By Isabela Carvalho with Janneken Smucker
Application of oral history and technology in educational settings has evolved separately and in parallel. We should not be surprised. Fifty years ago in the very first issue the Oral History Review (1973), William Moss, Eliot Wigginton, Stan Echols, Barbara Gallant, and Edward Ives published the remarks from their panel discussion held during 1972’s 7th Annual Colloquium on Oral History, under the title, “Oral History as a Teaching Tool.” As part of their discussion, Wigginton shared an anecdote regarding the importance of using a tape recorder to capture stories, lest narrators’ testimony become the end result of a game of “Telephone” or “Whisper Down the Lane.” Moss, writing two years later in this journal, predicted the expansion of oral history in education through technology by asserting that graduate and undergraduate students would soon be equipped with tape recorders, and history classrooms would then have broader access to “transcripts, slides, and movies as visual and audio aids” (11). Moss’s prediction proved to be prescient.
Since those early issues, the Oral History Review has frequently published scholarship examining the intersections of oral history and education. Notwithstanding these early predictions about tape recorders, few twentieth-century practitioners could have anticipated the rapid changes and growing accessibility that technology would provide to instructors and students using oral history in the classroom. Classrooms at many age levels have long incorporated oral history projects, typically reliant on the cassette tapes Moss identified as cutting edge. Yet today, students across the globe can take advantage of learning through oral history thanks to evolving technologies used in the field, including artificial intelligence, remote video conferencing, and open source indexing software. In the most recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic’s focus on remote collaboration has made students, instructors, and other oral history practitioners more comfortable with technologies. In the past, classroom oral history projects focused primarily on local and regional histories; today, international boundaries provide no limitation to conducting interviews. These emerging technologies have allowed students to view the world globally and impact it locally.
This virtual issue published on the occasion of the Oral History Association 2023 annual meeting, themed “Oral History As/And Education: Teaching and Learning in the Classroom and Beyond,” is drawn from the OHR archive examines how technology has continued to expand classroom use of oral history, allowing students to conduct original research through the use of applications such as Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) and remote conferencing apps such as Zoom. In addition, this virtual issue looks at how advancements in oral history technologies have provided tools that allow historians to transcend geographical restraints and conduct oral history on a global scale. Educators and students alike have harnessed the use of technology to integrate oral history into various types of analysis, outreach, and connection.
In the 1998 article, “‘It’s Not Just Common Sense’: A Blueprint for Teaching Oral History,” Tracy E. K’Meyer discussed different goals of using oral history in education, which, at the time, were relatively straightforward: introducing oral history as a research method and career training for jobs in public history. K’Meyer drew her analysis from efforts made by the Oral History Association’s (OHA) Education Committee, which solicited syllabi and related oral history teaching materials. The article provides a great snapshot of the field of oral history right before it began its digital turn, with no suggestion of the role technologies such as the brand new World Wide Web or digital audio would soon play in the classroom. These tools were still on the horizon, not yet in view. While the goals for teaching with oral history that K’Meyer outlines are not outdated, the modes of research and the types of career paths for public history have evolved. A student today can acquire digital audio editing skills and go on to be a podcast producer, a job that did not exist at the time of K’Meyer’s publication. On highlighting the problems of oral history in the classroom, the author brought up the issue of discarding the tapes since they were only learning tools. In 1998 K’Meyer could not have anticipated the kinds of digital archives that students create and contribute to.
Fifteen years later, Peter B. Kauffman addressed the role of technology in oral history head-on, asserting that oral history should become video history. Indeed, today we live in a video age, as the ease of recording video has increased despite the challenges of archivally preserving these massive files. In his 2013 article, “Oral History in the Video Age,” Kaufman claimed that everyone can be an oral historian, if access to technology is the only prerequisite. By 2013, video recording technology had a lower barrier to entry, no longer requiring a professional videography crew. In the decade since, particularly during COVID-19, oral historians discovered that they no longer even required a video camera, and students working on oral history projects became increasingly comfortable with recording moving images, whether with the same smartphone they recorded Tik Tok videos, or by remote interviewing, a method once frowned upon within the discipline. Students’ familiarity with platforms such as Zoom and Google Meets has allowed simplified recording of interviews in the same room or on opposite sides of the planet, with the benefit of these platforms providing automatic speech recognition (ASR) generated transcripts and allowing a space for text based chat.
In 2013, Kaufman attempted to make the case for why oral historians should embrace the use of video, asserting that digital video would soon dominate internet use and that oral historians should get on board. A decade later, some of the platforms and technologies Kaufman wrote about are themselves out-of-date or defunct, while others, such as what was then the brand new OHMS, have evolved into standard tools in oral historians’ toolkits and within the oral history classroom. Drawing on the groundbreaking resource, Oral History in the Digital Age, Kaufman’s essay imagined the oral history future in which we are now fully immersed.
In his 2011 article, “Negotiating between Generations: A Decade of Experience Teaching Oral History,” Gregory R. Zieren wrote about his experience making oral history the centerpiece of the undergraduate capstone course he taught. A critical part of his approach was to have students observe professional and peer video interviews to analyze the processes for conducting oral history well, an approach possible because video interviews were easy to conduct by 2011. According to Zieren, requiring students to watch video recordings of interviews conducted by their peers was a groundbreaking aspect of the learning process because observing others allowed students to understand the complexities of the methodology and the relationship between interviewee and interviewer. Students were able to read body language, gauge confidence, and consider an interview’s flow. Audio only interviews, essential to the practice of oral history, did not allow for such holistic observation on the part of students. In this case, video interviews expanded the pedagogical possibilities.
