example, or photocopies of photographs.)
  • Articles in _The New York Times_ make excellent primary sources. For the archive of the New York Times, go to the Binghamton library home page, go to "Virtual Reference Section," go to "news," (login with your id if you are off campus), go to "The Historical New York TImes," search for the topics and dates that you request.



Photos make a nice addition to your paper. Add photoduplicated copies and include a caption that identifies the name, place, and date of the subject(s). If you don't know the exact place or date you might estimate it as "probably ...." and "around 19XX."


Bartle Library Special Collections

For the past few years, the Special Collections division of Bartle Library has been collecting the oral histories generated in History 266, placing them in a special collection titled "Oral Histories of New York Women." Students are encouraged (but not required) to donate a copy of their oral history paper to this archive. Students who donate a copy of their histories to this archive retain full copyright of the material. No quotes can be printed from papers without your permission.


Return to Oral History Project

Depending on the subject and performance goals of your class, there are many different types of final project that can be assigned. The following is just a small sample of possibilities.

    Additional ideas for interviews:
  • Natives of your state or city
  • People who experienced the 1960s
  • People who served in WWII or Vietnam War
  • Professionals whose jobs the student finds interesting to explore (firefighter, artist, doctor, etc.)
  • Community elders from a different culture
  • A fellow student in the school who is a stranger
  • Students at a Sunday school of a different religion
    Final Projects ideas based on class subjects:
  • Language Arts – essay, poem, short story, script
  • Social Studies – essay, historical scene
  • Performing Arts – play, monologue
  • Practical Arts – painting, collage, sculpture, photo essay
  • Media Arts – video, photography
  • Computer Literacy – Web site Sample Assignment

Sample Assignments
Mary Miller, a Social Studies teacher at Palms Middle School in Los Angeles, California, taught the Tell Me Your Stories curriculum to her honors class. Here is the Oral History Project handout in a MS Word file format [size:38K].

Heritage is a musical conceived and compiled by Ali Mandelbaum, drama and music teacher. Each year, the musical is written, created, and acted by students and is based on the past memories of their ancestors. Each student researches his/her family tree and chooses an ancestor to portray in the final project. They create original scenes, monologues, and songs building on what all these real characters have in common. Some of the past themes were:

  • Dairy food – chefs, owners of farms
  • Medical professionals – Doctors, nurses
  • Innovators – inventors, store owners, etc.
  • Entertainers
  • People involved in wars
  • Religious people

Sample Web Projects
Here is a list of Web sites with great examples of a wide range of projects done by students, universities, historical societies, and others.

The Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley has an extensive catalogue of oral histories.

Center for Life Stories Preservation provides easy, creative ways for the whole family to capture and share stories.

Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archives is a collection of oral histories taken from people who experienced the struggle for civil rights in the state of Mississippi. Additionally there are audio clips from some of the interviews.

East Midlands Oral History Archives contains interesting links to projects, created by students and adults, resulting from the gathering of oral histories in their community.

The Heritage Education Commission was developed for the purpose of creating, initiating, and conducting programs and projects which aid in the preservation or restoration of the cultural in the region of Minnesota State University Moorhead. Their vast collection includes a variety of categories from business to arts to law enforcement.

History Matters provides examples of projects that history students, from high school to graduate school, have done on the Internet. Projects range from oral histories or prose with Web links to visual essays or exhibits.

The Iowa Women Artists Oral History Project records and preserves the voices of women visual artists in Iowa reflecting on their lives and their artwork.

Rocky Gap High School Oral History and Technology Project is a unique blend of tradition and technology. Technology is the lure to bring students to their community history through the stories of its citizens. However, it is these stories that give content for the technology to organize, manipulate, and publish. The process gives a student sense of place and thus of himself. The purpose of the site is to help teachers or community members initiate similar projects.

Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II records the personal experiences of the men and women who served on the Home Front and overseas.

Tank Books promotes the self-published book, "Tanks for the Memories" by Aaron Elson. The book chronicles the fear, determination, and humor of veterans of WWII tank battalions. The site contains stories, interviews, poems, and audio of his collection.

Wayland High School History Project is an e-journal created by fifty high school juniors from two United States history classes during the Spring of 2001. Forty additional pupils refined and added to the original site in the Spring of 2002. The students realized that every senior citizen is a walking history book whose life is a small but important component of their national experience. They were aware of the reality that the men and women born in the 1910's and the 1920's are rapidly leaving us and believe that their recollections should be recorded for posterity.

What Did You Do in the War Grandma? contains oral histories of Rhode Island Women during World War II, written by students in the Honors English Program at South Kingstown High School.

The Whole World Was Watching: an oral history of 1968 contains transcripts, audio recordings, and edited stories of a series of interviews conducted by members of the Sophomore Class at SKHS. The class interviewed Rhode Islanders about their recollections of the year 1968. Their stories, which include references to the Vietnam War, the struggle for civil rights, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy as well as many more personal memories are a living history of one of the most tumultuous years in United States history.


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