History to Life":
Oral History, Community Research, and Multiple Levels of Learning
A. Glenn Crothers
In the past three decades, as college pedagogy has come to emphasize
the benefits of cooperative classroom environments and experiential
learning and as more historians study their subject from the bottom
up, focusing their research on traditionally ignored or disempowered
groups, history teaching has increasingly moved away from the top-down
lecture format toward new methods of presenting history. The benefits
of new methodologies are widely recognized. Cooperative classrooms
and experiential learning enable students to engage more fully with
historical materials, to enjoy multiple perspectives on historical
evidence, and, it is hoped, to gain a better understanding of the
past and the process of writing history. In contrast, a parallel
innovation in college teaching--community-based research, or service
learning--has few advocates in the field of history. Service or
community-based learning engages students in meeting local needs
in order to link the classroom and the community and thereby to
create more civic-minded individuals and a more engaged academic
scholarship.1 That historians should have generally ignored
this method is ironic; after all, many historians claim that their
teaching aims to help produce individuals who are highly engaged
in civic and political life. This report, based on my experience
running the Floyd County Oral History Project at Indiana University
Southeast (IUS), demonstrates how service learning benefits pedagogy.
Community-based projects heighten student awareness of the local
impact of broader historical events. Equally important, service
learning increases the opportunities for cooperative and experiential
learning inside and outside the classroom. Finally, service-learning
projects can bring the community together, connecting college students
and senior citizens to foster both the preservation of local history
and a sense of the responsibilities of citizenship.
First, a little background. I initiated the Floyd County Oral
History Project in fall 1998, primarily as a way to engage students enrolled
in survey-level history courses--"The World in the Twentieth Century"
and "U.S. History since 1865"--in the study of history. IUS is
a four-year comprehensive college with an essentially open admissions policy
enrolling approximately six thousand students on its campus in New Albany,
Indiana, on the Ohio River. I wanted students to understand how the broad
historical events described and discussed in textbooks and in class had profoundly
shaped the local community and the lives of its inhabitants. I hoped that
by talking to local people and reflecting upon those conversations in short
papers, class discussion, and presentations, students would come to recognize
the impact of historical events--the human consequences of depression, war,
and ideological conflict in their own communities. History would become immediate,
tangible, and relevant.
The idea of having students talk to members of the community
or (quite often) older members of their families is not new. Many college
professors have used this technique effectively. Unfortunately, such projects
are seldom employed at the survey level and rarely do they go beyond a conversation
and a paper.2 In contrast, I wanted to involve students in my survey-level
courses in making and doing history, to show them how historians use primary
and secondary historical sources to try to understand and interpret the past.
This meant giving students the opportunity to understand how historians move
from evidence to interpretation and involving them in creating a permanent
historical resource for the community. In the academic year 1999-2000, students
completed some ninety interviews with World War II and Korean War veterans
that were edited, bound, and placed in the IUS library and the local county
library. The next year students completed sixty interviews with community
members who had lived through the Great Depression. The resulting transcripts,
generally of high quality, provide an important historical and genealogical
resource for southern Indiana. Equally notable, this community research project
has blossomed into an invaluable pedagogical tool that enables multiple levels
of learning to take place both within the classroom and outside it.
Most students in survey-level classes have no familiarity with
the methodology of oral history. The first task, then, is to provide for
them a mini-workshop that includes an overview of oral history, instructions
about conducting an interview, and an introduction to the subject areas that
will be covered in the interview. In general, the guidelines laid out for
the students in this class follow those established by the Southern Oral History
Program at the University of North Carolina.
A supplementary instructor (SI), a more advanced history major
who has completed the class and transcribed her/his own interview, assists
students and provides a second level of learning. In their tutoring sessions
SIs focus on the oral history project, providing advice and historical context.