Just as tape recorders and video recording technologies have transformed the ability of teachers and students to collaborate on conducting oral histories, so too have digital tools enabled new kinds of classroom projects that interpret and provide access to interviews. Ken Woodard’s 2013 article, “The Digital Revolution and Pre-Collegiate Oral History: Meditations on the Challenge of Teaching Oral History in the Digital Age,” considered some of the changes wrought by the increased use of digital technologies in the oral history classroom. He recounted how new technologies ushered in new forms of interpretation. In his own classroom, Woodard directed students to use the Apple application GarageBand to organize and edit audio files, with the goal of creating audio documentaries using oral history, allowing students to creatively interpret interviews while gaining valuable technical skills.
In many ways, projects such as audio documentaries were a significant pivot. For decades, students have worked on classroom projects conducting in-person interviews that added to our knowledge on varying subjects, yet many of these projects remained on cassette tapes, difficult to share, hear, or interpret. Students of oral history now have access to multiple modes of analysis and creation. OHR articles including “Indexing as Engaging Oral History Research: Using OHMS to ‘Compose History’ in the Writing Classroom” (2015) and “‘Connecting to the Ideologies That Surround Us’: Oral History Stewardship as an Entry Point to Critical Theory in the Undergraduate Classroom” (2017) have shared exciting strategies for how students can engage with oral histories after they have been conducted. Each of these articles described college classroom activities that have resulted in fruitful partnerships with archives and pushed students to think critically about, in Charlotte Nunes’ words, the “contents and the stewardship contexts” of oral histories (349). These oral history assignments have emphasized original research and community engagement, allowing students to tap into new forms of writing that go beyond standard college assignments, while also creating sustainable practices that have lasting impact, rather than short-lived, one-off projects. These classroom practices have demonstrated how history and related disciplines can be creative and generative, expanding students’ skills while providing them with platforms for producing historical interpretation.
As oral history educators have continued to adopt and adapt technologies, students have the ability to engage with oral history in ways that transcend geographical borders. The pandemic realities have resulted in increased comfort in using video applications to conduct oral history interviews, a practice evaluated in our recent article by Katherine Waugh, “Failing to Connect? Methodological Reflections on Video-Call Interviewing during the Pandemic.” Waugh emphasizes that video interviewing expands research possibilities when time and financial means are limited, in addition to mitigating the constraints of social distancing engendered by COVID-19. With today’s ease in remote interviewing, students, including me, have the ability to interview narrators far away, researching topics they may otherwise not be able to.
No doubt, the use of oral history in the classroom will continue to evolve as unimagined technologies of the future influence the field; already, artificial intelligence is the new frontier, and as in earlier generations, practitioners and educators will need to assess if and how to integrate it into our practices. As a student using oral history methodologies, I have conducted interviews and developed research analyzing the importance of oral tradition as a mechanism for resistance in the face of religious persecution within the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. I used technologies including email, Instagram, and WhatsApp to make contact with potential narrators, and applications such as Zoom and Google Meets to conduct interviews from a distance. The interviews were a fulfilling and necessary part of my research as Condomblé practitioners record their history through oral tradition. Technology allowed me to be present for these interviewees and hear their stories, despite geographic and budgetary limitations. My own experience allowed me to grasp the power of combining oral history methodologies with technological developments. In my Vietnam War course in fall 2022 at West Chester University, my classmates and I contributed to a digital oral history project by creating OHMS indexes using interviews conducted over Zoom by a previous semester of students, and interpreting those oral histories through digital storytelling projects. As technologies continue to evolve, students will have opportunities to engage with different forms of analysis and creativity using oral history, expanding across geographical distances and in new forms of analysis. Despite the changes that inevitably will transpire with future technologies, students and instructors should remember the primary benefit of using oral history in educational settings: the power of connecting to human stories.
Table of Contents
William Cutler et al., “Oral History as a Teaching Tool,” The Oral History Review 1 (1973): 29–47.
Tracy E. K’Meyer, “‘It’s Not Just Common Sense’: A Blueprint for Teaching Oral History,” The Oral History Review 25, no. 1/2 (1998): 35–56.
Peter B. Kaufman, “Oral History in the Video Age,” The Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (2013): 1–7.
Gregory R. Zieren, “Negotiating between Generations: A Decade of Experience Teaching Oral History,” The Oral History Review 38, no. 1 (January 1, 2011): 158–74.
Ken Woodard, “The Digital Revolution and Pre-Collegiate Oral History: Meditations on the Challenge of Teaching Oral History in the Digital Age,” The Oral History Review 40, no. 2 (2013): 325–31.
Douglas A. Boyd, Janice W. Fernheimer, and Rachel Dixon, “Indexing as Engaging Oral History Research: Using OHMS to ‘Compose History’ in the Writing Classroom,” The Oral History Review 42, no. 2 (September 1, 2015): 352–67.
Charlotte Nunes, “‘Connecting to the Ideologies That Surround Us’: Oral History Stewardship as an Entry Point to Critical Theory in the Undergraduate Classroom,” The Oral History Review 44, no. 2 (September 1, 2017): 348–62.
Katherine Waugh, “Failing to Connect? Methodological Reflections on Video-Call Interviewing during the Pandemic,” The Oral History Review 50, no. 1 (January 2, 2023): 62–81.