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Journal of American History

2002 Syllabi
Teaching outside the Box

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

U.S. Women Activists
Catherine Badura
Syallbus: 1998, 2000 | Article

The Black Athlete
Amy Bass
Syllabus | Article

Recovering Detroit's Past for History & Theater
Charles Bright

American History Since 1865
A. Glenn Crothers
Syllabus | Article

Intro to American History
John J. Grabowski
Syllabus | Article

American History
Cecilia Aros Hunter & Leslie Gene Hunter
Syllabus | Article

In Search of America's Civil Rights Movement
Alyssa Picard & Joseph J. Gonzalez
Syllabus | Article

Out of Many: Histories of the U.S.
David A. Reichard
Syllabus | Article

Women & Social Movements
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Syllabus | Article

Law & Society in American History
John Wertheimer
Syllabus | Article

Colonial & Revolutionary History of the Southern Tidewater
James P. Whittenburg
Syllabus | Article

American National Character
Michael Zuckerman
Syllabus | Article

"Bringing 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 subjects.

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 task.

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 University Southeast.

Readers may contact Crothers at <>.

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), 546-49.

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.