The SIs are enthusiastic participants, convincing students of the value of
the interview and offering hesitant students a different (and positive) perspective
on oral history. And the learning is reciprocal. At this second level, the
SIs gain experience training others in oral history techniques and in historical
A third level of learning takes place within the two-member student
teams established as interviewing partnerships. In the early class discussions
of the project I emphasize the need for proper preparation for the interview,
including both adequate research on the subject and the formulation of well-phrased
questions. Here partnership between students can pay great dividends. When
the partnership works, students effectively mentor one another, sharing research
information, collaboratively deciding what questions to ask and how to ask
them, and supporting one another through the interview. The most effective
partnerships--those involving true collaboration--have resulted in the best
interviews. The questions are more probing and more knowledgeable, and the
interviews themselves go more smoothly, benefiting from the presence of two
prepared students. The partnership also makes transcription a less arduous
And the collaboration does not end when the transcription is
completed. Although each student must write a separate short reflective essay,
the partners make a joint fifteen-minute presentation to the class that, like
the paper, requires them to link the interview with the broader historical
themes of the class. Students choose an aspect of the interview they believe
is important and use a variety of forms of presentation--traditional short
lectures, PowerPoint presentations, and, often, collaborative presentations
with the interviewee.
The cooperation of narrators points to a critical fourth arena
of learning: the interaction between students and local people who have experienced
significant historical events firsthand. The interviews enable students to
place individual experience within a historical context, to make connections
between their own community and regional, national, and international events.
Equally important, students become active participants in the creation of
a primary document--a historical text--about some aspect of their local community.
They not only learn about the history of the community but also become actively
involved in preserving that history.
In the process students develop a keen appreciation of the importance
of studying history and of the ways their own community was shaped by historical
events they might hitherto have considered distant and insignificant. Southern
Indiana and Kentucky, students learn, were dramatically impacted by the New
Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt, particularly during the 1937 Ohio
River flood, though they also learn that local farm families often resorted
to strategies of self-sufficiency to survive the worst effects of depression.
Interviewees described the enormous changes the military buildup of World
War II had on the region, ending the depression and enabling many women who
had never worked outside the home to enter local ammunition and boat factories
and to develop a new sense of independence. After interviewing World War
II and Korean War veterans, students no longer view Pearl Harbor, Normandy,
Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, and Inchon as distant locations on a map but as places
where young Americans like themselves fought and died in miserable conditions
and often without recognition. Students learn that though the veterans invariably
remembered their service with pride, most had no desire to repeat the experience.
Veterans left permanently disabled, both physically and psychologically, and
those who were prisoners of war reinforce the lesson that war, even a "good
war," should be entered only with trepidation.
In short, the interviews make a profound impression on students.
Many report that their work brought "color & emotion" to the
"material we learned in class," that "for the first time I
was able to feel and understand some of the emotions and effects of war."
Another student put it succinctly: the oral history project helped in "bringing
history to life." Students also interact directly with some of the community's
most undervalued members, senior citizens, who share the richness of their
lives and experiences. As one student noted, "I think the older people
[involved in the project] were made to feel important. They had a story to
tell and I think college students taking the time to investigate their experience
made them feel like someone cared about their sacrifice." Or as another
wrote, "I think it would do us all a little good to listen to the stories
of our elders." In so doing, students develop an enhanced sense of civic
responsibility and involvement, motivating them to want "to learn more"
and become citizens with an active interest in the history, culture, and governance
of their community.
A fifth level of learning takes place among student assistants,
advanced history majors trained in oral history, who work for the project.
These students perform a function different from that of the supplementary
instructors. They edit and prepare for binding the completed interview transcripts,
publicize and speak at public forums, locate prospective interviewees, and
maintain and update the project's Web page. I work closely with these students,
and the oral history project has become a training program for promising history
students interested in local and public history. Most of the student assistants
and sis plan to continue on to graduate school; thus the project strengthens
the IUS history program.3
In the final level of learning, the community learns more about
itself. On the most straightforward level, edited and bound transcripts are
easily accessible in the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library where they
provide a permanent historical and genealogical resource that captures the
voices of the community's elderly residents. Additional bound copies in the
IUS library will provide an educational resource to students long after those
who had firsthand knowledge of the impact of the depression and World War
II on southern Indiana have passed away.
But the project also succeeds in bringing the community together.
