Oral History and Social Justice

In 1948 Alan Nevins established the first university sponsored oral history project at Columbia University, focusing his attention on white male elites. Since then the field has flourished and dramatically shifted attention towards documenting the experiences and perspectives of people who have largely been “hidden from history.” Not only have oral historians sought out the “voices from below,” they have also used interviews to document particular aspects of historical experience that have largely been left out of the written record (personal relations, domestic labor, family life, sexuality, etc.) The active relationship between oral historians and their sources has challenged the discipline of history’s orthodoxies about evidence and objectivity and has raised questions regarding the connection between memory, narrative and history. In participatory projects the interviewees themselves can become active historians as they offer their own interpretations of the past – a process that some argue democratizes the discipline of history. Furthermore many practitioners of oral history have used their projects as an avenue of empowerment for social groups and individuals – emphasizing the value of the process of interviewing over the historical product. Throughout this course we will examine each of these themes in detail and also immerse ourselves in the nuts and bolts of oral history as students will conduct their own interviews.