Religion and Oral History


I’m not a professional oral historian. However, I use oral histories in the classroom to introduce students to the intersection of memory and history in the United States. Based on my limited but growing experience, this is no easy task. It’s one thing to recognize the educational value of oral history. It’s quite another thing to train students in the theoretical and technical skills necessary to conduct oral histories.

Without getting bogged down in the details, there are at least two ways to incorporate oral history into the classroom.

The first (and easiest) is to use audio/video recordings and transcripts already produced by oral historians to supplement reading assignments and lectures. They introduce students to the art of primary source interpretation and provide them with personal accounts of major developments in American religious history. There are hundreds of websites—most of them curated by universities, libraries, and other public institutions—with content that might be of interest to educators in American religious studies. The Oral History in the Digital Age initiative (sponsored by Michigan State University) has a list of 370 online repositories, from national organizations like the Smithsonian to universities like Baylor to public libraries in Noxubee County, Mississippi.

I recently used this Documenting the American South oral history in a survey course on American Religions, wherein Margaret Edwards (age 52) talks about her life as a child of sharecroppers in North Carolina, her experiences of segregation and racism, her Baptist upbringing, her intermediary conversion to Pentecostalism, and her most recent conversion to Mormonism.

The second (and toughest) way to incorporate oral histories into the classroom is to train students to conduct and produce oral histories. Again, the Oral History in the Digital Age initiative is a great platform for educators who wish to facilitate oral history projects in high school and college classrooms. The website offers users over seventy short essays on collecting, curating, and disseminating oral histories, including general overviews of the craft and specific case studies on a variety of topics. The “Getting Started” page allows users to begin the process of designing an oral history project that matches overall course learning objectives with student ability, university support, and community interest. Following the planning phase, guidance is available to users on digital equipment, legal issues, collaboration, preservation, transcription, cataloging and metadata, accessibility, and archival curation.

After navigating through the Oral History in the Digital Age website, it should be apparent that a good oral history project takes an incredible amount of time and energy on the part of teachers, students, community partners, and school affiliates. To put it another way, anyone who thinks oral history is as effortless as pushing a record button and listening to someone tell a story IS AN IDIOT (no offense). But the rewards for students, teachers, researchers, and the general public can be great. Given the right partnership with a university or public library, students have the opportunity to play a small but meaningful part in contributing to the collective memory of important events and perspectives in American religious history. In the digital age, their recordings can become available to anyone with Internet access, from professional historians of American religion to family members of the interviewees. Students also learn about the ethical questions and sometimes dilemmas that arise any time two people meet. 

As we all know (but too rarely celebrate), it takes a village to do the work that we do. Little by little.


As a 19c historian who was asked to teach an oral history course before ever engaging with oral history practice myself, I loved this post, Michael! One of the best things I did in that class was take a colleague's advice and have students interview each other (in pairs) and write up the experience before ever interviewing their assigned narrator. This helped them experience oral history from both the interviewer's and the narrator's point of view, and see how their own stories were interpreted by another.

Coincidentally, I just picked up Carole Rogers' Habits of Change: An Oral History of American Nuns as part of my summer reading list, a few years late. I'm curious what other oral histories US religion folk are currently working on.
Micah said…
I think students would benefit greatly from focusing on source material in their study of history. It's interesting to think about what technology will do for the study of history in the future (just think what it would be like if we had the ability to watch video or listen to recordings of say Abraham Lincoln! We'll largely have that ability with future giants in history).

The resource Why is America Free? is a user friendly, chronological, curated collection of source material of American history. It includes documents, speeches (including some primary source video), poems, and songs and also gives insight into the role of faith in American History.

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