HIST 441 | Oral History
Spring 2017 | TuTh 12:30-1:45
Jackson 107

Professor Evan Friss
Office Location and Hours: Jackson 220, Tuesdays 1:45-4:45

Course Description and Objectives:

Through a series of readings, discussions, written assignments, and an experiential learning project, students will explore the theory and practice of oral history, becoming familiar with the purpose, value, and challenges of doing oral history.

By the end of the course students will be able to:

  • Assess the value and limitations of oral history
  • Contrast oral and “traditional” history
  • Demonstrate proficiency in producing an oral history
  • Plan, implement, and assess an oral history project
  • Create a piece of scholarship drawing on an oral history


Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, eds., The Oral History Reader, Second Edition (OHR)
Philip F. Napoli, Bringing it all Back Home: An Oral History of New York City’s Vietnam Veterans

Grading and Assignments:

Participation (15%)
Quizzes (15%)
Discussion Questions (7%)
Comparative Book Review (13%)
Interview Proposal/Questionnaire (7%)
The Interview (12%)
Interview Transcript (7%)
Oral History Podcasts (17%)
Reflection Paper (7%)

  • Grades: (A) means genuinely outstanding, mastery of the subject, near flawless exposition, and incisive interpretation; (B) means well above average achievements in mastery of the subject, exposition, and interpretation throughout the course; (C) means comprehension of the basic concepts, competent exposition, and interpretation; (D) means unsatisfactory but still barely passing; (F) means failure.
  • Quizzes: Regular (unannounced) quizzes will be given throughout the semester.
  • Questions: Twice, during the course of the semester, each student will prepare a list of discussion questions based on the readings for that class.
  • Comparative Book Review: In a 1,200 word essay, compare the ways in which Napoli, Portelli, Terkel, and one other author (who you read on your own), draw on oral histories to create a narrative. You should contrast their approaches and the relative effectiveness, providing a synthesis of the role that oral history plays (and might play) in historical scholarship.  Due: Feb. 23
  • Interview Proposal/Questionnaire: In 500 words, write a research proposal in which you describe your research subject, interviewee, and research goals. Additionally, draft a set of interview questions for  your subject. Due: Mar. 14
  • Oral History Interview:  Each student will conduct a roughly one hour interview with someone about their experiences in, and around, Bird Haven.  You will be assigned the interviewee and will, with a partner, videotape the interview.  You’ll be graded on the quality of your questions and how well you adhered to the best practices we discussed in class.  You’ll also be required to make a copy of the interview and deposit it with the Shenandoah County Library (I’ll provide the details on how to do this at a later date).  Due: Mar. 30
  • Interview Transcript: You are responsible for transcribing the interview in accordance with best practices.  Due: Apr. 11
  • Podcasts: Using audio from the oral history you documented in addition to your own research, create a roughly five-minute podcast that sheds light on the history of Bird Haven.  For creative ideas about how to tell a story using your own voice, the voice of your interviewee, and other sounds, check out some examples from Backstory Radio.  In the final week of the semester, you will share the podcast with the class and also give a short presentation, introducing the podcast, discussing its context, and reflecting on your own experiences. Due: Apr. 25
  • Reflection Paper: As part of your final project, you will compose a short Reflection Paper (750 words) in which you critically engage with your own process of doing oral history, in essence marrying your practical experience with oral history with the theoretical issues we discussed over the course of the semester. Due: Apr. 27


For information on these polices, visit: https://www.jmu.edu/history/syllabus.shtml

  • The JMU Honor Code and Academic Honesty (Plagiarism or any other forms of academic dishonesty will result in an automatic “F” grade for this course.)
  • Registration Dates and Deadlines
  • College of Arts and Letters First-week Attendance Policy
  • Inclement Weather
  • Intellectual Property
  • Disability Accommodations
  • Religious Accommodations



