Teaching (and Recording) Oral Histories During a Pandemic

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Listening, as I do almost every week, to StoryCorps on NPR, I have been struck by how quickly that organization has adapted to the new pandemic conditions, shifting from two people face to face in a booth recording their story to an online system that allows the project to continue—at a distance—through StoryCorps Connect. As I listened to some of the stories posted there, I thought of what a valuable trove of oral histories are being recorded and preserved through this project and what a valuable teaching tool the archive is.


I started browsing around the Internet, looking for other oral history projects and found many that beckoned to me. The University of Illinois has a very large collection called Voices of Illinois, and I spent a couple of very rich hours reading the words of women in the 1930s talking about their lives, their education (or lack of it), and their experiences during the Great Depression. And by coincidence, I have been in touch with a Navajo student—a fabulous writer now in college-at-home—who is part of a project to collect oral histories from Navajo elders.


This combination of coincidences makes me think that this time of coronavirus might well be a very good time indeed for oral histories. Students working from home will usually have access to parents, grandparents, or other adult relatives as well as to siblings. And most will have access to a phone for recording too. While sheltering in place and keeping social distance, they have a great opportunity—and the time—to gather family stories and to capture the voices of family members talking about their experiences living through these very difficult times as well as about their important memories of the past and hopes for the future. Fifty years from now—even ten years from now—these stories will have great resonance; they might even start a family tradition of gathering oral histories over the years.


I am certain there are teachers out there who are doing oral history projects with their students. I would so love to hear about them and to read or listen to some of them if they are available. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can encourage the young students I know to get busy on their own oral history projects!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 541192 by Satermedia, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.