We depend on ongoing community support, including a mutually enriching partnership
with the local historical society. In addition, in collaboration with community
groups (and more recently at their invitation), the student assistants and
I have organized and spoken at a series of public forums and meetings. These
events are a critical part of the project's work, serving multiple functions:
educating local people about the project and the community's history; recruiting
prospective narrators; and giving both interviewees and students an opportunity
to speak in their own voices about the project and their community's history.
Indeed, since the project's inception, thirty public events have taken place;
the largest, on November 10, 1999, attracted over three hundred community
members, grade school and university students, and faculty to IUS. At such
events I briefly describe the project, but students and narrators dominate
the bulk of the time. The students speak about their experience with the
project, and the narrators get another opportunity to tell their stories.
The public meetings have generated strong enthusiasm within the
community for the project. Community members seem genuinely pleased with
the project's efforts to preserve the region's history and with the interest
in the past it has generated among students. As one attendee at a public
meeting noted, the oral history project is important because "so much
of our history, culture, and traditions will be lost otherwise. Big plus--the
project obviously filled your students with interest & enthusiasm plus
a new understanding and appreciation for the previous generations."
Can this type of project be duplicated elsewhere? I think so. An institution
can benefit tremendously from a community-oriented project. It
links the university and the community in partnership while providing
new learning opportunities for students, and it increases community
and student awareness of the importance of the study of history.
The project demonstrates how good things happen when historians
broaden their mandate, seeing the university as an integral part
of the community in which it functions and using the resources of
the institution to benefit not only its students but also the host
community. The learning involved in such community-oriented projects
is manifold and takes place at multiple levels: incoming freshmen
gain a better understanding of the links between classroom and community
and an enhanced sense of civic involvement; more advanced students
gain concrete experience as teachers and public historians; interested
local people learn about both oral history practice and their own
community's history; and the historian learns what it means to practice
a truly engaged scholarship.
A. Glenn Crothers is assistant professor of history at Indiana
1 Barbara Jacoby et al., Service-Learning in Higher Education:
Concepts and Practices (San Francisco, 1996). For the classic statement
of the need for an academic scholarship that is engaged with the community,
see Ernest L. Boyer, "The Scholarship of Engagement," Journal
of Public Service and Outreach, 1 (Spring 1996), 11-20. See also Carol
W. Kinsley and Kate McPherson, Enriching the Curriculum through Service
Learning (Alexandria, 1995); and David D. Cooper, ed., Trying the Ties
That Bind: Essays on Service-Learning and the Moral Life of Faculty (Kalamazoo,
2000). On integrating community-oriented research into the discipline of history,
see Ira Harkavy and Bill M. Donovan, eds., Connecting Past and Present:
Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in History (Washington, 2000).
2 See, for example, Patrick Hagopian, "Voices from Vietnam:
Veterans' Oral Histories in the Classroom," Journal of American History,
87 (Sept. 2000), 593-601; Pattie Dillon, "Teaching the Past through Oral
History," ibid., 602-5; Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History
(New York, 1994), 177-83; Marjorie McClellan, "Case Studies in Oral History
and Community Learning," Oral History Review, 25 (Summer/Fall
1998), 81-112; John Forrest and Elisabeth Jackson, "Get Real: Empowering
the Student through Oral History," ibid., 18 (Spring 1990), 29-44;
Jean M. Humez and Laurie Crumpacker, "Oral History in Teaching Women's
Studies," ibid., 7 (1979), 53-69; Michael H. Ebner, "Students
as Oral Historians," History Teacher, 9 (Feb. 1976), 196-201;
Robert D. Ilisevich, "Oral History in Undergraduate Research," ibid.,
6 (Nov. 1972), 47-50; James Hoopes, Oral History: An Introduction for
Students (Chapel Hill, 1979); Van Hastings Garner, Oral History: A
New Experience in Learning (Dayton, 1975); and Charles T. Morrisey, "Oral
History as a Classroom Tool," Social Educator, 32 (Oct. 1968),
3 Student assistants receive small stipends for their work. To
pay for these, the project has obtained generous support from the Indiana
Campus Compact, the Indiana Humanities Council, and the Kentucky African-American
Heritage Commission. Such outside funds have been essential to the project's
operation, but its long-term success requires annual institutional support,
a commitment still under negotiation with Indiana University Southeast.