1/10: Introductions
1/12:”What Makes Oral History Different” (OHR Chap. 3); “What Is Oral History;” “The Voice of the Past: Oral History,” (OHR Chap. 2);  “Why Do Oral History

Ethics & Best Practices

1/17: “Legality and Ethics,” in Recording Oral History“OHA Best Practices”; “Popular Memory” (OHR Chap. 4)
1/19: “Do I Like Them too Much?” (OHR Chap. 5); “Listening in the Cold” (OHR Chap. 7)


1/24: Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories (Excerpt); Studs Terkel, Hard Times (Excerpt)
1/26: Portelli, They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History (Excerpt); Terkel, The Good War (Excerpt)

Collective Histories

1/31: Napoli, Bringing it All Back Home, Introduction-Chapter 3 and “A Note on Method”; Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Excerpt)
2/2: Napoli, Bringing it All Back Home, Chapters 4-7; Listen to a handful of interviews from StoryCorps

Advocacy (No Class on Feb. 7)

2/9: “Advocacy and Empowerment,” (OHR Part V); Kerr, “We Know what the Problem is,” (OHR Chap. 37); Sherbakova, “The Gulag in Memory,” (OHR Chap. 40); Lundy and McGovern, “You Understand Again,” (OHR Chap. 41)

Community Projects

2/14: Napoli, Bringing it All Back Home, Chapters 8-12. Examine (and listen to a sample of interviews from) the Ang Buhay Sa Nayon-Life in the Valley Oral History Project
2/16: Napoli, Bringing it All Back Home, Chapters 13-16. Examine (and listen to a sample of interviews from) the Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection.  Read background articles on Birdhaven (Birdhaven folder on Canvas).

The Art of the Interview

2/21: “Interviewing: Introduction,” (OHR Part II); Terkel and Parker, “Interviewing an Interviewer,” (OHR Chap. 9); Anderson and Jack, “Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses,” (OHR Chap. 10); 9 Interview Tips
2/23: Slim and Thompson, “Ways of Listening,” (OHR Chap. 11); Yow, “Interviewing Techniques,” Recording Oral History; How to Interview a Texan” (COMPARATIVE BOOK REVIEW DUE)

The Art of the Interview

2/28: Interview Workshop (Meet in Carrier Library, TLT Lab Room 37)
3/2: Interview Workshop (Meet in Carrier Library, Room 301)



3/14: “Black History, Oral History and Genealogy,” (OHR Chap. 1); “View From the Bottom Rail” (INTERVIEW PROPOSAL/QUESTIONNAIRE DUE)
3/16: WPA Virginia Slave Narratives

The Interviews

No class this week.  Travel to Bird Haven to conduct your interview.


3/28: “Interpreting Memories” (OHR Part III); Allison, “Remembering a Vietnam War Firefight” (OHR Chap. 17); Roseman, “Surviving Memory” (OHR Chap. 18); Lummis, “Structure and Validity in Oral Evidence” (OHR Chap. 20)
3/30: Kennedy, “Telling Tales” (OHR Chap. 22); Yow, “Oral History and Memory,” Recording Oral History; “Problem with Eyewitness Testimony” (INTERVIEWS DUE)


4/4: Podcast Workshop (Meet in Carrier Library, TLT Lab Room 37)
4/6: Podcast Workshop Continued

Exhibits, Archives, and Film

4/11: “The Exhibition that Speaks for Itself” (OHR Chap. 32) (TRANSCRIPT DUE)
4/13: “Oral History in the Archives” (OHR Chap. 26)

The Digital Age

4/18: “The Future of Oral History and Moving Images” (OHR Chap. 31); “Authoring in Sound” (OHR Chap. 30); “Oral History and the Digital Revolution” (OHR Chap. 8)
4/20: Find at least three digital Oral History Projects (that we have not looked at in class already) and be prepared to present the strengths and weaknesses of each

Final Presentations

4/25: Presentations (PODCASTS DUE)
4/27: Presentations (REFLECTION PAPER DUE)

*Schedule subject to change